The City That Gave an Empire its First Defeat

By Nasser Tufail

There is a small town in the province of Jaen in Andalusia called Bailén which gave an Emperor his first defeat. It usually doesn’t show up in the Andalucian “Places to Visit and Things to Do” lists. But remarkably, this little city contributed significantly in changing the course of European history and the start of the end of an Empire!

First, a bit about the city. There is not a whole lot to do and see in this small town with a population of about 18,500 people which still retains its typical Spanish character. There are a few churches from the 15th to 18th century built in Baroque and Gothic style elements. All that remains of the Bailén Castle built by the Moors in the ninth century are some stretches of walls. This is Plaza del General Castaños, the Central Square, rather desolate looking in Coronavirus times.

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Plaza del General Castaños

Many buildings have art graffiti/murals painted on the façade or the sides of the structure, making the streets/plazas look colorful and artsy. Here is an example.

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The Paseo de las Palmeras is a promenade lined with 77 palm trees with an allegorical monument to the ‘Battle of Bailén’ at one end called ‘La Rendición de Bailén’ – Surrender of Bailén.

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Under the Tartessians, Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Bailén was known as Barrito. The first major battle fought in Bailén over 2,200 years ago ended in the defeat of the Carthaginians by Romans, after which the Iberian Peninsula fell under Roman rule. The next major battle near Bailén, the Battle of Las Navas Tolosa, would take place in 1212 during which the Berber Almohads were dealt a decisive defeat by the Christian coalition forces. But it was really the third major battle fought in Bailén in 1808 that became the turning point for the battle of the Peninsular War; that was also the reason for my interest in visiting the city.

An Emperor’s First Defeat

For it was right here in Bailén on 19th of July, 1808 that the heretofore invincible almighty military leader, who had by then conquered much of Europe and was crowned “Emperor” of France just 4 years earlier, would face his first ever open field defeat of his illustrious career. That Emperor, the “enlightened despot” or the “Ogre of Ajaccio”, depending on who you talk to, was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Who knew…!

The Spanish forces under General Castaños dealt a severe blow to Napoleon’s forces under General Pierre DuPont, sending shockwaves in Europe and discrediting the insuperable Napoleon’s “unconquerable” reputation. Pierre DuPont signed the Capitulation three days later, involving the surrender of 18,000 – 20,000 of his soldiers. Of course, Napoleon flew into a rage upon receiving the news of the defeat, attributing it to the cowardice of his generals!

The Spanish resistance movement had already started and the peninsular war was by then being fought in different pockets of Spain, and would continue for a few more years until Spain would get their independence. However, this single event is considered to be the turning point in Spain gaining its ultimate independence and the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s empire.

For the first time, the Spaniards felt emboldened that this little pest called Napoleon can be routed, after all, and continued their push for independence with more confidence and vigor, psychologically believing that such victories were indeed repeatable.

Joseph “Pepe Botella” Bonaparte

A year earlier, Napoleon had secured Spain’s collaboration and support for his planned joint invasion of Portugal, but that was just a pretext which would allow him to conveniently roll his forces into Spain (100,000 troops). The real prize for him was the Spanish peninsula, with a plan to overthrow the ruling Spanish dynasty. Napoleon had installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte as the new ruler and King of Spain to control the Iberian Peninsula. Incidentally, Joseph Bonaparte is more popularly known in Spain as “Pepe Botella”. I figured out the Botella part (bottle in Spanish), alluding to his alleged fondness for alcohol – ‘for the love of the bottle’. But figuring out Pepe needed some help from the locals. In Spain, ‘Pepe’ is a pet name for Jose, and Jose is Joseph in Spanish – so there, Joseph ‘Joseph Bottle’ Bonaparte!

Here is a vintage cartoon depicting Joseph “Pepe Botella” Bonaparte in French uniform immersed in a liquor bottle praying that the alcohol reaches his head, whilst being surrounded by four cherubs carrying grapes and musical instruments. The caption beneath the cartoon reads: “Every person has his fate, yours is to be drunk until death”!

Soon after the Bailén defeat of the French, Joseph Bonaparte, who at the time was based in Madrid, did a disappearing act and left town to move close to the French border where he would be safe under the protection of 60,000 French troops still stationed there. By August 2008, the Andalucian forces from Valencia and Murcia marched into Madrid and took control. Whilst the revolutionary ball had been set in motion, it would still be a few more years of ambushes and guerilla raids on Napoleon’s forces before Spain would eventually get complete independence from France.

France’s enemies over much of Europe gloated at the turn of events, as Napoleon’s fortunes started to dwindle over the following years, eventually leading to his decisive defeat at Waterloo in Belgium and a subsequent life of exile on the island of Saint Helena. When Napoleon got the word that he was to be banished to St. Helena, he exclaimed: “St. Helena! The very idea fills me with horror. To be relegated for life to an island within the tropics, at a vast distance from any continent, cut off from all communication with the world, and from all that it holds that is dear to my heart. That is worse than the iron cage of Tamerlane.”

Napoleon’s Contemplations at Saint Helena

Napoleon's first defeat

Napoleon himself reflected on this Spanish fiasco during his days of exile in St Helena thusly:
This accursed War in Spain was the first cause of all my misfortunes in France. All the circumstances of my disasters are related to this fatal knot: it destroyed my moral authority in Europe, complicated my difficulties, opened a school for English soldiers… this damn war has lost me.”

Such are the vagaries of life!

Factors that Influenced Spanish Victory at Bailén

There is consensuses amongst historians that one of the key contributors to the Spanish victory at Bailén over the French troops was the great support of the local population, particularly women. In July, the inland areas in the province of Jaen, including Bailénand surrounding canyons, can get quite hot. On the day of the battle, it was uncharacteristically very hot (around 43-45 degrees by some accounts) which caused French artillery to perform erratically from overheating, and the soldiers were also thirsty (many dehydrated) and demoralized. Moreover, it hadn’t rained for a long time and water sources were scant, both for the French soldiers as well as their horses. The commander of the Spanish forces had already secured access to fountains/springs, water bodies and the nearby river with heavily armed forces.

Protagonist of the Battle

The women of Bailén were very enthusiastically and bravely involved in supplying the Spanish soldiers with plenty of water in large pitchers on the battlefield, which was also very valuable in cooling the artillery. The heroine and legend of the battle was a lady named Maria Bellido, affectionately known as “La Culiancha” (for her strong hips, they say!). She organized a bunch of women to go on the battlefield with large water pitchers to supply Spanish soldiers with water.

Legend has it that at one point an enemy bullet pierced Maria’s pitcher, yet, totally undeterred, she hung on to it and kept supplying soldiers with whatever water was left in it. For Maria’s bravery, the city honored her with this bronze statue. Actually, the statue is meant to honor all women who bravely took part in the battle and Maria symbolizes their collective effort. Here she is, the strong-hipped “culiancha”, holding her pitcher with a bullet hole.

Even the coat of arms of the city of Bailén has a jug/pitcher… with that (fabled) bullet hole in it, symbolizing the brave women of Bailén.

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One can take a walk along the route covered by the Spanish troops to the battlefield. At various points in the city you can find monuments and ceramics panels (Bailén once had a thriving ceramics industry) depicting some pertinent information about the battle, battle route or re-enactment scenes.

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Museo de la Batalla de Bailén

There is a nice museum, Museum of Bailén, which covers the Battle of Bailén and the events that led to the Peninsular War. The uniforms and characteristics of both armies, weapons, profiles of important figures in the battle, captured arms and other items are on display, and there is also a model of the battlefield with miniature hand-painted lead soldiers.

A number of very informative murals provide the background information and some statistics; they are in Spanish and so you need a helper to help you decipher the message if you don’t know the language!

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An actual cannon and cannon balls used on the battlefield is on display, along with some of the weapons used in the battle and a poor soldier’s shoes.

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You will also find some rather colorful battlefield uniforms and hats worn in the battle by soldiers on both sides as well as a surviving pitcher used in the battle.

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This painting by the Spanish history and portrait painter, Jose Maria Casado del Alisal, captioned “La Rendicion de Bailén” (The Surrender of Bailén) depicts the surrender of Napoleon’s General Pierre-Antoine Dupont. It first remained in Queen Isabella II’s personal collection and then ended up in other museums over the years, including Museum of Modern Art and Prado Museum.

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Let There be Calle Bailén

Here’s an interesting nugget. When Queen Isabella II visited Bailén she felt that Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Bailén was very consequential and needed much more recognition. So she decreed that thenceforth every provincial capital will have one of its three main streets named after Bailén to honor the city and the signal event. And so it was… a lot of streets took on the name of Bailén. I don’t know about all capital cities, but I can assure you that there is a Calle Bailén (Calle means Street) in at least these cities that I have been to: Malaga, Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Valencia, Alicante, Granada, Murcia, Tarifa, Cartagena, Cordoba and Almeria! In fact, we not only have a Calle Bailén in Malaga, we have:

  • A Street called “Plaza de Bailén” going one way;
  • Another Street also called “Plaza de Bailén” going the other way;
  • AND a Central Plaza called Plaza de Bailén.

Now, that’s… a LOTTA Bailén for you just in Malaga!!

A los Vencedores de los Vencedores de Bailén

I found it rather amusing and ironic to note that some of the Spanish soldiers who fought in the Battle of Bailén, reassured by their triumph over Napoleon’s forces, went to Latin America to suppress the Chilean uprising during their War of Independence (from Spain) which got under way a couple of years after the Battle of Bailén. As providence would have it, the Chileans defeated the Spanish soldiers who had fought in Bailén against Napoleon’s forces at what is known as the Battle of Maipu. To commemorate their triumph, the Chileans erected a monument which has an inscription that reads: “A los Vencedores de los Vencedores de Bailén”. Any guesses what it says if you don’t know Spanish? Well, how about: “To the Victors, over the Victors of Bailén”. Here is that monument.

Finally, it was fascinating to find out that 240 years ago one of the sons of the soil of Bailén, a gentleman named Felipe de Neve Padilla, founded the second most important city of the Unites States where I spent quite some time, “Las Californias, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula”. You’ll recognize it by its present day shortened name – Los Angeles!

Founder of my Old Stomping Grounds!

Felipe de Neve once held the same position as Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and now Gavin Newsom – he was the Governor of California. Felipe is also credited with the founding of San Jose and Santa Barbara. The De Neve Drive in Westwood near the UCLA campus is named after him, and you can find a statue of him at the La Plaza Park (La Placita, or The Little Plaza, as it’s also known) in the El Pueblo District of Los Angeles downtown.

For more of Nasser Tufail’s travel narratives, click here: The “Jersey Devil” Whisperer

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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7 Comments »

  1. Thank you Nasser, I found that so interesting. I’m so glad that you’re enjoying your time in Spain and able to visit so many interesting places. Your enthusiastic approach to writing and illustrating this blog makes it such a pleasure to read.
    Greetings from Liza

    • I’m glad you found it interesting. For Nasser and myself, being here is like walking through our school history books. What we knew in theory is now framed in its physical context. All very exciting. I love reading about other people’s experiences too because it makes it more real than a tourists’ guide can. I’m sure there’s a lot more in Nasser’s head. xoxo

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