1898 was not a good year for Spain. It was in fact a complete disaster. Some 400 years on from the days of Columbus, the conquistadors and the founding of an empire, it was all over. America defeated the old empire, albeit that the US - in the form of President McKinley - hadn’t gone looking for trouble. The so-called yellow press had convinced the American public that there were Spanish atrocities being committed in Cuba. McKinley chose to ignore this sensationalism, most of it what we would now call fake news. But he was pressurised into war. The consequence, for Spain, was the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. 1898 didn’t simply batter national pride; 1898 was a national humiliation.
In Majorca, a long way away from the war that was declared in April of that year, there was an extraordinary panic. It had started to develop in February. The USS Maine exploded and sank in the harbour in Havana. The ship was in Cuba in order to protect American interests during the Cuban War of Independence. The cause of the explosion - which resulted in the deaths of three-quarters of the men on board - was never definitively clarified. There was good evidence to suggest that it had in fact been an accident, but this didn’t satisfy the yellow press or others. Spanish terrorists were to blame.
Following the Maine incident, as war now seemed to be inevitable, there were reports in the French press - without any foundation whatsoever - that the Americans would use the war as an opportunity to wield their naval and military might on the other side of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. The specific targets for American control were the Canaries and the Balearics. In the Balearics, the authorities were to declare a state of war.
This was to result in some truly astonishing developments. In early July, 122 years ago, they started to dig trenches. These were at La Lonja in Palma. Everyone seemed convinced that the Americans were about to enter Palma Bay and occupy Majorca.
With the French press having initiated rumours, the local press in Majorca had been only too keen to repeat them and start to run their own stories. But the local press did have something to go on. Madrid had responded to the rumour, which then pretty much came to be accepted as fact, that the Americans were not only going to invade Majorca, they were intending to then hand the island over to Great Britain.
The day before Spain severed diplomatic relations with the US (which was the twenty-first of April), Madrid despatched 170 soldiers to Majorca, whose sole objective (apparently) was to protect Palma from an imminent attack by the Americans. Well, this may have been the objective, but these soldiers were then scattered over the whole of the Balearics. More troops were to arrive in May, which was when the Captain General of the Balearics, Rosendo Moiño, declared the state of war, which meant that the islands were under military command.
The mayor of Palma, Eugeni Losada, had made sure that the troops who arrived were greeted warmly by the residents. “Viva España” was the cry, as it was to be in the “part forana”. In May, General José Barraquer went on a tour of the villages of the island. The people, he was to state, should show courage in the face of the American attack.
In May, therefore, many of the preparations had been made, the walls in Palma having by now been used to accommodate howitzers. But what was to happen then was that nothing happened, until they started to dig the trenches at La Lonja, and this was seemingly in response to the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, at which the Spanish Caribbean Squadron was destroyed. Nine days after this, on the twelfth of July, “La Ultima Hora” reported that seven American warships, supported by six other ships, were on their way. Some fishermen, it was then reported, had supposedly seen an American fleet. The island basically went into lockdown. No one, other than the military, was allowed to go to sea.
Residents of Palma deserted the city. Field hospitals were being prepared. The Captain General pleaded to the citizens to respond to the attacks of the enemy. Majorca waited, and it waited. The invasion never happened. It was never going to happen, but rumour, panic and misinformation had convinced everyone that there would be an invasion. The peace protocol between the US and Spain was arrived at on August 12. Two days later, the civil governor announced that the war was over, although it was to take two weeks for normal order in the Balearics to be reestablished and for the troops to leave.