Tuesday, December 12, 2017

General Weyler And His Square

In December one hundred and twenty years ago there was a peculiar demonstration in Palma. It was organised by Mallorca's shoemaking businessmen. The targets for their protest were twofold. One was the concession of autonomy to Cuba. The other was General Valeriano Weyler.

The shoemakers hadn't really got it right. Weyler was responsible for autonomy not because he granted it - he was in no position to do so, he was a military man and not a member of the Spanish government - but because he had contributed to the government's need to change tack in Cuba.

The name of Weyler, perhaps oddly given today's prevailing politics and social attitudes, is one that lives on. He has a square named after him in Palma - the Plaza Weyler in which the Grand Hotel, now CaixaForum, was built at the start of the twentieth century. There are other Weyler squares. There is one in S'Arracó (Andratx), for example.

There isn't, however, the same desire to remove memories of a colonial past as there is with the more recent history of Franco. And Weyler, moreover, was from Palma: Can Weyler in the calle Pau is considered to be one of the finest examples of civilian Gothic architecture in the city. He was born in 1838 and lived to the grand age of 92, dying shortly before the Republic was declared. He would surely have disapproved of that.

Ten days before the shoemakers made their feelings known - an autonomous Cuba wasn't of great benefit to them, not least because it would mean a slump in military demand for boots - the town hall in Palma changed the name of two squares (Truyols and Teatre) and created the Plaza Weyler, which is close by the Teatre Principal. The town hall, very different to today's, wished to honour this great general and son of the city.

Six days later (28 November, 1897), Weyler returned to Palma. He arrived on the steamship Bellver. It was noted that he was accompanied by a reporter from El Áncora, a religious newspaper of the era. On disembarking, the general paid tribute to Mallorcan conservatives and supporters of empire.

In truth, Weyler wasn't the returning hero. The Spanish government had relieved him of the command of Cuba during the Cuban War of Independence. Rebel forces defeated the Spanish in various encounters in 1897. It was these which forced the government to reconsider their tactics. And there was also the issue of the "reconcentración".

It is arguable whether Weyler originated the notion of the concentration camp, and in fact the thinking in Cuba wasn't to incarcerate the enemy but to keep innocent civilians alive and safe from the rebels. The policy was to go spectacularly wrong. The rebels then created their own camps. It has been estimated that ten per cent of the island's population died because of the appalling conditions. There were also the dead from warfare.

Weyler and Spain's policy in Cuba had already been under intense scrutiny by the foreign press, especially America's. With the island in ever greater chaos, the USS Maine was sent to Havana with the intention of protecting US citizens. It was sunk, allegedly by a mine. The upshot was the Spanish-American War. Cuba was lost to Spain forever.

Into the story entered a famous newspaper owner. William Randolph Hearst, who was to later inspire Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, was instrumental in what became known as "yellow journalism". It was an equivalent of tabloid journalism and indeed fake news, all designed to inflame emotions. Atrocities by the Spanish were high on the list. Yellow journalism was to exaggerate what happened in Cuba, but it wasn't all false by any means. The Americans dubbed him "Butcher Weyler".

For all this, Weyler was a steadfast believer in maintaining constitutional status quo as much as law and order. He would have disapproved of the Republic, but he certainly disapproved of the first dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera. He was imprisoned for a time, even though he was by then into his eighties. As such, and despite events in Cuba, there is perhaps justification in today's political and social attitudes granting his memory some sympathy.

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