The Ghosts of Cabrera

In the TV series, entrepreneur Mel had wanted to buy Benidorm Island (aka Peacock Island) for development. Small islands close to holiday hotspots are natural magnets for the unnatural. Development has been rightly denied. Eyes will have been cast longingly at the island of Cabrera. But they have not lingered on the vista. Cabrera is off limits.

It is more than one island, it is a minor archipelago in its own right. A national park since 1991, one of fifteen such parks in Spain, Cabrera enters the public consciousness only irregularly and fleetingly. Discussions about the further expansion of the park and the occasional attempt at "privatisation" are when it is remembered. Mel might have approved of superyacht occupants having invaded and taken over a beach - the privatisation. No one else approved. But although there was a lot noise from environmentalists when this happened two summers ago, it was all quickly forgotten. Such can seem to be Cabrera's lot. The spotlight is turned on and then swiftly dimmed once more.

Last weekend there was a special guided trip to the island. Its theme was the legends and mysteries of Cabrera. It is a mystery to many, the result - in part - of institutional uncertainties. This is a national park, the contribution of which is negligible in terms of the overall number of visitors who go to Spain's national parks. It is accessible - there is the boat from Colonia Sant Jordi and there are other excursions - but institutions don't want it to be too accessible. A consequence is the heightened mystery, supported by the legends.

The name came, it is said, from the mountain goats - "cabras montesas" - that once inhabited the island. Following the conquest in the thirteenth century, the first owner, a beneficiary of Jaume I's distribution of spoils, was a certain Ferrari de Sant Martí, the provost of Tarragona. Cabrera was a questionable spoil. It was even harder to defend from pirate attacks than Majorca. A castle was therefore built. Development had begun, but the castle was an isolated example. Cabrera was a natural paradise, but its isolation turned it into a natural hell. The surprise was that as many French prisoners of war survived as they did.

The Battle of Bailén in Andalusia was the first ever open field defeat of a Napoleonic army. It was July 1808. The French surrendered. The commander, the Duke Dupont de l'Étang, was eventually sent before a court martial, no account being taken of the motley nature of his troops and the desertion of Swiss troops who switched sides. He was only in prison for two years and was to have a political career. Around 4,000 prisoners were sent to the Canaries. They were well received and were to integrate into the local population. The fate of others was not as kind.

Spanish and British ships transported the prisoners. Officers were held at Bellver Castle. The ordinary ranks went to Cabrera. They were not imprisoned. There was no prison. The island was its own jail. Although only six kilometres from Majorca, the strong currents made an escape by swimming a virtual impossibility. But what safety would they have swum to anyway?

The provincial authority in Majorca provided a daily pound of bread and a handful of beans per prisoner. But only to begin with. The prisoners were left to their own devices. Some 9,000 of them all told; it was the first concentration camp. Three main groups formed: the "Robinsons", who lived by the sea and survived through what they could catch from the sea; the insane and the sick, who lived in caves; and the ones who maintained their reasoning and tried their best to organise life on the island. Among this group were twenty women. They prostituted themselves in return for food.

Around 3,600 were to survive. They were freed in 1814. Back in France they received no honour. In Cabrera, a memorial was to be built by the French government in 1847 to those who had died - La Cruz de los Franceses. The small cemetery contains the remains of the French and the tombs of a Majorcan fisherman, known as En Lluent, who had drowned, and of a German pilot, Johannes Bochler, whose plane crashed in 1944, having been shot down by an RAF hunter.

For some years after this, a wreath of flowers would mysteriously appear at the grave. They said that it was the British pilot who brought them; it was a gesture of chivalry. In 1982, Bochler's remains were exhumed and taken to the German cemetery in Cuacos de Yuste in Extremadura. Or were they? There are those who believe that the wrong remains were removed; they were those of En Lluent.

The legend was that the ghost of Johannes Bochler would walk the lanes of the island each night, imploring that he be buried in his homeland. The exhumation might have solved this, but the legend continues, and there is another - that of the ghost of an old fisherman, who appears at the cemetery and cries to be allowed to return to his grave.

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