Saturday, 8 March 2008

Dia de la Reconquista de Vigo

"Dia de la Reconquista deVigo" - "The day of the Reconquest of Vigo"

On March 28th of each year, Vigo celebrates its reconquest against French Napoleonic Forces in the city’s historic old quarter 'Casco Vello'.

I have found very little on this subject written in English and what I have found is usually not more than a paragraph. Below is my attempt to address this problem and learn a little something during the process. This is my account of the Reconquista de Vigo.

The Napoleonic War, which had begun back in 1803, was now in full swing. Napoleon was attempting to enforce a European commercial boycott against Britain called the "Continental System". However Portugal would not comply so with the support of Spain, Napoleon sent an army to invade. Now this is where things get tricky as Spain had already asked Portugal to form an alliance against the encroaching Napoleonic Forces but secretly agreed with France that in return for its assistance be granted territories. Spain then after the capture of Lisbon, broke from the "Continental System" thereby rocking its alliance with France. On learning this, Napoleon under the guise of reinforcing the Spanish-Franco army in Portugal, sent into Spain thousands of French Troops. Then in February 1808 ordered his army to turn on their ally and seize key Spanish installations. One of the French divisions was under the command of Jean de Dieu Soult. The Peninsular War had begun. (Also known as the War of Spanish Independence.)

By August 1808 the British had entered the war, allied with Spain and Portugal. In December 1809 a small British force under the command of John Moore launched a surprise attack on French forces near Madrid in an attempt to "save" the city. The attempt proved disastrous and now with French forces aware of their position, Moore could do nothing but make a hasty retreat towards A Coruna, to waiting British Naval ships. Moore was chased all the way by Jean de Dieu Soult the commander of the French force and by 18th January 1809 the British had evacuated Dunkirk style from A Coruna. John Moore was not one of those who left that day and his grave can be seen at San Carlos Garden in La Coruna.

With the French Forces having secured A Coruna, they then turned their attention south and with little left to oppose them except the remnants of the Galician Army, they took the remaining towns with relative ease, only the use of guerrilla tactics hindered their progress. (These guerrilla tactics would eventually be one of the catalysts that would lead to their defeat.)

French Forces took Santiago de Compestela on the 20th January; Pontevedra fell but one day later. The French arrived at the gates of Vigo on the 31st of January. Vigo was in no state to mount any kind of defence. The remaining British troops had all but left and most of the local garrison had left with the Galician army. Vigo could only muster 39 soldiers and some of them were injured. It was decided that a militia be formed and some 200 volunteered.

The newly formed militia didn't trust the Mayor or the Commander of the garrison and were unwillingly to follow their lead on suspicion that they were French sympathisers and there was also a general dislike for the men. Both men were jailed in el Castro Castle, and the militia then elected a new Governor Juan de Villavicencio y Puga and a new Mayor/Judge a lawyer by the name of Francisco Javier Perez Varela. Then in a bizarre twist, all agreed that, to resist the French Forces would be tantamount to suicide, so they concluded that the next best thing would be to surrender. On the same day Napoleonic Forces entered Vigo, and terms of surrender were agreed.

The French Commander Soult then promptly released the pro-French Governor and Major and then promptly threw into prison their newly appointed counterparts. The French then called for reinforcements and the following day a further 1200 troops arrived, the capture of the city was completed on 4th February. Vigo was the last town in Galicia to surrender and it would be the first town to be liberated.

From the outset Vigo's French occupiers faced resistance. In yet another twist the supposed French sympathises namely the Governor & Mayor who having just been released from prison, asked that their newly appointed counterparts be freed. Their request fell on deaf ears. The Commander in turn asked for their obedience to the Emperor.

Then it was down to a few people, such as the Mayor of Valladares, to revive public spirit and to plot a way to rid Vigo of its occupiers. They began to supply militia outside of Vigo's walls with the means to engage the enemy in guerrilla tactics, by smuggling muskets and gunpowder. At first these attacks were sporadic and ill coordinated but in time they became organised and proved to be a real thorn in the side of the French occupiers. Meanwhile back in the town, locals were also causing trouble for the French. It is here that the two most notable figures of the reconquest make their mark, Bernardo Gonzalez del Valle, also known as Cachamuina, was a Second Lieutenant in the local militia and Pablo Morillo a Captain in the Galician Army. The men coordinated and led attacks against the French.

These attacks drew the support of many of the locals who quickly took up arms to aid in the raids. Within the first week of March the attacks had already begun to undermine the French position in the city. In response to these attacks the French replied by directing their aggression towards the locals, this along with hunger only inflamed the situation and drew more people to the militias cause.

The conditions within the town were fast becoming unbearable and Soult new his position was becoming unattainable. On 25th March he order the gates to be opened and provisions supplied, in a vain hope that this might appease the locals. It did nothing of the sought. Soult began negotiations for a “dignified exit” and this was granted on the 27th March. However the following day the people of Vigo would not allow the French invaders to leave without some form of recompense. And so, on the 28th March in Casco Vello a battle commenced with the people of Vigo armed with what ever they could lay their hands on, fighting hand to hand against the French soldiers.

Fifty-eight days after their capture of Vigo the French are driven out.

The 28th of March is a public holiday in Vigo and every year celebrations take place to pay tribute to those who rose up against the occupiers. Vigo’s Casco Vello comes alive with people dressed in period costume and even the battle is re-enacted. There is traditional music, food and festivities.

I missed it last year so I’m looking forward to this one!

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