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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Sant Joan de Labritja
Fiesta Day Celebrated 24th June

Saints & Fiestas

Welcome to the history page. This week we will begin a two-part study on Sant Joan. The first part (today's instalment) deals with the historical background of the Ibicenco village of the same name; while, the second part (next week) will deal with the larger, pre-Christian numen behind the Sant Joan mythology, a phenomenon that exists all over Spain.

Ibiza Fights Back

Sant Joan is one of Ibiza's 'second-wave' churches, which, if you will remember, were three in number: Sant Josep, Sant Joan and Sant Francesc Xavier in Formentera. . These villages sprang up as a result of the rapid repopulating that, thankfully, followed the decimation of the bubonic plague in 1652. Taken as a unit, they constitute the first visible signs of advancement since the Catalan Conquest four hundred years earlier. One could say they represent the first small wave in a tide of growth and improvement that would continue throughout the century. We have already discussed San José in our LiveIbiza Archive article Weekly Edition 003 of Saturday 17th March 2001, so now, on the occasion of its upcoming saint's day, let us turn our attention to Sant Joan, formerly known as Labritja.

The Labritjans: A Law Unto Themselves

The basic line of development here is similar to that of Sant Josep, although there are a few interesting turns in plot. First of all, the Labritjans, as they were formerly known, were not really in pursuit of a church. Here I would like to point out that when we use the word 'church' we could easily substitute it for 'village' or 'town', inasmuch as churches were the single, defining factors that conferred civil status on Ibicenco communities. So, as I was saying, the Labritjans were not really bothered about having a church (or becoming a village) - at least not in the straight-forward way that the Vedrans were. The southern islanders, for example, had put their heads together, decided they needed a community church and had gone through all the necessary red tape to get it. This entailed writing a letter to the Archbishop - a task which, given literacy rates in those days, was not a simple matter - with the incredible end result that the Prelate actually sailed to Ibiza to look into the matter first hand.

San Juan Cocks its Ear

It was at this rather advanced stage that the Labritjans began to take an interest in the goings-on. They reasoned that if the Archbishop was going to be physically present on Ibiza, they should not pass up the chance for a meeting with him. I do not mean to imply that these folk were unambitious in any way, only that they had their own way of doing things. In fact, they were an extremely ambitious breed, as we shall see, and had already built a small local chapel to serve their growing numbers. With a characteristic spirit of independence, the Labrithans did not request anybody's permission or blessing for this move. They simply took the matter into their own hands and acted under the auspices of general consensus.

Heightened Status

Now, this chapel of theirs was very handy for Sunday services, but it was not equipped to perform marriages, baptisms, funerals, confirmations, etc. For these extra-ordinary rites, the people still had to make the long trek to the main church in Santa Eulària. Therefore, the prospect of raising their conventicle to the status of a proper vicariate (which could perform such rites) was one of the factors that motivated the Labritjans to initiate dealings with the Archbishop. Some things, however, are more easily requested than granted. His Highness had his own ideas as to where the new church should be - and it was not in Labritja!

The Sweet Fields of Balafì

Samaniego felt the ideal location for the proposed construction was in nearby Balafïa, an area which at the time (1726) was rich in fresh-water streams and therefore agriculturally quite productive. Also, a growing core of population was taking root in the area, making it a prime target for pirate attacks. The raiders would disembark at Punta Arabí, continue inland on foot, and, more often than not, head straight for Balafía. By setting fire to the fields, the invaders would force the people out of their homes, and capture as many able-bodied men and women as they could to sell as salves. A church here would provide shelter to endure these attacks even if they lasted several days.

An interesting note is that all churches in those days were endowed with fresh-water cisterns and could be stocked with vital provisions. Some, like the one in Sant Antoni, were even proper armed fortresses with artillery being kept on the roof.

Civil Strife

Predictably, quite a dispute arose as to where construction should take place. The Labritjans probably pleaded the same vulnerability to piracy as the Balafians, though at least they were advantageously situated on top of a high hill. (The term 'Labritja' literally means 'hill side' or 'steep incline'.) In any event, the Labritjans were so determined to build the new church at the site of their chapel that they downed tools and would not work at the Archbishop's proposed site, a spot called 'Es Pujol de ses Magranes' or 'The Little Hill of Pomegranates'.

The deadlock grew so severe that Samaniego finally relented and gave permission for construction to take place at the site of the chapel. The Prelate subsequently commented in his memoirs that the case of Sant Josep was quite effortless in comparison to this caper!

Even the question of which saint the church should be named after (usually the Bishop's prerogative) was decided by the people. They had already dedicated their chapel to San Juan, owing to the preponderance of this name in Labritjan families, and were adamant that the same name should be transferred to the new church. As usual, their will was done.

Slow Pokes

Ironically, once the Labritjans had received the episcopal go-ahead, it took them longer than anyone else to build their church. Sant Josep and Sant Francesc Xavier were raised in twelve years (1726 - 38), par for the course as far a religious constructions went. The church of Sant Joan, however, was not completed until 1765. The former chapel was incorporated into the main body of the church where it can still be seen today.

Balafia, incidentally, did receive a church, but not until 1785, sixty years later.


Next week, as promised, we will shift our focus from the strictly historical in order to explore the esoteric roots of the Sant Joan celebration. Hope you'll join us then,

Emily Kaufman