1800-1859 | Burning towns and cities | Civilians slaughtered | Crimes against women | Looting and plunder | Rape | Spain

British sack San Sebastian, killing at least a thousand and raping the women

Denis Dighton, The Storming of San Sebastian, oil on canvas –
National Trust for Scotland via Wikimedia.

31 August 1813

On 31 August 1813, British troops, under the command of the legendary Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington, ransacked, looted and burned their way into the Basque town of San Sebastian, killing an unknown number of civilians, but later estimated by historians to have been at least a thousand. A census of the town’s population before the siege listed 5,500 inhabitants. A subsequent census recorded only 2,600.

Enraged by the casualties they had suffered at the hands of the French defenders who managed to retreat to the town’s castle, the British soldiers turned on the defenceless civilians, raping most of the women as well as young girls in front of their parents, before setting fire to their homes. The resulting conflagration continued to blaze for seven days by which time approximately 600 buildings, including the City Hall, had been burned to the ground. Only 36 were left standing. The population was left destitute and homeless but Lord Wellington refused to grant a desperate request from the surviving members of the city council for a ‘starvation wage.’1

It was only after fifteen years, with the publication of Sir William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula, that there was any public disclosure of ‘the most revolting cruelty,’ which followed the capture of the city. Napier commented that English soldiers had been responsible for ‘the perpetration of villainy which would have shamed the most ferocious barbarians of antiquity.’2 Portuguese soldiers and officers who had fought alongside the British and under the command of Lord Wellington, may also have been implicated in some of the crimes, but it appears that at least one lost his life by trying to defend civilians from the rampaging Redcoats. According to Sir William, ‘a Portuguese adjutant, who endeavoured to prevent some atrocity, was put to death in the market place, not with sudden violence from a single ruffian, but deliberately by a number of English soldiers.’3

In the immediate aftermath,  the British public were informed of none of these crimes, as Bells Weekly Messenger (a Sunday national newspaper) lauded ‘the gallant acquisition of the city’ and the ‘merciful treatment of the conquered garrison and  inhabitants…. Not a man being put to the sword after the place was taken,’ while the Nottingham Gazette remarked on ‘the brilliant capture of the almost impregnable fortress of San Sebastian…. (and) that bravery and discipline which distinguish our countrymen.’4

FOOTNOTES

  1. Stephen Lewis, “The British rape and destruction of San Sebastian,” 10 May 2013, accessed online at https://thewildpeak.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/the-british-rape-and-destruction-of-san-sebastian/
  2. Sir William Napier cited in Stephen Lewis, op. cit.
  3. Sir William Napier cited in Stephen Lewis, op. cit.
  4. “Politics of Europe,” Bells Weekly Messenger, 19 September 1813, p. 298 and “Review of the Month,” The Nottingham Gazette, 1 October 1813, p. 3.

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