Ibiza History & Culture

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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Sant Jaume
Fiesta Day Celebrated 25th July

Saints & Fiestas

Of the many events that crowd the Pitiusan summer agenda, Saint James' Day carries double importance. For completely different reasons, this day is both a local and a national holiday. In its widest sphere of observance, Saint James is celebrated across the whole of Spain as the country's patron saint as well as the patron saint of travellers. At the local level, the occasion signals a colourful homespun fiesta on the tiny isle of Formentera.

The National Version

In greater Spain this red-letter day is known as the Fiesta de Santiago and is steeped in two thousand years of high religious history. Historically, Santiago (i.e. Saint James) was the apostle who, in accordance with Jesus' injunction, "Go ye out", went to Hispania and preached the gospel. From the Holy Land, this faithful servant landed in Murcia where he founded the first Christian church on Spanish soil (a little-known fact), and then continued on to Compostela in La Coruña where today a magnificent Romanesque cathedral bears his name. Throughout the centuries the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela has been a powerful place of pilgrimage, drawing millions of devotees along the same road ('el camino de Compostela') that led the Nazarene's envoy to the farthest reaches of the known world.

The Local Version

In Formentera, the name of the feast day is Sant Jaume, the Catalan equivalent of Saint James. Unlike Santiago, the celebration is of relatively recent origin and is unusually void of religious overtones. Its roots are thoroughly popular and, in truth, the fiesta pays scant homage to the "saint behind the day". Here is how it all began:

Formentera Abandoned

Due to a series of epidemics, most notably the Black Death, the island of Formentera had to be completely evacuated from the latter half of the 14th century until the tail end of the 17th century. With only 96 km2 of surface area, dead flat in the main and utterly defenceless, the tiny spit of land was under continual attack by Turkish and Moorish pirates.

When the Black Death struck, Formentera's fighting forces were debilitated to the breaking point. Thus, despite much regret, an allegedly temporary retreat was made to big sister, Ibiza. Once the worst of the virulence was over, the waylaid settlers attempted to re-establish themselves on Formentera, evidence of which is a little fortress-chapel ('sa Tanca Vella') built in 1362 In the end, however, the precariousness of life on an unbastioned island proved insurmountable, and the settlers returned once again to Ibiza. This time for good - or so it seemed at the time.

Pirate's Paradise

In the absence of respectable citizenry, Formentera was overrun by pine trees and pirates. For three centuries, sea rovers found in this little island a haven beyond compare: no legal forces to contend with, deserted forests where spoils could be stashed and numerous sandy stretches upon which to beach their vessels. From across the Paso des Freus, the buccaneers would leisurely plan their strategies, resorting habitually to a regular itinerary: Espalmador - Salinas - walled city.

Ibiza Fights Back

By the 17th century, the Ibicencos had taken about as much abuse as they could stand. They gathered ships together (remember that one of Ibiza's lesser-known industries was shipbuilding) and formed a counter-offensive of corsairs. The islanders turned out to be extraordinarily fearsome fighters and over the years managed to rid local waters of plunderers. By the end of the century, some islanders even felt secure enough to reclaim Formentera for their own. A land grant given by the King to Ibicenco, Marc Ferrer, in 1695 and another conceded to his son-in-law, Toni Blanc in 1699, marked the return of civilization to the lesser isle.

Formentera Revisited

Slowly, Ibicenco families began to trickle across the Paso des Freus to stake their claims, and by the mid-18th century, there were an estimated 200 people living in Formentera as permanent residents.

As it happened, many of these brave souls came from the Santa Eulalia area of Ibiza, where, curiously, there was an inordinately high concentration of men named Jaume. The result, logically, was that many of the new settlers in Formentera were also called Jaume. In fact, some actually held Jaume as both a first and a last name (e.g. Jaume Joan de Jaume).

July Lull in Farming

It also happens that the day of Sant Jaume falls within a short period of relative repose from agricultural tasks - the fruit of San Juan has already been collected, while the wheat has yet to ripen. Moreover, if unto this fortuitous state of affairs, we add the benignancy of the summer sea, there was really only one thing a sensible, 18th century Ibicenco could do in July: get in a boat and pay a visit to his friends and family in Formentera. Then, when all the visiting Jaumes and their families met up with all the long-lost Jaumes and their families, it would have been humanly impossible not to rejoice to the fullest.

Out of these spontaneous beginnings grew today's holiday, considered the most important in Formentera. It is even speculated that the first church built on the island (1726) would have been dedicated to Sant Jaume (the priest was a Jaume, too) had the Jesuits of the day not occupied such lofty spheres and ordained the patronage of Sant Francis Xavier, one of the founders of their order.


What I most like about this fiesta is that its origins can be traced back to true thanksgiving for a bountiful life. The pirates had been defeated and family bonds now stretched safely and lovingly over the Paso des Freus. So, go ahead and give yourself over to true celebration at Formentera's grand summer jubilee. Like the 18th century Pitiusans, we have a lot to be thankful for!

Emily Kaufman