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The forgotten repression with which Napoleon wanted to subjugate Spain: “Burn the villas”



Neither peaceful nor good-natured. The French soldiers who set foot in Madrid in May 1808 did not come with roses in hand; rather they brought thorns. The events that occurred in the capital are well known, although not so much the reprisals taken by the envoy of Napoleon bonaparte, Marshal Joachim Murat, against the city in particular and the Spanish in general. And it is that, instead of calling for calm after the riots that occurred on the 2nd, he preferred to fan the flames with gasoline and distress the population with the blow of an arquebus. The clearest example was the executions of the following day, but there are others less known such as the order to burn any village that retaliated against his men.

The date of the infamy was the afternoon of May 2. That day the affront was completed at the hands of Murat. The marshal, equally haughty and jaded, signed a proclamation in which he charged against those who had risen against the French occupation. Known as the ‘repressive decree‘, the text did not beat around the bush already from its first lines:’ Soldiers. Badly advised, the populace of Madrid has risen up and has even gone as far as assassination. I well know that the Spaniards who deserve their name have lamented the disorders, and I am very far from confusing them with wretches who want nothing more than crime and pillage, but the spilled French blood cries out for revenge ».

Next, he established the consequences that the rioters would run into through a series of specific points. Articles that were disseminated in the ‘
Madrid Gazette
‘, precursor of our current Official State Gazette, on May 6. It is surprising that the text did not appear at the beginning of the publication, but on page 430, after an extensive pile of news that expressed the French victories throughout Europe. But, beyond the form, the content was brutal and made it more than clear –crystalline– that the ‘Grande Armée’ had not passed through the capital on the way to Portugal, but to conquer the country with the tacit approval of Godoy.

Caricature of Napoleon ('Working in the regeneration of Spain')
Caricature of Napoleon (‘Working in the regeneration of Spain’) – ABC

The first point of Murat’s decree established that the military commission of the general and governor Emmanuel de Grouchy he would meet that same night to make an estimate of the consequences and to establish, if necessary, more retaliation. Then the nucleus of the ordinance began: «Article II. All those who have been imprisoned with weapons during the rebellion will be harquered. The unfortunate threat materialized a few hours later, when the forces of the Battalion of Sailors, the Imperial Guard, took dozens of inmates out of the Prado Nuevo barracks and executed them in the nearby Montaña de Príncipe Pío. Needless to say, the scene was immortalized by Goya in which it was one of his most famous paintings: ‘The shootings of May 3‘.

In the third article of the manifesto, Murat ordered his men to put an end to the violence in the streets by the braves: “The Governing Board is going to order the disarming of the residents of Madrid. All the residents of the court who, after the time prohibited for exemption from this resolution, carry their weapons or keep them at home without a license will be harquered. The fourth point was reminiscent of that unwritten rule of the Franco regime, since it established that “any group that exceeds eight people will report a meeting of seditious and, as such, will be dispersed by firing squad.” Ultimately, this edict was sustained by the 65,000 Gallic fighters who settled in the capital.

“They will be burned”

One of the most controversial articles was the fifth: “Every town or village where a Frenchman is killed will be burned down.” This maxim caused the virtual destruction of towns like Chinchón. The town was beaten in December 1808 –although some authors argue that the sad events happened a year later–, when a handful of Gallic soldiers were put to the knife by the residents of the town. According to data collected by researchers such as Manolo Carrasco, when Napoleon’s high command learned of the events, they ordered a column to give an example to the city. The French shot a hundred men, no less than ten percent of the population, and burned countless buildings.

Something similar happened in Valdepeñas. In this town of Ciudad Real, the inhabitants decided to take up arms to avoid the passage of the Gallic columns towards Cádiz. The difference was that, fed up with the invader, they organized a small resistance of 2,000 men and women to defend themselves. «The battle was conceived as an ambush for the cavalry forces, which would undoubtedly be the first to enter, in the gorge of the central street, in which as soon as the Battalion of Hunters entered on the back of their fierce animals, they would fall victims of the traps that would be under their cases, hidden between the sand and the road. In the absence of rifles, all kinds of blunt objects and farm implements would be used ”, it is explained in ‘Valdepeñas: War of Independence‘.

Napoleon, in one of his most famous portraits
Napoleon, in one of his most famous portraits – ABC

Although they were surprised in the initial moments, the French organized and put an end to the Valdepeñas resistance in early June 1808. There was no mercy for the Spanish. The general Ligier-BelairCommanding the contingent, he ordered his men to load their rifles with small incendiary rockets. For several minutes, the members of the ‘Grande Armée’ threw these cruel devices on the roofs of the houses of the town. Unfortunately for the Hispanics, the smoke and flames soon made their way. Finally, the officer ordered his troops to surround the town and put an end to all those who took to the streets to escape the flames with a fixed bayonet.

The final points of Murat’s ‘repressive decree’ were for the Spaniards themselves to watch over their neighbors; a way of reaping possible riots before they happen. The masters will answer for their servants. Factory entrepreneurs, their officers. Parents, their children. The prelates of the convents, their religious. The last point directly attacked the freedom of the press and the possible leaflets that wanted to encourage the population to rise up in arms against the invader: «The authors of printed or manuscript libels that provoke sedition, those who attribute or sell them, They will be reputed agents of England, and as such they will be put to arms. ‘

If Murat was not served by his threats to prevent the Spanish peoples from revolting, the same happened with propaganda. As explained Jose Manuel Matilla on ‘Spanish prints of the War of Independence‘, the arrival of the Napoleonic army to the peninsula generated a torrent of publications against the invasion. «Basically two complementary means were used. On the one hand, the exaltation of patriotism through the narration of their own deeds that could be described as glorious in the struggle. On the other hand, the presentation of the abhorrent violence exerted against the population and the combatants ”, adds the author. Of course, there were also tons of cartoons, poems and songs that attacked, humor through, Bonaparte.

Spanish reaction

On May 2, the official reaction from Spain arrived. It was through an edict issued by the Council of Castile, the backbone of government in the early 19th century. Despite the fact that it was clear that the French armies had come to stay and that what was signed in the Treaty of Fontainebleau was more false than a wooden Royal, the authorities called for calm in the belief that the Frogs would leave Madrid not long after. If during May 2 it was an exception to see the Army in the streets –the mythical Daoíz and Velarde defended the Monteleón barracks with the help of the people–, the same happened with the warnings published after the revolt:

“Although the measures taken were able to contain the uproar of the town in the morning of this day, and the public calm has already been seen since the afternoon, other precautions should be taken to ensure that such dire events are not repeated. And for this purpose it is made known to all the inhabitants of Madrid that by no title or pretext they meet in the streets and squares; in the concept that if, warned by any Mayor of the Court or Neighborhood, or Head of the Guard, or Military Chief with a patrol of whatever rank, they do not disperse immediately, they will be treated as violators of the public tranquility, and will impose the corresponding penalties up to death ».

Calling calm and staying home was not the only recommendation. The Council of Castilla He also urged the mayors to collect “tomorrow in their respective barracks all the short edged weapons – which are known to include daggers – and firearms. Only “shotguns and long weapons permitted by the Pragmatics for self-defense” were allowed to be kept in the dwellings, although after having informed the French army of their existence. “If after the publication of this group one is found using said weapons, not only the penalty of pragmatics will be imposed, but they will also be aggravated until the last torture.”

The Council of Castile expected “the enlightenment and obedience of all the honest residents of Madrid, who will try to prevent any disorder, taking care to preserve the best good harmony with the French troops so as not to expose themselves to the fatal results.” Neither one nor the other knew what was coming. Shortly after, the uprising and repression that occurred in Madrid spread throughout the peninsula and served as an example to a people eager to stand up to the invader. What prevailed from then on was, rather, the decree signed by the mayors of Móstoles, Andrés Torrejón and Simón Hernández, on the afternoon of May 2, 1808:

«It is notorious that the French stationed in the vicinity of Madrid and within the Court, have taken the defense, over this capital town and the Spanish troops; so a lot of blood is running in Madrid at this hour. As Spaniards, it is necessary that we die for the King and for the Homeland, loving each other against some perfidious who, in the color of friendship and alliance, want to impose a heavy yoke on us, after having seized the august person of the King. Let us proceed, then, to take active measures to punish so much perfidy, going to the aid of Madrid and other towns and encouraging us, since there are no forces that prevail against those who are loyal and brave, as the Spaniards are. God save your prays for years”.

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