In summer 2013, the German magazine Stern caused an almighty stir when its latest edition hit the newsstands. The cover said it all. In translation this read - “Mallorca, the dark side of the holiday island”.
Of the themes that Stern dealt with, one was corruption and associated conspiracies of silence. The reporters came to this conclusion - “Business and justice on the island are closely intertwined. There are twelve families who exert significant influence.
A quip goes thus - ‘Mallorca is Sicily without the guns’.” There is an alternative for this quip - Mallorca is Sicily without the dead. Author Guillem Frontera used this as the title of a 2015 novel, which is now to be a TV drama series.
The Sicilian comparison has long been made, and it isn’t difficult to figure out why. In historical terms, Mallorca and Sicily were at one time linked, the islands’ kingdoms having come under the Crown of Aragon. Corsica, Sardinia and Malta all formed part of this crown at various times, but the Sicily connection is the one to have endured, not because of dynastic association but because of vendetta.
It was once put to me that what became known as the Cosa Nostra had learned from Majorca. The truth of this assertion is certainly debatable. Island communities were perfectly capable of generating vendetta without reference to others, but there was some rationale for the argument that went back three centuries before the mafioso started to emerge in nineteenth century Sicily.
In Mallorca, the Germanies Revolt of 1521 to 1523 resulted in the island being abandoned more or less to its fate. The lawlessness was to give rise to the greatest vendetta of all - the Canamunt and Canavall that started in 1598 and lasted until the mid-seventeenth century.
That vendetta was within a context of enduring feudalism, which had been a reason for the Germanies Revolt. Little had really changed in Mallorcan society since the Catalan conquest of the thirteenth century, and the process of dismantling this feudalism wasn’t to truly start until the nineteenth century.
Land acts and confiscations in Spain were mirrored by developments in Italy. A consequence, more so in Sicily than in Mallorca, was a huge increase in the number of landowners. With this increase came disputes and scores that needed to be settled.
The Canamunt and Canavall may have offered Sicily a form of vendetta blueprint, but the dispute dynamic was to be way more intense in Sicily than it was in Mallorca. The new ownership in Sicily laid the groundwork, to which had to be added the lawlessness that prevailed in Sicily and created a vacuum for extra-legal protectors - the Mafia clans.
Mallorca, despite the island’s bloody past, wasn’t to go this way, which isn’t of course to say that there weren’t the clans. Although the nobility’s power was weakened in the nineteenth century, this still remained a significant factor in ensuring a sense of cohesion.
An alliance had been formed in the aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession and the 1716 Nueva Planta of the Bourbon king, Felipe V. Noble families had been on opposing sides, but they were to come together through “ties of common blood rather than ideas”. The alliance was that of the Nou Cases, the Nine Houses of the nobility; three fewer, it might be said, than Stern referred to.
In Sicily, the influence of the nobility all but collapsed in the nineteenth century, a process that had begun before the deposition of 1860, but in Mallorca, while it waned, it remained a factor in maintaining some stability.
And with the twentieth century looming, different clans were laying their roots - those of the bourgeoisie. The powerful families were to include, most obviously, the March family. Initial wealth was accrued from smuggling, an activity that was characterised by conspiracies of silence.
Mallorca had experienced a vacuum of control in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but this wasn’t the case in the nineteenth. Instead, and then moving into the twentieth century, there were the families who derived their power from landowning, politics and from legitimate business (and much of it was legitimate). But all the while, this was rarely divorced from corruption in all its manifestations.
Guillem Frontera’s novel is concerned with corruption and the Stern report featured it. A history of corruption is shared with Sicily, but beyond this the comparison starts to wear thin. Without the guns or without the dead is accurate to a point, but only to a point, and Stern overlooked the fact that by 2013 the justice system was right on top of corruption - the cases had been coming thick and fast.
The mafias of Majorca are more a general term than the Sicilian reality. An island mafia can be powerful bodies or it can be a criminal organisation of more or less any type. It is a shorthand, as for genuine mafias one has to look to the imports rather than the homegrown.