Cabrera Prison Camp
Cabrera Island, or Goat Island, off the southern coast of Mallorca had been used as a harbour by everyone from the Romans and Byzantines to pirates and the military. To learn about the history of the island from ancient times to the end of the 1700s, check out the Cabrera Island webpage in the Mighorn section. While the island was occupied by only a small garrison for long periods, in 1808 it became the home for several thousand unfortunate French prisoners of war.
In 1806 Napoleon declared the Continental Blockade, stopping British imports into Europe and only Portugal refused to comply. It continued to trade with Great Britain after Spain and France signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau and Napoleon responded by sending three armies through Spain en route for Portugal. Spain's Prime Minister Maneul de Godoy was hoping to acquire Portugal and its fleet but he was deceived and as more French troops moved into Spain, King Charles V was forced to abdicate.
Matters came to a head on 2 May 1808 when an uprising in Madrid was brutally put down and hundreds were executed. The Spanish War of Independence or Peninsular War followed and one of the early battles was on 19 July at Bailén, in southern Spain where General Dupont's French army was defeated by General Castaños's Spanish troops. The prisoners were taken to Cadiz where they were held in squalid conditions on prison ships and more arrived while the military decided what to do with them over the winter.
Eventually the authorities decided to take them to Mallorca and the ships were escorted by warships through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea. But when they anchored in Palma Bay, the authorities refused to let them come ashore scared by the possibility of riots or the spread of disease. Even after the prisoners had spent time in Mahon's isolation hospital on Menorca, only the senior officers were allowed to disembark in Palma. After four months at sea 4,500 men and 22 women were taken to Cabrera Island where they stepped on dry land after four months at sea.
While the junior officers moved into the castle (they joined the senior officers shortly afterwards), the rest created a makeshift town on the south side of the bay. Apart from a few rabbits and goats, the only living creatures were lizards and a donkey they called Robinson, who became the prisoners' mascot. Water deliveries stopped when a supply boat was hijacked by escaping prisoners and from then on they had to rely on a single clear water spring. While food deliveries were made every four days, they kept the prisoners were kept on a starvation diet. There were riots when the deliveries were late and on one occasion hundreds died when the suppliers failed to turn up after they were not paid; the starving men were even forced to eat poor Robinson the donkey.
When the winter weather struck, high winds and rain battered the tiny shelters and they were finally swept away in a flood. With morale at an all time low, the death rate rose as men succumbed to disease and malnutrition. But still the authorities did nothing; that is nothing except for dumping more prisoners on the island, another 4,500 over six years.
Despite their deprivations, strong characters emerged to help the survivors work together and a semblance of order evolved. Men built small houses out of stone and made goods they could trade with the supply ships; they even built a theatre in a cave overlooking the harbour. The literate ones taught the rest and together they held classes and put on theatre productions. The men even exchanged goods and services amongst themselves using broad beans for currency.
As so life went on, or rather an existence. Napoleon never accepted the surrender at Bailén, and refused to negotiate the prisoners' release, while the Spanish authorities went on ignoring them. It seemed that there would be only two ways to escape Cabrera. Accept the offer to fight in the Spanish Army or die.
When Napoleon abdicated in April 1814 arrangements were made to repatriate the survivors and two convoys took 3,700 men to France the following month; another 1,200 who had served in the Spanish army followed. Statistics do not express the misery the prisoners were subjected to but it is reckoned that around 11,800 were taken to Cabrera Island. Around 5,000, or 40-percent, died and lie in unmarked graves. In 1847 the Prince of Joinville, son of King Louis Phillipe, erected a memorial to them.
Once again Cabrera Island was deserted but ideas on what to do with it continued. The first plan was to ship 100 poor foreign settlers to it, give them each a plot of land and allow them to build a house. Prisoners from the overcrowded Cartagena prison on the mainland would be sent to help them get started. The plan never got off the drawing board. While a prison was built in 1830, proposals for a military hospital and for fortifications were turned down; only a lighthouse was built in the 1860s.
In 1878 Miquel Umbert bought Cabrera Island off Don Pedro i Fontirroig with the intention of renting it out to British settlers. The government objected and Umbert was bankrupted in the legal battle that followed.
When the Feliu family acquired it, they planted vineyards, carobs, almond and fig trees and introduced cows, sheep and goats. Houses around the small harbour were called Villa Cristina, and a village called Can Feliu was established with a Chapel dedicated to Santa Petronella. There was money to be made from wine in the 1880s because phylloxera was wiping out Europe's vineyards. Mallorca was immune because it was an island and the further the vine pest spread, the higher the price of Mallorcan wines rose (check out the Wine Country webpage in the Raiguer North section to find out more). The pest eventually reached Mallorca and it spread to Cabrera, wiping out the island's income and the community with it.
Very little happened on the island in the 20th Century except when there was a war and there were three. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 resulted in the Guardia Civil setting up a barracks on the island but when German submarines started using the harbour, the Ministry of Defence took control. In July 1936 a Republican seaplane had to land with engine trouble and while the garrison captured the crew, a ship and two submarines rescued them. The officers and tenant family were executed while the rest of the garrison were held prisoner. A German plane crashed on the island in World War II and only one crew member survived.
Cabrera Island was declared a National Park in 1991 and there are daily trips from Colonia San Jordí out to it during the season. Go to www.excursionsacabrera.es to find out more on the island and booking information.
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