Daniel Defoe’s other island

An Irishman’s Diary on Catalonia’s aspirations


The Spanish parliament voted earlier this month against a request by the Catalan regional government to hold a referendum on independence. The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, warned that a breakaway Catalonia would be expelled from the European Union and become like “Robinson Crusoe’s island”.

Defoe’s novel was first published in 1719, the same year that Kildare man Charles Wogan daringly rescued the Polish princess, Maria Clementina Sobieska, who had been taken prisoner on the instructions of the English. The princess was engaged to be married to James III (‘The Pretender’, son of the deposed Stuart king, James II) and George I was eager that the Stuart line should not prosper. Later that year, Wogan was a witness at the royal wedding in Montefiascone Cathedral near Rome.

For this exploit Wogan was made a Roman senator by the pope and Irish baronet by James III. Wogan’s account of the adventure involving the woman who would become the mother of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ was later published as a pamphlet under the title Female Fortitude.

He went on to become unofficial Jacobite ambassador in Spain where King Philip V made him a colonel and where he negotiated in 1722 three frigates for a plan to transport James to England. Dean Swift described him as ‘a person of too considerable a rank (and now become half a Spaniard) […]a scholar, a man of genius and of honour’.

Fortune brought Wogan to Barcelona in 1750 as governor a generation after the fall of the city to Philip V. Catalonia had sided with the Habsburgs over the Bourbons in the 1705 Treaty of Genoa which allied it with England. The English, however, abandoned their Catalan allies with the signing of the 1713 Utrecht treaty and Barcelona fell a year later to the Castilian forces.

The pamphlet published the same year in London and entitled The Deplorable History of the Catalans lamented that ‘a free and generous People, the faithful and useful Allies of this Kingdom, were betrayed, in the most unparalleled Manner, into irrevocable Slavery’. Henry St. John Bolingbroke, English Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the signing of Utrecht argued tersely that it was ‘not for the interest of England to preserve the Catalan Liberties’.

Those liberties were lost with the Nueva Planta decrees that meant the now united Spanish kingdom would be ruled by the laws of Castile (‘the most praiseworthy in all the Universe’) displacing the Catalan (and other regional) charters but also allowing Catalans to trade on equal terms with the American colonies; an important concession for a maritime and trading nation. It set a pattern of relations between Catalonia (dedicated largely to trade and industry) and Castile (dedicated largely to public administration) that continues to the present day. This year marks the tricentenary of that defeat which the Catalans seek to commemorate by holding a referendum on independence on November 9.

It is difficult to imagine that Wogan’s loyalties lay anywhere other than with the Spanish empire, especially against a nation that had allied itself with England but he must have seen some similarities between Ireland and Catalonia. The Catalans are aware they face many obstacles, not least the current configuration of international power. Catalan President Mas uses the term ‘interdependence’ and has suggested that a new Catalan state would not have an army, contributing instead to an international defence force like Nato. He is anxious to distance their case from Crimea and underline the comparison with Scotland. Ireland, after all, was able to count at different times on some help (never enough!) from England’s enemies, France, Spain and Germany. The Catalans have no prospect of such international support; not even from the Catalan who has just become France’s new Prime Minister but who might, at least, remind Mr. Rajoy that Crusoe’s final adventure was not on a desert island but on his doorstep in the Pyrenees.

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