Ibiza History & Culture

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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Sant Llorenç de Balafi
Fiesta Day Celebrated 10th August

Saints & Fiestas

Welcome to the history page. This week we are going to take a peek at one of Ibiza's best kept secrets: the sleepy northern village of San Llorenç. It's nice to know that even at the height of summer there are still a few quiet enclaves where one can find sanctuary. Mass tourism notwithstanding, Sant Llorenç has remained a blessedly peaceful, slow-paced stretch of farmlands, dotted by rural homes and the odd flock of sheep. Perhaps because it is one of the three Ibicenco townships that does not give onto the sea, the area has been virtually ignored by sun seekers and the business concerns that accompany them. As in the other inland counties, the locals have kept to their ancestral ways, unperturbed by the advent of modern society. Happily for the history buff, the pre-conquest settlement of Balafi and the nearby town centre have been spared the ravages of development. The clean clusters of whitewashed buildings with their pure, graceful lines remain as one of the few undisturbed strongholds of traditional Ibicenco architecture. As one wanders through the village, there is not a modern structure in sight, nor, often, even another human being.

Turbulent Past

But it hasn't always been peace and tranquillity in Sant Llorenç. During the 16th century, pirates found the spot irresistibly raid-worthy. Documents show that Balafi had become a favoured spot for settlers because of its fertile, stream-fed fields and its rich red soil. For centuries pirates had been attacking Ibiza from its southernmost extremity at Salinas; but when they caught wind of the prosperous farmsteads in Balafi, it proved worth their while to move their operations northward.

A Fashion Statement

During the frequent raids, the looters would stock up on edibles - figs, raisins, sacks of grain, etc. (They were far too busy plundering to cultivate their own foodstuffs.) But what the pirates were really after were the inhabitants themselves whom they would capture and sell off as slaves in distant ports. Interestingly, it is said that the traditional attire of Ibicenco females was developed expressly to protect women from being taken captive in such raids. The dress (still worn frequently in places like Sant Llorenç) consists of a voluminous, many-skirted frock that swells out from just below the bust. This couture gave the impression that the wearer was an expectant mother. Pirates, you see, would not take pregnant women - not due to any code of decency - but because these women would invariably die en route and have to be thrown overboard. The dress, then, acted as a red herring of sorts and has been kept ever since.

A Look at the Chronicles

As we have mentioned in previous articles, during the wild years before the Corsairs were formed, pirate raids were visited on the island with a habitual frequency of twice or three times a week. Sometimes these attacks would consist of lone ships pulling in for a day of sport, while other times the raids would be full-scale offensives planned to precision. The major attacks were recorded in the annals of the Town Hall and today provide us with a good idea of the devastation that must have taken place. The following two chronicles, translated from the original Catalan, tell of two raids on Balafi. The first, written in 1538, states that, "On the day of XVIII of July, Friday morning, there arrived from the island of Formentera 25 ships, galleons and galeasses. And (after having attacked the walled city) left to set fire to all of Salinas or part of them, which is to say, bundles of wheat, houses, towers and anything in their path. The next day they set off toward Sant Eularia and there set fire to all of the 'quartó' and they reached Balafia and set fire to the towers . . . " A second account written in 1543 reports that, "On the day of XII October there arrived 20 galleons and 3 galleasses of Moors and they reached the river of Santa Eularia and there many Turks disembarked and they went to Balafi and Arabí . . . "

Parish Rights Finally Granted in 1785

What these people desperately needed was a church to take refuge in. Unfortunately, other groups of islanders proved more vociferous in their petitions for parish rights and, when push came to shove, the Balafians were passed over in favour of the Labritjans. The whole iniquitous story goes back to the visit of Archbishop Manuel de Samaniego in 1726. Rightly, the prelate felt that the ideal location for the new church proposed by the northerners was spot called 'Es Pujol de ses Magranes' ('the Little Hill of Pomegranates'), situated right in the heart of Balafi. But the Labritjans (i.e. the folk of San Juan) would not hear of it. They had a chapel further north that they insisted be enlarged into a proper church.

Excuse me for a moment as I drop my objective demeanour, but those people were being just plain selfish. The Labritjans had their chapel, however small, for mass and shelter. The Balafians had nothing. The Labritjans were advantageously situated on top of a high hill ('labritja' means 'hillside'). The Balafians were utterly vulnerable to attack. But neither justice nor common sense prevailed. The Labritjans were so determined to build the church at the site of their chapel that they downed tools and would not work at the Little Hill of Pomegranates. The deadlock grew so severe that Samaniego finally relented and granted the much disputed parish rights to the chapel, today a part of the San Juan church. The Prelate subsequently commented in his memoirs that this case had been one of the most trying he had ever encountered.

I suppose we have to let bygones be bygones. In 1785, when Ibiza was finally furnished with its own bishopric, the first occupant of the post, Manuel Abad y Lasierra saw that the island was in dire need of churches, not only as points of refuge, but also as points of civic interaction. He noted, not unkindly but honestly, that Ibicencos were thoroughly lacking in social skills. To remedy their incivility he proposed to raise nine more churches that would also serve as town centres. Naturally, one of the spots he chose was Balafi. The decree of erection is worth reproducing, in part, as it sheds light on conditions of the day and confirms earlier indications. After personally touring the island on the back of a mule in 1785, Abad y Lasierra wrote in Castilian Spanish: "In the interior of the island there is a pleasant and fertile territory, bathed by streams, called Balafia . . . The graciousness of the spot as well as the spiritual needs of its inhabitants advocate the erection of a newly created parish under the patronage of Saint Laurence the Martyr. There is a population of close to 100 families . . . "


Only twelve years later, in 1797 the church of Sant Llorenç was inaugurated with total solemnity, whereupon followed, according to the chronicles of the day, a multitudinous fiesta at which eleven quarts of wine were drunk. Nowadays, the Sant Llorenç fiesta tends to be a tame affair, drawing few outsiders and little notoriety. Perhaps it's just the ticket for history buffs like us! See you next week with the low-down on Sant Antoni's grand summer jubilee, Sant Bartomeu.

Emily Kaufman