Palma's Born and a love story that went tragically wrong

Once upon a time, special occasions were celebrated on the Passeig Born (Paseo Borne) in Palma. Military victories, the coronation of a king; these were reasons for the Majorcan nobility to gather and for the humble folk to watch on from a distance. The main entertainment was jousting. 'Born' comes from a word that means something like jousting. The knights would therefore ride at pace along what was to become a promenade, Palma's premier meeting-place, where military bands of the nineteenth century played from stages.

But this avenue of one-time chivalrous sport and pleasant strolling on summer eves hides a dark story, for the Born could also have a darker purpose. On the fourth of May 1742, Dragoon Lieutenant Manuel Bustillos was to realise just how dark this was.

It is a story that has rarely been told, but it is a story from Majorca's past that is worthy of greater recognition. It is a love story, but one of taboo and what in those days was the not inconsiderable matter of the theft of jewels valued at 179 of your old Majorcan pounds.

It is a story set against the background of Bourbon times, the island by then having moved on a generation from the Nueva Planta decrees and the dismantling of the Crown of Aragon and Kingdom of Majorca. By 1742, military presence was more for defence purposes than for interior security, the warring nobility having settled their differences and adapted to the Bourbon era by forming the alliance that came to be referred to as the 'Nine Houses' of the Majorcan nobility. Whether this firmly Spanish control of the island made any great difference to Manuel's fate is debatable. There again, had it not been for this control, Manuel might never have been in Majorca.

Not a great deal is known of Manuel. As he was a mere dragoon lieutenant, there wasn't much to know. But we know enough to be aware that his life was cut short (pretty much literally) at the young age of 25. He was from a tiny village called Sedano in the Burgos province of Castile and León, so he was very much a man of the Bourbons. Felipe V, the victor of the War of the Spanish Succession, was his king, and he was with the Orán Regiment. As an officer he would have worn a uniform of white tunic with navy blue trimmings and carried a spontoon with an ivory handle.

Manuel was married. However, his wife was in Malaga and he wasn't, which begins to explain what happened to our dashing dragoon. How long had Manuel been in Majorca before he met Elsabet Font dels Olors i Penyafort? Who can say, but on August 6, 1741, the 22-year-old Elisabet left the island ... with Manuel.

Adultery was an offence, but there was a bit more to it where Elisabet was concerned. She was a nun. Her father, a nobleman from Arta, had sent her to a nunnery, which happened to be La Misericordia in Palma. It isn't clear how Elisabet and Manuel came to meet, but it came to light - once Elisabet went missing - that the Mother Superior had been aware of a soldier hanging around and speaking to Elisabet at the gatehouse.

Their discussions would have involved the planning. Which was where the jewels came in. These were ecclesiastical jewels. Someone, Elisabet presumably, stole them. Manuel, one supposes, then sold them. The money was needed for their flight from Majorca, and so at dawn on August 6, Elisabet climbed down a rope from a balcony at La Misericordia. Manuel was waiting with false passports and men's clothing; Elisabet was to be disguised.

They took a French ship, 'Saint Marie de la Garde', that was bound for Almeria. Meanwhile, the Mother Superior, having lost one of her nuns, notified the Bishop of Majorca. He spoke to the island's Captain General. At which point, one of Majorca's most famous sons enters the story - Antoni Barceló i Pont de la Terra, who was to become Lieutenant General (Admiral) Antoni Barceló i Pont de la Terra.

He was a ship's captain in 1741 and the same age as Manuel. The Captain General ordered him to search for Manuel and Elisabet. As a captain climbing the ranks, Antoni required little persuasion. The French ship was eventually spotted in Cartegena. Manuel and Elisabet were confined on 'El Lleó', Antoni's ship, and two days later they were back in Palma.

Manuel was found guilty of desertion, adultery, theft and kidnap (which was how Elisabet's disappearance was explained). He pleaded for clemency, but a council of war sentenced him to death. This was to be the dark story of the Born, a particularly curious one in that Manuel selected his own means of execution. Curious, as he devised what in effect was a guillotine, years before the French Revolution.

What followed was also somewhat curious. Manuel was buried at the Monti-Sion Church with military honours and a musical accompaniment that was paid for by the regiment. Despite his desertion, he was still able to command the respect of his fellow officers. As such, although he was dead, his treatment was in stark contrast to that of Elisabet. She was confined for life at the convent, excommunicated until the sacrament was later returned to her, restricted from exercising, forced to kiss the feet of the nuns and fed on bread and water.

Forty years later to the very day of Manuel's execution, she died, she having suffered all those years, recalling what could only ever have been an impossible love story.

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