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Monday, 2 May 2016

When Madrid Fought Back Against "French Muslims"

Dos de Mayo (Second of May)
One of the most important dates in Spanish history is the 2nd of May. This is because of events that took place in Madrid 208 years ago this very day, driven by Napoleon's ambition and disregard for the wishes of the Spanish people. The event has been immortalized in this great painting by Francisco Goya.

Spain, as one of the most conservative European states, naturally opposed the French Revolution, but as one of the most backward states, it also found itself in a weak position militarily, and so ended up vacillating between compliance and opposition to French demands. In 1795, following military setbacks, Spain entered an alliance with France, but was never happy in this position, especially after the British naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) cut it off from its overseas empire.

The king of Spain, Charles IV, was largely uninterested in affairs of state and left the running of the country to his Prime Minister, Manuel Godoy. This neglect of his duties seemed to fan the ambitions of his first born son, Ferdinand, who felt he could do better. As the focus of opposition to the king and Godoy who were technically in the French camp, Ferdinand veered towards the British side.

Following Trafalgar, Spain was cut off from its colonies leading to an economic downturn. This increased opposition to the king and led to a riot and mutiny in March 1808, which resulted in the king abdicating in favour of his son. Napoleon, rather than accept a coup that clearly favoured the British, invited father and son to Bayonne in France under the pretense of resolving the dispute, then imprisoned both and and made them renounce the Spanish throne in favour of his elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte.

100,000 French troops were already in the country due to the alliance between France and Spain. More French troops now poured across the border. Under the command of Joachim Murat, they occupied the capital Madrid on the 23rd of March. Murat was concerned that there would be an uprising with Charles's other son, Francisco, as the figurehead, so he ordered him to leave Madrid and travel to Bayonne.

A large crowd gathered in front of the Royal Palace to show their support for the prince and their opposition to the French. Tactlessly, one of the units the French deployed to maintain order was the Mameluke cavalry, Turkic Muslim soldiers from Egypt that Napoleon had included in his army largely to reinforce his image of being an absolute monarch, like the Sultan of Turkey.

The Spaniards, with their long history of fighting the Moors, did not take kindly to the presence of Muslim soldiers on their streets so the situation rapidly deteriorated into street fighting between the Mamelukles and the Spanish populace. This provided the subject for the Goya's "Dos de Mayo" (2nd of May) and its companion painting "Tres de Mayo" (3rd of May), which shows the execution of  Spanish civilians by the French.

Using the violence shown in the paintings, the French were able to suppress the uprising and reassert control of the capital, but in the process they alienated the Spanish people and ensured that they would resist the French in what was to be a long, grim struggle, characterized by guerrilla warfare and brutality. This struggle was to drain French strength in the years ahead, and, with intervention by the British, contributed greatly to Napoleon's defeat.

Tres de Mayo

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