Daniel Aquillué (Zaragoza, 1989) says that the 19th century was not that inexplicable disaster that often seems engraved in the collective imagination, but a convulsive period of great importance for the future of the country. In order to banish false myths associated with this century and vindicate its historical weight, he has just published with La Esfera de los Libros ‘España con honra. A history of the Spanish 19th century. 1793-1923’.
This doctor in History, currently a professor at the University Isabel I of Burgos, reviews with this work of divulgation the events that took place and their main protagonists, although there is also room for other characters that attract attention as the Chorizo or La fiera aragonesa, leaders of bands from Zaragoza at that time, but with implications in the politics of the country.
In the prologue you point out that ‘Guerra y cuchillo’ was the book you always wanted to write, while ‘España con honra’ is the one you always should have written, why?
Guerra y cuchillo’, about the sieges of Zaragoza, is a book I always wanted to write because my link with the subject of 1808 comes from long ago, since I discovered as a teenager, with 15 years, what had happened in the city. I was interested in the subject, but I had never had the time or the opportunity to write about it until, finally, thanks to La Esfera de Libros, I was able to materialize it.
On the other hand, ‘España con honra’, which is an updated, synthesized and highly popularized vision of the 19th century, and although I am obviously also passionate about that history, it is a book that I should have written a long time ago. Already years ago, in my doctorate, I was talking with my colleagues about the need to banish all the clichés and outdated views that existed about this historical period. But, for A or B, it was postponed; the idea did not take hold until, once again, thanks to the publisher, I have been able to write it. It is a book that vindicates the history of the 19th century, that it must be understood and that it is not the inexplicable disaster that is often assumed.
Why do these clichés and this vision exist, especially when it is not a foreign period, but, for example, it is studied in secondary education plans?
Precisely, that is the reason for part of the bad reputation of the Spanish 19th century. In the second year of Bachiller there is a fundamental problem, shared with other subjects, which is the sword of Damocles, the pressure of the university entrance exam. The students gobble up content, the teachers do what they can with the ratio and the educational bureaucracy they have to deal with, and they explain the 19th century as best they can. And, many times, the easy or practical thing to do is to conceive a XIX century full of data, dates, names, constitutional changes, government changes, pronouncements, revolutions… and so nobody understands anything and everybody hates it because they say ‘but what is this?
It is that the 19th century was not exactly a quiet century in Spain….
The 19th century, in general, in all Europe and America, is tremendously convulsive. And Spain is no exception, of course. In this century one world falls and a new one is built; the Ancien Régime falls and the nation-states as we know them today are built. What was not invented in that century was reinvented, and it is rare that some of the issues we have today were not tried in the 19th century, because everything happened.
You were talking before about myths, such as Godoy being Queen Maria Luisa’s lover or the real transcendence of the battle of Trafalgar, why are they still valid?
With Godoy it happens that, without being conscious, we have eaten the story of Ferdinand VII. Everyone will say that he was a bad king, but we assume the story of the Ferdinand party of 1808. And the investigations, both by Emilio La Parra and Antonio Calvo Maturana, who have studied the period, the figure of Godoy and Queen Maria Luisa de Parma, certify that, evidently, Godoy was not the queen’s lover. In fact, he was an enlightened statesman, faithful servant of both monarchs, Charles IV and Maria Luisa.
Why has it survived? First, because of the propaganda of the party loyal to Ferdinand VII in 1808, which, in order to discredit the monarchy they had overthrown, made him the cause of all evils and political and moral corruption. Also, because of a gender bias, for blaming María Luisa for the disaster of 1808; what a bad queen she was, who, in addition, cheated on her husband. And, then, the very liberal story that was built in the 19th century; as liberalism is opposed to the traditional monarchy, they use that same story to discredit everything that came before. It is the story that we have uncritically eaten many times.
Godoy, Pepe Botella, María Luisa de Parma… this defaming and generating hoaxes is not exclusive of the present times, is it?
It goes back a long way. Propaganda and fake news have always existed. They are not something new. We think it is something that is new now, with social networks and the media in a more globalized world. But that has always existed by one means or another.
Another striking aspect of the book is what refers to the Spaniards who fought on the French side in the War of Independence….
The Frenchified ones are mentioned, but the Spanish army of King Joseph I is still unknown, even though there is a research by another Aragonese, Luis Sorando, who brought it to light a few years ago. It is also necessary to keep it in mind and to see the War of Independence as a much more complex conflict than it is usually presented. It also had that nuance of civil war between Spaniards.
But there has always been a romantic or transcendental aspect to that war?
The War of Independence is the iconic moment of entry into contemporaneity for many accounts of the Spanish nation-state. So, it is intended to mythologize and sweeten that story. The 2nd of May, the riot, because it is a popular riot, in the 19th century they even tried to make it a national holiday. That didn’t work out later for other reasons, but that’s as far as it goes.
You also mention almost novelistic characters in the book, such as Melchor Luna, alias ‘Chorizo’, or ‘La fiera aragonesa’, Andrés Puyans, a sort of ‘Gangs of New York’, as you call them, but from Zaragoza…
Although they have been treated in Aragonese books about bandits, I approached them already, from the doctoral thesis, as elements that demonstrated the politicization of society; because they were not only smugglers and had their gangs with which they challenged each other to duels and knives for Zaragoza and half the country, but they also had political implications of the time. And they are the perfect example of how society was not stupid or apathetic, but had its motivations, took sides and put their lives on the line. I thought they should be in the book because these Aragonese people, who were so much in the movies, had to be known at a national level.
Even in your work we can see how they were owed favors from the highest spheres, right?
Yes, because they were linked. They were not at home or related only with, in the case of Chorizo, those of San Pablo and, in the case of Puyans, with those of Arrabal (both neighborhoods of Zaragoza). They had connections outside of Zaragoza that reached as far as General Espartero, through politicians and military men of the time with whom they had fought, had provided them with private security, had helped to maintain order or to defend the city from the Carlists.
According to accounts, Puyans and his two cronies prepared a big mess in Madrid, in a tavern, because they got involved with his accent…
When I read the news in the press at the time I said ‘my God, how they made a mess in the tavern’ (he laughs). These are disputes that, at other times, could have been resolved in another way but, in that 19th century, in which weapons were very present and tempers were running high, they ended up with knives and with a few casualties on the part of the people from Madrid (17 dead or wounded, according to the chronicle of the time, while the three Zaragozans suffered minor injuries. Soon after they were pardoned by Espartero).
How important was Aragon as a territory during the 19th century in the history of Spain?
It is a very important role; Aragon is present from the beginning to the end. In the War of Independence itself, it is an unoccupied area that will be the focus of the anti-Napoleonic resistance. Then, Zaragoza creates the myth that will be transferred to the Spanish national story throughout the nineteenth century and will have a very strong imprint. And, for example, in the first Carlist war, Bilbao, which suffers a Carlist siege and resists, will be called the second Zaragoza, in reference to the resistance of the city in 1808. But in Aragon, in the Carlist wars, it will also be divided in two and it will be the front of combats between Carlists and liberals; just as it happened in the civil war of the 20th century.
But Aragon was also going to be very important on both sides. On the Carlist side, because it will have in the Maestrazgo of Teruel one of the main focal points under the leadership of Ramón Cabrera, who established his capital in Cantavieja and will be one of the last points to fall into the hands of the liberals in 1840. And, on the side of the liberals, Aragon is the spearhead of the liberal revolution and, later, of the democratic revolution.
Zaragoza is, for example, one of the first cities to join the revolution of 1836 and will be a bastion loyal to Espartero, even suffering a siege in 1843. Alto Aragón was also important and Huesca was taken in 1848 by a republican party, that of Manuel Abad. But, in Teruel capital, Victor Pruneda will be one of the first democratic politicians in Spain to defend universal suffrage and an expansion of rights. And later, in the twentieth century, Zaragoza will be one of the cities, with the CNT, more revolutionary and with more strikes throughout the country and will achieve the eight-hour working day.
This work and ‘Spain and knife’ are framed within a more usual disclosure, through a book, but in social networks you are very active, how important is it to bring the disclosure to that field?
I always say that I will spread the story by all means at my disposal. I use, obviously, writing, high disclosure in books. Also, with talks, interviews, historical recreations and social networks, in my case and, fundamentally, Twitter. It is a network that can be very toxic or can be used, which can be a pleasant one and serve to disseminate history. On Twitter I have found a network of people, of disseminators, historians and people of all kinds, with whom I am very happy.
I myself was surprised when I started to have the reception that my threads and tweets had. On that side, I am very happy and I will persist in it, because Twitter can be used to disseminate history, no doubt.
By the way, being a university professor, do you see interest in 19th century history in your students?
Here I’m going to put on a medal and I’m going to feel a little proud, because I have friends who teach history at different universities who tell me that they have students interested in the 19th century because they follow me on Twitter. When they tell me these things, I think ‘it’s good for something’ and I’m glad. And, seeing the reception that these books are having, I think that something, even if it is little, we are achieving. And I say this in the first person plural because I have done this book, but it owes a lot to many colleagues who have researched the history of the 19th century, we have debated and talked. And this is how knowledge is also built. We are all working together, little by little, to improve the understanding of history; in this case, of the 19th century.
And what myths about that period would you like to see banished in a few years?
If we could stop seeing Spain as a country that has always failed and idealizing any other country around us, that would be enough. There comes a time when this self-flagellating catastrophism of the history of contemporary Spain, which we also have, in part, by the trauma of the twentieth century, sometimes does not let us see the past or the present, nor imagine a future. It was not such a disaster then, nor is it so now, nor do we have to resign ourselves to the fact that things do not work; we have to look for ways to improve society, the country and our lives.