Sunday, March 23, 2014

A History Of Migration: Mallorca

In 1405, the Kingdom of Mallorca went bankrupt. It was one of the most spectacular failures of the mediaeval depression that had brought down banks in Mallorca and on the peninsula. Kingdoms, albeit minor ones like Mallorca's, subordinate to a greater Crown, that of Aragon, didn't typically go bust even in those days. But Mallorca's did, and it was the culmination of a number of factors: tax fraud and unsustainable debt and interest repayments, a housing bubble, to which could be added the effects of wars and their financing and the legacy of the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century.

The story of the kingdom's bankruptcy is one that deserves its own treatment, if only because it is a story which highlights the fact that there is nothing that new under a Mallorcan sun. It is a story that tells of island councils - those of Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza - and their own debts, taxes imposed on meat, fish, oil and various produce as well as on the movement of people and goods, and of good old-fashioned corruption.

Of the consequences of this prolonged mediaeval recession, which in effect lasted for the whole of the second half of the fourteenth century and into the next one, there was one that didn't occur because physically and logistically it wasn't possible to occur. And that was migration. Even if it did occur, there weren't lands grassed with gold to head for; the east of the peninsula (Tarragona and Barcelona, as examples) was only slightly less of an economic basket case than Mallorca was.

Go forward some centuries, and migration had become a consequence of economic crisis. Mallorca's history, in more modern times, is one of migration. The staggering increase in the island's population from the 1960s was largely due to immigration, but emigration had been a factor decades before the island's demographics were to be changed utterly by mass tourism and competitively priced new apartments and villas which attracted foreign owners.

Between 1860 and 1887, there was an earlier population boom. It wasn't one caused by migration but by human biology, and of an increase of 40,000 people over that period, over three-quarters of them were inhabitants of the "part forana", i.e. they weren't inhabitants of Palma, and as they were living in the sticks, this meant that they were mainly engaged in agriculture.

There were various responses to this population boom, one of which was the establishment of the "colonies" (Sant Pere, Sant Jordi, for instance), which were designed to alleviate strains on living space and to cultivate new land to feed this increasing population. But though this boom might have been considered a positive, it was to prove to be anything but, as various factors conspired to make it a negative. In 1889, things came to a head. There was a farming crisis, brought about by successive poor harvests, disease which decimated the pig population, unfairly low wages and even less fair taxes. Over the next few years, there were to be further blows. One was the destruction of vineyards by phylloxera in 1891. Another was the loss of overseas markets in Cuba and Puerto Rico because of their wars of independence.

These were to exacerbate the crisis that had become evident in 1889 and which was partly the consequence of the previous population boom in the "part forana". Poverty was appalling, jobs were disappearing, families couldn't be fed and the Guardia Civil had to intervene, such as in Pollensa, where there were riots. The town hall in Pollensa was, by then, already aware of a potential solution. In June 1888, it raised the possibility of the provincial authority making resources available for people to emigrate. By 1889, this emigration drive was in full swing, assisted by emigration agents from Argentina and Chile and by subsidised or assisted travel and low interest rates provided by the governments of those two countries.

Rather like the bankruptcy of the Kingdom of Mallorca deserves its own detailed treatment, so also does the story of this mass emigration to South America. It was one of the movement of some 5,000 people and of a scandal of appalling conditions that they encountered on their journeys. It wasn't, though, the only story of migration. There were others, such as to Algeria, and it wasn't a story that had an even impact across the island. Pollensa, Manacor, Sant Joan, Felanitx were among the towns which lost relatively more people than others.

Depression, recession, crisis, call it what you will, it has the same consequence. History repeats itself. In the late nineteenth century, the Mallorcan migrants were part of the 70,000 Spaniards who left for South America. In last year alone, 125,000 Spaniards headed abroad. Of Balearics citizens, the number who now reside overseas is 24,600; this figure rose by 10.4% last year.

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