The peninsula of Morrazo is what happens when three deep valleys are flooded by a rising sea, leaving behind a chunk of land where the hills roll into the harbours, where oceanic currents carve out countless inlets and coves, where the terrestrial world is the deepest green and the marine world thee deepest blue. At the heart of this verdant peninsula lies the Cangas do Morrazo, a town whose soul is of the sea.
The Vila de Cangas was built on the fruits of the sea. From the sixteenth century onwards, the sardine catch would be a principal source of sustenance for the town, and a principal source of income for the parish, whose church of Santiago was built on the funds of the fishermen, who were to give a tenth of their catch’s worth to the priests in what was known as the diezmo.
On this foundation grew a seafaring culture: fishermen’s cooperatives sprung up, different methods for hauling in the little sardines were devised, and even a nascent export industry was developed with salted, smoked, and dried fish sent across and down the Cantabric and Portuguese coastlines throughout the sixteen and seventeenth centuries. A fishing fleet was built, with indigenous sailing vessels like the dorna being designed for each and every kind of seafaring task; to net sardines, lure octopi, scour the sands for shells, and to transport stock across the harbours.
On this foundation grew a seafaring culture: fishermen’s cooperatives sprung up, different methods for hauling in the little sardines were devised, and even a nascent export industry was developed with salted, smoked, and dried fish sent across and down the Cantabric and Portuguese coastlines throughout the sixteen and seventeenth centuries. An indigenous fishing fleet was built, with indigenous sailing vessels being designed for each and every kind of seafaring task; to net sardines, lure octopi, scour the sands for shells, and to transport stock across the harbours.
With great wealth, however, came great risk: Cangas was razed to the ground by marauding Berber pirates from southern shores in 1617, condemning its inhabitants to a century of misery. But the natural wealth of the Ría de Vigo – with its abundant stocks of fish, molluscs, crustaceans, and clams – allowed the Vila to move into modernity with the arrival of the salting and conserve industries, brought to this isolated corner of Galicia by Catalan industrialists seeking richer shores to enrichen their surplus.
But with new capital came new conflicts: the newly imported methods of massive sardine catches with massive nets threatened both the livelihoods of smaller fishing families and the life-cycles of the marine world. Two worlds collided: capitalism – with its salaried labour, its massive harvests, its impoverishing labour conditions, with its monopolies and inequalities – threatened the existence of the pre-capitalistic, ancestral form of life with its subsistence production, its communal ownership, its shared reward, its limited consumption, and with its workforce of artisans.
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The conflicts grew and grew, periodically exploding into boycotts, sabotage, and strikes. In Cangas this class conflict defined political life for the first third of the twentieth century, with seamen and factory workers organising into powerful unions and political parties which clashed with the titans of industry, but which were ultimately crushed by the tyrants of politics in 1936 when a coup d’état would plunge Cangas, Galicia, and Spain, into a longa noite de pedra, a long stone night of exile and repression.
During and after the Civil War, the fortunes of the conserve industry captains would experience a boom, with the enormous Massó factory epitomising the Golden Age of the conserve industry in the new economic order of Spain. For decades the Massó factory, built at the outbreak of war on the western shore of Cangas, symbolised the paternalist economic model of employment, investment, and production, providing the town with an economic stability that would last until successive financial crises throughout the final decades of the century led to the suffocation of factory finances and the eventual cessation of the entire industry.
Today there remain but two conserve factories in Cangas, though the sea continues commanding the economic fortunes of this town. The new source of wealth that has come to replace the old industries is found in tourism, with Europe discovering the beauty of the Cíes Islands which surge out of the sea to the west of the peninsula. The Cíes, they say, were known as the Islands of the Gods in Antiquity, its sharpened ridges visible from the parishes on the western shorelines of the peninsula. Be it in fishing, in the seafood harvest, in tourism, or in its environmental value, life in Cangas do Morrazo remains tied to the sea, its soul forever of the sea.
Lives and Times thanks the cultural association A Illa dos Ratos for their tours of Cangas which provided the historical information that informed this article.
Lives and Times…
For more writing on the Blue Planet, see these posts from Lives and Times:
- Atlantic Island Explorations I: The Cíes Sublime
- The Seascapes of O Morrazo: Photo Gallery
- Death of a Whaling Industry: A Chapter in Man’s Relation to the Sea
- Atlantic Island Explorations II: The Ons Oasis
Writing on the World Around Us…