A Spanish life


Natalio González y Fernández likely got his name because he was born on December first— the day of one of two St. Natalias in the saints’ calendar, and the beginning of the month in which Catholics celebrate the Nativity. But it was a dark world he came into as 1816 waned.

Two years before, the French had been kicked out of the Iberian peninsula. King Ferdinand VII, who had been kidnapped by Napoleon, regained his crown. Battered Spain, which had lost her fleet at Trafalgar and her pride under the heel of the Grande Armée, had at last recovered her precious independence. But young Ferdinand, el deseado, as he was called by the Spanish people in their desire to see him back on his throne, proved to be a disappointment, unfit to bring the country into the modern world.

Suspicious of anything that reeked of freedom, the reinstated monarch abolished the liberal Constitution (dubbed “La Pepa”) that the Cortes (or Congress) of Cádiz voted in 1812 in the midst of the war against the French. Popular ideas such as freedom of the press and representative government were abolished and the Inquisition was reinstated; the despot’s partisans rallied to the cry of “muera la libertad, vivan las cadenas” (death to freedom, long live shackles). Thus were long-suffering Spaniards repaid for their loyalty and Spain, which in the late 1700's was on its way to regaining its place among Europe’s leading nations, was forever held back.

In the Spanish American kingdoms, the situation was even worse. Local juntas emerged all over South America to defend the rights of Ferdinand after the French forced him to abdicate in 1808. But by 1816 most of these juntas, mistreated by the insecure Cádiz government and emboldened by the U.S. example, had decided on outright independence. That meant a long continental war.

It was mostly a ruthless civil war between American patriots and American royalists, stoked by long simmering race and class conflicts. In 1814 Ferdinand sent a huge fleet of regular troops to Venezuela and New Grenada in an attempt to quell the rebellion. Ironically it was led by Pablo Morillo, a Trafalgar veteran and backer of the Pepa. It met momentary success but it would prove to be too late, in part because Ferdinand’s absolutist bent made reconciliation with the patriots impossible.

A second attempt to embark thousands of troops from the Peninsula in 1820 ended up with the expeditionary army rebelling, marching on Madrid, and restoring the Pepa. After that, Spain’s South and Central American provinces were deemed forever lost.

Los fusilamientos del 3 de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya, depicts the aftermath of Madrid’s uprising against the French in 1808.

Madrid was the heart of this maelstrom, and that’s where Natalio was born. His parents were Manuel González de la Calle, from Segovia, and Rufina Fernández Bañares, from Valladolid, both cities in the old Castile that for centuries was the frontier land between Christians and Muslims.

The González-Fernández family lived on 19, Calle de Silva, in a central Madrid neighborhood now known as Malasaña, not far from where the bloody events of the May 2, 1808 uprising against the French took place.

In that house Manuel manufactured and sold reed mats; he was one of a dozen or such makers in Madrid. He was born in the late 18th century to Josef González and Bernarda de la Calle, both segovianos. We know he liked time-keeping machines— he once published an ad offering a reward for a lost pocket watch made by Charles Cabrier, a renowned London watchmaker. He was also literate. In 1826, he sought to sell several volumes of the Formulario Militar de Colón, a treatise geared to the training of cadets of the Royal Guard. We don’t know if he was ever part of such corps, or whether he came upon the books some other way.

Of Rufina, we know even less. She was born in 1780 to Bernardo Fernández Prieto, an Asturian, Sinforosa Bañares Rodrigo, of Valladolid. We do know she was an older mother, especially for the standards of the time; Natalio was born when she was thirty nine or forty years old, which could also account for his name.

Record of Natalio’s birth at Madrid’s St. Martin parish

We can also assume that she and her husband had some level of petit bourgeois prosperity, but it fizzled after Manuel’s death, and that Natalio must have been an only child, or at least the sole male child, as at one point he was the sole support of her mother. He inherited his father’s craft. In 1834, when the urban militia of Madrid was created and Natalio enlisted as a volunteer, his profession was listed as reed mat maker.

In May 1836, when Natalio was a young soldier, Rufina wrote to Maria Cristina, Ferdinand’s widow and the kingdom’s regent, to plead for her son to be released of his duties. The letter is stamped with a “sello de pobres,” a cut-rate stamp sold to the needy for the paltry sum of four maravedís.

Writing in the third person, perhaps through a notary or a professional scribbler, the widowed Rufina describes her misery. Her son,

who enlisted at 19 and was the one who supported her with his work, enlisted voluntarily so now she is forced to beg for her sustenance despite her advanced age and dismal health (…) Please find it worthy to release this hardworking son so he can help alleviate the disgraceful fate of his elderly mother.

Whatever Manuel and Rufina’s means may have been, the young Natalio was the beneficiary of a fancy education. He attended Madrid’s Colegio Imperial — an elite Jesuit school founded by Charles V´s daughter in the 16th century and the alma mater of literary stars Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Victor Hugo spent some time there; years after Natalio’s death, when the school became known as Instituto San Isidro, it educated Spanish poet Antonio Machado and former king Juan Carlos I.

The school, which still stands today, during Natalio’s time housed the Royal Seminary of Nobles—where the scions of the empire’s aristocracy boarded. The principal, Padre Rafael de la Calle, was later the confessor of Ferdinand’s brother, Carlos, who sought to usurp the crown. Padre La Calle, like Carlos, died in exile.

One of Natalio’s certificates of completion from Colegio Imperial de Madrid.

It’s unclear whether Padre La Calle and Manuel were related on Manuel’s mother’s side, which might have explained Natalio’s presence at such a high-brow institution. Maybe the fact that they both had the La Calle surname is mere coincidence. Manuel and Rufina could have also had a big reversal of fortune in the midst of all the political upheaval they lived through.

In any case, Natalio ended up with a stellar education, which later served him in his career as an officer. His diplomas, in Latin, are still kept in Segovia’s military archives. He seems to have graduated in 1830, at the tail end of the década ominosa — the period between 1823 and 1833, when Ferdinand quashed the liberals’ last attempt at reinstating the 1812 Constitution and doubled down on oppression.

The former Colegio Imperial, now Instituto San Isidro, and adjoining Colegiata (photo by Ángel González)


Natalio came of age at a time of revolution. After Ferdinand’s death, his infant daughter, Isabel, was crowned queen, under the regency of her mother, Maria Cristina. It was a long-awaited moment for liberals, who backed by popular pressure, pushed forward the reforms that Ferdinand had feared.

But fans of the antiguo régimen— always a powerful party —objected, and rose up in revolt behind the arch-Catholic Carlos, Ferdinand’s brother. Wide swaths of Catalonia, the Basque country and even rural Castile, where peasants and local nobility were very religious and attached to old privileges, backed the pretender.

The bourgeois classes, the army and the citizens of Madrid stood behind Isabel and Maria Cristina’s government and wanted centralizing reforms inspired on the French Revolution. Popular discontent and the Carlista threat gave more power to radical reformers— who proceeded to severely curtail the Church’s power.

In Madrid, the situation was explosive. In 1834, in the midst of a cholera epidemic, an enraged mob assaulted churches and monasteries, convinced the religious orders were poisoning the water. Seventeen Jesuits were savagely murdered at Natalio’s school. Padre Eugenio Labarta, the teacher who oversaw Natalio’s progress in philosophy and mathematics, witnessed the massacre and lived to tell the tale.

In 1836, as the Carlista rebels menaced Madrid, Natalio rushed to join a legendary old regiment — the San Fernando infantry regiment no. 11, formed in 1808 during the war against the French. He commanded a platoon of 60 men in the Catalonian Pyrenees. That’s the assignment his mother wanted him to leave. She didn’t get her wish: military records indicate that by the end of the year he had become a junior officer in the National Militia, a newly-created corps tinged with revolutionary ideals.

He was a daring young warrior. In 1838, in the Catalonian town of Sant Marti de Malda, he killed two enemies and took four prisoners, earning the accolade of his superiors.

In 1840 Natalio fought at one of the key battles of the war in Peracamps, where he was gravely wounded by a Carlista bullet. He was promoted to lieutenant on the field and awarded one of the army’s highest decorations, the Cross of St. Ferdinand.

The liberals beat the Carlistas in the end. And Natalio survived from his wounds. He was released from service in September 1841, but didn’t take to civilian life. After two months and two days he reenlisted.


Read also

The lions of Wad-Ras— the life and times of Natalio Gonzalez, part 2.

Hombres de todo mar y toda tierra—the convoluted story of a Spanish-American family.




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