Friday, May 2, 2008

May 2nd: The birthday of "Spain" or simply a rebellion against France?


That's the big debate this Dos de Mayo. In fact, aside from the events of this date being the inspiration for two of Goya's best known paintings, probably the only other things about this holiday that everyone in Spain can agree on is that this year's is the bicentennial of the Madrid Uprising, and that this act of insurrection led to the 1808-1814 Spanish War of Independence, or Peninsular War -- a war that saw Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom fighting the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte. Just about everything else is up for debate.
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First, let me give a brief chronology of events:

  • October 1807 – French troops invade Portugal, after passing through Spain, which at the time was an ally of France.

  • February 1808 – French troops invade Spain. (So much for alliances!)

  • March 17 – King Charles IV of Spain abdicates.

  • April 1808 – Napoleon announces that his brother, Joseph, will be crowned King of Spain.

  • May 2, 1808 – An insurrection against the French, today known as the Madrid Uprising, begins in the streets of the Spanish capital.

  • May 3 – In retaliation French troops kill hundreds of people in Madrid, an action which only adds fuel to the fire and helps the revolt to spread throughout the country.

  • June 6 – Joseph Bonaparte is proclaimed King of Spain.

  • August – Full blown war rages across the Iberian Peninsula.

  • March 12, 1812 - The first Spanish Constitution is adopted by the Cortes Generales, the national legislature operating in refuge at Cádiz.

  • March 1814 – King Charles' son, Ferdinand VII, returns to Spain as King, with a promise to uphold the constitution.

  • April – Napoleon abdicates and the Treaty of Paris is signed.

  • May – Ferdinand reneges on his promise, suspends the constitution and arrests many involved in its creation. (So much for promises!)

As you can see from this bare-bones outline, during this seven year period one absolute monarch (Charles IV) abdicated , the people rose up against a foreign absolute monarch (Bonaparte), the first Spanish constitution was written, and a constitutional monarch (Ferdinand VII) came to the throne, who then dissolved the constitution and proclaimed himself absolute monarch.
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And this they call the Spanish War of Independence?! Well, not all Spaniards do. For example, here in Catalunya some refer to it as the French War. However, disagreement isn't limited to Catalunya, nor does it only focus on what the war should be called.
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No, the big debate today seems to be about whether or not a sense of Spain as a unified nation began to take shape on May 2, 1808. Some people see the events of that day and the war that followed as a point of reference for the development, for the first time, of a Spanish national identity. Others view it as simply a revolt against French cruelty and not something rising out of a common feeling of Spanishness.
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Historians, journalists, politicians and people on the street argue about which version of events is “true.” Indeed, it seems to me that Spanish newspapers have been covering this debate much more than commemorative events, such as the reenactment of the uprising or the Goya exhibition at the Prado, which includes the recent restorations of his masterpieces on the subject, 2 de Mayo and 3 de Mayo.
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To give you an idea of what I mean, below are snippets based on what I've read lately, mostly in El País, El Periódico and Público.
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One of the most vocal, and controversial, proponents of the “birth of Spain” point of view is Esperanza Aguirre, President of the Autonomous Community of Madrid. She has said, "If Spaniards rebelled against Napoleon, it was because they already had a sense of Spain as a great nation and therefore wouldn't tolerate anyone imposing their will on it."
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Some see positions like hers as hearkening back to the popular interpretation of May 2nd in the Franco era. Novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte has described, “the myth that Spaniards of my generation were taught at school in the 50s and 60s: resistance to the last; defense of homeland and religion; unified feelings of collective loyalty to a Spain united in all its diversity, and so on.”
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Others go so far as to say the war was actually “the first Spanish civil war.” Although this notion seems to be shot down by most historians, Rafael Torres, author of 1808 - 1814 España contra España (Spain vs Spain), definitely seems to be of this opinion. He has even claimed that the seeds of the Carlist Wars and the Spanish Civil War were sown in this so-called Spanish War of Independence.
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Another interesting take on the meaning of it all was also from Arturo Pérez-Revert, when he said that what really came after the seven years of war was, "the return of the most infamous king in Spanish history, Fernando VII, the abolition of constitutional rights, and crushing proof that Spaniards got their enemies confused in 1808 – or a few years earlier when it was perhaps still possible to set up a guillotine in Madrid's Puerta del Sol. It was a mistake we are still paying for 200 years later."
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And he might have added that after all those years, Spaniards are still arguing about it -- and probably will be for the next 200 years, too!
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Chao amig@s,
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Carloz
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P.S. For a more thorough, but still brief, synopsis of May 2nd and the subsequent war, click here.
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P.P.S. The painting in the photo above is "Malasaña y su Hija" (Malasaña and his Daughter) by Eugenio Álvarez Dumont. Manuela Malasaña, a young seamstress, was one of the people killed in the uprising. Today she is considered a Spanish heroine, with streets, plazas, schools, and a lively Madrid neighborhood named after her. (I lived in that neighborhood for one year and, so, my description of it as lively is from first-hand experience!)

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