FORMENTERA. Pure landscape and deep blue
The history of Formentera is full of gaps, even though some evidence of the past has been unearthed in the numerous archaeological sites on the island. We know that it has been populated since ancient times, since between 2000 and 1600 BC. The Phoenicians, who would make Ibiza their own, did not leave many traces, but they kept the island under exploitation. After them came the Romans, who left such mysterious traces as the Can Blai castellum. There then ensured several centuries of obscurity until the arrival of the Berbers and perhaps Arabs on the island. The 13th century conquest divided the island into areas called quartons (jurisdictional districts into which Ibiza and Formentera were divided), and it was then left unpopulated until the 18th century. At that time, churches and defence towers were built to protect Formentera from the bloody Turkish incursions. The poverty in the late 19th and especially 20th centuries encouraged emigration to Latin America, and the Civil War and the subsequent Franco regime left such macabre marks as a concentration camp. In the 1960s, mass tourism opened up new economic horizons on the island, which today combines this source of income with the protection of nature, its most important asset.
The most ancient finds that enable us to speak about a human presence on Formentera come from Cova des Fum cave, and the oldest materials date from the Copper Age (around 2000-1600 BC). However, the largest site is the megalithic gravesite in Ca na Costa. Located between S´Estany Pudent (lake) and the town of Es Pujols, it lies on rock and has an almost circular layout, where you can make out the funeral chamber – at the centre with the entrance corridor – and three rings surrounding it. It was most likely used between 2000 and 1600 BC. Six men (between the ages of 35 and 55) and two women (between the ages of 20 and 35) were buried there.
The excavations at Cap de Barbaria (cape) have revealed 21 sites from the Bronze Age (ca. 1600-1000 BC), which leads us to believe that most of the people on the island lived here. From the Late Bronze Age (1000-750 BC), axes have been found in La Savina and Can Marià Gallet that have been dated at between 1000 and 750 BC. These items are commonly found in the western Mediterranean, which leads us to believe they might have reached the island via maritime trading.
We do not know what happened to the population of Formentera after the Phoenicians moved to nearby Ibiza in the second half of the 7th century BC, but we do know that if it was not totally uninhabited then it was certainly sparsely populated.
The earliest sources that mention the island come from Agathemeros, a Greek geographer from the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC, who said: “… In the Iberian sea there are islands: Pitiüsa, the largest and inhabited, measures 300 stadis, and the smallest measures 100.” This statement leads us to believe that Formentera might have been uninhabited. Archaeological studies from the end of the past century have revealed at least eight sites that can be dated from the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC. After that, and throughout all of antiquity, Formentera remained part of the territory of the exploitation of the city of Eivissa.
One curious case that is still awaiting study is the occupation of S’Espalmador islet between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC; however, the lack of excavations means that we have not yet unearthed its meaning.
Up to 19 archaeological sites can be dated from this period. One of them is the Bou Cremat necropolis, near Migjorn, which confirms that there were people who lived and died on the island.
Roman writer Pliny the Elder spoke about Ibiza and Formentera, which are together known as the illes Pitiüses (Pine Islands) and were thus named by the Greeks because of the number of pine trees on them. He adds, “Now both of them are called Ebusus, with a federated city and separated by a narrow strait”.
Formentera definitively joined of the Roman Empire with the enforcement of the decree issued by Emperor Vespasian in AD 74, when Ibiza and Formentera joined the Tarraconensis province. In AD 297, Formentera joined the Cartaginense province, and the Can Blai castellum, one of the most unique sites on the island located on the isthmus joining La Mola with the rest of the island, might date from this period (although this date is controversial).
During the reign of Theodosius in the 4th century AD, the Balearic Islands were joined into a single political and administrative unit for the first time: the Baleàrica province.
Late antiquity and the andalusian period
In AD 455 the Vandals conquered the Balearic Islands, which then came to form part of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. In AD 535 the emperor Justinian brought the islands in the fold of the Byzantine empire. Thirteen archaeological sites have been identified on Formentera from the 6th and 7th centuries.
We do not have much information from the 8th and 9th centuries; this is a period marked by the arrival of Islam from North Africa, which might lead us to believe that some people fled to the islands. One text from the 9th century speaks about a Norman incursion in North Africa in 859, and it also mentions that the Normans later headed towards Mallorca, Formentera and Menorca.
In 902, Formentera and the remaining Balearic Islands came to be part of the Eastern Islands of Al-Andalus. This meant that clans of Berbers and perhaps Arabs came to live on Formentera. The Andalusian period marked a high point on the island. The area near La Mola has the most remains from this period, and gravestones have been found.
After the conquest of Ibiza on the 8th of August 1235 by the Crown of Aragon during the reign of King James I, the island was divided into four quartons (jurisdictional districts): La Mola and Es Carnatge went to Guillem de Montgrí, Es Cap went to Peter of Portugal and Porto-Salè went to Nunó Sanç. The salt flats were divided into three parts, but in 1261 and 1267 the fellow lords reserved the jurisdiction over the lakes even though they let the local population use them in exchange for exempting the owners from their obligation of protecting the population.
In 1246, Guillem de Montgrí enfeoffed his quartons to Berenguer Renard and entrusted Renard to populate the island. The document grants Renard his own bailiff and the right to fish in the sea and lake. The settlers could leave the island and sell, dispose of or pawn their belongings to the inhabitants of Ibiza. Both Renard and the settlers could extract salt from the lakes, but they could not sell it without Montgrí’s permission.
The settlement in the 13th century would not last, and in the mid-14th century Formentera was again left uninhabited, which led King Peter the Ceremonious and later King Martin the Humane to try to repopulate it, but to no avail. In the late 15th century or during the 16th century, Formentera came to be ruled by common jurisdiction and forfeited its own legal personality.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the island was in the front sights of the Turkish and Berber offensive in the western Mediterranean. The precarious defence system on the island (two lookout points and one tower) did not even prevent the Corsairs from landing.
The lack of safety in the Mediterranean forced Charles I to build new walls for the city of Eivissa under the supervision of engineer Gianbattista Calvi, who drafted a report in which he stated that a tower should be built on S’Espalmador islet, although it never was built.
In 1695, Charles II granted Ibizan Marc Ferrer half a square league of forest on Formentera. In 1699, he was once again granted the lands in La Mola and Es Carnatge, and Ferrer in turn gave his son-in-law Antoni Blanc a quarter of a league in Clot des Magraner. Therefore, much of Formentera was owned by Marc Ferrer and his family, and the censuses and tithes that had to be paid to the king were divided among the fellow lords of the island.
At first the new owners did not live there, as in 1712 there is documentation stating that it was compulsory to build houses there. The repopulation took place during and after the War of Succession with the triumph of the Bourbons and the taxes of the Crown, such as the appropriation of the Les Salines salt flats and the disappearance of the Universitat, the former governing body.
After the new inhabitants moved to the island, the Sant Francesc Xavier church was built. Construction got underway in 1726. The church has a fortified appearance, and indeed it was used as a refuge in the case of danger. It was the only place of refuge until 1749, and it had cannons that were later used for two towers.
The 18th century was the age of the Enlightenment, and according to the Improvement Plan more grapevines were cultivated and fig and carob trees were planted. By the end of the century, Formentera had around 1,200 inhabitants, and its population was now consolidated.
Despite the fact that the Balearic Islands would remain outside the scope of the occupation by Napoleon’s troops, they still suffered from the consequences of the war: in 1812 the Enlightenment institutions were abolished on Ibiza and Formentera. The new liberal constitution was proclaimed on Ibiza, and the first town halls were set up. Formentera was linked to the Eivissa town hall, but in 1814 the decision was taken to create its own town hall – a measure that bore no fruit that year, as Ferdinand VII restored the absolute monarchy.
In 1820, the liberal revolution re-established the Constitution of Cádiz, and in August 1822 the decision was taken to set up town halls, including Sant Francesc Xavier on Formentera. Shortly thereafter, however, the absolute monarch was again restored and the reforms were abolished.
Under the reign of Isabel II, a new restoration set up six townships on Ibiza and Formentera, one of which was Formentera. However, the new town hall had to grapple with the multitude of shortcomings on the island – precarious agriculture, deforestation, the poor state of the salt flats, scant trade and no school on the entire island, just to mention a few of the difficulties. Life on Formentera was not easy, and Archduke Louis Salvador remarked on this during his visit there in 1867. In view of all these hardships, the state government decided to eliminate the Formentera town hall, and the island joined the township of Eivissa.
In 1873 Antoni Marroig purchased the salt flats on Formentera, as well as an estate on the northwest part of the island where he grew grapes. The living conditions seemed to improve and schools were opened, so in 1888 the township of Formentera was restored and the new town hall was set up one year later.
In 1897, the company that exploited the salt flats on Ibiza also purchased the ones on Formentera; the company became known as Salinera Española. These changes led to the modernisation of the salt business and enabled many farmers to earn monetary wages.
However, the economic limitations and growth of the population prompted emigration, especially to Latin America in the first few decades of the 20th century. The emigrants often returned to Formentera. We can say that emigration raised the living conditions and brought new ideas to the island, such as anarchism. Unfortunately, the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship thwarted this process. In 1940, the Franco authorities set up a concentration camp near La Savina which housed up to 1,000 prisoners. It was finally closed in 1942, and in 2002 it was declared an Asset of Cultural Interest.
During the last third of the 20th century, mass tourism arrived on Formentera, which led to the gradual disappearance of traditional life on the island. The new economic model stepped up pressure on the island and its limited resources. In the early 21st century, the realization came that rational tourism had to be made compatible with the efficient conservation of nature.