US ambassador, Claude G. Bowers

Claude G. Bowers

15-02-2013Library of Congress

On the first of June 1933, Claude G. Bowers presented his credentials to the government of the Spanish Republic. Three months after Franklin D. Roosevelt had become president of the United States, Bowers was appointed ambassador to Spain.

Bowers’ six years as ambassador were to be marked by momentous developments. He was to advocate US intervention on behalf of the Republic; Roosevelt was to later tell him that he had been right. One mentions this in the context of recent reflections on the Civil War and its outbreak in July 85 years ago and also because the American view of the Civil War tends to be overlooked in these reflections. Rather than the political connection, a more common American association comes from literature, e.g. Ernest Hemingway.

But the first episode of note that Bowers had to contend with owed nothing to the rise of fascism or to the horrors that were to come. There was a diplomatic incident, which US Department of State papers classified as “representations to mitigate severity of treatment of Americans held at Palma for alleged attack upon civil guards”.

Bowers had only just become ambassador when something happened in Palma. He received a copy of a cable sent by the consul-general in Barcelona, William Dawson, to the acting secretary of state, William Phillips. It read: “Americans named and three others, including wife of one of them, imprisoned since June 4th charged with assaulting civil guards and wounding one, which Spanish law takes most seriously. Drink apparently at root of incident: accused admit some drinking but claim self-defense (American English of course) against attack by civil guards.”

Representations were made - to the prime minister, Manuel Azaña, and to the minister of state (the foreign minister), Fernando de los Rios. Washington sought to impress upon the embassy and the government the importance of harmonious Spanish-American relations. In the US, public opinion was scandalised by press reporting of the case. It was a diplomatic incident which had, as Bowers was to inform Phillips, “political complications”: Azaña was looking to cultivate goodwill with the Guardia Civil, there having been talk of the force being disbanded by the Republic.

There were five prisoners, and they were released on bail totalling 20,000 pesetas on July 21 (but later reimprisoned). On August 1, there was a lengthy telegram from Bowers to Phillips in which he explained the role and history of the Guardia Civil, corrected US press reporting which claimed that the five were being prosecuted by a “police court”, and offered what was a most extraordinary assessment of Americans in Mallorca.

He started: “I desire to place before you the following observations concerning this case and the situation in Mallorca arising from the unfortunate activities of other Americans here.” “A wholly erroneous impression” of the case had been given in the US.

The “offense is considered one of the most serious in Spain” - namely attacking Guardia Civil officers. There had been “nothing unusual” in the proceedings against the five Americans. “We had, then, no legal grounds on which to protest. We had to make our play on public policy - the effect on public opinion in the United States.”

The attitude of what Bowers dubbed the “Guardian military authorities” in this particular case could be explained by the “conduct of many of our people in Mallorca”. While many are a credit to America, “there are many others, and these are increasing, who are a disgrace to us.”

“These are an irresponsible group who live in a chronic state of drunkenness and indecency ... offending local feeling, treating the natives with arrogance. The English colony in Palma refuses to associate with them, and the respectable American element is constantly humiliated.

The military authorities in Palma (the Guardia) have had much trouble with them, and this explains in large measure the uncompromising attitude in the case of the five Americans, whose offense happens to have been the straw to break the camel’s back.”

Bowers concluded: “It is possible that the severity of the punishment of the five may have a sobering effect upon the irresponsibles of the American colony. If not, we shall be continuously involved in unpleasant incidents that reflect seriously on the American character, and the Consulate at Barcelona and the Embassy will be devoting much of its (their) time and energy to demanding that there shall be no interference with the drunken and indecent element which violates the laws of Spain.”

He had no sympathy for the five, but mindful of the pressure of public opinion, Bowers was instrumental in securing pardons (in February 1934), the case having reached the Supreme Court in Madrid. It was a diplomatic incident which demonstrates that drunken, anti-social behaviour by foreigners in Mallorca has a long history, as does the need for embassies and consulates to become involved.

In his telegram to Phillips, Bowers referenced the infamous Theodore Pratt and his “sneering at the people of Mallorca”. That reference and the case itself of the drunken Americans act as a prelude to two articles which will follow and concern our “beloved Mallorcans”.

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