Dos de Mayo

The city of Madrid is going on a binge of ceremonies, events and exhibitions this week to mark the 200th anniversary of an event simply known as “Dos de Mayo”, which the experts generally agree marked the beginning of modern Spanish history. On May 2nd, 1808, some 4,000 members of the lowest classes in Madrid rose up in a spontaneous act of fury against Napoleon’s troops under the command of Marshal Joachim Murat, who had led his men into the city on March 23rd, four days after Carlos IV had been forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Fernando VII. It was the belief that the French were about to kidnap Fernando VII, still called the Infante (Crown Prince), that brought the mob to the Palacio Real early on that May morning. By 11 am, the mobs were running wild throughout the city, armed with old shotguns, knives, bricks and boiling oil, anything they could lay their hands on, and were taking on the Mamelukes, dragoons and Polish contingents unleashed by Murat to quell them. Meanwhile, the majority of the Spanish troops in the city remained in their barracks. By 2 pm, the French troops had the mobs on the run. Hundreds had died during the few hours the skirmishes had lasted but Murat decided to teach the madrileños a lesson and summarily executed 41 of the captured rebels at several points in the city – executions that Goya would make famous in his painting Dos de Mayo. The French had actually crossed the Pyrenees in February but it was the events in Madrid on May 2nd that started what is known as the War of Independence here in Spain, and the Peninsular War (1808-14) in Britain. The conflict had actually begun the previous year, when Portugal refused to comply with Napoleon’s Continental System. As a result French troops under Marshal Junot occupied Portugal in November 2007. Hoping to appease Napoleon, Spain had secretly agreed to support him but that wasn’t enough for the man who intended to conquer Europe – from the British Isles to the farthest reaches of Russia. On the pretext that he was sending reinforcements to Junot, large numbers of French troops had entered Spain and seized Pamplona and Barcelona in February 1808. For the next six years, France took on Britain, Portugal, Spanish regulars, and Spanish guerrillas throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Napoleon dubbed called the war his “Spanish ulcer”, and attributed his defeat in Europe to its incessant demands for men and money. On the other side, it was a rare period of real cooperation between Britain and Spain, as Wellington advanced from Portugal with the aid of Spanish guerrillas who represented the country’s patriotic spirit. The regular army wasn’t much use because its generals belonged to the “possessing classes”, who believed the French would bring modernisation to Spain. Meanwhile Napoleon forced Fernando VII to abdicate in June – he had been king for just under three months – and he became a rallying cry for those who opposed the French. He would bitterly disappoint his people after his return on 1814, when he proceeded to dismantle all the reforms introduced under what is known as the Constitution of Cadiz. In 1812, the Cortes (Parliament) met in Cadiz to the legitimise the situation created by Ferdinand’s absence. It was dominated by liberals who looked to the French revolution – but not French domination – for inspiration. The constitution they worked out envisaged a strictly limited monarchy, with the king working through his ministers rather than by direct rule: a single-chamber Parliament with no special representation for the Church or the nobility, and a modern centralised administrative system based on provinces and municipalities. In a fit of anti-clericalism, it also abolished the Inquisition. It was a very advanced constitution for its time, and while Fernando did his best to abolish it and the liberalism that had inspired it, its spirit would hover over Spain for the next century and a quarter – dividing the Spanish people into progressives (liberals) and reactionaries (conservatives) in an increasingly violent ideological war that would culminate in the Civil War in 1936. The conservatives, as represented by Franco, won that particular round – although the ideological war never really ended. It went underground during the long years of the Franco dictatorship, to resurface briefly after his death in November 1975, until the newly legalised political parties decided to put the good of the country and its people above their different ideologies. This “self-repression” – aka political maturity – has worked so far, and will continue to work as long as the politicians recognise that the Spanish people want a democratic system that will never allow a minority to impose its will on the majority ever again. The last general election confirmed the consolidation of the two-party system in Spain and proved once again that the common people usually have more sense than the politicians who claim to represent them.


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