With General Franco’s remains freshly exhumed from the mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, Spain’s public disavowal of his legacy must be ringing hollow in Catalan ears. The very thought of political prisoners in a European country in the second decade of the 21st century is one that beggars belief—a testimony to the length of Franco’s shadow, wherever his mortal remains happen to be.
Don Roberto died a few months before Franco took sole power, in 1936. Had he lived longer he would have ardently and vociferously supported the Republicans in their fight against the Generalissimo and his Fascists. Fascism was to Robert the ultimate anathema, and Spain was a country with which he had a deep connection through Doña Catalina, his maternal grandmother.
By birth, and as a result of his early years in South America, Robert was both an hispanophone and an hispanophile. He even looked Spanish. With his fine long face and trim beard he could have been a sitter for Velasquez; a hidalgo, a someone. He knew Spain well and visited the country regularly throughout his life.
As a boy he spent time in Cadiz where his grandmother was raised. Later he travelled widely in search of the dusty libraries where ancient documents recorded the history of the Conquistadors, while his wife roamed the arid Castilian hills in the footsteps of Saint Theresa of Avila. Early in their marriage the couple rented a house for some months in Vigo, Galicia. Later they investigated together the site of a gold mine in northern Spain, to which they had come across a reference in an edition of Pliny. As was so often the case with Don Roberto where the pursuit of material reward was concerned, the promise of gold proved illusory, the mine having been worked out several centuries previously.
“Finland and Hungary, Poland and Ireland, with Bohemia and Macedonia, all mortally detest their union with great oppressive States.”
In the early 1900s his immediate hopes for the Catalans were as illusory as the gold, though prophetic nonetheless. In a letter to the Saturday Review in June 1906, he wrote: “A correspondent in your columns makes an ingenious and back-handed stab at Irish Home Rule under the pretence of writing on Spain and Catalonia. This is evident by the introduction of Ulster as an illustration and by the fact that he evidently possesses no knowledge of either Spain or Catalonia …
“Bulgaria, Servia, Roumania, Norway have all seceded from greater Powers within the memory of man. Finland and Hungary, Poland and Ireland, with Bohemia and Macedonia, all mortally detest their union with great oppressive States. Nothing but force keeps any one of them a portion of the great empires to which they respectively belong. As to Catalonia, your correspondent may be sure that if, in the long run, she wishes to be free she will gain her independence, for the whole trend of modern thought and economics is toward the evolution of small states and every great and unwieldy Power, our own included, is on the verge of a break-up and a return to its component parts.”
Don Roberto believed profoundly in self-determination and would have deplored Madrid’s intransigence in the face of the Catalans’ peaceful pursuit of that objective. He knew well how unevenly distributed were the taxes that flowed from Scotland to Westminster, and would have sympathised with the Catalans’ indignation at subsidising the poorer parts of Spain. Most of all he would have deprecated the sentences handed down to politicians for going about their legitimate business; and he would have had personal reasons to be appalled at the brutality with which the Spanish police set upon peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders.
He himself had suffered a serious blow to the head from a police truncheon in Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday 1887, protesting in support of the imprisoned Irish nationalist MP William O’Brien. Arrested and sentenced, he spent six weeks picking oakum in Pentonville. With characteristic mischief, he later adorned the visiting card which informed recipients that he was a Justice of the Peace in the county of Stirling with a photograph of himself in prison garb (see right).
… the story of the Scottish shop stewards and their actions would surely strike chords of outrage, sympathy and pride.
By contrast to his feelings on the plight of the Catalans, his heart would be lifted by Nae Pasaran, the recent documentary film about the workers at the Rolls-Royce plant in East Kilbride who helped to ground part of the Chilean airforce following the coup d’etat by General Pinochet in 1973. (The title of the film is a play on the Spanish civil war slogan ‘No pasaran’, ‘they shall not pass’.)
Realising that certain engines which had come in for maintenance belonged to planes that had been flown in the coup, the Scots union members refused point-blank to work on them, despite pressure from management. The documentary tells the full story of their stand and, through interviews with Chilean survivors, movingly reveals to the now elderly protagonists, for the first time, the extent to which their actions influenced aspects of the coup’s aftermath, including the saving of lives.
History doesn’t relate whether Don Roberto ever visited Chile—he would certainly have travelled close to the border, in Argentina—but the story of the Scottish shop stewards and their actions would surely strike chords of outrage, sympathy and pride, as it does for me. During a year of South American travel in my early twenties, I happened to be in Chile in early 1973 and directly experienced the shortages of everyday items resulting from the activities of CIA agents in fomenting strikes, in particular by the country’s transport unions.
To me, a naive young traveller, slipping down dingy alleys in Santiago to exchange dollars for black market escudos was an adventure. I little knew then that mere months later the Chilean airforce would fly down the city’s boulevards to bomb the presidential palace, an action of almost unimaginable violence, equivalent to that of the RAF bombing the Houses of Parliament.
To Don Roberto, the socialist, the internationalist, the anti-fascist, the humanitarian, let alone the quarter-Spanish Scot and adoptive South American, everything about Nae Pasaran, not to mention those current million-strong gatherings in Barcelona, would speak to his deepest convictions.
Nae Pasaran is available on the BBC iPlayer until 19 November. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0002wsm/nae-pasaran