Catalonia: A (Really Short) History

On Sunday 9th November 2014, the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia will head to the polls for a referendum on independence from the rest of Spain. Not a referendum, sorry, a consultation. No, it’s been cancelled. Oh wait, it’s on again, but only kind of? No…

I’ll post again later today explaining the current status of today’s vote and the impressions I’ve got of the current mood over the last 8 weeks. Here, however, I’m going to give a quick rundown of Catalonia’s history, of how things got to this moment. If you want an even quicker history, I’ve given a tl;dr version at the bottom.

We should start by backing way up. Way up. Indo-Europeans arrived in the area we now call Catalonia with the Bronze Age, probably some time in the 2nd Century BCE. With the peoples already in the peninsular, they formed a number of distinct Iberian tribes. Later waves of Celts and then Ancient Greek and Carthaginian settlers all affected the culture and region. This melting-, or indeed, melted-pot lasted until 218BCE when the region was absorbed into the Empire of the advancing Romans. As elsewhere, the influx of Roman culture and administration had a huge effect on the area. Most notable for us is the growth of various towns, including Barcelona (then Barcino), Tarragona (Tarraco), Girona (Gerunda) and where I am in Terrassa (Egara). They also brought Latin to the peninsula which would later evolve separately into modern (Castilian) Spanish and Catalan, providing one of the greatest demarcation lines of the current Catalan identity.

Successful successive invasions by the Visigoths from the north and the Moors from the south followed over the next few centuries. It’s only in response to this Moorish conquest that a Catalonia we would recognise started to take shape. The Frankish Empire, around the time of Charlemagne, felt threatened by a Muslim power right on its border, and so pushed back, over the Pyrenees and into Spain, setting up a number of Christian counties to act as a buffer zone between them. Among these were counties of Barcelona, Girona, and Cerdanya and Urgell. When these three were united at the end of the 9th century under Wilfred the Hairy (yes, really) the greater part of modern Catalonia finally came into being.

The Catalan counts now slowly became more and more independent of the Carolingian rulers that had created their lands, but this did not last long. In 1137, only shortly after the first usage of the term Catalonia, Count Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona married Queen Petronilla of Aragon to form the Crown of Aragon, although the two regions retained some distinct rights, indeed, Catalonia had one of the first parliaments in Europe. The reign of Ramon Berenguer IV also saw the conquest of the final remaining lands of the Catalan jigsaw puzzle.

In 1469, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile (of Columbus-funding fame) married uniting Spain under the not-very-united sounding name “Kingdom of the Spains”. Bits of decline and resurgence, yada yada. The Reaper’s War. 1640-59. A peasant uprising in Barcelona over the handling of the Thirty Years War against France (stationing of Castilian troops in Catalonia, overuse of Catalan resources, etc) grew into a larger Catalan Revolt. A Catalan Republic is pronounced which allied itself with France. Largely unrecognised, it survived just over a decade of conflict until Barcelona was recaptured by Spain in 1652, with only sporadic resistance thereafter.

Now we get to the important bits. In 1700, Charles II, Spain’s last Habsburg king died without a direct heir. His chosen successor was from the French Bourbons, Philip V. Portugal, Austria, England, Scotland, Ireland and the United Provinces (ancestor of the modern Netherlands), however preferred the Habsburg who would have been Charles III. Despite originally supporting Philip during the ensuing War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia formally switched allegiance to Charles in 1706 after he’d arrived in the province. Unfortunately for Catalonia and Charles, he shortly became Holy Roman Emperor. Not wanting to see one person hold that office and be King of Spain, England withdrew her support. The war ended a couple of years later with Philip keeping the crown.

For Catalonia, this was very bad news. Their constitution was abolished along with their parliament and their language was suppressed. Modern nationalists date their loss of independence and their subordination to Spain from this point. The National Day of Catalonia was set in the 1880s to be 11th September after the surrender of Barcelona on that day in 1714. The scars from this run deep. I had someone joke to me that he hated the English after we abandoned them 300 years ago. I say joked, but there seemed to be a hint of something more genuine in his eyes.

Again followed periods of alternate good and bad fortune, including a year annexed to France during the Napoleonic Wars and a number of uprisings during the Carlist Wars. In the middle of the 19th Century, industrialisation of the region was accompanied by a renaissance of Catalan language and culture.

Nationalist support continued to grow and won a number of victories over the next 75 years, until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Received wisdom writes this as Franco’s fascists against Republicans, talking to certain Catalans you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a war for Catalan independence. The subsequent dictatorship led to the second great period of Catalan suppression. It is from this period that much of the current resentment stems. Even children brought up in the 70s were prevented from speaking “their” language in school or in the street. They couldn’t even be known by the name their parents had given them – many a Francesc was castilianised to Francisco, Alexandre to Alejandro, etc. This was in addition to the problems faced by the rest of Spain during the period – loss of personal liberties, censorship, suppression of democracy and opposition. Understandably, this is still keenly felt by those alive at the time. Feelings which have often been passed on, almost as a religion, to their children. Distaste which, after the death of Franco and the loss of its original motivation, is often targeted at the Castilian Spanish language and the modern Spanish state, despite major devolution of power to the regions and great support for the Catalan language (in schools, official proceedings, etc).

To this background, we have to add two more immediate factors. First, a seemingly never-ending stream of corruption scandals have reduced already limited faith in Madrid. Second, “la crisis”, the Credit Crunch. Some of the discontent this caused is reasonable, a belief that wealthy Catalonia would be faring better if it wasn’t having to pull through some of Spain’s poorer regions. A lot of it, however, is just the general disenchantment with the traditional establishment and status quo felt in large parts of the Western world (see also: the incredible rise of the political party Podemos/Podem. Stay tuned). The details of the precise steps to the referendum would lengthen an already long post too much, so I am just going to refer you to the great (if slightly biased) summary here:

tl;dr: Despite a very limited history of independence, Catalonia has its own strong, distinct identity, one that has been highly repressed by the central Spanish state on at least two major occasions during history. This undercurrent of resentment has bubbled up recently with growing discontent with Madrid in the whole of Spain. So they’re voting. It’s not legal, it’s not binding, it’s a glorified opinion poll. But they’re voting.


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