Catalonia confronts past racism after slave trade documentary

Programme highlights fact that much of 19th-century wealth was built on the back of transatlantic practice

The government of Catalonia has said the wealthy Spanish region must confront “the past racism” of its slave-trading history, after a documentary revealed how Catalan industrialists and seafarers profited from the transatlantic slave trade when the British abolished the practice in 1807.

It has long been acknowledged that many Catalan fortunes – including that of Antonio Gaudí’s patron Eusebi Güell – were made on the back of slave labour in the tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations of Cuba and, to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico.

Far less well known is the fact that Catalan magnates and mariners spent decades growing rich from slavery after filling the void left by Britain’s decision to abolish slavery and exit the trade.

A hard-hitting documentary, Negrers: La Catalunya Esclavista (Slavers: Catalonia and the Slave Trade), which was shown on Catalan public television last month, aims to redress the balance.

It shines a light on what historians have been demonstrating for decades: that between 1817 and 1867, Catalans were directly or indirectly involved in the transportation of 700,000 slaves from west Africa to the Caribbean and that the trade financed much of the industrialisation of Catalonia and the 19th-century building boom in Barcelona.

Although Spain soon followed Britain in abolishing slavery – in word if not in deed – it turned a blind eye when the clandestine trade continued, much of it on ships owned and crewed by Catalans.

By then, independence movements in the Americas had reduced the Spanish empire to little more than Cuba and Puerto Rico, where the demand for sugar led to the spread of plantations and the need for labour – slave labour. At the same time, Catalonia needed capital to industrialise, capital that was often invested in the hugely profitable slave trade.

Two centuries later, a growing number of public figures and historians believe it is time that Spain – and Catalonia in particular – face up to their colonial past for the sake of the present.

“We have to confront this past racism in order to confront racism now, because normalising it in the past amounts to normalising it now,” said Tània Verge, the Catalan minister of equality and feminism. “As a nation we have a debt that we all have to pay.”

According to Gustau Nerín, an anthropologist specialising in Spain’s colonial history, the discussion has been building for a while. “The mere fact that this documentary was broadcast on Catalan TV shows that there is a willingness to discuss the issue,” he said.

The sentiment was echoed by Beatriz Silva Gallardo, a Catalan socialist MP who also argues that Catalan nationalists can no longer attempt to claim the moral high ground by suggesting the region played a minimal role in Spain’s colonial and mercantile past.

“I think a majority of Catalans believe it’s time to deal with this but the nationalist reaction to the documentary on social media has been hostile,” she said. “The problem with nationalism is this assertion that we’ve always been the good guys. No people are always the good guys.”

Nationalists like to distance themselves from Spain and its past. In 2012, Quim Torra, the Catalan president from 2018 to 2020, wrote that “Spaniards know only how to plunder”, and claimed Spaniards had long since removed the word “shame” from the dictionary.

His predecessor Jordi Pujol, the president from 1980 to 2003, once described people from Andalucía in southern Spain as “inconsistent and anarchic”.

Martín Rodrigo Alharilla, a professor of contemporary history at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and the author of several books on the Spanish slave trade, has estimated that in this period the profits varied from $2,600 to $10,000 a slave at today’s prices. As many as 1,000 slaves would be transported on a single voyage.

When Cuba abolished slavery in 1886 and in due course won its independence from Spain, many of those who had made their fortunes there, known as indianos, returned to Catalonia and invested some of their wealth in the fabulous modernista mansions in Barcelona and in coastal towns such as Sitges and Vilassar de Mar.

“When you walk down La Rambla in Barcelona, remember that it’s built on the backs of slaves,” said Michael Zeuske, a historian at the University of Bonn and an authority on the Atlantic slave trade.

This is an exaggeration, but the names mentioned in the documentary sound like a roll call of the great and good of Catalan society, including Artur Mas, the Catalan president from 2010 to 2016, whose great-great-grandfather was a major player in the slave trade.

An effigy of another of Mas’s slave-trading ancestors, nicknamed El Pigat, is paraded at the annual festival in Vilassar de Mar, Mas’s home town, and is celebrated as the mascot of the town.

But if Catalonia and Spain are to face up to this shameful chapter, what would that entail? The immediate victims are long dead and their descendants are in Cuba. Should there be a process of naming and shaming as Silva, who was born in Chile, said happened in the period after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship?

Verge says the Catalan government is developing an antiracism action plan and a law designed to eradicate social, structural and institutional racism.

As a first step, in 2018 Barcelona removed a statue of Antonio López, marquis of Comillas, one of Spain’s most notorious slavers, and renamed the square where it stood after Idrissa Diallo, a Guinean migrant who died in a local internment centre.

“When we talk about reparations people think we mean money but it’s about changing structures and transforming society, otherwise this talk of equality is just a coat of varnish,” said Ténzul Zamora, an anti-racism activist in the city.

“We can’t start to talk about equality unless we have a debate so that people like me enjoy the same visibility as everyone else. People keep asking me and my daughter where we’re from. We’re Catalans, but we have to justify who we are.”

Zamora added: “What is the roadmap to arrive at equality? Because fine words won’t change anything. Change happens when everyone’s on the same page and everyone can look each other in the eye.”


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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