La semana trágica

No language can compete with Spanish when it comes to heartbreaking titles (surely you will admit that “The tragic week” isn’t up to much).

There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of tragic weeks scattered throughout the pages of history, even (or rather, not least) recent history, yet my search engine only returns results from Argentina (1919) and Spain (1909) although my search string was “tragic week” (yes, in English).

I am not going to write about Argentina’s La semana trágica, because I am more interested in another aspect of Argentinian history, the extermination of the Mapuche on the Argentinian side of the cordillera. There have been many tragic weeks for the Mapuche, not – I repeat – not 500 years ago, but towards the end of the nineteenth century, a time when most of the “civilised” world was seeing the light of humanitarianism. Alas, not so in the elevated circles of Buenos Aries. To this day a twang of haughtiness can clearly be detected in that repeatedly bankrupt metropolis.

As Pedro Cayuqueo writes in his fascinating Historia secreta mapuche: “The Argentinians, they keep saying even to this very day, are all grandchildren of gringos or Europeans”.

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s short article about the Mapuche doesn’t even mention the Argentinian extermination campaign, referred to in Wikipedia as the “conquest of the desert“. “Desert” is a misnomer, by the way, as the Pampas and Patagonia were extremely fertile, which was why they were so coveted. Still are.

No, for the moment, I am looking at Spain’s Semana trágica. Like any self-respecting tragedy, it had a prelude, an overture, as it were, one that is 300 years long – far too long. So I shall just take a cut of it, a pars pro toto: Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, who was assassinated (understandibly, if you ask me) by an anarchist in 1897. He had been passionately opposed to universal suffrage, which would, he feared, favour socialism. He served six terms as prime minister of Spain under weak Bourbon sovereigns. I quote Wikipedia:

The policies of repression and political manipulation that Cánovas made a cornerstone of his government helped foster the nationalist movements in both Catalonia and the Basque provinces and set the stage for labour unrest during the first two decades of the 20th century. as on 10 July 2023

I add, for the record, that the expression “labour unrest” in the above quote is a euphemism, if ever there was one. The violence was volcanic.

During a religious procession in 1896, in Barcelona, a bomb was thrown. Immediately three hundred men and women were arrested. Some were Anarchists, but the majority were trade unionists and Socialists. They were thrown into the notorious prison at the fortress of Montjuïc in Barcelona and tortured. After a number had been killed, or had gone insane, their cases were taken up by the liberal press of Europe, resulting in the release of a few survivors. Reputedly it was Cánovas del Castillo who ordered the torture, including the burning of the victims’ flesh, the crushing of their bones, and the cutting out of their tongues. Similar acts of brutality and barbarism had occurred during his regime in Cuba, and Canovas remained deaf to the appeals and protests of civilized conscience.


So much for the overture. Now for the actual semana tragica:

In 1909, the Spanish government sent troops of reservists over the sea to fight against Moroccans. The Spanish government, “the Crown”, considered Morocco its property – and had always considered peasants its property to do with as it saw fit. The problem was that a) Moroccans were not appreciative of Spanish ownership and that b) 520 of the peasants had already completed active duty six years earlier. Besides, they had families who depended on them.

Mind you, Morocco was a meat grinder for the Spanish malnourished, poorly armed and untrained soldiers. In 1859, 4000 Spanish soldiers had perished there, and 1893 had seen more military disasters because, of course, Moroccans fiercely defended their land. As would you and I.

A number of pious ladies saw the conscripts off from several harbours in Cataluña, handing out medallions of the Holy Mother and whatnot, but the conscripts were stony-faced as they boarded the ships. Their wives, however, were not. They were furious. How were they supposed to feed their children when their husbands were carted off? At the time, only prostitutes were allowed to work.

In 1909, once the half-starving conscripts had landed in Morocco – I am quoting Wikipedia:

a series of skirmishes over the following weeks cost the Spanish over a thousand casualties. as on 11 July 2023

Meanwhile, all Hell broke loose in Barcelona. The “tragic week”. To sum it up, there was a riot, the outcome of which was, to quote Wikipedia:

Police and army casualties were 8 dead and 124 wounded, while 104 to 150 civilians were reportedly killed. ason 11 July 2023

That’s it! That was the tragic week, the 8 dead law enforcers, and the 104 to150 civilians. Not the “over a thousand casualties” in Morocco.

You would have thought that the Spanish Crown learnt a lesson in 1909, but Spain was adamant. Spanish peasants were bled again and again in Morocco. In 1921 Spain “sufferered anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 deaths” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. A commission was set up to investigate the debacle. “The report that resulted—the Expediente Picasso—was damning. It highlighted negligible military leadership, poor troop morale and training, problematic frontline logistics shoddy equipment, and the generally pitiable state of Spain’s colonial army.”

Still, the Spanish Crown failed to learn. Quoting Encyclopedia Britannica again:

The Rif War balance sheet was striking. Official Spanish casualty figures published in the late 1920s put losses at approximately 43,500 troops killed, missing, or wounded. Moreover, estimates put Spanish war-related expenses at 3.2 billion pesetas (more than $540 million), an astronomical figure given the size of Spain’s economy at the time.

Mind you, the poor bastards dying in Morocco were not the “owners” of Morocco. The owners were all enjoying the good life back in Spain. Neither they nor their sons or grandsons had to serve in the meat grinder. They merely paid a coin or two to a couple of their peasants to replace them.

Homo sapiens has changed, of course – thank goodness! We are good, now, democratic, just, and above all, fair. Oh, and I forgot: honest.