Not rolling over without a protest
On May 2 1808 the last remaining members of Spain’s royal family were getting ready to be shipped off to France. Fearing perhaps that if they didn’t keep on Napoleon’s good side they’d wind up (just as their French cousins had) with their severed heads rolling around an executioner’s basket, the Bourbons barely made a peep to protest the move while Madrileños were encouraged to do the same with the authorities instructing citizens to exercise restraint and to treat the French forces with respect.
On the face of it, it appeared that Spain had fallen to French rule with barely a whimper of protest. That Napoleon had – by gaining permission from the Spanish king to march his troops into the country on the pretext of invading Portugal – subjugated an entire nation with a cheap trick. Nothing seemed to stand in his way. Nothing that is except for an unruly gang of ordinary Madrileños who appeared outside the palace demanding that the royals remain. Stunned, the French forces unwisely opened fire sparking off a bloody war of independence that was to bring the French emperor to his knees.
Though the French were convinced a conspiracy was afoot, one of the most surprising things about the uprising on May 2 is that it was not orchestrated by anyone, rather that it was a spontaneous action made by a fiercely patriotic populace who simply refused to tolerate the idea of French rule. Incredible when you consider the fact that they were facing trained heavily-armed French troops without any support from the Spanish army – who had been given strict orders not to intervene.
Despite being outgunned, the citizens of Madrid fought with sticks, hoes, and even pitchforks all over the city. Huge battles raged in the streets and even women got involved throwing whatever heavy objects came to hand down onto the heads of French soldiers. It would, of course, be a losing battle. In Goya’s Charge of the Mamelukes, you can get an idea of the carnage that ensued; it shows Napoleon’s fearsome Mameluke troops cutting down Madrileños with curved swords in Puerta del Sol.
Still, the reckless bravery displayed by Madrid’s working class majos was what finally inspired some Spanish soldiers to act. Captain Pedro Velarde along with Luis Daoíz defied orders and led a group of soldiers out to the Monteleón barracks where they defended their position against the French. They were assisted by ordinary men and even women, such as Clara del Rey, who joined in a hopeless battle to defend the barracks.
Refusing to give into French demands to surrender, the Spanish made their last stand in an archway to the barracks before being killed. All that remains of this building today is this very arch which sits in the middle of Plaza Dos de Mayo behind a statue of Daoíz and Vellarde. Other heroes of the uprising included Manuela Malasaña, who was shot the next day for defying the French and whose memory was so well-loved that the whole area of Maravillas was renamed in honour of her bravery.
Along with Manuela, around 400 or so Spanish were executed on May 3, 90% of whom were ordinary private citizens. It was their actions that inspired the military to take up arms against the occupying forces eventually leading to the liberation of the country in 1814 and the restoration of the lily-livered Ferdinand VII to the throne. Ferdinand’s subsequent betrayal of Spain’s working classes is an even more tragic story perhaps better left for another day…
Though reenactors do their best to help people remember what it’s all about, these days event is mainly commemorated with a massive booze up in the square!
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