Cabrera island and castle

One really fine day this summer, with almost no wind, we were invited by our friends, Pedro and Yolanda Rueda, to spend a day with them at sea and we decided to do the crossing to Cabrera, the national park island in the Baleric archipelago. It’s a really beautiful spot where, if you snorkel or dive, you can see all kinds of fish, turtles, and even dolphins. In fact, on the day we visited, on the way back, we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins, with their young, for a few minutes while sailing between Cabrera and Conejera island.

Cabrera, of course, has a history all of its own and plenty of stories to tell.

It’s an island that has been used since antiquity by sailors, as there is a bay hidden at its heart that protects boats, and has done for centuries. Pliny refers to it in his “Natural History”, written during the rule of Vespasian (Natural History III, 7), and both Punic and Roman vessels have been found in its depths. The existence of a paleo-Christian monastery, dating from 398, is also documented, and remains have been found in the area known as Clot des Guix. It was a monastery, and its monks, referred to by Pope Gregory I in his Epistle XIII, 47, although not with the greatest precision, it has to be said: “…we have news that the monks at the monastery found on the island of Capria, situated close to Maiorica, which is also an island, have dedicated their lives to various crimes, which demonstrates that, more than serving God, although it pains us to say so, they fight him on the side of his eternal enemy…”

The castle was built at the end of the 15th century and, today, it still stands tall overlooking the entrance to the port, and was constructed the aim of defending the site from the invasions of the Sarracens who repeatedly attacked Mallorca at the time. It’s worth bearing in mind that it would still be 100 years before the Catholic Monarchs won back the keys to the Alhambra in Granada and, with that, ensure the removal of the Moors from Spanish territory.

In the photos, you can see the incredible views you get from the castle, as well as a few details of its defensive mechanisms, including, among others, the access staircase which only allows one person to climb at a time. Thanks to this staircase, the security of the inhabitants was greatly enhanced, in case of attack or siege. It really is a truly lovely place.

Thereafter, there’s not a lot to say about the island or the castle until the start of the 19th century, almost 400 years later.

During the era of the Spanish War of Independence against the French, the battle of Bailen took place on July 19, 1808. After the Spanish victory, when the French troops under General Dupont capitulated to the Spaniards under the command of General Castaños, between 6-13,000 soldiers – the figures vary according to whom you believe – were taken prisoner and sent, first, to Cadiz, where they were held on ships in the bay and also in surrounding villages, with the original idea of sending them back to France.

But Arthur Wellesley, who would soon become the Duke of Wellington, and Admiral Collingwood, both of whom were in charge of the Spanish forces, despite being British, were afraid that if they returned to France, the soldiers would simply re-enlist in the Imperial Army, so following orders from Britain’s politicians, they sent some by sea to Mallorca and others to the Canary Islands, with the support of the Count of Villael, who was Governor of Cadiz, at that time.

Before arriving in Mallorca, the Count of Ayamans, the Governor of the Balearic islands and a member of the Supreme Central and Governing Junta of the Kingdom, which had been set up in Seville under the leadership of the Count of Floridablanca, had been informed of the sickness and epidemias raging aboard the prison ships and, afraid that these could infect the local population, denied permission to disembark in Mallorca. In negotiations with the authorities on the Peninsula, he accepted to receive them in his domain on the condition that young Mallorcan men would not be conscripted for the war, which was granted, and he offered Menorca’s Lazareto island, instead, for them to be housed and treated. The English, however, who were still occupying what had been, until very recently, a crown possession, steadfastly refused to let them disembark there.

Finally, on March 29, 1809, the prison convoy set sail from Cadiz. A few prisoners were bound for Menorca, others were exchanged for Spanish captives, but most of them ended up on Cabrera. Some 7,000 French troops were held captive there from the middle of 1809 and when they were set free on May 16, 1814, after having spent five years in truly inhumane conditions, just 3,600 remained alive.

There are two very good books worth reading that tell the story of this human drama, which took place during trying times for Spain, with crude realism. Spain had three kings: one who had sold out to the French, Fernando VII; another imposed by the French, Jose I; and a third, Carlos IV, the father of the first of these, who was held captive by the French. The country was in anarchy and its generals regularly pillaged the treasury. At the time, there was a graffito which explained the situation perfectly: “Spain’s war is the death of its soldiers, the ruin of its officers, and the fortune of its generals.”

The books were written by, respectively, two French journalists, Pierre Pellissier and Jérôme Phelipeau, “1.809 – 1.814 Les grognards de Cabrera” , translated in Spanish by Victor Claudín, as: “1.809 – 1.814 La agonía de los franceses de Cabrera” and by Gabriel Froger, recounting the memoirs of a French soldier, Sebastian Boulerot, which was published in Paris in 1849, as: “Souvenirs de l’Empire: les Cabrériens, épisode de la Guerre d’Espagne”.  The latter has been translated more recently, in October 2010, by Laura García Gámiz, with the title: “Cuando el padre nos olvida. Los prisioneros de Cabrera en la Guerra de Independencia (1.808 – 1.814)”.

Soon after these events, the island passed into private hands, and the Feliu family owned it until 1916. In that year, during the First World War, the Spanish government and armed forces were informed that a German submarine, which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian fleet, had spent a night there, and received food and information. As a result, the government, which had remained neutral, faced with strong protests from the British, decided to expropriate and it has remained the state’s property ever since. Today, it is a magnificent natural park that’s really worth visiting.

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  1. 18 June, 2020

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