Letter from Europe

Cabrera, a tainted paradise

Issue no. 2016/6

Picture above: The former prison island of Cabrera - just off the south coast of Mallorca - is now a popular destination for day trips by boat from Mallorca (photo © Alexander Nikiforov / dreamstime.com).


In the summer of 1812, while Napoleon's Grande Armée was storming east towards Moscow, William Faden's publishing house in London was busy putting the finishing touches to a new guide to Spanish inshore waters. Among the areas covered in the pilot guide is the island of Cabrera, off the south coast of Mallorca.

Dear fellow travellers

We have never really thought much about job titles. But William Faden had an enviable job title. He was 'geographer to the King' - the monarch in this case being George III of England. If you are going to be a geographer, job titles don't come any grander than that.

In the summer of 1812, while Napoleon's Grande Armée was storming east towards Moscow, the royal geographer's publishing house in London was busy putting the finishing touches to a new guide to Spanish inshore waters. William Faden's España Maritima or Spanish Coasting Pilot was published at a time when Britain was isolated from the continent, but no doubt the royal geographer was keen to keep the wheels of business turning even at times of war.

More than 200 years on, this 1812 guide to capes and bays, currents and tides, is still a magnificent read. Even a landlubber's library should include a handful of pilot guides to distant shores, because as a literary genre the best of these antique navigation guides are quite exceptional volumes: they show a delicacy of style coupled with an attentiveness to detail which is rarely achieved in modern travel guides. The maps are of course works of art in themselves, and presumably extremely accurate — the royal geographer in London was surely at pains to ensure that errant cartography would not lead to Spanish shipwrecks.

The island of Cabrera, off the south coast of Mallorca, is well covered in William Faden's 1812 guide. Faden himself didn't get to Cabrera — Brits weren't really going anywhere during the Napoleonic Wars. But the 1812 pilot guide relied on field observations made a quarter of a century earlier by the distinguished Spanish hydrographer Vicente Tofiño de San Miguel, after whom the port of Tofino on Vancouver Island is named.

“Cabrera is uncultivated,” the 1812 guide tells us, going on to explain that the island's only inhabitants were a slender garrison of Spanish soldiers. Tofiño commented on the barrenness of the island, which could support no more than a few goats. And he remarked on the “violent, whirling squalls which might so easy dismast any vessel.

Vicente Tofiño de San Miguel went to his grave in 1795. Had the royal geographer in London sent an expeditionary force to fact check the state of affairs on Cabrera for his 1812 guide, he would have found the island much changed from the days of Tofiño's visit. For, from 1808 onwards, over 9000 French prisoners were set ashore on Cabrera. The first cohort of French captives had been taken at Bailén in July 1808, where the Spanish Army completely trounced the occupying Napoleonic forces. More French soldiers were captured in later encounters during the Peninsular War and many of these were also exiled to Cabrera.

With the Spanish authorities barely able to feed and clothe their own army, the Cabrera prisoners were left to fend for themselves. Escape was impossible, though many of the French tried to make a bid for the mainland. But the strong currents and dangerous waters around Cabrera were unforgiving. Reports tell of terrible conditions on the rocky island with many cases of cannibalism. Those French prisoners who survived, about 3400 in all, were eventually shipped back to their homeland in summer 1814.

Today, it still takes a good navigation guide and a dash of local knowledge to make landfall on Cabrera. But during the spring and summer seasons, dozens of tourists visit the island every day. It's a popular day trip for holidaymakers staying in the resorts on the south coast of Mallorca. The big draw are the azure waters of the island's 'Sa Cova Blava' (Blue Cave). On good days, visitors get a glimpse of bottlenose dolphins.

Most of the boat trips from Mallorca make a landing on the island, so there's a chance to spend an hour in a landscape proclaimed in the brochures as being "a peaceful paradise" or "one of the last places in the Mediterranean untouched by humans". Only the more perceptive visitors discover the simple memorial to the thousands of French soldiers who died on Cabrera. Over 5000 perished in all. They are buried in unmarked graves across the island. It's interesting that an island nowadays so often described as "pristine" or even "virginal" has so dark a history.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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