14 June 2021

Fermín Salvochea (Cadiz 1848-1907), Republican and Anarchist


Now and again you come across people who spend their lives fighting for magnificent but futile causes, and their names fade from the pages of history. Salvochea was one of those. He was committed to social justice for the labouring classes at a time when they had few rights and no political voice. The 19th century in Spain was marked by conflict between conservatives who supported the status quo, where the monarchy and the Catholic Church had absolute power, and liberals who wanted reform and a voice for the emerging middle class. Those at the bottom of the pile were largely ignored by both parties.

Salvochea began by believing that social change could come through the existing political system, but towards the end of the century when the poor were still dying of hunger he changed tack and supported the anarchist idea that workers must take matters into their own hands and bring about change by whatever means were available to them. He died a frustrated and disillusioned man, his body exhausted by the years of incarceration he was subjected to in the struggle to achieve his utopian dream.

One of the few 20th century historians to celebrate the life of Salvochea was Fernando Toscano de Puelles, whose family was from Alcalá. There follows a resumé of his book FERMIN SALVOCHEA: REPUBLICA Y ANARCHISMO, published in 1984.





Fermín Salvochea was born into a middle-class family in the city of Cádiz in 1842. His father, a merchant in the textile industry, held strong liberal values and was concerned about the exploitation of the working class, but he was no revolutionary. He sent his son to the innovatory school of San Felipe de Neri in Cádiz, which combined business studies with other forms of learning including natural sciences, language and literature. Fermín specialised in languages and in 1858 went to London to improve his English and act as local agent for the family business. His elder brother died suddenly and the business went into decline, but Fermín stayed in England, impressed by the people’s love of independence and liberty which appeared so different to Spanish culture. He studied the works of socialist reformer and philanthropist Robert Owen, founder of the Cooperative movement, which opened his eyes to ideas of social justice and equal opportunities for the working class.

Salvochea immersed himself in the political and philosophical debates in London clubs and societies, and became friends with the militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, under whose influence he came to despise the religious dogma which perpetuated ignorance and inequality in his own country. He remained an atheist for the rest of his life.

On his return to Cádiz in 1861 Salvochea turned his back on commerce and entered the world of the progressive intellectual elite. The city was one of the last liberal outposts in a Europe dominated by absolutist monarchs. It had a spirit of tolerance and openness, having for centuries been a major trading port where ideas as well as goods were exchanged. Unlike much of Spain it had a powerful middle class which supported liberal ideas of free trade. Cádiz had been the natural place for the Spanish Cortes (seat of government) to move to when Napoleon Bonaparte took over the rest of the country in the early 19th century. Spain’s first Constitution was proclaimed there in 1812, establishing an electoral parliamentary system to control the power of the monarchy, with universal (male) suffrage, freedom of the press and the separation of church and state. This liberal Constitution was abolished when Fernando VII returned to power in 1814 and restored the absolute power of the monarchy.

In the salons and cafes of this cultural melange Fermín Salvochea discussed the socialist ideas of Robert Owen with proponents of other progressive persuasions such as Fourierism and anarchism (libertarian socialism). The pragmatic Salvochea dismissed these as too utopian, but he and his colleagues were united in a desire to overthrow the monarchy and restore the 1812 Constitution. This came to fruition in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1868, when Queen Isabel II was deposed and replaced by a provisional government. There followed six turbulent years in which Salvochea was to play a significant part in the city and province of Cádiz.

The revolution started in the city with a mutiny by naval forces, and quickly spread across the country. Salvochea and his colleagues believed that the provisional povernment would restore the terms of the 1812 Constitution and guarantee liberty and republicanism, but it soon became clear that this was not going to happen. In December government troops were sent to quell the revolutionary fervour which predominated in Cádiz, and the city endured several days of fierce fighting as armed volunteers and the Republican militia fought the forces of the Provisional Government across the barricades. Eventually the volunteers were worn down and a truce was declared. Salvochea was arrested and interrogated, as he was held to be the leader of the revolt. He maintained throughout that he was acting on the will of the people and therefore not guilty of any crime.

In January 1869 there was a general election. The Progressive-Liberal Coalition won 263 seats and the Federal Democratic Republican Party 85, including Salvochea (who was still in prison). After some debate as to the legality of his candidacy he was granted an amnesty and released.

The previous year the Cuban nationalists had revolted, various Carlist parties had re-emerged from the woodwork, Spain was facing a civil war. The government therefore decided to suspend the constitutional guarantees, much to the protest of the Federal deputies, who walked out. Salvochea was elected President of the Provincial Committee of the party and signed a federal pact for Andalucía. There followed a rallying campaign across the region to protest about the government’s U-turn, in which the Republicans were hotly pursued by government troops. When he arrived in Alcalá de los Gazules in October 1869 he was welcomed by cheers of “Long live Salvochea” and the pealing of bells. He picked up fifty new recruits ready to fight for the cause.

The Republican volunteers were pursued and defeated by government troops in Algar, in the Sierra de Cádiz, suffering heavy losses. The survivors hid in the mountains around Ubrique before engaging again near Ronda. They were heavily outnumbered and defeated, with several leaders losing their lives. The manner of their death became a national scandal.

Salvochea and other survivors headed to France from Gibraltar until an amnesty in 1870 allowed them to return. The Republican Party had formed its own Assembly, led by Pi y Margall. Salvochea was one of those elected and the Party set about drawing up an alternative revolutionary constitution, inspired by the French model, to challenge the one published by the government in 1868 establishing Spain as a constitutional monarchy. Amadeus of Savoy was chosen as a suitably uncontroversial king. He was crowned in November 1870 – the Republicans had lost that battle.

In July 1872 Fermín's father died, leaving most of his estate to his son. He became even closer to his mother, Pilar, and lived a life of austerity and celibacy, devoting all his energy to the humanitarian cause which dominated his life.

Cadiz town hall in the Plaza San Juan de Dios, mid-19th century

When Amadeus abdicated in February 1873 Spain was officially proclaimed a Republic. However the more left-wing Republicans like Salvochea feared it would not be radical enough. He was elected Mayor of Cádiz, and promised to do his best for the people despite being hampered by unjust laws from Madrid. In his manifesto he promised to destroy everything that stood in the way of democracy, make economies in non-productive expenditure, improve the conditions of workers and artisans, and abolish the hated tax on essential goods. He also promised to resign immediately if he could not meet his pledges.

The key to maintaining order, he believed, was to form an armed citizen militia. His second main objective was education for all, free for working-class children. Religious education would be banned in favour of “universal morality”. Schools would be named after principles and virtues instead of saints. New schools would be set up in disused convents, and Church properties would be auctioned off to pay for these programmes.

The Republican government in Madrid drafted yet another Constitution but Pi y Margall, now President, insisted it could only be approved by the Cortes and would be gradually implemented across the provinces. Opponents to this policy, including Salvochea, were known as intransigentes. They wanted reforms to come from the bottom up, with an emphasis on local government (federalism), while the moderate government politicians wanted to rule from Madrid (centralism) – they were fearful of an armed revolution from the growing number of workers’ movements impatient for meaningful change.

On 19 July 1873 Salvochea received a telegram confirming that the Province of Seville had declared itself a federal canton, free and independent of Madrid. Similar declarations had been made in cities across the country. He instantly summoned the military and civilian governors to the town hall and informed them that Cádiz would be following suit – the military governor offered his support and the civil governor resigned.

At 6 pm the bells tolled across the city, announcing to the public that something important was happening. Soon afterwards the trumpets of the Volunteer forces sounded a call to arms. They occupied strategic points across the city in anticipation of reprisals. Red flags were flown on public buildings.

Salvochea immediately formed the Committee of Public Health for the province of Cádiz, with the objective of saving the Federal Republic from those in power who appeared to be intent on destroying it. Measures adopted by the Committee were similar to those proposed after the 1868 Revolution – abolition of compulsory conscription and consumer taxes, public works to provide employment, separation of church and state, secular education, confiscation of church properties, and the armed forces to take orders directly from the Committee.

Salvochea appointed himself in charge of “War, organisation, propaganda and defence”. Arms were confiscated from the HQ of the Guardia Civil, the Castle of San Sebastian and the coastguard ships. A joint military parade was held to show the unity of the Volunteers and the Army.

One of the first tasks of the new administration was to telegraph all the mayors in the provinces asking them to join the movement. Algeciras, Tarifa and Los Barrios opted to join and Paterna de Ribera, traditionally radical, sent volunteers to the capital. Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a stronghold of the Asociación Internacional de Trabajadores (AIT or First International), formed its own Committee made up of militant workers. It was however opposed in Jerez, where the conservative mayor handed over power to the Military Commander.

In nearby San Fernando civilians, the army and the volunteer militia were in favour of joining but there was strong opposition from the naval base, whose leaders remained loyal to the central government. The navy holed up in the arsenal of La Carraca and prepared for an attack by Federalist forces. The ensuing battle lasted several days, with heavy shelling from both sides. Salvochea continually offered the naval forces the chance to cease fire and support the true Republic.

The Arsenal in San Fernando


Eventually the government sent 8,000 troops to suppress the cantonalist rebels. Overwhelmed by force of numbers, they conceded defeat – the Paterna volunteers were among the last to surrender. Various leaders across the province were arrested and imprisoned or exiled to Argentina. Others fled to France or Portugal. Salvochea was given a life sentence to be served in the Spanish enclave of El Peñon de la Gomera, a rocky outcrop on the coast of Morocco. The governor was sympathetic to the Republican cause and gave him two good rooms and the freedom to come and go on the peninsula (including the jetty, where he swam every day).

After two years he was transferred to the considerably less welcoming Fortaleza del Hacho in Ceuta, another Spanish enclave. He spent his time helping his fellow prisoners, teaching them to read and write, spending the money his mother sent him on improving their conditions, and even studying medicine so he could assist those who fell ill.

It was during this time that Salvochea became increasingly sympathetic to the anarchist ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, which were spreading rapidly among the agricultural labourers of Andalucía. He felt betrayed by the liberal bourgeoisie, and concluded that workers could only achieve emancipation if they stopped making pacts with groups who did not share their objectives. But he remained faithful to the Owenist form of communism, dismissing the idea of individual collectives.

Following a failed Republican plot in which Salvochea was suspected of being involved but no evidence could be found, he was transferred back to La Gomera. His mother and colleagues in Cádiz lobbied for him to be granted a pardon, as he was the only one of the Cádiz rebels still incarcerated. When this was granted in 1882 he declined it, saying that he was held prisoner by the law of force, not the force of law - he had done nothing wrong, so could not be grateful for a meaningless gesture of forgiveness. Instead he took the decision to escape, which he did with the help of Moroccan sailors he had befriended at the jetty.


Peñon de La Gomera, near Melilla

Aided by locals and an Arabic-French dictionary he made his way to Tetuan and thence to Gibraltar, Marseilles and Paris, where he met up with other exiles and revolutionaries including Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law. He went to London to meet up with his old atheist friend Charles Bradlaugh, and was introduced to the Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin, whose ideas were to have a considerable influence on him.

Salvochea then travelled to Portugal to meet up with other exiled colleagues, but was arrested after an uprising in Badajoz in which he was claimed to have conspired. He was deported to Algeria, where he was appalled by the living conditions of the poor.

1885 saw the death of Alfonso XII and the end of Salvochea’s period of prolonged confinement and exile. He returned to Cádiz and was dismayed to see the despair and apathy among the working-class movement, demoralised by the persecution of its members during the previous few years. In particular, anyone suspected of being involved in crimes committed by the notorious anarchist group La Mano Negra (Black Hand) in the area around Jerez during 1882 and 1883 had been severely punished, despite a lack of credible evidence. One such trial culminated in the public garotting of seven men in Jerez de Frontera.




Some historians believe the Mano Negra was invented by the authorities in order to justify the persecution of militant workers and give the anarchist movement a bad name. The FTRE, a nationwide federation of anarchist groups, was keen to avoid any public association with criminal elements and offered no support to those on trial, leaving the Cádiz anarchists feeling betrayed and abandoned.

But Salvochea didn’t give up hope. He founded a fortnightly newspaper, El Socialismo, which included translations of works by international figures on the Left including Kropotkin, Marx, Engels and Pablo Iglesias, founder of the Spanish Socialist Party. Received coolly at first, its circulation grew steadily and helped reboot the moribund labour movement. The First of May had recently been established in the USA as International Workers’ Day, and on that date in 1890 Salvochea organised a demonstration in Cádiz, part of an international campaign for an eight-hour working day. He spoke from a balcony, denouncing modern slavery and encouraging workers to embrace the socialist doctrine. He was warmly received by the crowd.

The following year he proposed that the demonstration be accompanied by a general strike. On 25 April police raided the office of El Socialismo and found a leaflet encouraging workers to “rise up and build a new society on the ruins of the old system”. He and two colleagues were arrested, accused of incitement to disrupt public order, and imprisoned. The march was cancelled under threat of armed reprisals. His behaviour at the subsequent trial is a good example of how he continually played cat-and-mouse with any laws which he considered to have no moral basis.

Judge – Are you the author of this paper?
FS – Yes.
Judge -Were you trying to get workers to assemble in the Plaza de San Antonio and declare a strike?
FS – Yes.
Judge: Are you aware that the demonstration took place after the publication of this paper?
FS – The paper wasn’t published, because it was confiscated.

The defence argued that the content of the paper had been published in local newspapers, which were not on trial – Salvochea was being prosecuted purely because of who he was and what he stood for. He was found not guilty.


In January 1892 hundreds of labourers from the Jerez vineyards marched into the city centre armed with shotguns, pistols and pitchforks shouting “The time has come! Long live Anarchism!” Their aim was to free comrades who had been taken prisoner a few days before, take over the barracks with the aid of sympathetic soldiers, and gather support to turn the city into a commune based on anarchist principles. By nightfall they had taken over the streets and were firing shots in the air on their way to the prison, where the guards fired on them, wounding two. They withdrew, but a small group split off from the main body and killed two men, a clerk and a wine salesman, ostensibly for being members of the bourgeoisie. The army carried out a systematic search and rounded up over three hundred suspects.

The authorities could not accept that the march had been spontaneous, and suspected that Salvochea (still incarcerated in Cádiz) had had a hand in planning it. They asked for his immediate transfer to Jerez, which was refused as there were still cases against him in the capital. He gave a statement to a journalist from El Liberal, sent to cover the events (which had attracted national interest):
The causes of the whole anarchist movement are the misery and abandonment that the workers have been subjected to; it is not them who are responsible for what has occurred. There are field-workers in the province who receive a miserly wage of between 40 and 60 cents a day [around €2 today]. They live in permanent hardship. It is unthinkable that this situation should continue.
Salvochea was finally transferred to Jerez in August. He refused a defence lawyer and declined to answer questions when interrogated. This silence continued throughout the trial, which went on for months, during which time he was kept in solitary confinement in a dungeon as a punishment for “contempt of court”. Finally the prosecution produced confessions, obtained under torture from other prisoners, confirming that he was the ringleader. Despite lack of any other evidence and many contradictory witness statements, he was found guilty of initiating rebellion and disturbance of public order and given the maximum sentence of 12 years.

Salvochea was transferred to the penitentiary in Valladolid. When the warden tried to make him attend mass, despite his declared atheism, he refused. Threatened with being confined in an underground dungeon, he said that would be preferable to a church. After a while his health deteriorated due to the insanitary conditions and he attempted to commit suicide by cutting the femoral artery. A guard found him and he was taken to the infirmary, where he initially refused food. Denied contact with others, he taught himself Arabic, and read poetry such as Milton’s Paradise Lost. Subsequently he was transferred to the prison in Burgos, where he met some of the Catalan anarchists imprisoned there and exchanged ideas.

In 1898 he was granted an amnesty and returned to Cádiz. Thousands of people were waiting to meet his train and welcome him home. He spoke to the crowd from his balcony: “Comrades, here I am amongst you again, the same as always. Long live communism!”

Return to Cadiz, 1898

Lack of funds eventually led him to move to Madrid, where he earned a living writing and translating for the various new left-wing publications. He rented from a working-class family two narrow, sparsely-furnished rooms at the top of a block of flats, ate mainly cheese and fruit, and practised gymnastics daily. He wore cheap clothes, invariably grey, and an old black felt hat with a wide brim to protect his eyes from the sun (he wore blue-tinted glasses all his life). He attended many meetings and discussion groups, tirelessly explaining the principles of anarcho-communism and advocating the practices of personal hygiene, public health and cremation.

In 1902 Salvochea returned to Cádiz once more. His mother was in poor health, and he was homesick. Now 60, his own health was suffering the effects of years of imprisonment, but he still bathed in the sea every day and his mind was as sharp as ever. He worked as a wine dealer (though he never drank alcohol), cared for his mother, and continued to translate important works into Spanish. Although few of his former comrades remained in the city he continued to speak his mind in political discussion groups and in print.

Salvochea’s customary phlegmatic character burned with passion when he spoke of social injustice and inequality. His usual smile disappeared and his eyes flashed behind the blue lenses with the fire of conviction. “Hundreds of thousands of men die of hunger every year, while society pretends not to know because they aren’t dying in the streets like abandoned dogs, but in hospitals or in their hovels. Yet there is enough food in the world for everyone!” He despised charity: “What is it for? To maintain the poor in slavery, waiting for crumbs to slake their hunger momentarily and prolong their servitude. Charity is selfishness disguised as virtue, the sacrifice of a tiny amount of the surplus, distributed on a whim.” He himself drank only water and ate bread and cheese, believing while people were going hungry he had no right to more than that.

In 1905 the writer Vicente Blasco Ibañez published a novel, La Bodega, set in Jerez. One of the leading characters, Fernando Salvatierra, is clearly based on Salvochea. He is described as “a secular saint … free of all egoism. No action was beneath him when helping the less fortunate. Nonetheless his name evoked scandal and fear among the rich … he hated violence, but preached it to the lower classes as their only means of salvation.”

Salvochea died on 27 September 1907, fragile and confused by the failure of his dream of progress towards justice. On his deathbed, surrounded by friends and family, his mother spoke of Jesus, recalling the resurrection of Lazarus. Fermín replied that Jesus was not a good man, because he should have saved a son of the people, not a rich man like Lazarus.

His death certificate recorded acute meningomyelitis. His funeral was attended by people of all classes - the small area of the cemetery reserved for rebels and free-thinkers could not accommodate the crowd. His mother died two years later.

In 1910 the Town Hall named a street after him, and to commemorate the first anniversary of his death a plaque was placed on the house where he was born. At the beginning of the Second Republic in 1931 the mayor of Cádiz wanted to erect a statue to him (despite his disapproval of such things), and in 1932 his face appeared on a postage stamp. But all traces of Salvochea were expunged following the fascist uprising in 1936. Today few outside the anarchist movement are aware he ever existed, although things are changing under the city’s current left-wing government and the group Amigos de Fermín Salvochea; there are now several plaques in the city marking places of interest in the life of this fascinating man.


"My homeland is the world, my religion is to do good,
and my family is the human race."


16 October 2020

R.I.P. Salustiano Gutierrez Baena

Now and again you run into people who help restore your faith in humanity with their quiet dedication to making the world a better place.  Salustiano Gutierrez, who succumbed to cancer last Saturday aged just 58, was one of those people.

Born and raised in Granada, Salus came to the nearby town of Benalup-Casas Viejas in 1992 to teach at the new secondary school. He hadn't intended to stay long but soon became deeply involved with the town and its people. He was inspired by the American social anthropologist Jerome Mintz, who lived in the town for several years in the 1960s and 70s, studying the minutiae of daily life in Benalup and the surrounding villages. Salus took up the baton and continued researching the town's history and culture.  He published his findings on a blog which he set up in 2007, Desde la historia de Casas Viejas.  The blog also includes many photos and film clips made by Mintz which give a unique insight into the daily life of past decades. Salus continued to post until days before his death, eager to complete a series on the origins of local words.

Salus believed strongly in society and personal commitment to the community to which one belongs.  Swimming against the rising tide of individualism, he used his teaching to pass on his values to the younger generation.  He always believed that teaching was about much more than the transmission of knowledge or a way of earning professional status, it was a responsibility and a privilege.  Following his death, his Facebook page received dozens of messages from former students expressing their gratitude for his role in shaping their lives.

In 2017 Salus published a book about an event which took place in Benalup in January 1933, when a workers' uprising was brutally put down by the authorities, leaving 24 dead.  Los Sucesos de Casas Viejas - Crónica de una derrota (The Events of Casas Viejas - Chronicle of a defeat) includes personal interviews and a comprehensive photographic record of this grim episode. Like all those dedicated to bringing to light the atrocities of Spain's past after years of deliberate amnesia, he made some enemies. But in his own words, "It was necessary to make a record of social history, to put a face to the protagonists of this social movement". Today Benalup-Casas Viejas has come to terms with its past and there is an interpretation centre, a monument and a street-tour of places related to the events of 1933. 

Salus was actively involved in the cultural and social life of the town, participating in its famous Carnival, and a regular visitor to its local bars.  He loved a good debate, and was greatly respected for his even-handedness and courtesy towards people of all classes and opinions. 

A few weeks ago Salustiano was presented with an honorary medal by the Town Hall, something he had previously declined.  In his acceptance speech he declared:

... I want to end by emphasising how Benalup-Casas Viejas has allowed me to go deeper into its history, into that spider's web that has trapped me and given meaning to my life. I am totally convinced that in other places they would not have allowed me to do this. For this reason the award is not about whether I deserve recognition for doing what I love, it is a gift that I appreciate and value, from the people of Benalup-Casas Viejas who have my eternal and infinite gratitude.

The people of Benalup will surely return that eternal gratitude.

Salustiano Gutierrez leaves behind his beloved partner Juani and their two children, who earlier this week cast his ashes over the hills of his adopted homeland.

Salus in his local bar, wearing his medal of honour


01 August 2020

Spain's "final solution" 1749: how they tried to get rid of the gypsies

Gitano culture and language are so closely intertwined with those of Andalucía as to be almost indistinguishable. But Spain has long had an ambiguous attitude towards the Romani people, saluting them as bearers of folkloric traditions such as flamenco and sevillanas with one hand while clearing them out of their homes with the other. 

19th century romantic stereotype of gitano culture

The word "gitano" is derived from egiptano, an archaic Spanish word for Egyptian (today they use egipcio). The English word "gypsy" has the same root. However they originated from the Punjab region in northern India, nowhere near Egypt.  The reason for the misnomer is unclear - some may have entered Europe via Egypt, or perhaps European mistook them for Egyptians because of their appearance. 

The first Romani arrived in Spain early in the 15th century, travelling in large family groups, and in 1425 were given a guarantee of safe conduct by the King to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In 1470 a group arrived in Seville and settled in Triana on the other side of the river from the city.  This community was of great benefit to the government at a time of constant wars, as they produced horseshoes, cartwheels, even cannonballs for the army.  

Following the "Reconquest" of Christian Spain in 1492 the Catholic monarchs expelled Jews and Muslims who wouldn't convert to Christianity, but the gitanos managed to escape such ethnic cleansing.  At this time there were around 3,000 still living a nomadic existence.They had their own version of the Christian faith, being especially devoted to the Virgin Mary, so couldn't justifiably be persecuted for heresy. But what irked the authorities most was their inability to pin them down and make them pay taxes. Various edicts were issued to try and restrict their movements to no avail, and over time they acquired the reputation of being ungodly and untrustworthy vagrants.

Gitano prisoners on the move

In 1749 King Fernando VI, advised by the Bishop of Oviedo (then Governor of Castile), decided to take a more drastic step. The Bishop believed that since attempts to submit the gitanos to the law of the land had failed, it was necessary to expel them.  The original intention was to send them to the American colonies where they would be put to work as slave labour in factories and mines, but a similar plan by Portugal the previous year had failed so this idea was dropped. Instead they decided that the most humane "final solution" (we are not barbarians!) to exterminate the gitano people would be to round them up and separate the men from the women, so they would be unable to breed and the race would die out.  This operation was known as the "Gran Redada" - the Great Roundup.

Is extermination too strong a word?  Judge for yourself.  Fernando's confessor, the Jesuit Father Francisco Rávago, stated: “The means proposed by the Governor of Castile to root out this bad race, which is hateful to God and pernicious to man, seem good to me. The king will be making a great gift to God, Our Lord, if he manages to get rid of these people.”

The Royal Order for the 'Gran Redada'

On 30 July 1749 army officers delivered sealed envelopes to mayors across the country containing orders from the King: the following morning every man, woman and child of gitano blood must be rounded up and arrested, and their belongings seized (the sale of these assets was to pay for their maintenance and transport).  Around 9,000 of the estimated 12,000 gitanos living in Spain at that time were duly rounded up. Men and women were separated and sent to different parts of the country, able-bodied men to work in naval arsenals such as the one in Cartagena (Murcia), and women to work in garment factories. This guaranteed the state a useful supply of cheap labour. Boys of up to seven years old were permitted to stay with their mothers and be taught a "useful trade" until they were 15, when they would join the men.  Those too infirm to work were imprisoned.

The naval arsenal in Cartagena (Murcia)
where gitano men were used as slave labour

Before this exercise could take place it was necessary to designate prison camps where the gitanos could be held, thus preventing them from claiming sanctuary in churches as they had done in the past, thanks to an edict from the Vatican.  Some churchmen, including the chaplain of a monastery in El Puerto de Santa Maria, objected to the Great Roundup and protected gitanos from arrest. The Archbishop of Seville, where the city gates had been locked overnight without warning to prevent their escape, protested strongly and demanded assurances that the prisoners would not be ill-treated. However in other cities such as Vélez Málaga the gitanos surrendered voluntarily, much to the surprise of the soldiers. They must have thought their lives could only get better.

There was little resistance among the Romani population to the Great Roundup. What there was came mainly from the women, who organised mutinies and protests. Ildefonso Falcones' novel The Barefoot Queen (La Reina Descalza) brings these events to life in vivid detail.


It soon became evident that the scope of the project was beyond the means of the authorities, who had insufficient places to hold the detainees and insufficient funds to maintain them. In October 1749 they released all the gitanos who could demonstrate a "good way of life", promising to give up their nomadic ways and become integrated into society. Many registered with their Town Hall as official residents and held regular jobs, such as blacksmiths and potters.

The less compliant gitanos remained in captivity until 1765, when they were pardoned (although guilty of no crime other than their ethnicity) by the new king Carlos III.   These included a handful of men unable to work who had been locked up in Santa Catalina, Cadiz, for sixteen years. In 1783 an edict was issued by the Prime Minister confirming that the gitano people did not come from an "infected root" and the persecutions officially ended.

Santa Catalina prison, Cádiz

During the 19th Century Spain fell back in love with its gitano communities, as can be seen in the endless scenes of bucolic charm produced by the Romantic artists, and the acclaim given to gitano singers, dancers and bullfighters.  Flamenco was hailed as essentially Spanish in an era when nationalism became more important than ever.  The Triana community became a focal point for flamenco culture, with gitano families singing and dancing in their shared patios for themselves and and in "cafés cantantes" for the public. 

Communal patio in Triana


But in the middle of the 20th century the Civil Governor of Seville decided that Triana was too valuable a piece of real estate to be left unexploited.  In 1957, in a cruel echo of the 1749 Great Roundup, the gitanos were forced out of their homes to be rehoused in prefabricated slums on the outskirts of the city.  These remain areas of intense social deprivation to this day, while Triana exists as a gentrified parody of its gitano heritage.

Forced evacuation of Triana, 1957




18 April 2020

Lockdown 1800: the yellow fever epidemic in Alcalá

As we approach week 6 of confinement in an effort to stop the spread of a deadly virus, it seems timely to take a look at another virus that devastated the population of Alcalá over two hundred years ago, killing over a fifth of the population. Information on that epidemic comes from an article in Spanish by Ismael Almagro Montes de Oca on his blog Historia de Alcalá de los Gazules.

Yellow fever is spread when a mosquito feeds on blood from an infected person and transfers the virus to its next meal.  However at the time of the 1800 epidemic in Spain contagious diseases were believed to originate in "miasmas", toxic vapours emanating from decaying matter, then passed directly from one human to another.  Viruses were not identified until the late 19th century, the first vaccines arrived soon after, and the discovery of the role of the mosquito in propagating yellow fever was made in 1900.

Symptoms of yellow fever start to appear within about five days.  These include fever, nausea, headache, muscle pain and vomiting. Most people recover after a few days but around 15% move to a second, far more dangerous stage with liver damage and gastrointestinal bleeding. Once jaundice sets in the skin turns yellow, giving the disease its common name. It is also known as vómito negro in Spanish, due to bloodstained vomit.


The virus originated in Africa, probably passing from primates to humans, and the mosquitoes which carried it were transferred to the Americas and the Caribbean via slave ships when mosquitoes bred in kegs of water stored on board. The first recorded outbreak was in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1649 and it gradually spread northwards into the USA via river or coastal traffic. In Philadelphia in 1793 it killed 5,000 people, ten per cent of the population. Large numbers of British soldiers sent to Haiti in the 1790s succumbed to it, and it also ravaged Napoleon's troops sent there in 1802 to suppress the slave revolt. The virus found its way into Europe in the 18th century via ships arriving in Spanish and Portuguese ports from the Americas.  In 1730 there was an outbreak in the port city of Cádiz with 2,200 reported deaths.

The epidemic which devastated Alcalá along with the rest of southern Spain in 1800 was probably down to a ship from Cuba which docked in Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 30 June. Several crew members had died during the crossing; others made their way to the capital and elsewhere in the province.  As it had not been seen in the area for 70 years local doctors were unfamiliar with the disease and did not know whether it was contagious or seasonal. They treated the symptoms as best they could but did not immediately raise the alarm bells, so valuable time was lost in stopping the spread.

On 29 August a letter reached the Ayuntamiento of Alcalá de los Gazules from the Commander General of the Campo de Gibraltar, under whose jurisdiction Alcalá fell, ordering the cessation of all communications with the city of Cádiz in order to stop the disease spreading. This was read and approved by the town council at a meeting on 31 August.

The first steps taken by the council, as usual in the face of calamity, was to petition the town's patroness, Nuestra Señora de los Santos, to intercede and protect her flock.  However instead of making the usual pilgrimage to the Sanctuary where the Virgin resided, it was decided to bring her into Alcalá so as to avoid an influx of strangers.

Troops quickly arrived from the barracks on the Campo de Gibraltar and worked with residents to blockade all the entrances into the town. The containment measures were rigorously enforced, and notices were posted warning that the punishment for breaking the blockade was the death sentence.  Soldiers were authorised to use firearms or bayonets to stop anyone entering the town.  On 11 September a house in Patriste, La Gitana, was requisitioned as a quarantine station, and on 22 September further troops arrived to reinforce the cordon sanitaire.

The old hospital, La Misericordia, on the Plaza Alta
But despite all these measures the number of cases in the town continued to rise.  Residents who owned property in the campo, including several councillors, moved there with their families to escape the danger.  The 12-bed hospital on the Plaza Alta, La Misericordia, struggled to cope with the increasing number of patients. In total 817 deaths were recorded in three months, out of a population of around 4,000.

This figure was much higher than in Medina (136) or Paterna (86). Clearly the virus had already been present in the town before the blockade was set up. The town's medical officer, José Sánchez Aznar, wrote in a report published in 1822 that early in the summer of 1800 he had treated two men recently arrived from Cádiz showing the typical symptoms, which he treated in the usual way, but he did not recognise the disease at the time. They both recovered but it wasn't until later that he realised they must have been contagious. Then he treated a man who had been sharing a hut in the campo with some muleteers; he did not recover, and soon afterwards most of his family fell sick and died.

Travelling salesman c. 1800 - inadvertent carrier?
It is more than likely that the muleteers, who travelled from town to town with their goods, were unknowingly carrying the virus. The doctor also reported that there was a period of exceptionally hot and humid weather at the time which he believed must have helped the disease to become more virulent. In those days the connection between yellow fever and mosquitoes was unknown but in retrospect it is possible that these weather conditions provided ideal breeding conditions for the insect.

As numbers of victims continued to rise it became evident that the cordon sanitaire was not working. At the end of September the Commander General issued a new order, punishable by a prison sentence, preventing people from inviting outsiders into their homes.  But the council was depleted because most of its members had fled to the country, and the mayor himself had given up his civic duties and locked himself into his house within the castle walls, only talking to people from upper-floor windows. The running of the town in its state of emergency was left to the few remaining councillors.  Houses vacated by those who had fled to the country were being looted and the bailiff pleaded with the mayor for more resources to guard them, but his pleas were ignored.  Eventually the mayor was held to account for his negligence and ingmominiously banished from the town.

The first victims of the epidemic were buried in the Pantheon where the Beaterio is now, next to the castle, but this quickly became impractical as the bodies were piling up.  Five mass graves were dug around the outskirts of the pueblo, using gunpowder to break the rock and prisoners to dig the ditches.


Alcalá was hit by several more epidemics during the 19th century which reduced its population. Yellow fever returned in 1802, 1804 and 1820 (60 deaths), while in 1834 cholera took 158 lives. Typhus struck in the 1840s and further cholera epidemics occurred in 1854, 1864 and 1892, following which a vaccine became available.

In 1900 research by the US military in Cuba proved that yellow fever was transmitted via mosquitoes, and soon afterwards the specific mosquito Aedes aegypti was identified as the carrier.  A vaccine finally came into use in 1938.





14 April 2020

New book about Alcalá in the 20th Century



I'm delighted to announce that the book I've been working on for the past year, Winds of Change: Alcalá de los Gazules in the 20th Century, is now available worldwide on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback format, price £5 and £8.50 respectively (if you are in the UK, or the equivalent in other currencies elsewhere).  Any profits will go to the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) in Spain to help run food banks for people who don't have enough to eat. 

As with all the historical material on this blog, I have not done original research myself but instead translated the works of real historians who have slogged through dusty archives to bring the past to life.  Until now none of their work has been available in English; my aim in publishing this book is to make the fascinating history of the pueblo during that turbulent century available to a wider audience.

 Click here to read the full description, download a sample, or buy a copy.  Thanks!