On the 2nd of May, 1808, the people of Madrid rose up against Napoleon’s soldiers, who were occupying Spain. It could have been a minor, almost forgettable event, but instead it changed not only Spain but the world so profoundly that its effects are still unfolding.
The 1800s were “saddest century in the history of Spain,” according to historian Ricardo de la Cierva. The tragedy began with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France, who dreamed of dominating all of Europe. His wars of conquest raged across the continent from 1803 to 1815.
From 1788 to March 18, 1808, Spain was ruled by King Carlos IV, a simpleton who did whatever Napoleon said, no matter how bad it was for Spain, except when he obeyed his self-serving prime minister, Godoy, which was even worse for Spain. When the heir apparent, Prince Fernando, attempted a palace coup in March 1808, Napoleon used the upheaval to justify placing his brother Joseph on Spain’s throne, and sent an army to occupy the country.
In Napoleon’s own words: “Spaniards! Your grandeur, your power is part of mine. Your monarchy is aged and it is my mission to rejuvenate it. Be filled with hope and confidence about these events because I want your descendants to remember me and say: He regenerated our country, Napoleon.”
His reforms, which included abolishing the Inquisition, gained some supporters, but they meant little to the common people of Spain. On the morning of May 2nd, as French forces were removing the last of Spain’s royal family from Madrid’s palace, a riot broke out and quickly grew.
Humble citizens rose up: day laborers, bricklayers, stable workers, prostitutes, servants, and petty criminals. With a few notable exceptions, the Spanish military stayed in their barracks because they supported the crown, whoever wore it, and aristocrats stayed home because they feared peasant revolts more than they did the French.
The rioters had few weapons, though a flower pot hurled from an upper-floor balcony could be lethal. But an unarmed rabble had no hope of success, and in barely five hours, the rebellion was over. Retaliatory French firing squads began their work that afternoon.
Madrid had 170,000 inhabitants, but only 3,000 or 4,000 took part in the uprising and about 400 died during the riot or were executed afterwards. France had 30,000 troops in Madrid, and, officially, only 31 were killed.
Author Arturo Pérez-Reverte wrote: “The 2nd of May was only a local day of terrible anger: an intifada with knives, blunderbusses, and clubs — not a day of patriotism, nationhood, and freedom. All that came later, starting on the 3rd of May and the clumsy, brutal French repression, when the whole nation rose up in arms and a war without mercy changed the history of Europe — something that those who fought and died on the 2nd of May had not even imagined.”
A painting by Francisco de Goya depicts the French retaliation: “The 3rd of May in Madrid, Firing Squads at Príncipe Pío.” The man in the white shirt, arms raised, is Martín de Ruzcabado, a quarry worker, one of 43 men shot there at dawn and buried in a mass grave.
On the 4th of May, executions continued. Anger grew. History took a new trajectory.
By the end of the month, Spain’s provinces had banded together and declared a War of Independence against “the tyrant of Europe.” Napoleon rightly thought that he could defeat Spain’s army. But he made the fatal mistake to think the Spanish population would be docile. Instead, 50,000 guerilla fighters attacked mercilessly, cutting supply lines, killing messengers, and infiltrating camps at night to slit a few throats and then disappear into the darkness. The French responded with equal cruelty.
“The fabled lion was tormented to death by a mosquito,” a French official said. France never controlled the land beyond the range of its guns and always had to watch its back. This slow, relentless drain, combined with Napoleon’s spectacular failure with the invasion of Russia in 1812, led to his defeat. “That damned war in Spain was the primary cause of all the disasters of France,” he said years later.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Wellington had landed in Portugal in 1809 and begun a steady campaign, allied with Portugal and Spain, against the French in the Iberian Peninsula. He drove them out of Spain in 1813 and eventually defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
Spain had managed to organize a government during the war that approved a radically liberal Constitution in 1812. From the beginning, the “liberals” faced implacable opposition from the “absolutists,” who supported the return of an absolute monarchy with its historic link to the Spanish Catholic Church. The monarchists won.
Fernando VII came to the throne in December 1813 and resumed the absolute monarchy. Twelve thousand pro-French families had left with Joseph I, and they included most of the intellectual and professional elite of the country. Much of the nation’s infrastructure had been destroyed or looted, and five percent of Spain’s population had died in the fighting or of hunger and illness. Disastrous economic reforms over the coming decades made the impoverished country worse — the rich richer and the poor poorer.
During the war with France, Spain also lost almost all its empire in Latin America. Ecuador declared its independence in 1809, followed by everywhere else except Cuba, which feared a slave revolt if it espoused liberty.
After the war, Spain’s absolutists persecuted and even executed liberals. Both sides were driven to increasing radicalism until the “two Spains” faced each other in 1936 in the Civil War. That split has not yet quite healed.