The remarkable history of Menorca
With one of the best natural harbours in the world and a commanding position over the Mediterranean, Menorca has a rich and eventful history of invasion and foreign influence.
From the earliest prehistoric times to the present day, this peaceful island has seen much upheaval...
Prehistoric Menorca (4000BC? - 400BC)
It is thought that people from mainland Spain and the eastern mediterranean were settling in Menorca as early as 4000 BC and Menorca can claim the greatest concentration of places of prehistoric culture in the world. The island is dotted with monuments and remains of the Talaiotic period which, after centuries of neglect, are now seeing the restoration they deserve. These include navetas (burial chambers), talaiots and the mysterious taulas; slightly sinister T-shaped tables probably used for religious ritual. One of the most visited sites is Naveta des Tudons, a Bronze Age burial chamber (and oldest roofed building in Spain) which revealed at least 100 corpses during excavations in the 1950s.
The Museu de Menorca is an important place to visit for a collection of coins, pottery and funerary objects of the prehistoric (and later) history of Menorca.
Classical Menorca (400BC - 903AD)
Phoenicians and Greeks were some of the first, and most peaceful, visitors to Menorca who were attracted to the island as a place to expand their trade throughout the Mediterranean. However in 400BC more belligerent newcomers arrived: the Carthaginians lead by Magón (Hannibal's brother) landed to enlist the island's formidable slingers, or honderos. Famously paid in wine and women, Balearic slingers were active throughout the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome.
In 123 BC Quintus Caecilius Metellus conquered the island for Rome and the province of Balearis Minor was formed. The Romans renamed the island Minorica and embarked on a programme of road building and the establishment/reinforcement of Iammona (Ciutadella), Mago (Mahon) and Sanisera (Sa Nitja). Christianity was firmly established during Roman occupation, interrupted only by a period of Vandal rule in the 5th century when Christians were cruelly persecuted. The Byzantines overthrew Vandal domination in 533 AD and restored peace to the island. Relatively little is known about this period although more is being learned as excavations in Sa Nitja uncover new parts of the story.
The founding of Spanish Menorca (903 - 1492)
In 903AD the island was captured by the Moors, renamed Minurka, and entered the Caliphate of Córdoba under Islamic rule. Ciutadella (Medina Minurka) was established as the island's capital and the Moors achieved some success in improving agricultural production on the island by introducing new irrigation techniques. Sadly, little remains of this period although many place names still begin with bini - meaning "son of" in Moorish.
The 13th century was a period of upheaval throughout southern Spain, which was recaptured from the Moors for Christianity. Jaume I of Aragón conquered Mallorca in 1232 and Menorca's arab rulers declared feudal allegiance to Jaume, offering an annual tribute of wheat, cattle and lard. In 1287, Alfons III conquered the island, restored Christianity and the Moors were thrown into slavery or ransomed. Catalan became the official language and the island began its years of Spanish domination.
After a short period of self-rule, in 1349 the kingdom of Menorca came to an end and was incorporated into Aragón. In 1492, Aragón was united with Castile and Granada to create the Spain we know today and throughout these years, until the early 16th century, Menorca enjoyed peace and economic progress.
Pirates, plague and poverty (1535 - 1712)
Following the end of the middle ages, Menorca's history enters a dark period characterised by plagues, tragedy, negligent rule, poverty and friction between the peasantry and ruling classes. In 1535, Turkish pirate Barbarossa attacked Maó, razing it to the ground and killing or enslaving over half the population. A second raid by the Turks on Ciutadella in 1558 had a similar outcome: most of the city was destroyed, it's archive of historical documents was lost and over three thousand people were taken as slaves to Constantinople.
The remainder of the 17th century was no better: bubonic plague, pirate raids and the loss of crops to swarms of locusts served only to make the nobility richer and the poor even poorer. It was during this period that Britain first gained treaty rights to use the Port of Maó and British influence grew. Given the events of preceding years, this influence can only have been seen in a positive light.
British and French Menorca (1708 - 1802)
In 1706 Menorca was split by civil war during the Spanish War of Succession, with violence between supporters of Felipe de Borbón and Archduke Charles of Austria (pretender to the Spanish throne). In 1708, Anglo-Dutch forces landed and took the island without a shot fired starting a period of British rule, officially cemented in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht.
The British domination of 1708-1756 has been described by many as the so-called "Golden Age of Menorca". Richard Kane, the first governor, is remembered fondly for the improvements he made including improved farming, a road across the island, new schools and the abolition of the Inquisition. He also moved the capital to Maó, causing the diminishment in status of Ciutadella, where British Protestant rule was unwelcome by the nobles and Catholic clergy.
In 1756 the Duke of Richelieu was welcomed into Ciutadella when he landed with 20,000 French troops. There was a brief naval skirmish but the British withdrew. This failure to defend the island caused the public disgrace and execution of Admiral Byng on the deck of HMS Monarch. The French ruled for the next seven years, founding the village of Sant Lluis and inventing mayonnaise during their stay, until the Treaty of Paris returned Menorca to the British in 1763
The next nineteen years of British rule were not as benevolent, the only work of note being the construction of Georgetown (Es Castell). Poverty amongst the islanders was extreme and many emigrated to Florida. In 1782, a Franco-Spanish force captured the island for Carloss III of Spain after a six month siege.
In 1798, Britain retook the island for the final time and just four years later, Menorca was returned to the Spanish crown in the Treaty of Amiens of 1802.
The road to modern Menorca
The final chapter of the island's history is dominated by the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The island's military commander declared support for the Nationalist cause in 1936 but the local population rose against him (at great loss of life) and regained the island for the Republicans. Menorca was the last place in Spain to fall to Franco, whose reprisals (including a ban on the Catalan language) caused some of the most traumatic years in Menorca's history. In 1975, the monarchy was restored under King Juan Carlos I and Spain returned to democracy.
Tourism in Menorca was slower to develop than in neighbouring Mallorca and Ibiza, and did not gain importance over the island's other industries of dairy farming and shoemaking for some time. The first British charter flight landed in 1953, but tourism did not begin to boom until 1969 when Sant Climent airport was built. Menorca was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1993, a move designed to protect the environment whilst supporting sustainable tourism.
In 2000, visitors to the island reached the 1 million mark and numbers have grown steadily ever since. Foreign influence continues to this day, with around seven thousand expats (mostly British) making their homes on the island and forming around 10% of the population.