Friday, 27 March 2009

Bicentenary of Reconquest of Vigo

By Charlotte Crow,

A great deal of exploding gunpowder and a hectic pageant involving actors and ordinary citizens jostling the narrow streets in period costume, will today sound the climax to a series of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the Reconquest of Vigo, a little-known but significant local episode in the Peninsular War. This unlikely popular uprising of March 28th, 1809, in the coastal town in northwest Spain was the first successful attempt to see off French rule in the region of Galicia, following Napoleon’s occupation of the country in 1807. That year 100,000 French troops had marched onto Spanish territory ostensibly to tackle the British threat in Portugal. But by April 1808 the Franco-Spanish alliance was severed as Napoleon forced the Spanish monarchy to abdicate, transferring the crown from Fernando VII to his own elder brother Joseph Bonaparte.

Today Vigo is better known as the biggest fishing port in Europe with a population of around 300,000. In 1808, it was a walled town of just 10,000. The French did not reach the place until January 1809, the same month they humiliated the retreating British at the battle of Corunna to the north. However, their occupation, under the leadership of General Antonio Chalot, lasted only 58 days. Within that time, though many of Vigo’s men were away fighting the French elsewhere, local citizens initiated a campaign of resistance to undermine the occupiers, culminating in the insurrection of March 28th. Two months later the story reached Britain, with The Times reporting on its front page intelligence ‘of an insurrection having broken out in the northwest of Spain. According to these accounts, the peasants had collected in the neighbourhood of Vigo, Pontevedra and Villagrave, and engaged with success the French troops’.

During the revolt, which was assisted by Portuguese soldiers, more than 1,400 Napoleonic troops were taken prisoner and the French withdrew from a conquered Spanish settlement for the first time. The action boosted similar offensives across Galicia – and according to at least one local historian can be seen as a thread linking directly to Wellington’s ultimate victory and Napoleon’s demise. The town was subsequently awarded the special civic status by the Regency in recognition of the action.

The Reconquest has been commemorated in Vigo ever since, but the bicentenary events, organised by the offices of the deputy mayor Santiago Dominquez, are the most elaborate to date. A major exhibition, on show until March 31st, at the Pazo De Castrelos Quinones de Leon, a stately-home-turned-museum, has brought together more than 200 paintings, documents and artefacts from museums across Europe. The First Congress on the Reconquest of Vigo, meanwhile, has gathered academics from across Europe to explore the uprising in the wider landscape of 19th-century Europe and the Napoleonic Wars. Among those attending the conference was Prince Charles Napoleon Bonaparte, the great, great grand nephew of Napoleon and President of the European Federation of Napoleonic Cities.

Two websites are particularly useful in order to find out more about the history of the Reconquest and this year’s bicentenary celebrations:

For further information on the role of the Spanish guerrillas in Spain’s war against Napoleon, read our article The Spanish Guerrillas in the Peninsular War
For further information on grass roots opposition to Napoleonic rule, read our article Popular Resistance in Napoleonic Europe
For more information on Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, visit our ‘Ten Great Figures of French History’ page.

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