“The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot.”
French General Joachim Murat, brother-in-law of Napoleon, on May 2nd, 1808.
In March of 1808, the city of Madrid began to endure occupation by French military forces, although at first it seemed to be more of a political inconvenience than brutal repression and control. But on 2nd of May, there was a skirmish that brought about a bloody fight for Spanish independence from France. In front of the Royal Palace, a crowd gathered to try to prevent French forces from relocating whom Madrileños considered to be their royal family. The French responded by firing their guns into the crowd, a recurring habit of oppressive regimes throughout the world intimidated by the sudden fervor of common people. This act proved to be the beginning of the Peninsular War (it also didn’t help that Napoleon soon after named his under-achieving brother, Joseph Boneparte, as king of Spain, a man who not many seemed to take seriously). Beginning on May 3rd, 1808, French General Joachim Murat ordered the executions of any resident of Madrid who carried a weapon of any kind, and he also prohibited any meetings or assemblies; hundreds of prisoners were lined up and shot, or killed by various other means in the streets. As the French military continued their ad-hoc execution program in the streets of Madrid, news spread fast, and the spirit of rebellion grew throughout the country. Spain began to flex its collective muscle, in a nationwide grassroots revolt for independence.
In the Parque de Artillería de Monteleón, now known as Plaza del 2 de Mayo, a few residents and some Spanish troops collected to protect the small artillery warehouse from the French. The day ended with guns and canons having been fired, many dead, and the emergence of two heroes and one heroine. Spanish soldiers Luis Daoíz y Torres and Pedro Valarde y Santillán led their own small detachments of Spanish troops against the French forces and both died in the fighting. Valarde has since been immortalized with a street named after him.
15-year-old Manuela Malasaña Oñoro also died in the plaza, although her story has at least two versions, both equally romanticized over time. The first tells of a devoted daughter, helping her father and mother with ammunition in their fourth floor flat (at the corner of what is now San Andrés and Valarde streets), and then continuing out into the plaza, in the thick of the fight with the French soldiers, and killed in the crossfire. Finally her father finds himself struggling desperately, with his dead daughter at his feet, until he his also killed. In the second version, Manuela is not allowed into the streets while the fighting ensues. She was working as a seamstress in a shop, and the owner of the business wanted to keep her safe inside. But at the end of the day’s fighting, she is found by French soldiers and, resisting rape, she defends herself with what was her instrument of trade, a pair of scissors, and is later executed in accordance with General Murat’s order to kill all residents holding a weapon of any kind.
Either way, it is generally accepted that she died in the plaza on May 2nd, as a result of the conflict with the French, and like Daoíz and Valarde, she has also been immortalized in dramatic paintings and with a street named after her, a street on which I have walked countless times, in bars and restaurants drinking wine and eating tortilla and jamón serrano, without a thought of what happened there over 200 years ago. The neighborhood of Las Maravillas has since been colloquially named Malasaña, originally a reference to Manuela’s father, but later changed, for unknown reasons, to refer to his teenage martyr daughter. There may be a subtle, cultural connection between her adolescence and the collective subconscious of young people, especially since the 80’s and the Movida Madrileña, who are apt to drop “Malasaña” in conversations about nightlife and socializing.
It may be difficult now, sitting in the Plaza del 2 de Mayo, under the budding spring trees sipping on a glass of tinto de verano, to imagine all the commotion, panic and desperation of street warfare, bodies strewn under the smoke of muskets, the fear of impending death and the sudden loss of friends and family. But the architecture and the fundamental urban design of Madrid’s center have not changed much since 1808, and many of the streets, buildings, windows and balconies remain the same. And it seems a bit be easier to understand historical events that are seemingly preserved in the stone walls and narrow streets of this old neighborhood. Commonplace landmarks, façades and street corners serve as important visual cues to profoundly important events long since passed. Manuela Malasaña’s flat, for example, C/ San Andrés 18, 4th floor, is still there, under the balcony nowadays a collection of modern street signs, internet cafés, and the noises of a city. And so some of the deep history of Europe can still be felt in this neighborhood, a place which represents one of humanity’s most fundamental desires — a nation’s independence from oppression.