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Indeterminately Independent: The Volatile Autonomy of the Spanish Region of Catalonia

This is a guest post by Sonia Kahn, detailed Reference Librarian in the Geography and Map Division.

To those of us here at home and across the American diaspora, September 11th has come to be a solemn day of mourning and remembrance. However in the region of Catalonia, in the northeast of Spain, September 11th commemorates a different tragedy. Across the region, September 11th is known as La Diada, or the National Day of Catalonia, a day which remembers the defeat of Catalonian forces and the fall of the city of Barcelona to Spanish forces in 1714. This tragic event in Catalan history marked the beginning of deliberate efforts on behalf of the Spanish to obscure Catalonian law, customs, and language in favor of their Castilian counterparts. Today La Diada commemorates that fateful day by celebrating Catalonian customs and traditions. In recent times the day has become more political in nature as well, often including planned demonstrations and marches for Catalonian independence from Spain. To better understand La Diada, and the meanings it has taken on today, it is worth taking a look into the history of Catalonia, or Catalunya as it is called in the local language, Catalan.

Catalonia has long had a complicated history, often tied to its autonomous identity from the rest of Spain. Today it is considered an autonomous community within the country of Spain with certain self-governing privileges, but this has not been the case throughout history. In the early 12th century, the County of Barcelona, which included the prominent and powerful city of Barcelona, united with the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon. While under the Crown of Aragon, Barcelona along with several other Catalonian counties combined to create the Principality of Catalonia. Despite being under the Aragonian Crown, the Principality retained its own separate legal customs and even developed the Generalitat, or the government of Catalonia. The Principality flourished during this time of semi-autonomy under the Crown of Aragon, but the marriage of the King of Aragon to the Queen of Castile in the late 15th century would eventually spell trouble for the small state.

This map from 1653 shows the states under the Crown of Aragon which included the Principality of Catalonia. Les Estats de la Couronne D’Arragon. Map by S. Sanson d’Abbeville, 1653. Geography and Map Division.

The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon to Isabella I of Castile set the stage for the creation of the Spanish monarchy. Tensions developed between Catalonia and the new monarchy which came to a head during the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659). In 1640, the Principality of Catalonia revolted and declared itself an independent republic. Under French protection the republic lasted just over a decade but was eventually taken back by the Spanish. In the aftermath of the war Spain wound up ceding territory to France, including the northern Catalonian region of Roussillon. The Principality was forever marred after being divided with Roussillon becoming the modern day French department of Pyrénées-Orientales, while the remainder of the Principality would become today’s region of Catalonia. Much of the population of Pyrénées-Orientales still speaks Catalan and the region retains its historical connection by continuing to be referred to as Northern Catalonia.

This 1714 map still shows the northern region of Roussillon as part of Catalonia. Despite territorial cessations having been made in the wake of the Franco-Spanish War, borders were not formalized until several treaties were signed between France and Spain in the mid-19th century. La Principaute de Catalogne. Map by Nicholas de Fer, 1714. Geography and Map Division.

Reconquest by the Spanish during the Franco-Spanish War did not dissuade Catalonia’s desire for autonomy. In 1701 the War of the Spanish Succession broke out between two competing heirs to the throne of the Spanish Monarchy. Catalonia sided against Phillip V of Spain and paid dearly when Catalonian forces were ultimately defeated on September 11, 1714. Phillip was recognized as the new King of Spain and retaliated against Catalonia for their traitorous action. The King imposed a single Spanish administration across the nation, effectively crippling Catalonian government, legal practices, and the regional language. This act which led to the obstruction and decline of Catalonian tradition is what is commemorated annually on La Diada.

Published in 1772 this map, which is actually a jigsaw puzzle, depicts the unified state of Spain divided into provinces. If you look closely you’ll find that the region of Roussillon, depicted as part of Catalonia in the previous two maps, has become French territory. The kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, divided into their great provinces. Map printed for Robert Sayer, 1772. Geography and Map Division.

The 19th and 20th centuries continued to be difficult for Catalonia. During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, Catalonia was occupied by invading French forces. Catalonia itself was even briefly annexed to France during this period until ultimately the French retreated in 1814. Later in the century, Catalonia took off as an industrial powerhouse in Spain. The industrial age brought along with it both new worker’s movements and a resurgence of Catalonian nationalism. In 1931 tensions came to a head when pro-Republican forces managed to depose King Alfonso XIII and declared the Second Spanish Republic. With the establishment of a republic across Spain, some autonomy was returned to Catalonia. The Generalitat, which had been quashed in 1714, was reestablished allowing Catalonia to once again self-govern. However these gains for Catalonia were short-lived as the Spanish Civil War broke out just five years later. As the war came to a close in 1939, so too did Catalonia’s autonomy. The victorious Spanish nationalist forces led by Francisco Franco stripped Catalonia of any degree of sovereignty. The Generalitat was dismantled once more, and Catalonia was subjected to 40 years of dictatorship along with the rest of Spain.

This map of Catalonia was published by the Generalitat, the Catalonian Government, during its brief return to prominence in the 1930s. Created by the Department of the Economy, this map showcases regions and counties of the area. Regions I Comarques. Map by Generalitat de Catalunya, 1936. Geography and Map Division.

Franco’s death in 1975 again brought change to the region, kicking off a transition towards Spanish democracy. In the years following the collapse of the dictatorship, Spain shaped a democratic constitution which recognized several autonomous communities within the country including Catalonia. The Generalitat was restored once more, this time on a more permanent basis. One of the major measures taken as a result of the passing of the new constitution was that Catalan was recognized as an official language of the region along with Spanish. This move cannot be understated as repressing the Catalan language had long been a technique used to suppress Catalonian identity throughout history.

Produced by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1983, this map illustrates the different major ethnolinguistic groups across Spain. Notice how Catalan’s influence extends well beyond the borders of Catalonia. Spain, autonomous regions and major ethnolinguistic groups. Map by Central Intelligence Agency, 1983. Geography and Map Division.

In more recent times Catalonia has seen pushes for independence from Spain. The desire to become a free state was fiercely catalyzed in 2010 when conservative sectors of the Spanish government brought some of Catalonia’s autonomous liberties into question. Since then the independence movement has gained significant traction, culminating in 2017 when a controversial referendum was held on the question of independence. The referendum was halted by order of the Spanish judicial system after it was declared illegal but that has not stopped Catalonians from pushing for their independence. Today tensions remain high as the region tries to reconcile its past history of autonomy and repression with what its future might look like.

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