By the middle of the 16th Century moves for Mazarrón to gain its independence from Lorca were strongly afoot with the Marquises of Vélez and Villena and the Genoese who were directing the profitable alum trade, at the helm.
Complaints were made to the king in the late 1540’s over the injustices and indifference suffered by Almazarrón at Lorca’s hands. No doubt there was some exaggeration in all of this, but feelings were intensified in 1562 and 1563 when the Lorca Council tried to extract further taxes from Almazarrón and made demands also from the Vélez and Villena estates. It was decided to petition the Court in Madrid for independence from Lorca. It all became quite fraught. Lorca, not wishing to lose an important revenue source, counter-petitioned. In the end, a judge was appointed to look into the matter and travelled to the area. During his investigations, much attention seems to have been given to promises made by Mazarrón’s leaders about their preparedness to build defensive works (town walls, watchtowers etc) against pirate incursions if granted independence.
The outcome was success for Mazarrón. However, there was a sting in the tail! The document granting the town independence from Lorca was read out in the town square and a first town council elected on 22nd February 1565. The new town was to be known as the Villa de Almazarrón. However, to finalise independence, a large amount of money had to be paid to the king in instalments and despite the apparent prosperity of the alum trade, the inhabitants of Mazarrón were extremely poor. So, from 1565, Mazarrón set about raising the money to confirm its independence. It was not without its problems. Money disappeared en-route to Madrid and in Madrid. However, finally, the grant was obtained and, on 7th September 1572, there were celebrations in the streets of Mazarrón with bull running, minstrels, trumpeters and other diversions.
Mazarrón was by now a vastly different place from that at the beginning of the 16th Century. When the King’s representative visited the town in mid-1565 he had found a population of perhaps 1,700. Five residents at this time were recorded as being captives in Algeria!
Inevitably, the future was not as straightforward as many would have hoped. Alum prices began to fall almost as soon as the grant of independence had been obtained and it is said that decline was already a fact of life as soon as 1588. It is said that when the Marqués de Los Vélez visited Almazarrón in 1620, he described an area which was decayed and poor where there had existed, 100 years previously, one of the most profitable mining operations in Spain. He commented on how the estates of his predecessors were now idle, the walled fortifications which had been built to protect the main part of the town were in ruins, and the population had halved.
In any event, by the start of the 17th Century, Mazarrón was a moderately sized town with two fortifications built by the respective Marquises (the Castillo of the Marqués de Los Vélez is the single survivor) and a wall encircling the main houses and churches of San Andrés and San Antonio. By the middle of the century, Mazarrón was recorded as having around 1,496 inhabitants, making it the 20th largest city in Murcia. However, it was around mid-century that those twin evils of pirates from North Africa and plague returned to haunt the district. One account tells how, in 1640, both the castles in the town lacked munitions. In the summer of 1643, there were almost daily rumours of raiders from Algeria, while, in 1652, reliable information was said to indicate that eight Turkish and other armed vessels were preparing in Oran for a raid on Mazarrón.
Bubonic plague was a constant threat at this time as well. It was easily transmitted through maritime travel and the proximity of Cartagena, a city which suffered especially badly, did not help here. It is said that the spectre of the plague arose every few years in Mazarrón from the 16th to the 18th Centuries, but one particularly severe epidemic was in 1648. When news came from Cartagena of the plague’s presence, access to Mazarrón was immediately restricted and journeys to Cartagena banned on pain of being ejected from the town, but, by mid-June, the plague was in Mazarrón. It became an offence to have any sufferer from the plague in your house, or to hide a death. The houses of those thought to have been in contact with the disease or to be suffering from it, were boarded up and the individuals concerned banished into the heights of the Sierra de Piedramala for quarantine. Their clothes and belongings were burnt, but this was not all.
Another form of plague also afflicted the area from time to time – locusts. Prayers, processions and masses took place, together with journeys being made to Murcia itself to bring water ‘blessed’ by San Gregorio to water the fields. Mazarrón’s major locust plagues coincided in the 17th Century with the reign of Philip IV (1621-1665). Unfortunately, this was also a period of economic crisis, which, given everything else faced by the people of Mazarrón, made times exceptionally hard. Their livelihoods depended on their crops, some fishing, the production of red ochre (almagra) and little else. At this time it is said that snails, the fruit of the Algarrobo and hemp seeds became important dietary elements – hard times indeed!
If the 17th Century left a lot to be desired from the point of view of the ordinary inhabitant of Mazarrón, there is one story of particular interest to those of us from the British Isles. It appears that, on 16th November 1650, the Chief Justice Officer in Lorca was notified of an English ship with considerable contraband being at Puerto de Mazarrón. It was said that the relevant official in Mazarrón had acted beyond his powers to seize the goods. A Commission of Investigation was dispatched to Mazarrón where an English sailor who spoke some Spanish (surely something of a rarity!) complained bitterly about the theft of the merchandise – cloths, linen, rugs and other broadly similar items. The whole affair then became very heated and, through the hostility of the Mazarrón inhabitants, the Committee ended up having to cease its investigation and flee back to Lorca. Complaints were then made by the Committee to the King, though it would seem that those involved in Mazarrón got away with their actions!
Based upon extracts from the book “Exploring Murcia – Mazarrón” by Clive and Rosie Palmer, who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. All the books can be viewed at and obtained from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com.