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Pirate Towers on Ibiza

Powerful Guardians against Pirates and Marauders

Pirate Towers
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They are popularly called "Pirate towers", those ten massive, round, fort-like towers that used to protect Ibiza in days of yore. They were built between the 16th and the 18th centuries and generally occupied by two watchmen who raised the alarm with fire or smoke signals when they saw pirate ships or other hostile vessels approaching Ibiza.

In response, the civilian population would take refuge in their equally fortress-like parish churches, or hide in caves. The pirates usually discovered that they had made a mistake if they decided to attack the towers, for these were well armed with a small cannon, and their defenders poured boiling water and hot pitch onto the attackers from above...

The suspension creaks and groans, as my car makes its bumpy way along a pot-holed lane that meanders through pine forests and arid open landscape. There are vines and fig-trees on red soil, interrupted by ancient dry-stone walls. The fortress tower on the Pou des Lleo in the north-east of the island can be seen from afar, exposed as it is to the rigours of the climate on its elevated position on the coast, resisting the wind as it used to resist attacks from pirates and other enemies. The last part of the way can be negotiated only by 4-wheel drives, mountain bikes, or hikers. Rain and the other agents of erosion have washed away the soil and exposed the bare rock. There is a pleasant smell of pines, rosemary, juniper and fennel in the air.

pirate towerWhen I finally reach the tower it rises in front of me like a rock from the sea, the Torre de Campaniche, or Torre d'en Valls. It is one of nine remaining fortress towers on Ibiza's coastline, very much like the Martello towers on the English coast. It is 8.5 metres high, and almost 13 metres around. Its massive walls are made of roughly hewn rock. A decayed wooden flight of steps, minus a few steps, leads up to a narrow opening on the first floor level. The only other openings are some embrasures, to shoot from, otherwise nothing but unassailable masonry. Fairly solid, as a matter of fact, at nearly 10 feet thick!

The Torre d'en Valls on the Pou des Lleo was constructed in 1763, at about the same time as the towers of Balanzat, Portinatx and Cabo Jueu, facing Es Vedra, and is categorized as class II of the buildings in the military surveillance system on the island. The towers that were constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries are classified as belonging to class III. The latter served primarily for the observation of the sea - and were to provide the watch with some shelter in case they were surprised by the enemy.

The special features of towers of military class II, most of which were constructed during the 18th century, were that they were also designed to serve the purpose of active defence: they were equipped with stores of muskets, gunpowder kegs, shot, and a small cannon.

These towers had no opening at ground floor level: their garrison entered the interior of the tower through the opening on the first floor, by means of a rope ladder or a mere rope, either of which could easily be pulled up inside in the event of danger.

pirate towerThe ground floor of the fort contained two chambers. In the larger of the two was the ladder leading up to the first floor, the smaller one was the powder and ammunition store, and two trap doors communicated with the upper storey. The first floor was one single vaulted chamber. Access to it was through the opening in the wall. The only other openings were embrasures in the opposite wall. A narrow winding staircase led further up to the uppermost floor, the observation platform. The stairwell and the positions by the embrasures were protected by a rectangular flat wooden roof. Some of the Ibicenco fortress towers look rather different nowadays, because restorations carried out in the past were not always done in strict accordance with the originals. The Torre d'en Valls has only recently been reconstructed.

The visitor feels on top of the world on its observation platform, from which one has a magnificent panoramic view over the sea and the surrounding country. There is nothing to impede the view travelling leisurely over the wide expanse of incredibly blue water, all the way to Tagomago and Cala Sant Vicent, or across the gently rolling landscape that stretches away to the radio and television masts on the hills near Sant Lorenç. A sailing boat is passing off Tagomago, a tiny fishing vessel is chugging busily out to sea and the wind is sighing in the tall pine trees. The autumn sun draws ever-changing shadow lines across the rocky ground, and the air is filled with the soporific hum of countless bees and the rising and falling chorus of cicadas.

Imperceptibly one's mind begins to wander and move back through the centuries. Soon one is sitting on top of the tower on guard duty scanning the horizon for the outline of suspicious vessels, pirate ships or smugglers' boats, for whom the tiny island of Tagomago served as a perfect storehouse and staging post. Innumerable watch?men must have been on guard duty up here, on top of the Torre d'en Valls, through the course of the centuries, checking the horizon with eagle eyes. It was their all-important duty to warn the population of the island as soon as they could make out the prow of a hostile galley or any other vessel.

When the alarm signal was given from the watch by the coast, with smoke signals during daylight, or fire at night time, the people took refuge inside the fortified churches, or in private fort towers in the vicinity of their homes. It should perhaps be noted that not a single watch tower on Ibiza was ever taken by pirates or marauding bands. One, however, was destroyed by the angry youthful male population of the area...

pirate towerFor this odd and amusing anecdote from the history of Ibiza's fortress towers we are indebted to the activities of Vicente Guasch and Marcos Colomar, two watchmen from about the middle of the nineteenth century. Like all of their predecessors in their elevated position, they were duty bound to keep a constant watch from the top of the Torre d'en Valls over the sea below them. But Gorc and Colomar, as they were popularly called, apparently felt that they could spend their time more profitably: instead of constantly scanning the horizon with their keenest gaze, they furtively absconded from their post during the nights to have all sorts of fun, and especially to pay romantic visits to the village maidens.

This practice continued until one Sunday night towards the end of November 1864, when for some unaccountable reason the powder store of the tower exploded. Was this a pirate attack? An accident? "Neither the one nor the other," is the firm conviction of Michel Ferrer, a local historian who has studied the tower's past. "Most likely it was an act of sabotage, with a very human motivation behind it." Popular tradition has it that Gorc and Colomar's amorous nocturnal exploits were rather frowned upon by the youthful male population of the village. So, when the two "torreros" were absent on yet another of their nightly excursions - on this occasion they had found the attractions of a butchering party at Colomar's parents' house rather preferable to the solemn and dry duty of the watch - the local youths lit a fuse that sent the whole of the powder-store, and most of the tower, heavenwards.

pirate tower"Torre d'en Valls half destroyed by an explosion, fortunately no casualties. However, one hundred pounds of gunpowder lost, as well as one small cannon and 13 cannon balls," was the report that Gorc sent to the military commander of the Balearic islands two days after the explosion. When called upon to explain why he and his fellow watchman had left the tower he displayed considerable acumen: "We had sighted a vessel of unknown origin approaching the shore. In order to reconnoitre the situation we climbed down to the water-line. When we reached the shore, however, we discovered that the vessel had disappeared. While we were making our way back to the watch tower the explosion happened. It must have been caused by a stroke of lightning."

It goes without saying that during that night there was no thunderstorm anywhere on Ibiza. One may feel inclined to forgive Gorc and Colomar their escapades, for the period of the more serious pirate attacks was over when they were sowing their wild oats. Had their predecessors, as guardians of the island, behaved equally irresponsibly in earlier centuries, their lax sense of official duty could have had the most serious consequences, for Ibiza was of the greatest interest to a great many people and nations, due to its extremely favourable strategic position midway between Africa and the European mainland.

Michael Ferrar
For years Michael Ferrer from Santa Eulària has been studying the history of the tower fortresses
For centuries, Ibiza had been frequented by Turkish and Barbary vessels based in what are nowadays Morocco, Tunesia and Algeria. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, wrote about his voyage to Ibiza, about two thousand years ago: "Situated in the middle of the sea, at a distance of three days and three nights from the Pillars of Hercules, only one day and one night from Libya, and only one day from the Iberian peninsula." In other words, only a stone's throw from most places of importance. Small wonder that Ibiza was a sort of holiday resort for seafarers from North Africa and mainland Spain.

However far one travels back in the history of the island one will invariably find that Ibiza always attracted invaders and pirates as light attracts moths. The island had all that they desired: fertile soils, rich harvests, salt from the Salinas, and a population that could be sold as slaves.

A surveillance system for the protection of the island was therefore necessary. It is said that the Phoenicians 2,700 years ago already used high places on the island for look-out and watch-posts. But little remains apart from a few archaeological finds discovered at diverse spots on Ibiza's coastline - not enough to establish a pattern to explain their defensive system. This is scarcely surprising, for it is all a long time ago, and a lot of water, since the time of the Phoenicians, has run down the Rio Santa Eulària - indeed, it has dried up since.

Each of the fortress towers on Ibiza has its own distinctive history. The two towers in Santa Eulària were intended to protect the windmills of the area and its precious grain stores. When marauders or pirates appeared the towers doubled as fortresses. Massive walls, up to 10 feet thick, built of hard, hewn rock, were not easily demolished or taken, especially if the defenders poured boiling water or pitch from above, and trained their muskets and small cannons on the attackers. When the alarm was raised from a tower - through fire or smoke signals - soldiers were immediately despatched from Eivissa's fortress, who marched at speed to relieve the tower in question. The men of the watch who kept the territory under surveillance could then direct the troops to the attackers, who were no match for regular soldiers.

pirate towerBut there are also peaceful stories intertwined with the history of the towers. There is even an unlikely literary association. The Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibàñez, for example, wrote his famous book "Los muertas mandan" ("The Dead Rule") in the tower facing Es Vedra. Some say he finished the book in as little as three days. If only the walls of these miniature fortresses could tell their stories...

I have to bid farewell to Torre d'en Valls, and my fantasies of pirates, smugglers, and amorous watchmen like Gorc and Colomar who allowed their tower to be blown up during their watch. Farewell also to the magnificent view over land and sea.

I have a melancholy piece of news which I can offer as a parting gift: those who have not yet explored the towers will probably never have a chance to see them from the inside. Unless, that is, some admirer of watch-tower romance has again forced the lock. "People have done the strangest things inside the towers, and we have simply had to close them to the public in consequence," says Juan Escandell, who is the keeper of the keys for the watch tower on the Sant Miquel de Balanzat coast.

Acts of vandalism, ritual suicides - Ibiza's little forts, over centuries serving the safety of Ibiza's people, are now inspiring modern Ibicencos to the most macabre acts. This is the reason why nowadays their doors are secured with massive doors, padlocks and chains. Not to fend off pirates, but to protect them against visitors who are conspicuously lacking in respect for the island's past. At some stage the private owners of the towers simply had enough of this modern madness. This is very unfortunate, though entirely understandable. It was such fun to be in the position of Gorc and Colomar in their tower, just for once.

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