By Janet Sloss
Britain’s Last Conquest of Menorca 1798 - 1802
© 2002 Bonaventura Press
The English lost not a moment in changing the desperate state of affairs in the island. Charles Stuart, at forty-five, already had the reputation of a successful diplomat and administrator as well as a commander of men. His first actions on taking over the island put the British stamp firmly in place. The Ministry for War in London was all too well familiar with the island's problems, political and economical, and immediately after the capture of the island, Stuart wrote to the Secretary for War in London: “You will observe by the capitulation that I have freed you entirely from the political and religious agreements which so continually shackled the British government and occasioned such perpetual disputes when the island was before in our possession. The Minorquins, used to changing masters, avoided us completely until they perceived our progress, and even then kept to a certain degree aloof and were, I am confident, indifferent as to the issue of the contest. As a proof of their indifference, the peasants employed by the Spaniards to mend the high road (Kane's Road) for their march from Mahon to Ciudadela continued their employment in the centre of the British Army, with cool composure and perseverance.”
Stuart, after a quick look at the condition of the island and its people, decided to re-organise the island's finances while keeping its local government methods. He would keep the Catholic church's control at bay and would also re-name St Philip's Castle, or what was left of it, as Fort George, in honour of England's king.
Since Stuart was now commander in chief of England's naval forces in
the whole of the Mediterranean, he appointed Major General Sir James St.
Clair Erskine to oversee the affairs of Menorca as governor, but under
his own direction. Erskine's first action, on November 30th, was to ask
the four ‘universities’ of the island to give him an exact
account of the taxes collected for the last three years, the method of
collecting them and how the money was spent, what taxes the island paid
to the king, an account of the general produce for the last three years,
together with the profit from the brandy trade and how it was spent and,
finally, an account of the prices of bread, meat, wine and other provisions
on a quarterly basis for the past three years. 10
Charles Stuart was at this time in great pain, presumably from a wound, and could not use his right hand. Even so, he prepared a full ëepitome' of the causes of Menorca's poverty, examining the serious abuses of authority carried out by both the local councillors and the priests. 11
Oil lamps burned late and the secretary’s hand grew cramped, but by April, 1799, Stuart published a decree, pointing out the abuses and announcing a new constitution for the island. “Having maturely weighed and seriously considered the present state of the government, laws and customs in Minorca, and having carefully enquired into its product and the application of the public income, I note, with infinite sorrow, that the true spirit of the constitution is undermined by the negligent conduct of the universities, robbing it of its force, that the annual receipts do not equal the expenditures, that the people are crushed by debts and charged with exorbitant taxes, unequally imposed and only partially collected.”
This had resulted in a lack of funds to buy wheat urgently needed for the inhabitants' daily bread. Therefore, the commander in chief “judges it expedient to make some alterations in the constitution to give it back its original energy, and vigour and authority to the laws. The ecclesiastics and convents will contribute to the costs of the state, and the people will enjoy an impartial and just taxation; … the advantages gained by these regulations will result in the accounts sent by the different universities being absolutely correct, with a possible reduction of taxes, establishing funds to cover the enormous debts, and giving the Menorcan people the right to examine the receipts and payments of their public money. These new regulations will be distributed to all the terminos. The regulations are now established. Signed: General Charles Stuart, fully authorised by His Majesty to direct the civil affairs of the Island of Minorca.” As the Menorcan historian, Hernandez Sanz, wrote: “like another Kane, he dedicated himself to the betterment and welfare of Menorca.” 12
Appended to the decree were the debts of the ‘universities’ at that time: Mahon: 117,806 libras; Ciudadela: 78,221 libras; Mercadal: 26,352 libras; Alaior: 21,861 libras, with a total of 244,241 libras. Included also were lists of the inhabitants according to ëancient' classes, the right of the governor to choose or reject councillors by the old rules of ëinsaculation' (drawing the names of the candidates out of a bag), frequency of council meetings, duties of the almostazen (local inspector) in preventing fraud, high prices and irregular weights and measures. Stuart cancelled the councillors' salaries, which had been paid for out of public taxes. They would receive instead a gold medal, issued by George III, to be hung around the neck by a blue ribbon, this to be worn during their term of office. (Stuart ordered the medals in England with money saved in the Admiralty Board). The town secretaries would receive a fixed income with no extra emoluments and monks would receive 400 duros annual pension. Ecclesiastics would be taxed but at a reduced rate. Land tax would be reduced from eight to three percent!
The ‘universities’' debts would be instantly cancelled by Stuart's new accounting method, paying off arrears little by little, and forming a reserve fund. Tax collectors would henceforth be held to account to hand over half of the money on the due date, and the other half within two months, and if taxes were not paid, the debtor's goods would be confiscated.
Just seven months after Stuart's changes to the tax system, an itemised statement by the assessor, Nicolas Orfila, showed a complete reversal in the state of the ‘universities’' funds. In Ciudadela, after charges had been paid, there were 69 pounds in the treasury and in Alaior, they had a surplus of 442 pounds to pay off arrears and to increase the fund for grain and for contingencies “a precedent of the kind never seen before!” And Mercadal had 304 pounds in its coffers. Apart from these positive signs, the tax on land was § less in Mahon and Ciudadela, 1/3 less in Alaior and 1/5 less in Mercadal. Charles Stuart had achieved what no previous English governor had been able to do. It must have seemed a miracle to the average Menorcan, if not to those councillors who lost their jobs or salaries, or to the clergy who were obliged to pay taxes for the first time.
Stuart sent a full report to the War Office in London describing the abuses in local government and how he had handled them. He immediately opened the several courts of justice, abolished the assumed right which the universities claimed of not being accountable to the government, and made them give him the state of public affairs, “…yet such was the confusion of their books and the inaccuracy of the accountants that it was impossible, after the most minute investigation, to ascertain more than that the people were generally taxed one third of their property, exclusive of paying church tithes and other expenses, to answer the interest of debts partly contracted in former disputes between the several universities to establish an interest at the courts of London or Madrid, but principally on account of suits continued, if not instituted, for the purpose of maintaining needy lawyers.” When the ‘universities’ and clergy complained of Stuart's reforms, he simply answered that his king had authority in ëright of conquest'.
Ciudadela had claimed to have the power of presiding over the other terminos where the collective interests of the island were concerned, and had amassed debts which they charged to the public account. But their worst mistake in English eyes was to plot with Spain to dispossess the English of the island in 1782, resulting in St Philip's Castle being demolished and Ciudadela getting a bishop “of their own town and faction”. Stuart felt sure that they would always plot against the English and annulled their authority, but with a touch of diplomacy. “The university of Ciudadella was alone silent, but understanding that the jurats were deterred from coming forward by conscious guilt and the apprehension of punishment, I thought it wise and prudent to bestow upon one of the first delinquents the only vacant living, by that means explaining to them that although the individuals concerned in the former hostile proceedings were well known, His Majesty's government was forgiving and incapable of entertaining any wish but what combined the interest of that university with such measures as might be adopted for the general good of the country.”
Stuart replaced incompetent councillors with men “of the first capacity and responsibility” and made their actions open to public scrutiny. “These essential links between the people and their representatives form a serious barrier against future fraud; … and as the patrimonial revenue is made subject to the same publicity and examination, the advantages resulting to the country from the change are too evident to admit of any complaint. I have been scrupulously cautious in not meddling with the laws or changing the names of offices.”
In the interests of law and order, Stuart ordered the towns to be divided into districts, naming magistrates for each district; and the country people were grouped under separate headings. Georgetown (Es Castell) received its own ‘bailey lieutenant’ (magistrate) to be in charge of policing the town, which had always been under Mahon's jurisdiction. Now every town's streets were named and the houses numbered. Some of these numbers can still be seen in country districts.
To alleviate Menorca’s perpetual shortage of food, Stuart immediately granted passes to Menorcan privateers. Privateers were privately owned and manned boats that were issued with a Letter of Marque authorising them to intercept a vessel belonging to any country with whom their king was at war. Their prey were merchant ships with precious cargoes. Menorcan privateers could obviously be useful in capturing French boats near the coast so “the first act of the King's power was the restoring of the Minorquin vessels, taking off all duties on imports, allowing a free trade with our allies, and instead of imitating the conduct of the Spaniards under Crillon by imprisoning individuals and confiscating the property of those who were friendly to, or held place under, the former government, such Minorquins… were without exception left free in their persons, and made secure in their possessions and admitted to every right and privilege of British subjects.
“To conclude this subject, I have reason to believe that the measures adopted have been generally well received and, as a proof of this assertion, they have been followed by no petition or representation of any description, but on the contrary every assistance has been afforded in carrying them into execution.”
One Menorcan who stepped forward to offer his services was the lawyer Nicolas Orfila, the criminal assessor, who supervised the civil laws and the new constitution. Stuart increased his salary after a few months in appreciation of Orfila's speeding up the island's legal cases which had always been subject to outrageously long delays. Orfila also chided the jurats (councillors) for not having sworn allegiance to George III, for not having prepared details of the brandy monopoly, nor submitted their accounts on time. 13
Another of Stuart's first measures was to set up an Admiralty Court in order to grant passes to Menorcan traders and to decide on captured ships and prize goods. They were to comply with the regulations of the Admiralty Courts in Britain in an act of parliament of 1793. Barely six weeks after his arrival, Stuart felt able to report to Lord Dundas: “I have the satisfaction to inform you that such branches of the civil government as were absolutely necessary for the transaction of public business are established, that an Admiralty Court is formed, that 14 (Menorcan) privateers will shortly cruise from this harbour, and that the interior of the island is in a state of the most perfect tranquillity.” 14
And within two months, the harbour of Mahon was once again full of activity and work. Menorcan privateers, sailing under the protection of the British flag, were bringing in prizes of French shipping every day. For months, the island was well supplied with oil, wine and wheat captured by these enthusiastic Menorcan sailors. At the beginning of March 1799, the wartime embargo on shipping was lifted and all boats were free to come and go in the port of Mahon.
Ships in the harbour,
10 Alaior archives, Folder no. 28, 26 May 1798-12 October
Privateers in Mahon harbour.
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