NOTE.. this has been posted a day late – on May 3, sorry! But it was meant for May 2 !!
“Most of the people had nothing other than knives and sticks… Yet despite this, blind with rage and fury, some fired on the French from windows and street corners … others flung themselves on their very ranks … and still others hurled stones, pieces of furniture and kitchen utensils from the balconies, where they were joined by women armed with cauldrons of boiling water. In short, it really seemed as if there was not a single soul who was not disposed to water the streets with French blood … even if it should be at the cost of their own.”
– Jose Clemente Carnicero Torribio, Priest
On this date, May 2 in 1808, a bloody insurrection broke out in Madrid, Spain against the occupying French forces of Napoleon. The French Emperor had a very low opinion of the Spanish populace, and evidently expected them to compliantly lay down for his plans to throw out their King and place his brother on the throne of their country. But they had an even lower opinion of him and his soldiers. And like the “Allegory of the City of Madrid” by Francisco Goya above they were about to emblazon this day on his memory in a way that he would regret ever after. To use a modern allegory, Spain was about to become Napoleon’s Vietnam.
The Drift to Insurrection
The royal personages ruling Spain had degenerated from the strong rulers of the days of Ferdinand and Isabella to the likes of Charles IV, who spent most of his days hunting and devoting about 30 minutes per day to governing his Empire. His wife, Maria Luisa, whom he largely ignored had taken a soldier named Manuel Godoy (below) as a lover, and she had gotten him to the
rank of her husband’s Chief Minister. The last few Kings of Spain leading up to Charles III had been decent rulers who made reforms which had strengthened the rule of their family over Spain. But by 1808, Godoy, who by then was a widely despised dictator, had reduced Spain to a virtual client state to the expansionist French Emperor, linking Spain into a dubious alliance with France in her war against the established order in Europe.
But Napoleon wanted a stronger and more reliable ally to his south and also some way of muzzling Portugal, which was the last continental ally of his implacable foe, England. So Napoleon decided to push Charles IV aside in favor of his dissolute son Ferdinand (below), to whom he offered the hand in marriage of one of the princesses of his creation. Then, he could easily be forced to abdicate in favor of Napoleon’s own brother, Jerome. As J. Christopher Herold has put it:
“The thought that the Spanish people might offer serious resistance never entered his head. The Spanish royal family were corrupt fools and he would trick them out of their kingdom; the Spanish people was a rabble who could be ignored.”
With a mind towards setting all of this in motion, Napoleon summoned the whole worthless lot to Bayonne, a city in France near the Spanish border. But a hitch developed when Ferdinand sulkily refused to abdicate. He wanted to be King, and he wanted the wife whom Napoleon had offered.
Dos de Mayo
This was where matters stood when on May 2 –“Dos de Mayo” – 1808, a crowd had gathered at the Plaza de Oriente (below as it looks today) in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid. For some time the people of Spain had watched as thousands of French troops had poured into their country, and treated them as occupiers with arrogance and contempt. Yes, they were poor, but unlike the European peasantry with whom Napoleon had dealt before, they were free men who liked their system and their King.
The Spanish people were now seething with anger and discontent. They had grown tired of the despotism of Godoy, and were anxious about the fate of Ferdinand, whom they viewed as their “Prince Charming” unaware of what a shallow fool he was. Napoleon had ordered that the rest of the royal family be brought to Bayonne. so with the coaches waiting for them, the crowd became anxious. The arrival of so many French troops, the departure of their king, and his son, had left the populace stunned. So when the rumor spread among the crowd that the last of Charles’s sons, the six year-old Prince Francisco was throwing a tantrum and refusing to leave, the specter of the young prince’s tears drove the crowd over the boiling point, and they spontaneously attacked the French soldiers guarding the coaches. Baron Lejuene, one of the French officers describes the French reaction:
“…on May 2 our officers and men were attacked in the streets, and (Napoleon’s Marshal Murat) caused the assembly to be beaten. The French garrison rushed out and attacked the rebels.The enemy had already taken possession of the arsenal, where they seized 10,000 muskets, but our musketry fire, with the discharge of grapeshot from our guns, and the charges from our cavalry, dispersed their numerous gatherings. They then
went into houses to aim at us from the windows, but our soldiers forced open the doors and 2,000 mutineers died at the point of the bayonet. The armed peasants who flocked in from the country to take part in the revolt were pursued by our cavalry, who cut down and killed a great number.”
But the French gunfire only made the situation worse. Within a few short minutes the streets all over the city had filled with Spanish citizens who were confused and furious at what seemed like a French mission to mow them all down. Antonio Alcala Galiano described the action:
“I was getting dressed when my mother came in looking frightened. All she said to me were the words, ‘It has begun’. There was no need to say what it was she was talking about … In a moment, having got dressed anyhow, I was in the street … Scattered shots began to be heard in the distance … On all sides bands of people were beginning to come together, although they were armed in such a ridiculous fashion that they had to be crazy to think that they could do away with French soldiers.”
But the crowd was beyond thinking at this point. Jose’ Blanco White (below) described what happened when the French troops called in to quell the riots entered the city:
“In a short time after the beginning of the tumult, two or three columns of infantry entered by different gates, making themselves masters of the town. The route of the main corps lay through the Calle Mayor, where the houses, consisting of four or five storeys, afforded the inhabitants the means of wreaking their vengeance on the French without much danger from their arms. Such as had guns fired from the windows , while tiles, bricks and heavy articles of furniture were thrown by others upon the heads of the soldiers.”
The French had regained control of the city by the late afternoon, but they exacted a very heavy toll from the citizenry, conducting summary executions over that night. The scar that this inflicted upon the Spanish people was extremely deep and profound. Not only did this French brutality to the common people – immortalized in the famous painting by Goya (below) – become known all over Spain. But people all over the nation began a vicious and extremely violent guerrilla war that would go on until the French were forced to leave in 1813. But between Dos de Mayo and 1813, for five years Napoleon was forced to spend a huge amount of blood and treasure propping up his brother’s regime. Like the U.S. in Vietnam, “the Spanish Ulcer” as it has been labeled wound up being a continuous drain on his men and his economy – an organized army against an unorganized yet seemingly implacable foe – which, with British Army assistance, would eventually bleed him and his empire white.
“Peninsular Eyewitnesses: The Experience of War in Spain and Portugal 1808-1813” by Charles Esdaile, Pen & Sword Books Ltd. South Yorkshire, 2008
“The Age of Napoleon” by J. Christopher Herold, American Heritage Inc., New York, 1963