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Weekly Edition 022: Saturday 28th July 2001

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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Marc Ferrer - The Unsung Hero

Hello and welcome to the history page. Last week our ruminations took us to Formentera and the return of civilisation to that island at the turn of the 18th century. This week, as we have no pressing business to attend to, we may as well continue in the same line. Actually, rather than continue, I would like to take a few steps back in order to recount the interesting chain of events that led up to the resettlement. It all started back in the 1650s . . .

Ibiza had just recovered from a virulent bout of bubonic plague, but the prospect of economic recovery remained bleak. A full-scale depression settled heavily over the island due to the total loss of its primary industry, the production of salt. The island was literally reduced to bankruptcy when the quondam maritime practice of bypassing plague-ridden ports turned into a thirty-year boycott. This trading moratorium effectively strangulated all cash-flow to the island and its institutions.

The level of destitution that resulted borders on the inconceivable. The population lived in continual and unrelieved want of life's bare necessities. Not only was there no money, but the island could not feed itself owing to frequent droughts compounded by poor agrarian techniques. Hunger afflicted both peasants and town dwellers, demanding that food be imported from elsewhere - although the local government's absolute insolvency made that exigency rather hard to fulfil. Not many merchants were willing to engage in the barter of salt for wheat, which was the arrangement island authorities most often tried to promote.

It should be pointed out that grain was the primary staple of the Ibicenco diet during the 17th century. At this time Ibiza was still covered predominately by her indigenous vegetation, the pine tree. The fig, almond, citrus, carob, olive and other fruit trees which now grace the island's countryside were not planted until the latter half of the 18th century. Getting back to the point, the need for grain was urgent, and islanders were hell-bent on getting it, by hook or by crook.

As it turns out, it was a private citizen by the name of Marc Ferrer who put his neck on the line to help his people in a time of need. Ferrer then went on to lead Ibiza into the largest enterprise she had undertaken in many centuries: the resettling of Formentera. What follows is a true story - definitive proof that history is every bit as engaging as fiction!

Have Boat, Will Sail

Marc Ferrer was a sea captain which, in those days, meant that he owned his own boat and made his living from transporting cargo. The only biographical information we have of him is that he was Ibicenco by birth, born into a family of mariners and raised in the marina of the old town. He grew up to be a trusted sailor and was hired by the city hall to fetch cargoes of grain from Italy and the Spanish mainland.

On one fateful trip to Valencia, however, Ferrer ran into misfortune. The year was 1692 and the captain had just purchased a very large cargo of wheat. The grain would not all fit in the hold of his ship and three trips home and back were needed to deliver it. On the final run, Ferrer met with the grain broker to settle accounts and found, much to his consternation, that the man would not accept payment in salt but insisted firmly on cash. When Ferrer could not produce the money, the broker took the drastic measure of throwing him in jail, where he stayed for two years.

Skewed Plans

Ferrer was not a man to take injustice lying down. From his tower cell he wrote to the powers-that-be in Ibiza, requesting their immediate intervention and arguing that he had merely been acting on their behalf. The governor of Ibiza was, of course, sensitive to the jailed man's pleas, but no amount of negotiation with the grain broker could persuade the latter to relent on his decision. This hard-nosed businessman, called Francesc MartÝ, made his intentions very clear. He was determined that Ferrer should stay in jail as collateral until he, MartÝ, was reimbursed, in coin, for the total amount due. Maddeningly, not a single pound was forthcoming from Ibiza's empty coffers, and Ferrer, it seemed, was a doomed man.

But! where there is a will there is a way. Foiled at the bureaucratic level, Ferrer resorted to his personal powers of persuasion. He summoned MartÝ and negotiated a private pact with him. The prisoner would hand over his only land (Can Parreta, in present-day San Jordi) to be exploited for an indefinite period of time, until the sale of its produce covered the debt. At the end of that time, the land would be returned to Ferrer, or in the case of his demise, to his descendants. MartÝ accepted and Ferrer was released.

Diminished Circumstances

The captain returned home to the welcoming arms of his wife and three daughters, a free man but a poor one. He still felt himself sorely wronged and decided to write a letter to the king, pleading his case. In the missive, he recounted the recent chain of events in which he had been involved and asked that, in compensation for the land he had forfeited in Ibiza, he be awarded half a square league in Formentera.

This was one bold request for a variety of reasons. First of all, the tract of land asked for far exceeded the tract of land signed over to the "Valenciano". Secondly, Formentera was utterly wild; no one but pirates had inhabited it in over three centuries. In fact, any sane man living in Spain in 1695 would have viewed owning acreage in Formentera as a curse rather than a blessing. It was flat, defenceless, infertile, overrun by dense forest - and those were its good points. To resettle a place like that involved serious risk to life and limb.

Perhaps, for these very reasons, the king looked upon Ferrer with favour, finding him to be an honest man and a brave one. The land was granted and the resettling endeavour began immediately. The rest, as they say, is history! Join us next month for Sant Ciriac and the Catalan Conquest, here at LiveIbiza where the action never stops!

Emily Kaufman

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