The Catalan roots // Root Causes of the Catalan Diaspora

Root Causes of the Catalan Diaspora

Root causes of the Catalan diaspora by Peter Gerrand

By Dr Peter Gerrand, La Trobe & Monash Universities, Australia

The emigration of Catalans to Australia from the 1850s to the present can be understood in historical context by considering the root causes of the Spanish regional diasporas in general, starting with the foundation of the Spanish Empire in the 15th Century.

After the conquering of the Canary Islands in 1402 by emissaries of the Kingdom of Castile, first Castile and then (from 1566) the merged kingdom of Spain encouraged its citizens to colonize its new colonies in the West.  Andalusians, Galicians, Asturians, Basques, Montañeses (from Santander) and Navarrese were prominent amongst the regional citizens of Spain who colonized the New World, from the Canary Islands to the Philippines.  Converted Jews or Moslems and indeed anyone of interest to the Inquisition were officially barred, but some nevertheless managed to emigrate.

As a legacy of the War of Spanish Succession (1700-14) the citizens of the former Kingdom of Aragon, including most prominently the Catalonians and Valencians, were barred from trade with Spain’s American colonies. This ban persisted until the reforms of Carlos III of Spain in the late eighteenth century. After then, Catalan manufacturers found a growing market in Cuba, Mexico and Argentina in particular.  Many Catalans emigrated to Cuba in the nineteenth century, particularly during the middle of that century, although they were less numerous than the Canary Islanders who preceded them or the great waves of Galicians and Asturians who succeeded them.  However, the Catalans did well there in commerce, and were the first to create a mutual aid society amongst the Spanish immigrants to the colony: the Sociedad de Benefencia de Naturales de Cataluña, in 1840.

Economic benefits were not the only reason for migration from Catalonia to the New World of the Americas, and from there to Australia, in the nineteenth century.  The three Spanish civil wars, known as the Carlist wars, created much misery across Spain, especially the Second Carlist War which originated in Catalonia in 1846 and lead to thousands of casualties in Catalonia alone.  In addition a corrupt political system known as turnismo, the alternation of power sharing in parliament by the wealthiest classes (copying the British system), effectively disenfranchised the poorer classes and dashed their hopes of bettering themselves economically or socially within Spain.

In addition the Spanish system of military service (the quintos) enabled sons of the middle and upper classes to buy their way out of the standard three years of extremely poorly paid, poorly equipped and poorly trained military conscription – including fighting in foreign wars – that faced members of the lower classes. This of course accentuated the existing class divisions and fuelled inter-class resentment and violence, including assassinations of leading politicians by anarchists and Barcelona’s Setmana Tràgica in 1909.  Many young Catalans escaped overseas from the 1850s to the 1920s to avoid conscription, in addition to those who were simply seeking their fortunes.

The loss of Cuba to the United States in 1898 – in part due to the poorly equipped Spanish navy and the corrupt Spanish army, whose officers were notorious for selling on the black market much of the weapons, clothing and food intended for their soldiers – was a major set-back to Catalan trade.  However it encouraged the development of an independent-minded Catalan nationalism amongst the emigrant centres there, such as the Centre Català in Havana (created in1905) and the Grop Nacionalista Radical in Santiago, Cuba (also in 1905) – note the use of the Catalan language in their names. 

These Cuban Catalan Centres were politically more radical than the dominant nationalist  Lliga party back in Catalonia.  The role of the Centres Catalans of Cuba and Mexico in supporting Catalan language nationalism and Catalonian separatism became important to the development of the separatist Catalan political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, whose exiled leader Francesc Macià (later to become President of the Generalitat) visited the separatist Catalan groups in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Cuba at their invitation in 1926.

But from the 1860s to the 1930s, Calatan emigrants travelled to all of Spain’s former colonies and beyond, e.g. to the USA, Canada and Australia, in search of commercial opportunities.  An exception occurred during the years 1914-18 of the First World War,  which Spain wisely kept out of; its economy consequently boomed through supplying food, clothing coal and minerals to both sides.  But the economy started to stall again in the early 1920s, and political repression of the Catalan language and culture reoccurred in the 1920s under the dictator Primo de Rivera, stimulating in part another wave of Catalan emigration.

After the Spanish Civil War, Catalan Republican families (and in some cases, unaccompanied children) were amongst those who escaped the French concentration camps and migrated to Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and other parts of Latin America.

In the 1960s the Franco Government organized special trainloads of young adult workers from the poorer regions of Spain to work as Gastarbeiten in factories in Germany, Switzerland, France and the UK; the total Spanish emigration to Europe during this period reached 1.5 million.

Testimony to the worldwide diasporas from Spain’s regions can be seen in Table 1 above, which shows the numbers of Spain’s regional emigrant community centres across the world in 2007. 

It can be seen from Table 1 (on the right, click to enlarge) that the number of Community Centres of Catalans (92 Casals) outside Spain in 2007 was exceeded only by those of the Basques (159) and the Galicians (185).

The presence in Table 1 of 14 Casals Catalans in Argentina, 6 in Mexico, 8 in the USA and 3 in Uruguay, reflect concentrations of Catalan immigrants arriving in the Americas before the 1960s.  By contrast the 7 Casals in France, the 7 in Switzerland and the 5 in Germany indicate the flow of Gastarbeiten in the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom settled in their host countries. 

As for Australia, the Catalans dominated the small wave of Spanish immigrants from the time of the gold rush (1850s) to the 1930s. It is notable that in 1863 the colonial Government of Victoria wrote to the British consuls in Palermo, Marseille, Bayonne, Bilbao, Barcelona and Genoa seeking migrants specialised in vines, olives and tobacco.  And in 1907 some 500 Catalans were amongst a much larger number of Italians whose fares to Australia were paid to encourage them to work in the cane fields of Northern Queensland.

More Catalans arrived in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s with financial assistance under the Australian government’s assisted immigration policies. Their Australian legacy includes three Casals Catalans created since 1982, with financial support from the Catalonian Government.


Peter Gerrand. 2008. The worldwide diaspora of Spain’s regional communities: its reach, its history and its modern relevance, CERC Working Paper No. 3/2008. Melbourne: University of Melbourne. ISSN 1447-0071. December 2008. (64 pp.), available at