September 10th, 1714. The city of Barcelona has been besieged for 413 days by troops loyal to Spanish King Felipe V. Throughout that time, those in the Catalan capital were kept trapped within the historic walls of their town, significantly outnumbered (5,000 troops to the 40,000 who would eventually surround them) and subject to various internal conflicts; but, led by conseller en cap, Rafael Casanova, they refused to surrender.
How had it come to this? In 1700, just before his 39th birthday, the king of Castille (the largest kingdom in Iberia at the time, encompassing all of modern-day Spain except Aragon, Catalunya and Valencia), Charles II of Hapsburg, died heirless, having named his French great-nephew Philippe de Bourbon as successor, and cousin Archduke Charles of Austria as alternative successor.
The leading European powers of the time quickly divided into two groups: on one side were Britain, the Netherlands, Austria and the Catalan-Aragonese crown who supported Charles (driven by the desire to prevent France and the Bourbons, widely regarded as despotic, getting their hands on the Spanish empire); in turn, the French and Castille were all for Philippe. The latter was actually named Felipe V in 1700, but in 1702 a tussle over Spanish lands in Europe turned into the War of Spanish Succession between the two sides.
However, by 1713, Catalunya was holding out alone against Felipe’s troops. Britain had dramatically switched sides, secretly neogtiating with the French for strategic territory (Gibraltar and Menorca) and trade advantages with the Americas, and subsequently withdrew its troops from Catalunya. Gradually all the other protagonists also reached agreement—why did Catalunya hold out? Catalans had seen Felipe suppress the laws of both Valencia and Aragon and impose language restrictions, a fate they sought to avoid.
But as the sole remaining opposition to Felipe as king, the Bourbon might proved too strong and Barcelona fell on September 11th. Felipe’s response to the Catalan defiance was as forceful as elsewhere: the king abolished laws and institutions and banned the public use of Catalan. What had once been an independent nation, and significant Mediterranean power, was absorbed into a newly-enlarged Spanish kingdom.
Today, September 11th (la diada) is celebrated enthusiastically by Catalans remembering what was lost after the defeat of 1714, rather than the defeat itself, but has also become a day to debate the future of Catalunya and catalanisme. There are those for whom independence is the objective, and each year there is a march by those seeking that aim: in 2007, about 8,000 people participated in the Barcelona demo, including members of Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and the Maulets, who take their name from Valencian Archduke Charles’s supporters in the War of Succession. And in the run-up to the diada last year, ERC proposed a referendum in 2014 on the subject of independence, trying to encourage a greater debate on the subject. Anti-Spanish feelings can run high on September 11th amongst this sector: a singer who performed entirely in Castilian at the official 2005 celebration found herself being booed by part of the audience, while last year images of the current Spanish king were burnt in Girona.
But for many, it is more an exercise in defending the culture and language of Catalunya, and ensuring a firm position of self-government rather than full independence. La Comissió 11 de Setembre is a group of organisations, led by Omnium Cultural, which seeks to encourage a greater celebration of the diada amongst Catalan society. Created in 2000, the Comissió co-ordinates a ‘Festa per la llibertat’ (Festival for freedom) on September 11th each year, offering a variety of activities.
So as Catalunya marks its national day once again this month, people will be considering the future while remembering the past.
- Comissió 11 de Setembre: www.11setembre.cat (updated 14th Sept 2009 in response to comment from Jennifer)
- Omnium Cultural: www.omnium.cat
First published September 1st 2008.