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History of Barcelona

Barcelona has emerged from a spotty history. With Castilian kings pumping cannonballs over the city walls and anarchists disagreeing on which shoulder to hang their rifles, the city shrank in the shadow of greater cities and powers for centuries.

Though founded around 230 BC, likely by the Carthaginians, and invaded by the Visigoths and then the Muslims, the history of the city, in a sense, only truly began after armies from what is now France pushed back the Muslims in 801 AD. At the time, the plains and mountains to the northwest and north of Barcelona were populated by the people who by then could be identified as 'Catalans' (although surviving documentary references to the term only date to the 10th century). Catalan's closest linguistic relative today is the langue d'oc, the old language of southern France.

Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia

In the 12th century, Catalunya grew rich on pickings from the fall of the Muslim caliphate of Córdoba. The Catalans managed to keep their creative forces alight through to the 14th century, when Barcelona ruled a mini-empire including Sicily, Malta, Sardinia, Valencia, the Balearics, the French regions of Rousillon and Cerdagne and parts of Greece. But by the 15th century, devastated by the plague, spectacular bank crashes, and the Genoese squeezing their markets, the empire ran out of steam. While the Catalans may have hoped that union with the kingdom of Castile would pump cash back into the coffers and vitality onto the streets, heirs to the crowns of Castile and Aragón were more interested in juicing Catalunya to finance their own imperial ambitions.

A 1462 rebellion against King Joan II ended in a siege in 1473 that devastated the city. Barcelona was more or less annexed into the Castilian state, but was excluded from the plundering of the Americas that brought fantastic riches to 16th-century Castile. By now, the peasants had started to revolt. Disaffected Catalans resorted to arms a number of times, and the last revolt, during the War of the Spanish Succession, saw Catalunya siding with Britain and Austria against Felipe V, the French contender for the Spanish throne. That was their undoing. Barcelona fell in 1714 after another shocking siege, and as well as banning the Catalan language, Felipe built a huge fort, the Ciutadella, to watch over his ungrateful subjects in town.

After 1778 Catalunya was permitted to trade with America, and the region's fortunes gradually turned around. Spain's first industrial revolution, based on cotton, was launched there, and other industries based on wine, cork and iron also developed. By the 1830s, the European Romantic movement virtually rescued Catalan culture and language just as it was in danger of disappearing. The Catalan Renaixença, or Renaissance, was a crusade led by poets and writers to popularise the people's language. A fervent nationalist movement sprang up around the same time, and was embraced by all parties of the political spectrum.

Sculptures on the roof of La Pedrera
Sculptures on the roof of La Pedrera

The decades around the turn of the century were a fast ride, with anarchists, Republicans, bourgeois regionalists, gangsters, police terrorists, political gunmen called pistoleros and centrists in Madrid all clamouring for a slice of the action. This followed an explosion in Barcelona's population - from around 115,000 in 1800 to more than half a million by 1900, then over a million by 1930 - as workers flocked in for industrial jobs. As many as 80% of the city's workers embraced the anarchist CNT by the end of WWI, and industrial relations hit an all-time low during a wave of strikes in 1919-20 when employers hired assassins to kill union leaders.

Within days of Spain's Second Republic forming in 1931, Catalan nationalists declared a republic within an 'Iberian Federation'. Catalunya briefly gained genuine autonomy after the leftist Popular Front won the February 1936 Spanish general election, and for nearly a year revolutionary anarchists and the POUM (the Workers Marxist Unification Party) ran the town. Get 10 anarchists in a room, though, and you'll have 11 political opinions; in May 1937 infighting between communists, anarchists and the POUM broke out into street fighting for three days, killing at least 1500 people.

Old 'Muralla de Mar'
Old "Muralla de Mar"

The Republican effort across Spain was troubled by similar infighting, which destroyed any chance they may have had of defeating Franco's fascist militia. Barcelona, the last stronghold of the Republicans, fell to Franco's forces in January 1939, and the war ended a few months later. Rather than submitting to Franco, thousands of Catalans fled across the border to France, Andorra and farther afield.

Franco wasted no time in banning Catalan and flooding the region with impoverished immigrants from Andalucía in the vain hope that the pesky Catalans, with their continual movements for independence, would be swamped. But the plan soured somewhat when the migrants' children and grandchildren turned out to be more Catalan than the Catalans. Franco even banned one of the Catalans' joyful expressions of national unity, the sardana, a public circle dance.

But they'd barely turned the last sods on El Supremo's grave when Catalunya burst out again in an effort to recreate itself as a nation. Catalan was revived with a vengeance, the Generalitat, or local parliament, was reinstated, and today, people gather all over town several times a week to dance the sardana. While there's still talk of independence, it remains just that - talk. Barcelona is its country's most happening town, and seems set to stay that way.