Bartomeu Robert i Yarzábal (Tampico, 1842 – Barcelona, 1902) was an unusual character. Commonly known as Doctor Robert, he turned local politics in Barcelona on its head for the seven months that he led the City Council, a period that culminated in the mayor indignantly shutting the cashboxes and encouraging taxpayers to stop paying their dues to Madrid.
The case of Doctor Robert is unique and exceptional. Never has a mayor of Barcelona left such a deep mark on the city and in such a short time. He devoted himself to politics for only the last three years of his life, but in just seven months as mayor of Barcelona, this honest, measured, pragmatic man of medicine, who students at the Medical School remembered as “the calm lecturer”, took the city’s political and social context in a completely new direction.
After an irreproachable career in science that stretched over almost 30 years, Doctor Robert – Catalan on his father’s side, Mexican by birth and with his roots in Sitges – had become a popular name in the world of medicine. He had followed in the family footsteps to become a doctor and after a brilliant career as a physician and lecturer, he set himself up as the reformer of medical teaching and practice in Catalonia in the final quarter of the 19th century. At the same time, he was also a committed citizen of Barcelona, a member or chairman of numerous civic, cultural and scientific organisations in the city.
However, the impact of the crumbling of the Spanish Empire in 1898 (the loss of the Imperio’s last overseas colonies) with the resulting political withdrawal of the Spanish state and its ultimate confinement within its peninsular borders, led him to discover Catalan nationalism. This sudden political awareness would turn him into an atypical pioneer of Catalan nationalism and, as a result, lead him to make his outrage about centralism public, as mayor of Barcelona.
Shortly after the military defeat, in November 1898, Robert, as a member of the general public, noticed the hardening of the centralist policies of the government in Madrid. He was one of the individuals who signed a message endorsed by a number of Catalan financial and cultural institutions and addressed to Queen Regent Maria Christina, asking for “broad administrative decentralisation”. This was clearly an unexpectedly severe criticism of Madrid’s central government system, issued by a group of citizens that also asked for the state to be regionalised. With this unique political background and his professional prestige and reputation for civic-mindedness, honesty and altruism gained during three decades as a practising physician, Doctor Robert was appointed mayor by royal decree on 14 March 1899. It was an unprecedented event in the history of Barcelona, particularly as he was a novice in the world of politics. A section of the Madrid press, in irritation, asserted that this Barcelona doctor was a “separatist”.
To top it all, the central government headed by Prime Minister Silvela-Polavieja had just been formed with the support of the minister for grace and justice, the prestigious lawyer from Barcelona, Manuel Duran i Bas, promising to carry out a process of regeneration and decentralisation. Doctor Robert was to play a major role in this: his term as mayor only lasted seven months, but it was intense and controversial and unexpectedly eventful. When the new mayor heard of the discriminatory tax and budget proposals forwarded by the minister for the public treasury, Fernández Villaverde, he hit the roof. He was outraged, not just as a mayor, but as a citizen: Madrid’s impositions and push for centralisation seemed to him like a frontal attack on Barcelona.
Doctor Robert, inexperienced and with no well-defined political profile, was bitterly disappointed. First of all, he could not understand it. A few days after being sworn in, he set himself the goal of fighting “on moral grounds” against this drive for centralisation that he considered completely unjust and to free Barcelona from the local political chiefs in Madrid. Robert was outraged and put out a call to the public to stop paying taxes. In the blink of an eye, he turned the whole system upside down and got the taxpayers of Barcelona to declare a state of civil disobedience. This was an unprecedented historic event.
The call met with an unexpected level of successful and dissemination. Dozens of traders, particularly shopkeepers, joined the movement, as well as a sufficient number of small-scale industrialists, who also were committed to withholding their tax payments. The intransigence of the Madrid authorities drove the outraged citizens to radicalise their position, which in September 1899 culminated in a tax strike and an absolute refusal to pay local property taxes, just as the mayor had wanted: what became known as the tancament de caixes (shutting the cashboxes). This unexpectedly turned Doctor Robert into the most popular political figure in Catalonia.
In the midst of the conflict (a significant political and social upheaval, with the businesses, shops and smaller factories of Barcelona committed to suspending payment of their taxes to Madrid) Doctor Robert, instead of shrinking away, continued to give his unconditional support to the guilds involved in the revolt. That was even more unusual and surprising. From his mayoral office, this forerunner of the Indignados or Outraged movement tried to halt and hinder the central government’s coercive and repressive measures with all manner of crafty political and administrative moves.
Doctor Robert’s tug of war with Madrid reached an unsustainable point and on 22 October, he tendered his resignation for reasons of civil dignity and consistency with his ideals. The exceptional nature of this gesture created a wave of support and tributes around the city – a degree of public backing never seen before which, along with his own fleeting experience as mayor, unexpectedly put him right in the middle of a Catalan nationalist movement that was just beginning to grow.
In the rebellious wake of the shutting of the cashboxes that he had caused, this spokesman for the famous protest of Barcelona was chosen to be member of parliament for the Regionalist League almost immediately afterwards. Indeed, he was the most voted-for member in the Barcelona constituency, but he was also the visible leader of an historic turnaround because he represented the reclaiming of largely hijacked rights through popular suffrage. The former mayor headed the political birth of Catalan nationalism in the Spanish Parliament. In Madrid, they did not know what to make of it.
Two days after taking up his post, on 17 July 1901, Doctor Robert made his first speech in response to the message from the Crown. The Spanish parliamentarians were bewildered. Nonetheless, his debut was a success, contrary to what was expected. His skill and elegance as an orator and his didacticism, both firm and conciliatory, earned him the respect of the House. This newcomer, with all the ease in the world, had just normalised the presence of Catalan nationalism in Spanish parliamentary life.
In November 1901 he was chosen to lead the 20th century’s first major debate on the “Catalan issue”. Didactic, serene and calm, he called for something rather surprising; for a model of the state as an organisation of autonomous regions. He used a phrase that astounded the House: the purpose of this model was so that “in Catalonia, we may govern ourselves”.
On 10 April 1902, his sudden death from a heart attack turned Doctor Robert into a legend; a pioneer of a peaceful, honest and courageous way of doing politics. It won him lasting public recognition and earned him a spectacular monument, currently located at the Plaça de Tetuan in Barcelona.