The Rise of Political Catalanism

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

At the beginning of the 19th century, Catalonia was deeply involved in Spanish politics. The poor governments under Fernando VII and Isabel II led to the First Republic instigated by Catalans. The restoration of the monarchy and increasing industrialisation made Catalonia's fit in Spain increasingly difficult. By the end of the century, Catalanism had developed into a political movement and Catalans were ready to demand the return of their freedoms once again.


Chapter 18: The Rise of Political Catalanism

During the early part of the 19th century Catalonia was deeply involved in the political and military events that affected Spain. The Peninsular War against Napoleon from 1808 to 1813, the drawing up of the first Spanish Constitution in Cadiz in 1812 and the return of King Ferdinand VII all affected the Principality, which had now been under Castilian occupation for over a century.

Fighting alongside the rest of Spain against the common French enemy meant that pro-Spanish sentiments were the norm and ideas of a separate Catalonia were very remote. The preferred language of the Catalan ruling classes was Castilian. After the opening up of trade with the Americas, the Principality entered a period of economic growth and had little to complain about. Admittedly, the same could not be said of the working classes in the overcrowded insanitary slums of Barcelona but the workers movements, so important later in the 19th century, were yet to be formed so their opinions carried little weight.

Although Catalonia was marginalised politically with little influence over central government policies, Spain may well have become a viable and inclusive project had the 1812 Liberal Constitution, drawn up in Cadiz, been allowed to prosper. However, upon his restoration as king following the Napoleonic wars, Fernando VII reimposed absolutism with despotic zeal. Hopes of modernising Spain were dashed.

Ferdinand VII

Considered by Spanish historians as possibly the worst of a sorry line of Bourbon monarchs, Fernando VII was famous for conspiring against his own advisors. Prior to his return from exile in 1813, he was Fernando the Desired One. By his death in 1833, he was known as The Felon King.

During Fernando VII's reign that the military took greater control of government in Spain as the king sided with liberals or absolutists depending on what was in it for him. The last ten years of his time as monarch, from 1823 to 1833, were so bad they were known as the Ominous Decade. During this period, in 1827, the six-month War of the Agraviados or Aggrieved broke out mainly in Catalonia but to a lesser extent in Aragon, Valencia and Andalusia.

Most of Spain's American colonies were lost under Fernando VII. This seriously restricted Catalonia's potential export market but the Catalan economy was not the king's concern. Mesonero Romanos recounts a royal anecdote from the Public Exhibition of Spanish Industry in 1818. When shown examples of textiles by Catalan industrialists who were lobbying for protectionist policies, Fernando reportedly said, " Bah! All these things are for women!" and walked on without further ado.

Fernando's death in 1833 left a succession crisis. His brother Carlos Maria Isidro was the legitimate male heir to the Spanish monarchy but just before his death, Fernando revoked the Salic Law. This law prohibited the accession of women to the throne. Its repeal meant that Fernando's daughter Isabel could become queen. However, Isabel was only three years old and her mother María Cristina de Bourbon-Dos Sicilias, Fernando VII's fourth wife, became regent.

Isabel and the Carlists

Considered by many the rightful heir to the throne, Carlos Maria Isidro rallied support mainly in the Basque Country by appealing to conservative Catholics and promising the restoration of traditional Basque charters and constitutions. He made similar offers to the Catalans and so also had a good deal of support in rural Catalonia, particularly in the Pyrenees where mountain enclaves were easy to defend.

The First Carlist War raged from 1833 to 1840 and was finally put down by General Espartero, who duly took over from Maria Cristina as regent. Incidentally, Espartero indiscriminately bombed Barcelona from Montjuïc in 1842 because factory workers had risen up in protest at government plans to sign a free trade agreement with Great Britain. This would have directly have affected the Catalan textile industry and caused local job losses. After the bombardment, Espartero uttered the famous phrase: "You have to bomb Barcelona at least once every 50 years". It was clear that central government had neither the interests of Catalonia's bourgeoisie nor its workers at heart.

In 1844, Espartero was toppled by General Narváez, who declared fourteen-year-old Isabel II of age and became prime minister. Revolutions broke out in Cuba and later Morocco. There was another Carlist War from 1846 to 1849. To cut a long story short, for the next twenty or so years, Naváez alternated power with Espartero and another military man General O'Donnell, who was rumoured to be Queen Isabel's lover.

Changes of government frequently provoked by military coups known as pronunciamientos were to dominate Spanish politics for the next century. This contrasted with the parliamentary democracies of the developed northern European countries and resulted in the military dictatorships of the 20th century.

The political influence of the army in Spain lasted well after the death of Franco and casts a shadow over Spanish politics to this day. Each new government typically drafted its own constitution. New Spanish constitutions were drawn up in 1834, 1837, 1845 and 1856.

Elected Monarchy and Republic

In 1868, Catalan General Prim led what Spanish historians refer to as La Gloriosa or the Revolution of 1868. In fact, this was just another military coup. This time Isabel II was forced to abdicate and yet another Constitution was drawn up in 1869. The new political system was to be an elected monarchy and the only candidate, Amadeus of Savoy, was elected king in 1870. Unfortunately, just before his candidate was crowned, General Prim was assassinated and without his main supporter, King Amadeus only lasted until 1873. As there was no obvious successor, Amadeus of Savoy's abdication led to the even more short-lived First Spanish Republic from February 1873 to December 1874.

Incidentally, the first two of the Republic's five presidents were Catalan leaders of the Partit Republicà Democràtic Federal or Federal Democratic Republican Party, Estanislao Figueras and Francesc Pi i Margall, who to this day remain the only two Catalan Presidents of Spain.

Pi i Margall introduced Spain's first united currency, the peseta, in 1869. This was the first time the singular España rather than than the plural las Españas was used on a coin. Unlike the divisive absolutist monarchs, republican politicians tried to treat Spain as a single country rather than a collection of subjugated territories.

Despite being a Federal Republican, Pi i Margall was forced to resign because of what was known as the Cantonal Uprising. During this rebellion, towns and provinces in most parts of Spain, except oddly enough Catalonia, pronounced themselves independent republics. The new government was typically heavy-handed in putting down the uprising. While the military were occupied elsewhere, the Carlists stepped up their campaign in Catalonia with important consequences.

Restoration of the Generalitat

The Third Carlist War lasted from 1872 to 1876 and was fought in the name of Carlos Isidre's son. The self-styled Carlos VII is often overlooked by modern Catalanists because his backward-looking conservative and religious values don't fit with the view of Catalanism as a moderniser and democratiser.

Carlos VII's promises were the same as those who had gone before him. On July 26th 1874 he signed a document guaranteeing the return of Catalonia's charters and constitutions in return for Catalan military support. On October 1st of the same year, the Diputació del General or Generalitat was re-established with its seat in the Carlist stronghold of Sant Joan de les Abadesses in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Presided by General Rafael Tristany i Parera, this was the first time the Generalitat had sat since its abolition in 1714. According to historian Jaume Grau, "the Carlist restoration returned to Catalonia control of Taxes, Justice, Municipal Government, Police, Army, Education, Civil Service, a collection of powers that Catalonia still hasn't recovered even today. Nobody can deny that one of the main reasons that motivated the Catalan Carlists was the recovery of freedoms lost in 1714."

The Bourbon monarchy was restored under Alfonso XII in December 1874 and the Generalitat, esconced in its mountainous retreat, resisted without gaining territory. The defeat at the Battle of Jurramendi in the Basque country in February 1876 put an end to the Carlist threat. Carlos VII was forced to flee Spain and the restored Generalitat quietly disappeared again.

Meanwhile, further south in Barcelona and central Catalonia, political Catalanism was beginning to define itself. The economic revival in Catalonia had led to a renaissance of Catalan culture and language. This resulted in the creation of a modern Catalan identity based on the Principality's medieval Golden Age. The political instability and economic backwardness of the rest of Spain led to the Catalan bourgeoisie to the conclusion that they needed more control over their own future.

Business connections with northern Europe not only gave Catalan industrialists access to new technology but also to alternative political ideas. As instigators of the First Republic, Catalans had already attempted to modernise Spain and bring it into line with other European democracies.

Early Catalanists

After the failure of the First Republic, Francesc Pi i Margall returned to Barcelona. The existence of the restored Generalitat in northern Catalonia wouldn't have gone unnoticed. Essentially a libertarian socialist and republican federalist, Pi i Margall retired from active politics to write. In 1877 he published Las Nacionalidades or The Nationalities.

This seminal work analysed the role of Spain's other nations, particularly the Basques and Catalans, within the Spanish state and argued that a Federal Republic of Spain was the only way to include different sensibilities. Pi i Margall was the most influential political thinker of his day. It is not surprising that there were others who were prepared to take his ideas one step further.

The great man's political successor was Valentí Almirall, who wanted to reconcile traditionalist and progressive strands within Catalanism whilst also defending Catalonia's economic interests. Catalan industrialists had pressed unsuccessfully for protectionist measures to shield their industries from foreign competition since the 1830s. As a failed hegemonic class, they represented a precious ally to the regionalist cause. During the cultural Renaixença many had supported Catalanism providing backing for political and cultural initiatives, such as art production, literary festivals, theatres and opera. However, they had remained pro-Spanish at heart.

Language moved centre-stage as a means of defining national identity and early political Catalanism combined the four currents of cultural revivalism, progressive federalism, anti-Bourbon traditionalism as well as a desire for new technology and modernisation. Despite the conflict of interests, Almirall managed to form an alliance of romantic literati, conservative lawyers and protectionist industrialists with the aim of lobbying central government.

The most pressing issues were lack of political power for industrialists, the absence of protective measures for the Spanish economy and threats to abolish the Catalan civil code. Underlying the movement was the memory of the lost freedom of Catalonia. The desire to recover traditional Catalan political institutions was a constant.

Almirall first began to influence the politicisation of cultural Catalanism by setting up the first daily newspaper in Catalan Diari Català in 1879 and the cultural magazine L'Avens in 1881. In 1880, he organised the First Catalanist Congress, which resulted in the drafting of a document defending Catalan law and the founding of the political organisation Centre Català.

At the Second Catalanist Congress of 1883, convened by Centre Català, motions in favour of Catalan law, co-official status of Catalan alongside Castilian, economic protectionism and a central government for Catalonia were all passed. The key resolution was to condemn membership of Spanish political parties, which meant that from now on Catalanist politics would only concern itself with Catalan issues. Catalanist politicians would stop trying to influence central government on policies in the rest of Spain.

Drafted by Almirall, the Memorial de Greuges or Grievances was presented to King Alfonso XII in 1885. This 'Memorial in defence of the moral and material interests of Catalonia' was signed by a committee of businessmen, industrialists, professionals and workers' delegates as well as artists and literary figures. Quickly forgotten after the death of the king, the Memorial was still a milestone in Catalan consciousness because it created a broad front representing various sectors of Catalan society. It was also a direct attempt at influencing central government through open dialogue with Madrid. Both of which are common factors to all successful Catalan political initiatives since.

In his Lo Catalanisme published in 1886, Almirall outlined the transition from regionalism to nationalism in a federalist framework and formulated the first explicit Catalanist programme. However, Almirall's idealism soon clashed with bourgeois interests and political conservatism in his group.

A particular source of friction was his opposition to the Barcelona Universal Exhibition in 1888, which had the backing of the Catalan establishment. As a result most of the Centre Català's right-wing members split to form the separate the Lliga de Catalunya in 1887.

Political Maturity

The rightist split from Centre Català, which led to the formation of the Lliga de Catalunya was also guided by literary men, in this case playwright Àngel Guimerà and lawyer Joan Permanyer. Initially, it appeared to be a revival of conservative and floralesque regionalism but the group was soon joined by students from the Centre Escolar Catalanista, founded a year before by Enric Prat de la Riba. Under the leadership of Modernista architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, who as one of the chief planners of the Universal Exhibition in 1888 had opposed Almirall, the Lliga de Catalunya soon became a major force in Barcelona politics.

Since the restoration of the monarchy in 1874, Spanish politics had been dominated by two parties the Conservatives and Liberals who alternated power in a complex rotation system based on political corruption and key regional issues were decided in an all-Spanish framework. The decision of the Second Catalanist Congress to condemn political affiliation with Spanish parties was crucial. From the 1890s Catalan regionalism began gaining ground in Catalonia as new political option outside the two traditional Alfonsist parties and Carlism.

In the early stages, the regionalist movement did not aim at separation from Spain but rather sought to influence central government's policies towards Catalonia by sending representatives to the Congress and Senate in Madrid. However, the Catalan bourgeoisie's efforts to secure an influential positions within Spanish state government were thwarted due to a clash of political cultures. The centralist landowning oligarchy that dominated Madrid politics were both unwilling and unable to modernise Spain. It became clear that Catalan demands would never be met.

This changed with the founding of the Lliga. An intelligentsia made up of planners needed an infrastructure in the form of a state to achieve their aims. At the same time, art and architecture provided the inspiration for achieving the national goal.

The result was not only explicit political Catalanism but the new national art form known as Modernisme. A comparison of building projects in Barcelona and Madrid at the time show that Catalonia was going through one of its most creative periods whilst the Spanish capital seemed stagnant and uninspired.

The first act of the Lliga was a successful campaign for the defence of the Catalan Civil Code, which Madrid had attempted to stamp out in 1889. Almirall's Centre Català dissolved in 1890. Aware of the need to avoid schisms in the incipient Catalanism, the Unió Catalanista was formed in 1891 as a coalition of groups promoting regionalist and federalist ideas.

Bases de Manresa

The leaders of the Unió Catalanista met in 1892 in Manresa and drew up the Bases de Manresa. This document was significantly more radical than the Memorial de Greuges and called for political autonomy for Catalonia and the replacement of the artificial provinces imposed in 1833 with the traditional comarques and municipis. It demanded the reservation of public appointments for Catalans by virtue of either birth or naturalisation and Catalan as the only official language.

The powers attributed to the government of Catalonia would encompass taxation, coinage and authority over civil, penal and mercantile legislation. There would be a regionally-controlled army and police force and a locally-run education system. Basically a call for a Catalan federal government, the Unió Catalanista were aware that these ideas had not yet taken root in Catalan society at large. The Bases de Manresa was a manifesto laying out the objectives for political Catalanism to be achieved in the coming years.

In 1897, the Unió Catalanista sent a message of sympathy to the Greek king George I for the Cretans' struggle against Turkish rule. Madrid could not tolerate any hint of foreign policy initiatives from Catalonia and its response was brutal. A wave of repression hit the region with the closure of Catalan newspapers and banning of political meetings. Activists' houses were searched, clubs were closed down and Catalanist leaders were arrested. Fully aware of the power of language, the authorities banned the use of Catalan on the telephone in 1898.

The repressive measures were not lifted by the incumbent Captain General of Catalonia until 1901. Free elections were allowed and for the first time Catalanists topped the polls. In a typical pattern, the repressive measures only reinforced the popularity of the persecuted Catalanist leaders. Now a force to be reckoned with, the desire for increased autonomy for Catalonia was now a demand of the general Catalan public.

Now Read Chapter Nineteen of Catalonia Is Not Spain - Mancomunitat - The Catalan Commonwealth

Have Something To Say About This Topic?

Do you have a great information to add or an opinion to express about on this topic? Share it!

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.