The Perils of Travel in 19th Century Murcia
For the 19th Century traveller, journeying through Murcia could be a long, dangerous and often financially ruinous experience. In an era before automobiles and aeroplanes, there were a number of transport options available to the average Murcian traveller. He or she could obviously travel relatively short distances on foot, but even this mode of transport wasn’t without its difficulties. Murcian roads were mostly very poor and potholed and even town pavements were irregularly paved. A British traveller walking the streets of Cartagena in 1876 observed that town pavements were often made of sharp sea stones which could puncture the feet of unwary pedestrians.
For long distance travel, a Murcian visitor could always climb aboard a Spanish diligencia, which was a coach that could accommodate up to 16 passengers. Spanish diligencias were lighter and smaller than their French equivalents, which were drawn by horses, whereas Spanish coaches were driven by mule power. A Spanish diligencia moved through Murcia powered by ten mules, yoked in twos and encouraged to move at top speed by three muchachos (young boys) who leapt from mule to mule as the diligencia travelled, whipping the poor animals into a frenzy of activity. In addition to the muchachos, the diligencia was ultimately superintended by its postilion (driver) who coordinated the risky mule-leaping activities of the muchachos and ensured the overall speed and direction of the coach as it bounced over potholes and other obstructions.
Diligencia travel was obviously uncomfortable at times for its passengers and it could also be rather dangerous. During the year 1875-6 the diligencia running between Murcia City and Elche was stopped by robbers on so many occasions that the coach never ran without three armed civil guards sitting alongside the postilion. This armed protection was expensive and helped push up the price of passenger fares. Of course, if a Murcian traveller didn’t want to pay for this protection, he or she could always hire a private coach. Unfortunately, the costs of private coach hire were also high, because the coach owner needed to bribe banditti in the hilly more remote parts of the Murcian hinterland, so that they would leave their paying passengers alone. The financial cost of this bribery was then passed on to the customer via increased coach hiring charges.
The intrepid traveller might decide to go it alone and travel on horseback through Murcia. It was always safer, however, to travel in groups, particularly through Murcia’s more mountainous passes, where brigandage was always a problem. Whether alone, or in groups, the traveller could still be stopped and robbed by bands of a dozen or more Murcian brigands. Highway robbery of this kind was an acute problem, particularly in the early 19th Century. The British Evening Mail of 1876 also claimed (rather sensationally) that solitary male travellers passing through the lonely defiles and grey campo of Andalucia and Murcia could also fall prey to hot-blooded Spanish women, who would seduce and then rob them, after producing daggers and clasp knives from their garters or stockings.
Travellers not prepared to be waylaid by highway robbers and hot-blooded women could travel along the Murcian coast by sea, although this mode of transport also had its risks and problems. During 1843, for example, the 160 HP French packet steamer Phoenician was caught in a huge storm off the Murcian coast, ‘which tossed it about like a feather’. Terrified passengers, including the nephew of the French Emperor Napoleon III, were reduced to kneeling and praying on deck as they were bounced around on the rough seas. Fortunately, both ship and passengers survived the ordeal and those passengers who were well enough left the ship for an excursion around Cartagena.
As the century progressed, more and more areas of Murcia were covered by railway tracks and travel by rail became an increasingly viable option for many people. However, even this mode of transport, though safe and efficient on most occasions, wasn’t entirely without its risks during the 19th Century. At various points between 1833 and 1876, the so-called Carlist Wars erupted in Spain. Carlists were supporters of Infante Carlos of Spain, the Count of Molina, who they wanted to be king after the death of his brother, King Ferdinand VII, in 1833. Carlists were traditionalists who fought under the slogan ‘God, Country and King’ and during the Third Carlist War of the 1870’s, they caused considerable disruption to the Murcian railway network. In 1874, they completely destroyed two Murcian railway stations, along with much railway stock and machinery. More significantly, Carlists seized three railway engines and drove them intentionally towards oncoming rail traffic, in order to bring about collisions, disruption and general calamity. Thankfully, their efforts were thwarted, although Carlists still managed to hijack Murcian trains on other occasions. Clearly, Murcian railway journeys, like road and sea journeys, could be rather perilous, and fraught with danger and uncertainty.
Adrian & Dawn Leyland Bridge: May 2022