Anarchy and repression in Barcelona at the end of the 19th century

24 November, 2016 | Barcelona People, Unknown City

On Sunday 7 June, 1896, an Octava de Corpus procession was held in Barcelona. Around 9.15 pm, when the entourage was in C/ Canvis Nous on the way back from the Santa Maria del Mar temple and passing C/ Arenes dels Canvis, an Orsini bomb was thrown from a roof terrace and exploded. Twelve people died and fifty others were injured. The ensuing investigation to find the attacker turned into a huge campaign of repression against the working classes and against anarchism in particular. Hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned, and five innocent men were executed. The judicial and political process surrounding the events went down in history and became known as the The Montjuïc Process.

The identity of the attacker was never actually conclusively established, but Montjuïc Castle became an unhealthy prison and a place of torture for hundreds of people, most of whom had done nothing except belong to the workers’ movement or the anarchist collective. What became known as the Canvis Nous attack was the third and final large attack by anarchists in Barcelona between 1893 and 1896. Although it seems they weren’t intended as such, the attacks were against the three ‘enemies’ of anarchism: the army, the bourgeoisie and the church. The three attacks against General Martínez Campos, El Liceu and C/ Canvis Nous were not the only ones at the end of the 19th century. Between 1884 and 1900 a total of sixty bombings resulted in thirty eight deaths.

To grasp what was behind this conflict, we need to look at what society was like in that period. There were huge inequalities between workers and upper classes. The bourgeois classes lived an easy, fun and even frivolous life, the ultimate icon for which was El Liceu, where well-to-do classes pursued luxury recreation which was a far cry from the everyday life of most of the population. Workers were poor, illiteracy was very common and there was hardly any prospect of progressing.
Furthermore, most people lived in crowded and unhealthy housing. Many families lived cooped up in a single space where they did everything: cooking, eating, washing, sleeping, all in a single room where they lived with their partners and children, and often with other relatives. Children started their working life between the ages of eight and ten, and life expectancy was low.

While Barcelona was a dynamic and restless city, which was growing via an expansive and disorganised urban planning model with notable social contradictions, Spain was still an agricultural country, at war with Cuba and embarking on another armed conflict in the Philippines. Catalonia was also going through the phylloxera plague, but its society was starting to mobilise to protest against abusive tariffs, to celebrate the first day of May and to promote an incipient pro-Catalan spirit.

This context, according to the historian Antoni Dalmau, curator of the exhibition El procés de Montjuïc. Anarquisme i repressió a la Barcelona de finals del segle XIX [The Montjuïc Process. Anarchy and Repression in Barcelona at the end of the 19th Century]: “Made for a potentially explosive social base, which went hand in hand with the regenerational aspirations of workers’ associations, of athenaeums and popular establishments, of the Claverian movement, the anarchist press…”. Dalmau uses the exhibition to explain: “At the start of the final decade of the 19th century, the workers’ movement, mainly libertarian, moved towards the tactic of general strikes. However, the brutal response from the oligarchic governments of the Restoration radicalised their postures, feeding the theses of groups in favour of violent action”.

Within the space of two months, in 1893, Barcelona experienced two serious attacks. The one in the Gran Via and the one in El Liceu. On 24 September, a military stall was set up in the Gran Via as part of activities organised for La Mercè, the city’s annual festival. One of the soldiers present was the Captain-General of Catalonia, Arsenio Martínez Campos, and at a given moment the anarchist Paulí Pallàs threw two Orsini bombs at the feet of the General’s horse. Martínez Campos survived, but another person was killed and sixteen were injured. Pallàs made no attempt to flee and the police arrested him immediately. He was judged, sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad at Montjuïc Castle on 6 October, less than a fortnight after the attack. Despite his confession, the police sought accomplices and, without any evidence, arrested, judged and sentenced six innocent people to death, executing them by firing squad on 21 May 1894.

On 7 November, 1893, a new opera season began at El Liceu with a performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Shortly after the second act started, the anarchist Santiago Salvador Franch threw two Orsini bombs from the fifth tier of the theatre into the stalls. Although the second bomb didn’t go off, twenty people were killed and twenty seven injured. Salvador watched the results of his action unroll from the outside of theatre for a while before fleeing. He was detained by police in Zaragoza on 1 January 1894. He was tried and condemned to death, being executed by garrote vil in the courtyard of the Amàlia prison on 21 November 1894. The police repression led to the detention of at least 415 people in all. Of the attacks at the time, this one was the one which is best known, thanks to the novel by Ignasi Agustí Mariona Rebull, which was also adapted for film and television.

The attack in C/ Canvis Nous during the Corpus Christi procession came within three years of these two attacks. Although the identity of the attacker was never discovered, the police carried out a string of detentions among anarchist groups and, to a lesser extent, among freethinkers and republicans. There was also a total clampdown on workers’ centres and anarchist journals. Antoni Dalmau, who has studied these events at length, asserts that many of those arrested: “Would remain in prison for months on end without being interrogated: 558 of them gave statements which were documented, including fifteen women, but the real figure could be somewhere around a thousand”.

Montjuïc Castle was the prison where detainees were taken. According to Dalmau: “The conditions at the prison were degrading. Prisoners found themselves locked in damp and dirty dungeons, full of rats and flies, with flea-ridden sleeping mats”. The historian affirms: “Given the impossibility of finding those responsible for the attack, somebody decided to come up with a script and point to someone as being guilty. To do that, and to extract the necessary confessions and statements from them, torture was regularly carried out as from 4 August”. The process resulted in five death sentences for the alleged attackers and temporal punishment for accomplices. The other sixty two defendants were absolved. The process also resulted in a hundred a ninety four so-called extrañamientos del Reino [banishment from the kingdom], with eight foreigners also being exiled.

What went on inside the castle didn’t reach the public domain until months afterwards. Thanks to one of the prisoners who was able to leave, details gradually emerged and there was an international campaign to condemn the events, calling for the case to be revised. Finally, a pardon for prisoners and exiles was the only achievement, which came in 1900. The torturers were eight military men belonging to the Guardia Civil corps and were paid according to instructions from the Captain-General.

Montjuïc Castle is offering the exhibition El procés de Montjuïc. Anarquisme i repressió a la Barcelona de finals del segle XIX with the aim of telling the story of the dramatic chapter in the city’s history, which is not well-known. The exhibition is on until 28 February 2017.

Photo captions: The moment one of the bombs thrown by Santiago Salvador exploded in the stalls of El Liceu, on 7 November 1893. Drawing by Pau Febrés Yll – City of Barcelona Historical Archive. | Workers weighing cotton bales at the Port of Barcelona. The Santa Maria del Mar temple can be seen in the background. Author: Frederic Ballell. Photographic Archive of Barcelona. | Reproduction of an Orsini bomb on display at the exhibition. | Reproduction of the bomb exploding during the attack on General Martínez Campos at the exhibition. | Files of some of the detainees, exhibited in display cases at the exhibition. | Execution by garrot vil of Santiago Salvador at the Pati dels Corders. Drawing by Pau Febrés Yll – City of Barcelona Historical Archive. | Firing squad execution at Montjuïc of five anarchist workers accused of the attack in C/ Canvis Nous. Drawing by Joan Pellicer Montseny – City of Barcelona Historical Archive. | Prisoners pardoned in 1900. Supplement from La Revista Blanca, 19 May, 1900. Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular.