Monday 30 April 2012

Peaceful Protests, Past and Present

By Richard Morley

A couple of Saturdays ago I was on a bus bringing me into the centre of Madrid. I was meeting a friend and we had agreed to meet at eight in La Latina. My bus should have taken me close to the Puerta del Sol, which would have left me with a short walk across the Plaza Mayor and down the Calle de Toledo. Glancing at my watch I could see I would get there on time. Just! Saturday evening traffic flow meant the bus was making slow progress, but as the number 53 turned off Goya on to Recoletos with twenty minutes to go, I knew I would make it. It was just a matter of a right at Cibeles, the penultimate stop, and a swift final zoom up to Sol. But I was cutting it fine.

So I was not happy when the bus pulled into the stop at Cibeles and the driver announced he could go no further and we all had to alight. The last leg to the terminus might take the bus a couple of minutes, but it was a ten minute walk. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland I was going to be late. And yes! It was a very important date.

There was worse to come. My wished speedy walk from Cibeles to Sol was impeded by huge crowds of people waving banners and flags, and shouting slogans of every political persuasion. The Calle de Alcala’s final descent ( actually it’s up hill, but it’s the end of the road,) into the city centre carried a procession of extremely vocal protesters voicing their collective opinions about the government’s latest reforms. There were ambling families with young children in pushchairs, there were leaders with megaphones broadcasting repetitive slogans. A group of singers with guitars seated on the bed of a pick-up led the crowd around them in song. A group of communists waved a sea of red flags bearing the hammer and sickle and just behind them a very militaristic looking band of young, shaven headed young men of the right wing Frente Naciónal in perfectly spaced disciplined formation holding their flags high. This last group marched with precision and did not seem as affable as the rest.

As I weaved though this crowd of protesters and on-lookers taking photographs I was struck by the complete cross-section of society that were represented. The newly elected government’s package of reforms they claim are needed to combat the serious economical crisis that Spain is experiencing have met with severe criticism from the general population. Nearly everyone is affected in some way by these harsh measures. Taxes have been raised, salaries of government workers reduced which knocks on to a de facto pay freeze in the private sector. Budgets have been cut and we are all feeling the pinch. The ordinary people feel a need to make their displeasure of the government’s action known.

This was not the first demonstration, but the latest of many. At the end of March the unions called for a General Strike to protest a vote in congress due to take place the following day that would bring in strict measures. In Madrid, a city that always supports the party of the current government, the strike had minimal effect. In Barcelona there was violence on the streets. I visited several offices on that day and only one person had followed her conscience and had not reported for work, but there was disruption on public transport and picket lines forcing city centre shops to pull down their shutters. And we must not forget that last year that Sol was invaded by a protest camp that lasted several weeks.

And it was not the last: A few days ago, in protest at increases in the cost of public transport in the city, protesters brought much of the Metro system to a standstill one morning by a coordinated activating of the emergency alarms on thirteen trains just before nine o’clock. The protesters risked heavy fines and imprisonment, but so runs the feelings of injustice and impotence of the common man in the face of this New Spain.

I write “New Spain” because things have changed very much very quickly. When I first arrived here there was a great feeling of optimism and pride. Now the country has a huge unemployment problem, regional governments don’t have sufficient income from taxation to pay their bills and the country is suffering from the general malaise of the weak euro. Immigrants who came here for a better life are returning home and Spaniards are following them to find work. The Sol protesters are threatening to commemorate their demonstration a year later.

But “NEW Spain”?

When, in 1759, Carlos III became king of Spain, after having been king of Naples since 1735, he found a country much in need of reform. He was a believer in what was known as “Enlightened Absolutism”, in which, while a monarch ruled with absolute authority, it was with the intent of improving the lives of their subjects. This was a movement sweeping through Europe at the time and was followed, to varying degrees by several of the ruling families. Voltaire, and other philosophers, saw this as the “only way forward”. What it actually meant was that “the king knows best” and allowed little room for public discussion.

 Carlos III on horseback in the Plaza del Sol.

To this end Carlos did indeed seek to improve the lives of his subjects. “Enlightened Absolutism” claims to be tolerant of religion and allow free speech, but only to an extent. However, he improved sanitary conditions in Madrid, firstly by prohibiting the citizens from throwing their waste, human or otherwise, out on to the street, reducing taxes of foodstuffs, introducing street lighting and began a series of road building projects to connect Madrid to other cities. There were those in Madrid who opposed his restrictions, but he claimed they “were like children who cried when they had their faces washed”. Through this he gained the unofficial title of “The best Mayor of Madrid”.

Of course, he had help. During his reign as king of Naples he had in his service a man called Leopold de Gregorio. He had been employed as a supplier to the Neapolitan army and had so impressed the king that in 1755 Carlos had ennobled him with the title of the Marqués de Esquilache, named for the Italian town of Squillace and with the E added to make it pronounceable by the Spanish, and was made chief inspector of customs. An important, and remunerative, position.
 Leopold de Gregorio, Marqués of Esquilache.

When Carlos became the king of Spain he brought Gregorio with him and put him in charge of the Hacienda, head of taxation, and in 1763, secretary of war. Spain needed the money. Following the “Family Pact” of the different branches of the Bourbon households Spain and France were obsessed by the idea of reducing the power of Great Britain. The Seven Years War by which France attempted this (and spectacularly failed) was going on and Spain joined in in 1762. Carlos thought Britain’s success would upset the European balance of power. However, he wasn’t very successful. Spain were thrown back when they tried to invade Portugal and lost the major trading ports of Havana and Manila. The 1763 Treaty of Paris also saw Spain give Florida to Britain for the return of the two ports. Which meant that the end of the war that sucked up all the funds coincided with Esquilache’s best money-making scheme ever. He inaugurated the La Primitiva, the mainstay of the Spanish lottery, which still, two hundred and fifty years later, is a source of income for the government.

Losing power abroad made Carlos return to reforms of Spain. Food prices were on the increase, taxation was high and, despite the creation of porcelain and glass factories, the building of canals, roads and drainage works, much of which was seen as creating work for works sake (much of this seems familiar in modern day Spain!) the people were not happy. The task of making these changes was put in the hands of Esquilache.

As king of Naples, Carlos had had problems with the Roman Catholic church. While being a religious man, he thought the church had no role in the the running of state affairs. He more or less reduced the still existing Inquisition to impotency and eventually had the Jesuits forcibly expelled in 1767.

But being a man who loved hunting and more peaceful pursuits like the arts (he built the Prado) and nature (he inaugurated the botanical garden) and preferring to live in his palace in Aranjuez, he delegated the job to Esquilache, who took to his role with more enthusiasm than the Spanish whom he was trying to reform.

As always, the climax came from something quite minor. As well as “Cleaning and Paving the streets” and creating “Boulevards” to modernise Madrid, as he claimed, Esquilache also tried to change the way the citizens dressed. Influenced by France, where short capes and three-corned hats were the common place, Esquilache decreed that Madrileños should follow this fashion as the longer over-capes that the Spanish habitually wore could easily conceal a weapon, such as a long sword, and the wide brimmed hats concealed faces, and was seen as a security measure to stop criminals.

 On the left is the new short cape and three/cornered hat. The man on the right in the old style is being reproved by his fellow citizens.

At first this dress code only applied to members of the royal court who were legally obliged to adopt the fashion. The common people had other things to worry about. Esquilache’s liberalisation of the trade in grain has resulted in increases in the price of bread and cured meat which had doubled, and oil and coal. Also, salaries had been reduced. (Again, we are seeing this today.) But on March the 10th 1766 notices were pasted up around Madrid that prohibited the wearing of the banned garments. The reaction was immediate with many of the placards being ripped down. Militia and the police trying to enforce the law were attacked by the people.

Two weeks later, the 23rd, which happened to be Palm Sunday, two men wearing the long capes were crossing the plaza of Antón Martín and were challenged by an official. One of the men reached under his cloak and drew his sword, threatening the official. Esquilache, Italian by birth, was seen as a foreigner and because of perceived interference by the Roman Catholic church in the affairs of Spain, there was a deal of animosity towards anything Italian. The official was told that if he thought an Italian could tell a Spaniard how to dress he had another thought coming! The official fled.

The scene was witnessed by many others who then processed along the Calle de Atocha shouting “Long live the king. Long live Spain. Death to Esquilache.” By the time they had reached the Plaza del Ángel there were two thousand of them - shouting for the head of the Italian upstart - and a document was written calling for the king to fire him.

The crowd continued to the Plaza Mayor, where it was witnessed by Luis Maria de Soledad Fernández de Cordoba y Gonzaga, better known as the 13th Duke of Medinaceli, who had just left the king at the palace. He was surrounded by the crowd and forced to return to the palace and take their petitions to the king.

The situation worsened. The rioters destroyed 5000 lamposts that that Esquilache had installed around the city. One of Esquilache’s servants was knifed and his portrait was burnt. And so began the three days that are known as the “Esquilache Riots”. The famous painter, Goya, was a witness and later painted “El Motín de Esquilache”.

On the next day troops defending the king’s residence shot and killed a woman. A priest took the rioters’ demands to the king. They stated that Esquilache and his family should leave Spain, that there should only be Spaniards in the government and that the wearing of the long cape and wide hat be allowed. The priest declared that if the demands were not met the palace would be reduced to rubble in two hours.

Carlos appeared to agree with these demands, then fled the palace with his own family and that of Esquilache and sought refuge in Aranjuez. But he did nothing to solve the problem. The crowd, now thirty thousand strong, besieged the residence of Madrid’s bishop, who they kept locked up while an emissary was sent to Aranjuez.

Without returning to Madrid, the king promised to accept the demands. He dismissed Esquilache, who he made ambassador to Venice. Years later he would claim that he deserved a statue for all that he had done for the city. Maybe, but he shouldn’t have told people what to wear.

His job was taken by the Duke of Aranda, who was given the title of president of the Council of Castile. Spanish and of quieter temperament than Esquilache, he managed to pacify the rioters. One of the things he achieved was to get together with citizens’ representatives and convince them that the long cape and wide brimmed hat was the dress of the much hated verdugo, or hangman, the official executioner, and that no respectable person should wear it. Soon, the populace adopted the modern dress.

And though him, Carlos III continued his reforms until his death in 1788.

I doubt any modern day politician would attempt to legislate on dress, although any who outlawed teenagers from wearing their jeans so low to reveal their backside would get my support! There were moves in Britain to ban hooded tops from public spaces and recently the case of Trayvon Martin shot by George Zimmerman in the US because of the boy’s “suspicious behaviour” in wearing a hooded top has brought to the fore the perceived concealment of clothes and of course, there’s the on-going discussion about the concealing abayas of Moslem women

In living memory there was a time in Spain when any form of public dissent was not allowed. I have lived in countries where this is still the case. The protesters’ marches in Madrid or elsewhere will probably continue to disrupt the streets. In fact that were at it again yesterday.

I am no advocate of mob rule, but peaceful demonstration should act as a conscience for democratically elected governments. It is noteworthy that Madrileños in 1766 did not call for the head of Esquilache, just his removal from office. In this they succeeded. No government should ever disregard the views of the people it serves. It took a lot of noise and a few lamp posts damaged, but eventually Carlos III did listen to his people. In 1952 George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, said, ” Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. Perhaps our modern day politicians should go back to school.

The photographs of the present day demonstrations in Madrid are taken from the pages of 20 Minutos and credit should go to the publishers.


  1. I will read your post in full when I have a little more time, but I'm still giggling over the fact that the whole thing stems from that unshakeable oh-so-British dread of being late, something that (in my experience at least) not one Spaniard would waste a moment's worry over.

    Never mind the history of protests in Spain - did you make it to the meeting, on time or at all, and was the person you were meeting late?! Enquiring minds need to know.

  2. Enquiring minds are nosey! My "date" was not Spanish and she was on time. You are right, if the person had been Spanish I wouldn't have worried too much about the time.

  3. I suppose this all happened just before you moved to Madrid!

    1. Contrary to common opinion, I am not that old.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Dear Sir or Madam,
    Some weeks ago - on 16.4.2012 – I posted a comment and I would very much appreciate a quick status update.
    I’m looking forward to your response.
    Kind Regards,
    Malte Zeeck

  6. Your blog came up when I searched for Martin Albert Silberman as you mention him in your view of Madrid. Do you have any other information about him. I would be interested to hear what you know and see if he is the person I a searching for in my famiy

  7. Richard, for various reasons, it has been some weeks, now running to months since I have read one of your blogs and I find it very appropriate that I should choose today (Friday 13th of July…!!!) to try and play “catch-up”. On the one hand, the country is gingerly awaiting the BOE that will make official the draconian measures to be taken by the present Government to reduce the Spanish debt.
    Both yesterday and on Wednesday evening, I have listened to my Spanish friends, analyze and debate or argue the measure proposed by Sr. Rajoy. This coupled with stupid and untimely remarks by members of the Spanish and Madrid Parliaments and it seems to me that popular protest and strike action on a far larger scale than seen before is the next step. Faith in the unions has been lost as they are all perceived as being on the payroll of the system which is out to screw the populous. My ears tell me that “Los Recortes” should come first from within the system of the Government and of the banks and, that the “stolen monies” should be returned.
    I also hear talk of a “Third world war”, against the same main enemy as the previous two occasions, but this time one of economics as opposed to bullets and bombs. At the same time, protests as to why should the country have to develop and educate its young, just to send them off to work and further the growth of those who wish to become the Masters.
    Personally, the proposal that I find most distasteful is the cut of the so called Christmas Bonus – it is not a bonus, it is a calculated payment as part of a person’s annual compensation package. I know, as some years ago when working for a major international company I have been on both German and Spanish payrolls. At the time of being transferred to one or the other location, it was explained that my annual salary was so much, divided up into the following number of payments.
    We shall see what happens.

  8. So, what happened to your date?

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