Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Myth of an Historical Independent Catalonia

Myth of an Historical Independent Catalonia

by Sean Jobst
24 October 2017

Una región entre muchas

The separatists are promoting a myth of an "independent" Catalonia that never existed. Genuine self-determination movements receive my sympathy, but not phony movements pushed by privileged elites who make up historical myths whilst making common cause with foreign interests. Such is the case with the current Catalan independence movement.

The earliest time there was a "Catalonia" was as part of la Marcha Hispánica (the Spanish March), established by the Franks as a defensive buffer zone in 795 between their Carolingian Kingdom and Moorish-occupied Iberia. But even in this region the population was quite diverse, also including Aragonese, Basques, Visigoths and other non-Catalans.

Under the Franks, the Catalans became culturally close to the Occitans of Southern France. The noble family of Barcelona, the Berenguers, were related to that of Provence. Nevertheless, the region was a part of the Iberian Peninsula in both spirit and reality, joining with other Iberian regions in that la Reconquista. In 1137, Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, married the Queen of Aragón, Petronilla. Thus was combined the Berenguers with the Jiménez dynasty of Aragón.

Catalonia was thereafter indistinguishable from the Crown of Aragón, which combined the regions of Catalonia, Aragon, Murcia and Valencia. It was this combined Corona de Aragón that expanded into the Mediterranean, conquering the Islas Baleares, Corsica, Sardinia, and southern half of the Italian Peninsula. Even the modern Catalan flag was based on that of Aragón, so doesn't represent some mythological independent Catalonia of the past.

So contrary to their own hypocritical narrative of Catalonia "oppressed" by an "imperialist" Spain, many Catalan nationalists actually look nostalgically to this time when their composite monarchy with Aragón presided over an empire of their own. This includes waxing irredentist dreams about reclaiming "Els Països Catalans". In fact, it was the role of Catalan merchants and the imperial policies of their composite monarchy that led to the growth of the anti-Spanish Leyenda Negra (Black Legend) within Italy, according to the Swedish scholar Sverker Arnoldsson:

"The intervention of Spanish monarchs and their soldiery - their victories and conquest in Sicily, Sardinia, and the Italian Peninsula - is certainly one of the important factors in explanation of the oldest Italian version of the Leyenda Negra. In all this, there is rooted the image of the hidalgo as a rustic, uncultured human type, barbarous and ridiculously ceremonious. Another factor is the competition of Catalan merchants with Italians, as well as Catalan piracy in Greek and Italian waters. Here is the basis for the view of the Catalan as treacherous, avaricious, and unscrupulous. A third factor is the migration of Spanish strumpets to Italy and observation of certain customs in the Aragonese-Neapolitan court; and also, the atmosphere around the Valencian Pope Alexander Borgia. In these things, there is founded the image of the excessively sensual and immoral Spaniard."(Sverker Arnoldsson, The Black Legend: A Study of its Origins, Göteborg, Sweden: Göteborgs Universitets Årsskrift, LXVI, No. 3, 1960, pp. 22-23; quoted in Philip Wayne Powell, Tree of Hate, New York/London: Basic Books, 1971, pp. 40-41)


As the empire was later inherited by the united Crowns of Castilla and Aragón which encompassed all of modern España, it would be the policies of the "imperialist" Castilians that changed Italian perceptions of Spaniards, after the negative perceptions arising from a swarm of Catalan merchants that flooded into the Italian Peninsula. We have to know this history to truly challenge the myths of Catalan nationalists, who use Castilla as archetype for their aspersions upon Spanish history - much like they rant against the proverbial "Madrid" nowadays. This is quite ironic, because these merchants were among the historic 300 elite families of Catalonia that include many modern leaders of the Catalan independence movement.

"Until the opening of the sixteenth century, these antagonistic views of Spaniards referred mainly to Catalans, Aragonese, and Valencians, who constituted almost exclusively the Spanish presence in Italy. But after 1500 Castile more and more entered into the Italian scene and during the course of the Cinquecento it became leader of politico-military action in Italy, defender of Italy against Moslems, and, near midcentury, acknowledged leader of Roman Catholicism against the Protestant Revolt. Thus, Italian views of Spaniards, in the main antagonistic, were increasingly fashioned by observance of the Castilian as the 'true' Spanish type." (Philip Wayne Powell, Tree of Hate: Propaganda and Prejudice Affecting United States Relation with the Hispanic World, New York/London: Basic Books, 1971, p. 41)

The Myth of 1714

Its no surprise that Catalan independence advocates generally date the alleged end of "independent" Catalonia to the abolition of the Corona de Aragón by the Nueva Planta decrees of 1716, following what they date as their "lost" in 1714. An example of this was an article written by six pro-independence Catalans, "Give Catalonia its freedom to vote" (The Independent, 10 October 2014), which drew comparisons with American Revolutionaries of 1776. Calculated to score sympathetic points among Americans, but nevertheless a false comparison.

The truth about the War of the Spanish Succession is far different. When Carlos II died without a male heir in 1700, the Spanish Crown was claimed by the Hapsburgs of Austria through Archduke Charles and the Bourbons of France through Philip of Anjou. The war pitted various European rivals against each other, as well as rival Spanish factions that supported one or the other foreign claimants. Initially, the principality of Catalonia supported the Bourbon side enthusiastically. But after the local merchant families felt threatened by French merchants, they switched allegiance to the Hapsburgs.

Thus, it was a mostly economic event and had nothing to do with asserting an independent Catalonia. The war was not one of Catalans versus the other regions, but rather a political conflict about foreign monarchs succeeding to the Throne of all Spain. In case of victory, the monarch supported by Catalan elites would have assumed the Spanish Throne and not a separate Catalan kingdom. But despite the alleged "lost", the aftermath of the war actually increased the economic fortunes of this Catalan elite.

What About the War of the Reapers?

A historical backdrop to the modern claims of Catalonia being "overburdened" by taxes compared to the rest of Spain, can be found in the burdens of empire itself. Spain inherited the Italian empire of the Aragonese-Catalan composite monarchy, and so too the burdens of that empire more than what was borne by the Catalan merchant elite. "It is sometimes overlooked, too, that Castile bore a greater burden of taxation than the Italians for empire upkeep and defense of Italy against the Moslems. Thus, Spain, as in the case of the New World taxation, bled herself more than her overseas possessions for imperial maintenance" (Powell, op. cit., p. 42).

Despite the Catalan national anthem "Els Segadors" (The Reapers) being based upon it, the Catalan separatists have surprisingly not evoked the War of the Reapers (Guerra dels Segadors) of 1640 as much as citing 1714 as their year of "lost independence". Its my contention this is because that event highlights the same myths about taxes currently used by those separatists. The revolt occurred after Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares and chief minister of Rey Felipe IV, tried to distribute more evently the huge economic and military burden of Empire then supported mainly by the Crown of Castilla. One can see obvious parallels here with current myths of Catalonia being unfairly "taxed" more than any other region of Spain, ignoring the large tax burdens upon Madrid and Basque regions; as well as the fact of Catalonia having more control over its finances than other regions.

Its ironic this chapter of history isn't evoked more, for it led to the establishment of a short-lived Catalan Republic under the auspices of the French in 1641. Why don't the Catalan separatists speak against the historical complicity of their revolutionary heroes in the French occupation of some "Els Països Catalans" and only agitate against España? Successive generations of Catalan nationalists looked to a liberal France for inspiration, even while many of these French revolutionaries centralized the State against even regional languages such as Catalan. Even during the Ancien Régime, Louis XIV in a 1700 decree stated how he found use of Catalan "repugnant" and "offensive" to the honor of a centralized French identity. Modern Catalan nationalists bat not an eyelid about the suppression of their Catalan-speaking brothers across the Pyrenees, while enjoying official and privileged status in their province doesn't prevent their agitation against Spain.

Catalan Independence and the 300 Families

Ironically, given their staged ranting about an "imperialist" Spain "oppressing" Catalonia from Madrid, it was Catalan commercial interests that pushed the most for Spain to cling onto its disintegrating empire throughout the 19th century. This empire was a serious drain upon Spain's economy, while these Catalan merchant interests profited immensely. These are known within Catalonia as the 300 families, which traditionally run the region in conglomerate fashion.

These 300 families have had influence within Catalonia at least as far back as 1311, and genealogists have documented these families still dominate Catalonia. One Spanish blogger has traced their links to political Catalanism and the Generalitat that is currently pushing for independence. Historically, it was these families, such as the well-known Bacardis, involved in the slavery and sugar-trade within the Spanish colonial possessions. Throughout the 19th-century, their clout dictated economic policies of all Spain to the financial ruin and detriment of the masses. These aristocratic merchant families were especially bitter after Spain lost its colonial possessions, seeing it as a challenge to their profits.

Its no coincidence this coincided with the rise of political Catalanism, viewing the Catalans as a special nation separate from the rest of Spain. This manifested in the past to looking towards foreign inspiration - French liberal ideas, and later Communism and an alliance with Soviet Russia. This only increased their sense of "superiority" vis-à-vis the more traditionalist Spain. At least the rank and file, for at the top it was mostly pushed by these pro-business interests. Its no accident each agitation for Catalan independence occurs whenever leaders such as Jordi Pujol, Artur Mas or Carles Puigdemont are being investigated for corruption.

There's clearly more than meets the eye when it comes to the simplistic narrative of "oppressed" Catalonia "milked" by a jealous Spain. History challenges their myths; their own statements and expressions betray an arrogance and sense of "superiority" against other Spaniards. The timing of their independence pushes indicate ulterior, selfish financial motives - no higher ideal except what they can manipulate from a sizable minority (not even a majority, it must be stressed) of the Catalan population....The manipulation of history is a very powerful psycho-political tool.

The two aren't exclusionary, despite the lies of the mythmakers

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