THE writer, publicist and teacher, Joan Benejam Vives had already reached old age when he published a book called “Ciutadella Veia” (Old Ciudadela). It consisted of a series of texts which were about the social history of the people of Minorca, based on oral tradition and hearsay of the 19th century. However, the stories that had been passed from one generation to another often related to popular anecdotes and happenings of the previous century - that is of the 18th century, when the island of Minorca was under different stages of British rule. Written in the version of Catalan used on Minorca but in simple language which would be used in familiar conversation, the book takes us through the different spheres of a world which was somewhat enclosed but which nevertheless knew how to make the sea its bridge to the outside world.

Chronicles claim that not only did Minorcan sailors form part of the British crews but also that a large number of Minorcan ships of the 18th century went to sea flying an English ensign to give them the right to act as corsairs - they were even known to attack other Minorcan vessels. And it is certain that the Minorcans must have learned a great deal from the British about sailing techniques during a century which was called the “Age of Enlightenment” because of the rate of new discoveries.

A humorous song of the great grandparents of Joan Benejam which is included in the book, paints a portrait for us of one of those men of the sea: “He wears sideburns in the English style, As if he were afraid of nothing, With more jauntiness and with more bearing Than a brik-bark (sailing vessel) with its sails erect.” And memories of people of that time recall that “when the young sailors were working and put on sash belts with a knife at their side, no-one confronted them and if they did, those who worked on the land who might have thought they had good fists, would be forced to turn tail and flee.” Sailing had more risks attached to it than working on the land but there was more money to be earned. And it was said the young man who wanted to escape from poverty, to stop being a “béguer” a Minorcan anglicisation of the English word “begger”, had to learn the skills and rules of going to sea and enroll as crew on on of those long journeys known as “the America run.” The book also tells us what the walls of Ciudadella were like: “Before the reconquest of Minorca by Christian forces, the Arabs had already completed a lot of work on the walls. Centuries later, in different stages, the kings of Aragon and Spain sent money to improve those works. The last historic development of the walls was undertaken at a site which eventually ended up being the place where the gas factory was located. The walls had five bastions which the British had restored topped with pieces of artillery. The one named Sa Font or the “Deume” (My God) was the most important because wheat which was collected by way of taxation was deposited there.

The walled area of the city had five doors but these were closed by nine o'clock at night in winter and at 10 o'clock at night in summer so that no-one could enter or go out at night unless it was a question of extreme necessity or for some mission ordered by the king. There existed nevertheless, a small forgotten alley called “The Witches' Hole” because it was so dark. Anyone who entered there found that it was less of an alley but rather more of a sewer or drain so that in order to get through it, they had to bend double or drag themselves along the ground. Because the drain carried sewage water outside away from residential areas to outside city - people would only use it for some urgent reason or if they were running contraband.

The author alludes, in other texts to “calent”, a hot seaman's drink which was also introduced by the English made up of brandy and other ingredients. He additionally mentions “sengri” an anglicism for another drink which was also taken hot. Separately, the book claims that during festivals, dances were auctioned by the piece, giving the bargainer the right to dance and to choose a partner.

It was an era, the books says, when only foreigners ate bread from a bakers shop, because as was also the case with noodles, bread was made in individual homes to be eaten by each family. In the chapter dedicated to light and darkness, Benejam speaks about the difficulties and complications of another era, even in what we now see as the simple process of making fire. The text reads: “Nowadays, by striking a match, we have light, but in those days you needed four things to achieve the same end: the “foguer” which was a bit of steel which served to ignite sparks from a bit of flint; the “foguera stone” or flint stone, the “esca” or dry, very inflammable material which was prepared with the pulp of the toadstool “Fomes fomentarius” and finally the “sulphur match”, which was a piece of straw covered in sulphur. Another curious detail which Benejam's book talks about is the fact that Minorcan ships traded in the first half of the 19th century with Gibraltar and Livorno and brought to the island clothes, plates, bowls, hats and ironmongery items. Benejam must have left many other things about how life was on Minorca in the 18th century in the inkstand. Time destroys all that is traditionally passed down by word of mouth and is not written down.


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