The Albufera

Map of the Albufera of Alcúdia in 1851, as it was before the civilizing intervention of J. F. Bateman and the Majorca Land Company

The main channel of the Albufera opened by J. F. Bateman and the Majorca Land Company
to lead out to the sea the water of the streams flowing into the lagoon

Tourist map of Mallorca. The Albufera is marked with green under the flag of the island.
Soon, in mid-January, when the feasts of Saint Anthony – on which we have already written – arrive, the Albufera of Alcúdia will give again its (already almost negligible) share of the island’s eel consumption. This delicacy is an equally indispensable part of fideos cooked in clay pots, of the paellas made on open fire in the night of the feast, and, above all, of the espinagades (see the video) prepared with much red pepper and fresh spinach on the day of Saint Anthony in Sa Pobla. It is in this coldest time of the year that the eels arrive after their long and mysterious travel from the Sargasso Sea to the island, and creep inland along the channels of the albufera, to which the former Arabic population gave the name  az البحيرة al-buhayra, “the little sea”. And it is then that they finally have the size required by the chefs of the island.

On land, even if a swampy land, every inch is measured and has its owner, and the animals of these waters, including the eel, are a forbidden prey to the fishermen whose territory is the open sea. And the peasants, who in the autumn hunt here with long-handled reds, filats the thrushes passing from north to south through the island (video), in January “harvest” (this is the term they use; cf. video) the eels swarming in the lagoons. The albufera is the land of the farmer, not of the fisherman. And the animals of the albufera, the heavy buffalos splashing in the lagoon, the large number of birds – coots, mallards, mergansers, moorhens, stilts, sandpipers, swamphens, herons… – which come and go, as well as the eels and other fishes living in the lagoons are considered to belong to the farmer just as the rice grown by him in the shallow margin of the albufera, the marjal.

The rich but unhealthy territory of the albufera was more or less a common treasure of the local villages until “the English” arrived at mid-19th century. Around the same time the Revista de Obras Públicas characterized the Albufera as “an extensive and gloomy reed land, in whose mist there hovers he dreadful image of death.” At that time the albufera was twice as large as now. The famous engineer John Frederick Latrobe Bateman, “the greatest dam-builder of his generation” won the concession to exploit the natural resources of the zone in exchange for executing his ambitious project of drying and sanitation of the marshland. From this moment on the lagoon began to be domesticated, but it never paid the huge investment, especially because a large part of the cultivated land became salty and infertile. Even so, only twenty years ago on a good night they could still catch – harvest – over two tons of eels.

The plan of drainage and sanitation of the Albufera, by J. F. Bateman and the Majorca Land Company

Today you cannot find any more “rates de marjal”, those “swamp rats” which lived only on rice, and from which in Sa Pobla the fabulous “rat with onion” was made. However, they are still hunted in the albufera of Valencia, where they are prepared as arròs amb rates de marjal (paela with swamp rats) or an espardenyà “worthy of a prince” according to Vicente Blasco Ibáñez in his Cañas y barro (1902).

The chimney of the power plant of Es Murterar among the reeds, at the edge of the lagoon. The heat generated by it has been used for years by a fish drying plant established next to it.

The former traditional agriculture and wildlife in Mallorca has been systematically destroyed for several decades by the urbanization and tourism forced beyond all limits. The typical raw materials of the kitchen of the island in transformation are nowadays import vegetables, hormone-treated meat, frozen Japanese eel and any other tempting fruit of the tree of progress.

The Mallorquine workers participating in the pharaonic drainage enterprise of the Majorca Land Company, often complained about the conditions imposed on them. When winter arrived with heavy raining, they started to sing this hardly inspiring work song:

Ja comença a fer gotetes
i es torrent que ja se'n ve:
Mal s'endugués s'Enginyer,
es taulons i ses casetes!
The first drops of rain have arrived,
the stream started to grow:
May the devil take the engineer,
the boards and the barracks!

Leaving the Albufera towards Artá, and passing by Son Real, we cross the estate Son Serra de Marina with its once solemn, now semi-abandoned buildings. But that is another story and another devastation.

3 comentarios:

walter dijo...

Do you know when the drainage work was undertaken? I don't see a date on the plans drawn by the London surveyors, Cheffins. The London Gazette of April 16th 1872 shows that the 'Majorca Land Company Ltd" was wound-up on 22nd March 1872: it was likely registered in Bishopsgate in the City of London. Given that drainage of land below sea-level is not impossible, I'm curious as to why the venture failed, at least in part, and whether there were local stakeholders. Given Bateman's fame as a hydrologist/engineer, I doubt he was short of projects.

Anónimo dijo...

New Majorca Land Company, founded 1863 and dissolved in 1892. The works were Pharaonic and they consist of the construction of 138 km of channel widths of between 4 and 60 meters, 13 siphons, 40 km of roads, 11 bridges and sea jetty of 300 meters. Desiccant in total 2757 hectares, the total cost in gold was 5645 kg. Finally, only 280 hectares were suitable for cultivation, it was expected that approximately 1500. The main cause was the porosity of the soil allowing the infiltration of sea water, while the design was focused on avoiding flood water runoff from the interior of the island. It was a complete economic failure.

I hope you understand, excuse the English Google.

walter dijo...

Clearly the post laments a lost time, and to focus on detail may seem pedantic. But attempts to drain the Albufera started before Bateman's "intervention", and one could argue he accomplished what he set out to do. Not least, the incidence of tertian fever was reduced. The depredations of paper-mills, a coal-fired power station and tourism are later matters.

But another detail interests me. There may be two distinct Majorca Land Companies. The first, the 'Majorca Land Company', existed for the duration of the major drainage works, from about 1863 to 1872. Debentures were issued by this Company in 1866 presumably to raise further capital. In March 1872 at an Extraordinary General Meeting in London, it was resolved "That the Majorca Land Company Limited require the said Company to be wound up voluntarily". I suspect that the 'New Majorca Land Company' was its successor, having claim to the land recovered. Bateman had the sole interest in this company. In March 1885, again at an Extraordinary General Meeting, it was resolved that the 'New Majorca Land Company' "be wound up voluntarily". I believe these are distinct companies, possibly to minimise tax and to write-down losses. In 1886 the 'New Majorca Land Company' was transferred to Bateman's son, Lee La Trobe Bateman, who astutely managed to sell it before it went bankrupt!