Eusebi Casanelles i Rahola: Catalonia – A commercial and industrial nation

Cataloniadoes not have vast natural re­­sources, or fertile plains and minerals like coal. Nevertheless, it was one of the few places in Eu­­rope which played a main role in both the Middle Ages’ commercial revolution and the industrial revolution in the early 19th century thanks to the productive dynamism of its society.

The origins of Catalonia go back to the Frankish counties founded by Charle­magne, which gained their independence by the end of the 10th century. During the Middle Ages, Catalonia was the central territory of the kingdom of Aragon, which expanded its domains as far as Sicily, Sardinia and the south of Italy, becoming one of the most important powers in the Mediter­ra­nean.


Due to the lack of natural resources, its great strength was based on its manufacturing tradition and commercial culture. The water wheel was soon applied to diverse productive process­es, not only for milling grains, but also for the fabrication of paper, extraction of iron, spinning wool, etc.
ultimate end of its power in the Mediterranean came in the 15th century. A combination of poor harvests and pests decimated the pop­ulation, Bar­ce­lo­na lost 60 per cent of its inhabitants.

The heirless king’s death, civil wars and the occupation of the Mediterranean by the Turks finally ruined the country. Under these circumstances, Catalonia joined the prosperous kingdom of Castile, although both continued to be two independant realms.

A great repopulation by the Occitans took place in the 15th century and the late 17th century saw an economic resurge. Dutch merchants arrived looking for Catalan spirits to substitute the French ones, as they were at war. The resulting commercial relationship with Northern Europe would continue even after the war had ended. During this century, agriculture specialized in the growing of vineyards and boosted the important industry of spirits, which was one of the most significant for the Catalonian economy for almost two centuries. Large companies were not created, but instead family businesses initiated trade with Northern Europe, which in turn gave another boost to the economy.
In spite of the incipient economic recovery, the 18th century started badly. The War of Spanish Suc­­cession was declared and Catalonia took sides with Charles II (of Habsburg). Through the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) the kingdom of Spain went to Philip V, who unified the two realms, Aragon and Castile, and imposed Spanish laws and language. Thereafter, he im­­posed a strong repression and Cata­lonia lost its political identity.

All things considered, the economic result of this process was not negative. The removal of the border between the two kingdoms made it possible to open up a larger trade market of more than 7.5 millon people instead of just 500,000 Catalans. The later abolition of the commercial monopoly with America held by the port city of Sevilla allowed Catalonian ships to establish a direct relationship with that continent.
The crop production increased and im­­proved, which gener­ated surplus that could be exported to the rest of Spain and America. Additions to this surplus were manufactured products such as ob­­jects made of iron, paper or glass, shoes and of course, quality wool and silk textiles.


Cotton was introduced in this century, mainly coming from Malta, whose industry would dominate the Cata­lane. Philip V’s decree of prohi­bition on importing stamped textiles boosted the industry of painted textiles made of cotton and linen (indianas). The first factory was created in Barcelona in 1737, and by the end of the century, the city had become number one in Europe for this kind of trade, as as­­serted by the historian James Thomson. Within this economic situation, the Catalonian population doubled up and in 1787 was at 900,000 inhabitants, almost twice as much as in 1717.

The war against England in the late 18th century and the following Na­­poleonic Wars caused a disaster. Maritime exports were not possible for a long time, infrastructure and produc­tion centres were destroyed, and the worst was yet to come with Ferdinand VII’s (1814–33) conservative reaction, which complicated industrial development. It was not before the rule of Queen Isabella II of Spain, that a liberal regime was established and the industrial process could be resumed, although it had never stopped completely. In 1832 the first steam-operat­ed machine was installed at Bona­plata’s factory. This machine came to symbolize the beginning of industrialization. From then on, industrial growth, especially in the cotton textiles area, became unstoppable.

Industrialization was carried out in an unstable Spain, where modernizing was difficult. The American colonies were being lost and the internal market was dominated by an unreliable economy based on technically backward agriculture, which was in turn subject to long periods of draught.
The lack of raw materials was an additional difficulty, especially with coal, which had to be imported from Wales. It was because of these factors that the political demands of Catalonian industrials focused on adopting protectionist measures in order to be able to compete inside the country with foreign products.

The industrial world was constantly dissatisfied with seeing that the ‘agrarian’ government was unwilling to support industry. This caused a permanent discontent in the Catalonian burgeoisie. Industrialization meant modernity, and with the reappearance of the romantic trends supressed by King Ferdinand VII, the idea of Catalonia as a cultural entity with its own language, which had continued to be spoken, was reborn. But industrialization also brought strong personal, political and economic bondings with the rest of Spain.

Catalonian industrialists, who had until then relied on the power of steam for operating their textile factories, were forced to obtain the cheaper alternative of hydraulics and started to build their factories with its matching places close to natural weirs. Nowadays, Catalonia has the highest number of industrial communities in Europe, which created a unique heritage.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, almost all productive sectors had been industrialized and a journalist from Madrid wrote that Catalonia was the ‘factory of Spain’ after visiting the region. Great frustration came from not being able to develop the steel industry due to the lack of iron and coal. This sector was almost a monopoly of the Basque Country. It was during this period that the burgeoisie promoted modernity. At the end of the century, the Catalonian population had reached two million people.

In 1912, the first hydroelectric plants in the Pyrenees were built and they solved part of the energy problems. During the first decades, the country diversified its production; industries were created in a new sector which would replace the already exhausted textile area: metallic and electric construction. Mine exploitations of an in­­dustrial nature also began, cement and steel were produced using electric ovens and consumer goods industries were developed. Also during this period, foreign capital industries were set up for the first time (AEG, Siemens, Hispano Olivetti, etc.).

Politically, 1914 saw the approval by the state of an institution called the Mancomunidad (association of local governments), which had certain competencies throughout Catalonia.


It achieved several goals, created many services and improved the infrastructure for communications, culture and education. An important example of this is the Industrial School.
The Mancomunidad was abolished in 1923 by dictator Primo de Rivera, but in 1931, with the establishment of the Republic, the first autonomous government of Catalonia was formed. At the time, the industry was stable and some companies, like Hispano Suiza, were ready to compete at European level, but the wartime and postwar events in the Republic shattered these projects and the country sank in years of repression and isolation.
By the end of the war, multiple industries were dismantled and moved to the centre of the peninsula. 25 years of progress were lost in the same way as it had happened at the beginning of the 19th century. The stabilization plan of 1959 brought a change of economic mentality to the regime under Franco, which until then had been based on autarky, and there was a certain liberalization, which coincided with Europe’s economic development.
FIAT’s decision of settling in Barcelona (SEAT) created another main engine for the Catalonian industry for the second half of the 20th century, boosting the electro-mechanical and the consumer electronics industries.

The crisis during the 1970s made the strengths and weaknesses of Catalonian industry evident. Based on SMEs, it was very diversified, its flexibility and adaptability to new circumstances and its dynamism were favourable. The weak points were the inability to bring companies together in order to create larger enterprises and the prevalent protectionist culture.
The absence of large enterprises that could have exercised leadership and the non-consolidation of a large specialized sector made it very vulnerable when facing foreign competitors. Additional factors were the weak financial sector and the poor investigative and innovative activity typical of Catalonian industry, which had always absorbed innovation coming from abroad.

Entering the European Union the cloth industry was modernized, which were for the first time in a position of perfect com­petition, although this caused the disappearance of many businesses and the takeover of others. There was great op­timism symbolized by the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, following the example of their two prior international events which restructured the urbanization, but this time for the whole city.

Catalonia continues to be a great dynamic industrial region and it has additionally become a strong tourist destination. Now its challenge is to maintain a strong position in the industrial and innovative sectors of our globalized world in order to play a significant role in the economic revolution of the 21st century, just as it did in the Middle Ages and in the 19th century.

Casanelles-EusebiThe author was born in 1948. From 2000 until 2006 he was President of the International Com­mittee for the Conservation of the In­­dustrial Heritage. For more than 23­ years he was working as a director for the museum of science and technology in Catalonia. He gave lectures on many different congresses and published in­­numerable articles.