Every September 11, Catalonia celebrates a defeat: the fall of Barcelona in 1714 after a siege of nearly 14 months by the French-Spanish troops of Philip V. What some circles would like to reduce to a confrontation between Catalans and the Spanish monarchy, was in fact the last chapter in what might well be described as the real first world war: the War of Spanish Succession, which extended to the Americas and left 1,251,000 dead in Europe, of whom half a million were French.
The first piece of this chess game was moved on November 1, 1700, the day of the death of Charles II of Spain, a member of the House of Austria. Lacking direct descendants, he was pressured into naming Philip of Anjou his successor. But Britain and the Netherlands were anxious to get a piece of the pie in the trade with the Americas, and the accession of a Bourbon to the Spanish throne immediately evidenced that France would be getting the commercial edge.
It only took seven months to create the Grand Alliance against Phillip V (Dutch Republic, England, Holy Roman Empire, Portugal and the part of Spain still loyal to the Habsburg candidate, Archduke Charles); this axis declared war on France and the rest of Spain, ultimately losing out on some points, such as accepting Phillip V as the rightful king of Spain, but winning territorial concessions (including Gibraltar for Britain) and the right to participate in the slave trade in Spain’s American colonies.
On the domestic front, the arrival of a Bourbon to the Spanish throne in 1700 created a legal and political earthquake. Spain had, in fact, a composite monarchy made up of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, each with its own legislation. In Aragon – which Catalonia was a part of – the king’s room for maneuver was limited by constitutions that Philip V swore to uphold in 1701-1702.
This limitation to the monarch’s powers was the price to pay for Catalan support for his cause. But there is no doubt that the concept of limited powers did not sit well with the Bourbons’ absolutist ideas, which some historians link to the creation of highly centralized states. Other scholars feel that the Catalan-Aragonese model was the genesis of a more modern state structure that worked better for the rising new bourgeoisie.
17,000 people were killed, 40,000 bombs dropped and a third of the city's buildings were destroyed
In 1705, strong anti-French sentiment in Catalonia was fed by the despotic policies of Philip V implemented via his viceroy Velasco, who constantly violated the constitutions he’d been sworn to. Catalonia’s nobility was aware that the political and diplomatic agreements between France and Spain would hurt them financially (it was obviously forbidden to trade with England and the Dutch, who happened to be the greatest customers for Catalan spirits and textiles). As a result, much of Catalan society embraced the Habsburg candidate.
The shared interests between Catalonia and England, the Dutch Republic and Genoa gave rise to the Pact of Genoa in June 1705, by which England committed to contributing 8,000 men, 2,000 horses and 12,000 rifles, besides respecting the local constitutions. The Catalans recognized Archduke Charles as their king and mobilized 6,000 men. The uprising triumphed and Viceroy Velasco capitulated in October.
The larger war rumbled on with highs and lows until England decided to stop playing the game. Peace was negotiated with an exhausted France in exchange for commercial and territorial advantages; meanwhile, the death of his brother Joseph I brought the Archduke Charles back to the throne of Austria, and his Catalan aspirations were immediately forgotten.
But Philip V did not forget the treason. Article 13 of the Utrecht Treaty of 1713 stipulated that Catalonia would get the same treatment as Castile; in other words, be deprived of its rights and constitutions.
The rest, as they say, is history: Barcelona, Cardona and Mallorca became the last pro-Austrian strongholds. The siege of Barcelona began on July 25, 1713. While the lower classes decided to resist, the nobility and the clergy went over to the Bourbon side. This radicalized the resistance even more, making it more republican and secessionist. After nearly 14 months of siege, on September 11, 1714 the combatants fought face to face on the streets, leaving a final death tally of 7,000 locals and 10,000 assailants; over 40,000 bombs were dropped and a third of the city's buildings were destroyed.
All this was almost 300 years ago. The coming 12 months will see all kinds of lectures, symposiums, tributes, shows and publications on the subject.