The Independent ‘Pirate’ Republic of Murcia

The early 1870’s were a time of massive political turbulence in Western Europe. Napoleon III had been toppled as Emperor of France and the revolutionary Paris Commune had taken control of the French capital. In Spain, as well, political turbulence was endemic. Isabel II, Queen of Spain, had been removed from the throne and the Cortes Generales had elected Amadeo I as Spain’s first and only Italian born king. Amadeo’s reign was short and turbulent, marked by violence and rebellions from the very start. On 11th February 1873, with a great sense of personal relief, Amadeo abdicated and returned to Italy.

Amadeo,the only Savoy_king_of_Spain courtesy of Giorgio Pallavicini

The First Spanish Republic was then proclaimed, but no peace came to Spain. Revolts continued to plague the country and the region of Murcia broke away from Spain to form its own independent republic, sometimes referred to as the ‘Canton of Murcia’ in press and diplomatic reports of the period. Murcia wasn’t the only region to rebel against the central control of Madrid at this time. Motivated by a range of local and national grievances, Valencia, Salamanca, Seville, Cadiz and Granada all rose in rebellion. However, the revolt in Murcia was, in many respects, the most serious uprising of all and led briefly to the region becoming an independent state, separate from Spain. According to the British John Bull newsletter of 17th January 1874, the creation of the independent Canton of Murcia “… will be regarded hereafter as one of the strangest episodes which even Spain has ever anticipated.”

The Murcian rebellion against central control from Madrid was led by the city of Cartagena, which rose in revolt on 12 July 1873. Spanish congressman Antonio Galvez Arce, known by many in Murcia as Antonete, led the rebels and began by seizing the St Julian Castle and then occupied the rest of Cartagena’s substantial fortifications. The city’s Town Council was then deposed and Arce and the rebels went on to proclaim that Cartagena was part of the Independent Canton of Murcia. Most of the Spanish fleet, docked in Cartagena’s harbour, went over to the Murcian side, along with 2,000 regular troops from the Spanish army. Arce’s independent Murcia then had an army and a navy which included warships such as the Almanza, the Mendez Nunez, Vigilante and the modern armour-plated frigate Vitoria, built on the banks of the river Thames in 1868.

Antonio_Gálvez_Arce, Politician

What did Arce and his ‘independent Murcia’ followers believe in, apart from Murcians being in control of their own destiny? It’s difficult to know really, because the whole independent Murcia Cantonal revolution lasted for just six months and was marked by war, violence and economic collapse. The whole independence movement proved to be rather strange in a number of ways:

A new currency, the Murcian duro cantonal was minted, but there was little opportunity to exchange money because trade collapsed, shops were empty and merchant shipping deserted the area.

Murcian independence was allegedly asserted by the flying of the red crescent Turkish flag, upside down, from Cartagena’s battlements. With money running short, Murcia Canton leaders, like Contreras, boarded rebel frigates and then sailed off to Almeria and Alicante, which they threatened to bombard unless the two towns handed over money to the Murcian ships. The rebels were really acting like pirates ‘demanding money with menaces’ from their nearby Spanish coastal neighbours. 

SMS_Friedrich_Carl c.1896 by Arthur Renard

The Murcia Canton’s two frigates, Almanza and Vitoria, were later seized by the German warship Friedrich Karl (commanded by Captain Werner) and the British H.M.S. Swiftsure as they attempted to bombard Malaga. The Spanish sailors were treated as pirates, disarmed and then returned to Cartagena. Captain Werner later negotiated a deal with the new Republic of Murcia which ensured the safety of all foreign nationals and their property. Werner’s political masters back in Berlin weren’t too happy with the fact that their naval commander had been negotiating with a breakaway rebel republic and he was recalled to Germany. In the meantime, Murcia’s two warships, seized off the coast of Malaga, became the responsibility of the British.

Cartagena c.1874 by Jean Laurent

The loss of two of its ships was just one indication that the days of the Independent Republic of Murcia were soon to be at an end. On land, Arce led Murcian troops towards Albacete, where Madrid government troops were advancing under General Saledo. Not surprisingly perhaps, the superior resources of the national government won through and Saledo was victorious. Revolts, riots and disturbances in other parts of Spain were also crushed by the Army of the Central Government and the Independent Canton of Murcia became increasingly isolated.

In early January 1874, central government troops, under General Lopez Dominguez, captured Fort Atalaya in Cartagena, which really marked the end of Murcia’s cantonal experiment with independence from Spain. Many of the rebel leaders escaped aboard the warship Numancia. Arce, however, stayed and was sentenced to death for his part in Murcia’s brief brush with total independence. The Murcian politician remained a popular figure in the region though and after some intense lobbying, the sentence was changed to exile rather than death. He later returned to Murcia and worked as a town councillor in Murcia City until his death in 1898.

The national Spanish republic, which fought so hard to eradicate Arce’s Independent Murcia, also collapsed late in 1874 and in November of that year, Alphonso XII was proclaimed as the new King of Spain.

Adrian & Dawn L. Bridge