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This Week In History

The Charge of the Mamelukes. May 2, 1808.

After signing the Fontainebleau Treaty on October 27, 1807, French troops entered Spain on their way to Portugal, and Madrid was occupied by Marshal Murat´s troops by March 23 1808. On the next day Ferdinand VII made his triumphal entrance in the city together with his father, Charles IV, who had been forced to abdicate. Both kings were compelled to go to Bayonne to meet Napoleon, where the Bayonne abdications took place, making Joseph Bonaparte, the emperor´s brother effectively king of Spain.

Just before his departure to Bayonne, Ferdinand VII had constituted a Governing Board in Madrid. The truth was that the board was a puppet in the hands of Murat, a simple spectator to the facts that were to come. On April 27 Murat requested (supposedly in the name of Charles IV) to move Charles´s son and daughter, still in Madrid, to Bayonne. Although the Governing Board refused in first instance, having received instructions through an emissary sent by Ferdinand VII, they finally yielded.

On May 2 in the early morning hours, groups of people started to gather around the Royal Palace. The crowd knew the soldiers´ intentions to move prince Francisco de Paula from the Palace, the only member of the Royal Family that remained in Madrid, and take him to France. The sight of the prince peeping out from a balcony increased the bustle and a group assaulted the Palace. Marshal Murat ordered an artillery detachment to shoot the crowd, which triggered a fierce reaction all over the city.

This is how a spontaneous popular uprising began, although discontent had been latent in the whole Spain since the French troops made entrance. People from Madrid had to improvise solutions that the street fights demanded. Spontaneous chieftains arranged neighborhood groups and procurement of weapons, as at first, they only had short knives. Soon they understood that they had to block French troops from entering the city.

When people from Madrid tried to block the gates of the city to keep out the French troops stationed outside it was already too late. The main body of Murat´s forces (about 30.000 men) had already entered and advanced to the center of Madrid concentrically. Nevertheless, locals continued fighting all day long, using any object at hand as a weapon, from stones to needles or planters thrown from the balconies. Stabbings, stickings and arrests followed during one of the bloodiest days that people from Madrid remember. Napoleonic Mamelukes and spearmen exercised extreme cruelty against locals, and hundreds of men, women and children were killed in the skirmishes.

Francisco de Goya represented this struggle years after in his painting The Second of May 1808also known as The Charge of the Mamelukes (in Spanish: El 2 de mayo de 1808 en Madrid, or La lucha con los mamelucos or La carga de los mamelucos). It was painted in 1814, oil on canvas and is showcased as one of the most important masterpieces of Spanish art in the Prado Museum. The movement of the horses and of the figures bestow the painting of great dynamism. The scene is depicted with great realism with the representation of dead bodies and streets stained with blood. In last term, Madrid´s cityscape can be seen.

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