Barcelona July 1909: A City in Flames. Tragic week and the murder of Ferrer i Guardia

A hundred years ago, during the week between 25 July and 2 August 1909, a revolution was unleashed in Barcelona that has gone down in history as Tragic Week. A name given to it by the Catalan bourgeoisie, for the working class dubbed it the “July revolution” or “Week of Glory”.

The revolt grew out of an anti-militarist, pacifist action and turned into a general strike. It was called to thwart the embarkation from Barcelona’s port of reservist soldiers (soldiers who had already done their military service and now had experience and families) for Morocco. The protest turned to the torching of most of the religious schools and premises in the city, these being despised by the working class.

The toll by the end of the week stood at something like a hundred buildings burnt down, the vast majority of these were religious buildings – convents and monasteries, churches or their associated schools. The photographic record presented in La Actualidad newspaper left no doubts as to the scale of the city revolt: 33 convents burnt, 33 church schools for both sexes (the sexes were educated separately of course) and 20 churches reduced to ashes. To this day no-one can quite explain the practicalities of sometimes upwards of 50 buildings located in districts well apart going up in flames simultaneously; meaning that there were probably forty or so organised teams of citizens setting light in their respective districts to what was the starkest symbol of the country’s intellectual backwardness and temporal power, the institutions that had stopped the spread of Darwin’s ideas in the university and which systematically denounced anarchist publications as an attack on dogma or, in the case of birth control and sex education publications, as pornography.

According to contemporary reports, upwards of 30,000 people took part in these events, anonymous folk from the Barcelona middle and working class, glass-blowers, tilers, labourers and textile workers, secular schoolteachers, staff from metalworking workshops, fishermen, dockers and so on. They took on some 700 Civil Guards and troops that slowly grew in numbers until they could break the revolt. This was a bona fide revolution with no looting or theft of Church properties, contrary to the claims of the usual revisionist historians now busily engaged in devising its umpteenth version of the facts. According to the reporters who made the earliest assessments of what happened, at every convent and church the mob burnt everything it could find, including gems or investment shares, cash, paintings and altar-pieces. The idea of burning out superstition and obscurantism extended to all the contents of these buildings. By contrast, and contrary to the revolution and church burnings of 1835, the lives of the monks, priests and nuns fleeing in terror across the roofs and terraces into neighbouring terraces where they were more or less lucky to be hidden (or not) by their neighbours were spared. They escaped in ordinary dress through a series of adventures which were also recounted by the press later.

The revolt also affected a further 50 towns across Catalonia and in the instances of Granollers and Sabadell this took the form of revolution’s being declared and consistorial buildings were seized and neighbourhood councils and assemblies set up. In most towns (Badalona, San Adriá, Mataró, Manresa, Igualada, Olesa, Arenys, Palamós, Cassa de la Selva, Anglés, Reus, Valls, Vendrell, etc.) kiosks and property registers were burned and the Somatén (a civilian para-police body) was disarmed and in almost every instance rail lines were severed – to prevent the ferrying of reinforcements into Barcelona, or to prevent access by trains laden with soldiers bound for the port – and telegraph lines and communications were blown up. After which a general strike was called in every township.

But Barcelona was the heart of the feelings of outrage. This industrial, cosmopolitan city, home to the modernist entrepreneurial bourgeoisie was also the locus of working class misery. Through its mutual aid societies, nascent producer and consumer cooperatives and clandestine reorganisation of its trade unions following the cruel repression of the 1896 Montjuich trials, the working class was edging with difficulty towards trade union self-organisation which was then crystallising around the Solidaridad Obrera organisation. There a range of revolutionary trade union organisations – some 67 of them in Catalonia and 53 in Barcelona alone – had been established independently and thanks to funding supplied by the anarchist educationist Francisco Ferrer i Guardia had managed to secure premises where they might meet and mount their propaganda. Premises from which a goodly number of the initiatives of that week were to emanate but with which Ferrer himself had absolutely nothing to do in that he was far away from the city at the time. It is reckoned that some 10,600 of Barcelona’s 200,000 workers belonged to Solidaridad Obrera (estimates by Rovira I Virgili). The revolutionary José Prat reckoned that the organisation had swollen to some 15,000 members by the time of the general strike and that direct action was their mightiest weapon. Their demands were for the 8 hour working day and better economic conditions but they also pressed for improvements to quality of life – education, cultural associations, medical assistance, etc.

Simultaneously, freethought had raised its head in Europe and was making faltering progress in Spain. Freemasonry, married to campaigns in favour of secularism and republicanism, was also making headway in working class areas. All of these people (anarchists, federalists, freemasons, socialists and republicans) took part in campaigns in favour of secular burial grounds and the right to have babies and marriages entered in the civil register without reference to the Church which had a monopoly in education and Spanish moral life.

Not that working women stood aloof from all this social and cultural activity. Many of them were active in most of the workers’ societies and they were already turning up in the labour press. Most of the most active among them worked as secular teachers and they spoke out boldly in favour of coeducation and the spread of scientific rationalism. It was doubtless within the ranks of freethought and the anarchists that the women found their opportunity to act politically, to write, speak and network. That is, a civic space in which they could act and raise their profile. And here women such as Teresa Mañé, Teresa Claramunt, Ángeles López de Ayala, Amalia Domingo Soler, Belén Sárraga and many others were to display their intellectual excellence, as did many other women who became reference points and models for their fellow women.

The Catalan strikers wanted the rest of the peninsula to follow their lead and thereby ensure that the revolution would spread but reinforcements failed to arrive: quite the opposite. The revolutionaries’ thinking went unheeded since the government moved quickly to explain that what was going on in Barcelona was a separatist uprising.

The multiple grounds for the church burnings

There are several possible reasons for the triggering of the general strike and the convent burnings.

Without a doubt, the civic grievances of the working classes was one of the main factors. Since the mid-19th century, the streets of Barcelona had periodically been the scene for strikes and barricades. Back in 1835 there had been violent church burnings resulting in several deaths. Labour disputes and revolts punctuated the years between 1840 and 1850, culminating in the anarchist bombs and thunderflashes of the fin de siècle years. Some of these were genuine, others straightforward police provocations as in the obscure case of the informer Juan Rull and family which wrought havoc in working class circles in that indiscriminate round-ups were made from time to time. The famous bomb thrown in 1896 during the Corpus Christi church procession set in motion a stunning apparatus of repression that swept many innocent people into the Montjuich fortress. The 1902 strike of the metalworkers’ societies lasted for a whole week and such was the repression that the painter Ramón Casas depicted it in his work La carga.

The working class was forever lobbying for better education. Only through improved education could it boost its cultural standards and press for better jobs and wages. But since 1851 schooling had been governed by the concordat between Spain and the Vatican and to all intents the Church had a monopoly in schooling in Spain at a time when there were no laws regulating the minimum age for starting work and when boys and girls toiled in factories and workshops for poverty wages.

The efforts of the Moyano Law (1857) to get municipalities to take charge of education made no headway. In cities like Barcelona, with its periodic floods of immigrants and its strained resources, the bourgeois oligarchy had no incentive to educate its citizens.

And so the drive for education was left to the very same working class that was to try everything it could in order to educate itself and set up schools for its children. Dating back to the days of the First International, education was one of the consistent demands of the proletariat worldwide. After many scattered efforts, Ferrer i Guardia was to promote a modern, secular, co-educational model of education. In fact he had observed similar experiments in France such as the Cempuis school run by Sébastien Faure and Paul Robin. From these he was to borrow his ideas about the child’s contact with nature and cooperative work.

Besides, with his considerable personal wealth, the result of a legacy, Ferrer was to train teachers and promote a publishing house with a coherent publishing policy that was rationalist and forward-looking. In 1901 his Boletín de la Escuela Moderna appeared and by 1906 there were upwards of a thousand pupils attending 34 education centres coordinated by Ferrer. That same year the school was shut down after Ferrer was accused of being an accessory of Mateo Morral [who attempted the life of king Alfonso XIII before taking his own life].

Not that the anarchist initiative was the only one in the turbulent city; in 1907 the Catalanist city manager, Francesc Layret, suggested investing the Barcelona consistory’s surplus in the establishment of four secular, co-edcational schools for working class children. The initial expectations and plans were followed by working class indignation as Cardinal Salvador Casañas embarked upon an intensive propaganda campaign and penned two circulars opposing the schools and their blatant ‘secularism’ and ‘sexuality’. The topic was buried but the republicans felt very let down by the Church’s onslaught.

Finally, mention should be made of the members of the republican Radical party founded by Alejandro Lerroux. Made up not only of workers but also of members of the middle class or petite bourgeoisie who definitely did not want the social revolution sought by the anarchists or revolutionary syndicalists but who did want a republican state with the monarchy abolished and a state founded upon secularism and universal suffrage. According to police reports, lots of rank and file members of the Radical party were among the strikers and activists in the various districts of Barcelona. And their leaders - Sol y Ortega, the Ulled brothers, Juan Colominas Maseras, Rafael Guerra del Río and several others - were also on the streets. Only deputy Francisco Giner de los Ríos stayed at home and attended one meeting of the consistory. Plainly, in the course taken by events, there was a parting of the ways between the party rank and file and its leaders who adroitly plumped for the peaceful road with members of the Lliga Catalana, meaning the right. Even when it came to the conviction of Ferrer, the Radical party’s leadership’s performance proved an embarrassment to its grassroots followers.

For the first time ever, newspaper photography captured the nameless folk who thronged the streets. More and more papers were carrying picture reports in their pages. And so the faces of workers, women and children shared centre stage behind barricades improvised out of railway track, wooden barrels, bedsteads and paving stones in the districts around the city.

The photographs also showed the charred interiors of the religious buildings reduced to rubble. Improvised bonfires in great Gothic naves burned chairs, doors, prie-dieus, hangings and bells, all of them recalling centuries of obscurantism.

But in the unleashing of events that week had something more impressive to it: the bourgeois class’s lack of upset about the burnings and the seeming indifference also from the army as it gazed at the flames which fire-fighters made no effort to extinguish. The bourgeoisie seemed to be looking elsewhere, as eye-witness accounts of the events suggested. Some of them withdrew into their homes but others watched the show from their terraces and balconies. Actually, maybe they preferred to see monasteries burning rather than see the people’s fury directed at their own factories or properties.

Religious schools and buildings were targeted by a sort of popular alienation. The mob also attacked the hated graveyards of the convents which were right up against the backyards of Barcelona homes and offensive to hygiene and emerging standards of cleanliness. And in the cemeteries and crypts the people brought the mummies out of their tombs and paraded them through the city in a scene that was pure Buñuel. From the convents to the Ramblas and then on to the mayor’s office in the Plaza de San Jaime and on further to the palace of the Marques de Comillas, the owner of the African mines which the drafted reservists were due to defend.

At every brush with the security forces, the bearers of the coffins and mummies set down their loads, only to resume their procession after these skirmishes while street musicians and buskers played accompaniment. One mentally defective boy was accused of having danced with a mummified corpse and was sentenced to death for his pains.

The streets of Barcelona hosted a clash between two different outlooks on life: on one side, the old world, the Church, classist education, the old order, what progressives called “superstition”; and, on the opposite side of the barricades, the anarchist idea, freethought, the emerging status and independence of women, secularism, reason and Darwinism.

It would not take long for the repression to follow, a repression egged on by the Catalanist right which, from its newspaper La Veu de Catalunya sent out the sinister watchword ¡Delatad! (Turn them in!), meaning: report your neighbours, male and female, and the teachers or workers. This was a campaign that cried out for scapegoats so as to divert attention away from what really counted: the neglect and abandonment of the working class which had no legal, economic, health or social rights. Distracting the gaze of those who, out of despair, had torched buildings, monuments to inequality rather than set their sights on the bosses and the bourgeois with his modernist, luxurious lifestyle. Scapegoats like that pest Ferrer: an anarchist, an activist, backer of newspapers like La Huelga General or workers’ associations, friend to Mateo Morral, Malato and that Montseny clan, those birth-controllers and a man with a moral and intellectual freedom that made the faint-hearts and puritans green with envy, including the ones who shared his beliefs. Ferrer was the perfect victim.

Upwards of 122 secular schools wee shut down in Barcelona alone. Most of the teaching staff were arrested or banished to Alcañiz like Ferrer’s teacher friends and relations. Others opted for exile instead.

Also arrested were labour leaders, working class women. Soldiers and Civil Guards whose republican beliefs had prompted them to desert, anti-militarist bourgeois ladies who had clamoured for a general strike and a strange motley crew who had seen the city revolt as an outlet for their aspirations.

Thanks to Tragic Week the Catalanist right bounced back – specifically the men from the powerful Lliga Catalana with Verdaguer y Callis in pole position; he gave evidence against Ferrer. A summary court martial with no guaranteed rights determined the latter’s fate. Ferrer i Guardia was executed in a ditch in Montjuich fortress on 13 October 1909. A worldwide outcry condemned his execution.

And despite the repression, or because of it, Solidaridad Obrera made headway, orchestrating campaigns for the release of the prisoners or taking part in the massive funerals of the executed (photographed by the press), at rallies protesting Ferrer’s conviction and it returned to the clandestine organising of trade unions, publishing houses and schools until once more it came to represent such a significant threat that within a few years, in 1919, it had secured the 8 hour day.

History is part and parcel of the present in a perverse cycle since, one hundred years on from that July in Barcelona issues such as freedom in education, coeducation, creationism and rationalism, the impertinence with which the Church meddles in all of our private lives, the meagreness of secularism in public life and the craving for education to be part of a birthright of criticism and reflection rather than mere instruction or training are still burning issues in our daily lives.

[The author specialises in the history of social movements and her most recent book is La Semana Trágica, published by La Esfera de los Libros (Barcelona 2009)]

From: cnt, No 358, July 2009. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.