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G - 74 : Why do Mallorquins not Speak Italian?

Updated: May 7, 2023

Santuari de la Mare de Deu de Bonany near Petra on Mallorca

In 1113, the year when the Order of the Knights of Saint John was founded (the Knights with the Maltese Cross), a Pisan fleet approached faraway lands in the early morning mist. Everybody was excited – another crusade was on the way. The sailors came to liberate the Baleares from the Muslims. As they had “liberated” Jerusalem fourteen years earlier. Pope Gregory VII had given suzerainty over the islands to Pisa to secure its support against his many enemies. He was in clinch with Henry IV, the German Emperor he force to walk to Canossa, the Byzantine Empire after the Chism (formal split between Catholics and Orthodox) and feared the fleet of the mighty Fatimid Empire which continuously raided Italy’s coast. Rome was only a sling shot from the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Europe in the 11th Century - Pope Gregory VII did not have many Friends beside Pisa

The 300 Pisan ships – if we want to believe the sources – approached the Catalan coast thought and landed 50 miles north-east of Barcelona. Navigational errors and sea currents had taken them too far west. After a few days, Count Berenguer III arrived from Barcelona. Both parties hit it off. The County of Barcelona was a poor border region in constant clinch with the Umayyads from Cordoba. A little help from powerful and rich Pisa could not hurt. Over the previous one hundred years, Pisa had established a reputation as maritime power. In 1013 it ousted the Fatimid from Sardinia, took Corsica in 1050 and - with the help of Genoa - destroyed in 1087 several hundred Fatimid vessels in their naval base of Madhia in Tunisia.

The Fatimid Naval Base in Madhia, Tunisia, is relatively well preserved and worth a Visit

Both parties agreed to invade the Baleares the following year. Pisa would contribute again 300 ships, the Catalan and Occitan nobles 120 vessels plus a sizeable army. Contingents from several Italian cities participated as well. In June 1114 AD, Ibiza was taken. In August, the invasion of Mallorca followed. The siege of Palma took eight months though. Cracks in the Christian coalition started to show. Berenguer III needed his army at home and was primarily interested in suppressing the Muslim pirates. Pisa aimed to colonize the island as they did in Corsica and northern Sardinia. Once Palma fell in April 1115 and the pirates were killed, the Count of Barcelona had achieved his war goals and brought his troops home. The Baleares remained garrisoned by a tiny force of Italian mercenaries.

The Republic of Pisa at the Height of its Power in the 12th Century

The new rulers in El-Andalus, the Almoravids, noticed. Within less than a year, they sent a small, but motivated expeditionary force to retake the islands. What took the Pisani 10 months, the Almoravids got in a few weeks. The Muslim ruled until 1229 when King James I of Aragon invaded with 15’000 men and 1’500 horses. The Baleares became part of the Kingdom of Aragon and remained Spanish ever since.

Las Palmas was rebuilt by the Aragon Kings as a Christian City with a Gothic Cathedral

From 1936 – 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, the islands were occupied by Italy though who used them as base for their Air Force bombing Valencia and Barcelona. The Ultra Nationalists in Mussolini’s government wanted to keep the islands. During the three years of occupation they made Italian the official language and renamed most streets with Italian names. To break the civilian resistance, they killed 3'000 Mallorcans and arrested many more. But Mussolini decided to return the Baleares to General Franco – probably hoping for support in the 2nd World War. Franco never returned the favour. His aim was to keep Spain out of the war.

Italian Savoia Marchetti SM-79 Bombers returning from a mission to Mallorca in 1938

The question remains why Pisa did not mount a second crusade to win the islands back. Under papal jurisdiction, they were theirs. But Pisa had bigger fish to fry. By then they realized how little trade and money was to bee made with Aragon & Barcelona. Trading with the Middle East, France, Italy and the Holy Roman Empire was more lucrative. Also, after the defeat of the Fatimids, the tensions between Pisa and Genoa started growing. They bickered over trade depots in the Levant, who was to govern Corsica and Sardinia and trade privileges from the Byzantine Empire. Often, these tensions boiled over to naval clashes. These tensions eventually culminated in the Sea Battle of Meloria in 1284, between Livorno and the island of Elba. Pisa was decisively defeated. Add to this that Pisa’s port was by now so silted that its use was severely restricted. Given the circumstances, the Baleares ceased to be a priority. Pisa renounced its claim.

In the 11th Century, Pisa's Port silted and became unusable. Today, the town is landlocked

The three years of occupation from 1936 to 1939 left little sympathy for Italy. There are no Italian tourists and nobody wants to understand Italian – even though Catalan and Italian are so closely related that you understand 2/3 - no problem. The people in the Baleares do not speak Italian. Albeit not for reasons several hundred years back but for the more recent experience 75 years ago.

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