the dark history of barcelona

(Last Updated On: February 14, 2021)

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It’s no secret that Barcelona is one of the hottest spots on the planet in terms of tourism.  Its mild, Mediterranean climate draws in crowds by the tens of millions. That’s right – in 2017, Barcelona had 32 million tourists.  For a little perspective, the population of Barcelona is just under 2 million people. And if the crowds in the city begin to irk you a bit, have no fear, you can make your escape with a day trip from Barcelona.

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What many of these tourists are unaware of, however, is that behind the sunshine, tapas, beaches and sangria, a dark history lurks in the shadows of the looming buildings and Gothic cathedrals.  Cue eerie music.

a brief history

Barcelona is one of the largest cities that exist in Spain today.  I am not going to turn this into a political post, but it is actually the capital of Catalonia – a region of Spain that has been formally seeking autonomy since 2017.  

Barcelona (also known as Barna) was founded during the rule of King Augustus.  It soon became a pivotal point of royal affairs for the Roman Empire. In 713, Barcelona also became a part of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba

In the 19th century, the evolution of the city took a turn, as Barcelona began to establish itself as an industrial city.  Barcelona was originally known as a city whose economic growth was dependent on agricultural business, but the industrial revolution brought significant changes. And, as we all know, with change comes resistance.  

Barcelona, a city that is now synonymous with a rich, colorful culture and breathtaking historical monuments, has a past that has been kept concealed.  The dark history of Barcelona is not highlighted in the Rick Steves’ books or travel guides. This leaves (most of) its tourists oblivious to some of the horrific events that transpired there.

the spanish inquisition

Much of Barcelona’s dark history stems from the Spanish Inquisition.  The Inquisition was an attempt by the Christian Catholic church to purge the country from members of other faiths.  This was particularly true for the Jewish community, who were seen as a threat to the monarchy. The entire premise on which the Inquisition was set further divided the community. This caused an even greater rift between Christians and non-Christians.  

As a way of purifying Spain of heretics, the government took extreme actions against those they deemed dissidents.  The expulsion and number of executions of non-Christians that took place in Spain tripled as time passed.

The exact numbers of victims during that time remain unknown. Scholars estimate anywhere between 3,000 into the millions – I know, pretty wide gap.  Public executions and penalties became the norm for the city of Barcelona.

abhorrent, yet widely accepted

With the Vatican backing their actions, the Inquisitors were able to punish and torture heretics and traitors, and be absolved of their own actions. The blame lie with the accused.  The Inquisitors were just doing their jobs. Sound familiar…? 

One of the reasons that the tortures occurring during this dark period in history were known to be so abhorrent is that it was a rule that no blood could be shed during torture.  This encouraged a certain sense of… creativity.

One popular method of torture was the strappado – picture the torture of William Wallace in Braveheart.  To start, the accused’s hands were tied behind his back and then suspended by his wrists, dislocating his shoulders.  As someone with chronic shoulder issues, my body hurts at the mere thought of this. To increase the pain, torturers added pressure and weights in order to further stretch the body into a type of morbid silly-putty.  Obviously this type of torture resulted in a quicker death than most.

The series of public murders and trials carried on until 1843, when these practices were eventually suppressed, and finally abolished. Think about that, though – the 1800’s weren’t all that long ago!

This period of Spain’s dark history, while taught in history classes worldwide, seems to be forgotten among many of the tourists that visit Barcelona each year.

torture tactics

People have been using torture to extract information since the beginning of time.  Despite not being very effective, it was one of the most widely-used tools during the Inquisition.  Isn’t religion fun?  

The Inquisitors knew that people would say anything under duress. Sometimes, after an initial round of torture, the accused would have the opportunity to review his recorded confession.  He then had two options: ratify or retract. Most of the time, retractions simply resulted in additional rounds of torture.

methods of torture

ducking stool

The premise was to teach women a lesson for disobeying their husbands. They would strap a woman into a chair, rendering her immobile. They would then ‘dunk’ her into the water until she’d learned her lesson.  

OK, not as morbid as the shit that went down in Barcelona – a funny reenactment in St. George, Bermuda!

boiling water

Another way the torturers would punish the accused was with the help of boiling water. The torturers would force the accused to put their heads into a boiling cauldron. This inevitably led to death.

branding

The accused was branded with a hot iron. When it cooled down, it would render a permanent scar, forever labeling the individual with his or her alleged transgression. 

garrote

This interesting contraption was used to block the airways of the accused for them to confess their sins. The chain or the scarf around the neck of the accused was tightened slowly to push them to the edge.

the garrote

public executions

Executions, specifically public executions, were a major part of Barcelona’s dark history. Public executions were seen as a learning experience for the rest of the community. The executioners believed that others would not repeat the same mistake as the accused.

Executions were most certainly at the center of the Spanish Inquisition. People of the entire community would gather around to witness the deaths of their fellow citizens.

methods of execution

Guillotine

The guillotine is probably the most highlighted tool of punishment that everyone is familiar with. The tool was used to behead the accused in front of masses of people who’d gathered to see the event. 

Burning Alive

Sometimes, the guards would create pyres and make a spectacle of burning people alive. The echoes of their pain-filled screams were considered to be an eye-opening lesson for the others present. 

Starvation

This, although might seem like the less painful way of execution, put it was the most intense. Prisoners or accused were left without a drop of water or bread to eat for days. The prisoner would slowly embrace the reality and succumb to his or her death. Their screams for food were met with nothing but silence. 

Judas Cradle

This method of execution is mostly mentioned in reference to the Spanish inquisition. According to this method, the accused would be hanged above the pointed pyramid and would slowly be lowered impaling them. Often the victim would not actually die from the Judas Cradle. Instead, the effects of untreated infections wound up being their demise. The pointed pyramid was rarely, if ever, cleaned.

barcelona slave trade

Some of Barcelona’s most awe-inspiring monuments did not come without cost – often at the expense of peoples’ lives.  Two of the most popular tourist attractions in particular, Palau and Parc Güell, are among them.  That’s right – the bright colors, trencadís, helicoids and catenoids, and overall dream-like aesthetics of some of Antoni Gaudí’s most popular creations were funded by the Barcelona slave trade.

Though slavery in Barcelona had existed since the birth of the city, the number of voyages and volume of slaves quickly accelerated during the 19th century Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Traders made their money overseas, in Spanish colonies like Cuba where slavery was rampant, but spent it back in Barcelona. This money enabled them to buy their way into the city’s bourgeoisie and fund its unique architecture.

key players in the Barcelona slave trade

Antonio López, a captain of industry and shipping magnate, was a key player.  In fact, a statue once graced a square in the city, named in his honour. A notorious slave trader, López poured a huge amount of tainted money into Barcelona. He also had prominent connections to Joan Güell and Antoni Gaudí.  Thanks to his involvement in slave trafficking, he founded the Banco Hispano Colonial, the Companyia General de Tabacs de Filipines and the Companya Translatlantica del Vapor.

making progress

A statue of Antonio López was erected by the central Via Laietana avenue one year after his death.  People constantly defaced the statue with red paint in acts of protest. For years, citizens of Barcelona and several social platforms had petitioned to have the statue removed.  Finally, on March 4 2018, public outcry had the statue removed. This happened amid an environment of festivities, with fireworks and performers, organized by the Barcelona City Council and executed by the Comediants troupe.

photo c/o Barcelona City Hall

Although the statue has been removed, the square in which Barcelona’s primary post office is located is still named after López.  Many organizations continue to fight to rename the square.

spanish civil war

what was it?

The Spanish Civil war began in response to the abolition of the monarchy and subsequent establishment of a democratically-elected government in 1936.  It began when Nationalist generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco staged an uprising, attempting to overthrow the new administration. The Spanish Civil War was the most bloodshed Europe had seen since WWI ended in 1918.

Almost immediately, both sides (the Nationalist rebels and the Republic) requested foreign aid.  France and Great Britain both declined the request from the Republic. The Nationalists requested aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy – and both countries granted the request of the rebels. 

An ominous precursor to the battle between democracy and fascism that would take place during WWII, the Spanish Civil War quickly proved to be a breeding ground for mass brutality. Most of these atrocities were executed by militants eager to expunge the opposition. Roughly half a million people lost their lives in the war.  Of these, about half died as the result of organized murder, mob violence, torture, or some other form of atrocity. 

the white terror

This period of brutality in the Spanish Civil War was so bad that it earned its own name – the White Terror.  Rape, public humiliation, concentration camps, forced labor and executions were the norm during this period. After Nationalist forces overran much of Northern Spain, Catalonia became a key Republican stronghold.  This didn’t last long, however, and rebel forces soon overtook Barcelona.  

As a tourist wandering around cheery, bright Barcelona, it’s near-impossible to imagine the atrocities that once occurred here.  At the top of La Rambla, a street now so saturated with tourists it’s difficult to breathe, was where some of the first shots of the Spanish Civil War were fired.  Or a mega-huge Apple store that had once been the Communist Headquarters, complete with adorning pictures of Lenin and Stalin. In Plaça Sant Felip Neri, tourists wander around, completely oblivious to the shrapnel marks decorating the exterior facade of the surrounding buildings.

So, the next time you find yourself in the Catalonian capital, take a closer look at your surroundings and use your imagination. And try not to have too many nightmares!

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