Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Spirit Of Soller: Es Firó

It's one of Mallorca big fiesta days out tomorrow: one of the biggest in fact. Es Firó is how it's known in Soller. Many will just refer to it as the Moors and Christians, the grandest battle simulation between the two sides that Mallorca has to offer: grander than Pollensa in August because of its scope and length.

An aspect of both these battle re-creations is that neither of the original battles, in the overall scheme of things, was particularly special or important. Pollensa was in 1550, Soller 1561, and in the sixteenth century there were any number of attacks on Mallorca from different sources - north African saracens and eastern Mediterranean Turks among them. They can be classified as attacks by corsairs (or pirates), though such a classification can downplay any military and strategic element.

Why, given that there were repeated assaults, have the battles of Pollensa and Soller assumed such significance? In the case of Soller, and to a lesser extent Pollensa, a reason lies with the amount of documentary evidence. While there is some legend attached to the story (not least the role of the "Valents Dones" - the brave women), much of the re-creation is fairly true to what happened, even if the time of the day when the assault was launched has been altered (the landing was around four in the morning).

The events were written down. There was one report by the town hall's scribe, a second by the notary, Antoni Morell, and a third which was sent to King Felipe II. The commemoration of what took place on 11 May, 1561 was first established in 1615, but it wasn't to be until 1855 that a mock battle was staged. In the meantime, there was - in the eighteenth century - a "reinterpretation" of events by the community at Sant Bartomeu church and then, in 1833, a further embellishment by Franciscan monks. Through a process of redaction, therefore, the basis for the simulation was arrived at.

In isolation, the attack on Soller has gone down in history as a story of defiant bravery by the people of Soller, aided by units from other villages, against the invaders. And in isolation is how it tends to be considered, as is also the case with Pollensa. Missing is the back story.

Mallorca and the Balearics were of strategic importance. For the Ottomans, some control (never established) would have assisted in disrupting Spain's trade routes, while Spain was on their wider agenda of war against Christianity. Ottoman expansion and so the "Turkish menace" was to reach its limits in the later sixteenth century, but at the time of the attacks on both Pollensa and Soller, that menace remained real enough.

Some days before Soller was attacked in 1561, the Viceroy of Mallorca, Guillem de Rocafull, had sent two ships to launch attacks on the Algerian coast against pirates. This didn't achieve a great deal. By 10 May, there were 23 Turkish ships by Ibiza under the command of Uluj Ali, a one-time Italian galley slave who had converted to Islam and had risen through the ranks to join Turgut Reis (Dragut), the supreme commander of the Ottoman navy and the Moorish protagonist in the attack on Pollensa.

The viceroy knew they were coming to Mallorca but he was unsure where. The captains of the local villages were put on alert: those of Alaro and Bunyola were to come to Soller's aid. There would have obviously been great anxiety. Though Mallorca suffered its attacks, it had experienced nothing like the siege of Ciutadella in Menorca in 1558. The town was eventually sacked and well over 3,000 people were taken and sold into slavery in Istanbul.

Above the documentary evidence and the historical facts and legends of the attack, there is a further reason for the Soller battle having assumed the significance that it has, and that is the role of the people of Soller down the years. 1561 has remained a strong part of Soller identity, the Valents Dones having been described as characterising more than ever the spirit of Soller - a most authentic love for the homeland (that of the town).

Like Pollensa, the battle celebration went through its years of decline and was revived in the 1970s. In 1977, in an act of the fraternal bonding of two towns whose pasts are so associated with the heroic deeds of the sixteenth century, the Pollensa writer, Miquel Bota Totxo, closely linked with that town's cultural revival, gave the opening address for Es Firó. "It has a sense of immeasurable brotherhood ... rooted in the depths of the soul." It is more than just a fiesta.

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