Coming to the 18th Century, we arrive at times of war (the War of Spanish Succession), when, during the earliest years of the century Murcia was, once again, dangerous frontier land with nearby areas under enemy, Hapsburg, control.
The direction of Murcia’s support for the Bourbon cause came under the control of the Bishop of Cartagena, a latter day warrior priest, who, based in Murcia City, was the architect of resistance against the Hapsburg armies.
Eventual success came for his cause. He was assiduous in seeking help from within Murcia and, on 15th July 1706, wrote to Mazarrón requesting troops. Mazarrón also wrote for help from surrounding towns as an attack from the enemy-held Cartagena was greatly feared and, by now, the town itself felt totally undefended. It is said that the only remaining canon from the Vélez Castle was brought down (with some difficulty) to be put at the entrance to Mazarrón from the Cartagena road.
While Mazarrón’s traditional economy of agriculture, fishing and esparto continued during the 18th Century, there was an upsurge in demand for almagra, the red ochre waste product in the alum production of previous years. Uses varied from the glass industry to military paints, but with the overwhelming requirement coming in the second half of the century from the Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville as a colouring in its products. The economic growth which came to Murcia in the aftermath of the Civil War, left its mark on Mazarrón, where the population, estimated at 3,869 in 1759, made it Murcia’s seventeenth largest city.
The 19th Century began with health problems in Mazarrón. There was an epidemic of yellow fever in 1804, but that of 1811 decimated the population. It seems that it was brought by sailors who came to the Port. Little could be done once it was diagnosed. The number of deaths brought the churches to a standstill and, when the Director General of Public Health arrived in Mazarrón on 3rd December, he ordered the church burials to cease immediately and directed future burials to take place in the grounds of the Castillo de Los Vélez which became Mazarrón’s first public cemetery. Finally, in the first week of 1812, the epidemic subsided, but it had taken an awful toll. Perhaps things had improved a little by 1829 and 1830 when one Samuel E Cook journeyed in Spain, describing Mazarrón as a large village with a healthy climate (more so than Cartagena!). He referred to the San Cristóbal Hill above Mazarrón as a long established source of alum and red ochre. The lack of trees impressed itself on his mind and he saw the area as important in the cultivation of ‘barilla’ (seawort) and the making of soda ash.
Real economic revival and a recovery in the population had to await the second half of the 19th Century when the old mineral mining industry revived and flourished. It is said that at the height of the mining renaissance, there were over 200 mines alone in the Cabezo de San Cristóbal above Mazarrón and more than 600 throughout the wider municipality. The interest was in silver-bearing lead ore, iron, copper and zinc. Today, the legacy of this activity is abundantly clear, especially on the hills immediately to the north of the town, but also in the surrounding sierras. Although industrial ruins can be regarded as a blot on the landscape, there is a haunting grandeur about the remains above Mazarrón and far more to see than first meets the eye.
With the mining came prosperity once more and a further spurt in the physical development of the town. New buildings were constructed such as the Town Hall and even a railway to Puerto de Mazarrón which, if built principally to move ore, was nevertheless soon utilised by passengers as well. The period from 1880 has been described as a new age of splendour and certainly the final decade of the 19th Century saw great development, with the advent of numerous foreign companies, the coming of electricity and the construction of the impressive Santa Elisa Smelter in Puerto de Mazarrón. With these developments came people too, with Mazarrón attracting many poor families from Andalucia.
As you might expect, behind this development, there also lay abject poverty. In 1901, mortality in Mazarrón was six times that of modern times, with half the deaths being of babies and infants up to two years of age. Water supplies were highly questionable and there was a major typhoid outbreak in 1901.
As had been the case in the past, the new prosperity was fleeting and decay set in during the early part of the 20th Century as mineral veins were exhausted and prices fell on the international markets. The First World War and subsequent economic depression aggravated these problems and then, of course, there was the Spanish Civil War itself in the late 1930’s. Indeed, one local commentator wrote that the years after the Civil War were even more dramatic and painful than those before, with the ordinary inhabitants of Mazarrón suffering both hunger and misery, accentuated by the virtual disappearance of the mining industry and emigration, especially to Catalonia and Barcelona. One telling fact, is that it was not until July 1956 that Mazarrón had its first public telephone, albeit with great pomp and circumstance involving the then mayor, the civil governor and the Bishop of Cartagena. It is also true, that, during a fair part of the 19th and 20th Centuries, a lack of good communications did not help Mazarrón, especially in harder times. In 1889, the journey from Mazarrón to Cartagena was said to take six hours! No wonder that the Companía de Águilas’ Hartlepool-built steamship, The Carolina, was the main link for passengers as well as coal and lead, between Mazarrón and Cartagena, sailing twice a week for almost half a century. Only slowly did things get better, with road improvements and bus links to Cartagena (1915), Totana (1917) and Águilas (1920). Even then, it is noted elsewhere that the work of asphalting the Cartagena-Mazarrón-Águilas road was not completed until the 1960’s.
In this environment, agriculture and subsequently tourism, became the mainstays of the economy, but against the background of a very much reduced population compared to that at the beginning of the 20th Century. The most recent change came when the area was found by North-West Europeans seeking second, or even permanent homes in the sun and this has seen the remarkable resurgence in the population of the area up to the present day.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org