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How Isabel II dealt with drunks in Malaga

 Plaza de las Cuatro Calles. A print by M. de Mesa (1839) of what is today the Plaza de la Constitución, where the corrective measures were applied to drunks who had been detained.
Plaza de las Cuatro Calles. A print by M. de Mesa (1839) of what is today the Plaza de la Constitución, where the corrective measures were applied to drunks who had been detained. / ARCHIVO DÍAZ DE ESCOVAR
  • After being arrested, troublemakers under the influence were taken to the Plaza de la Constitución and forced to drink eight litres of water, one after another

  • The punishments were carried out by the civil governor, who shackled the prisoners and put them on public display

There were no bylaws, fines or restrictive prohibitions. During the reign of Queen Isabel II the punishments meted out to drunkards who frequented the streets of Malaga were much more expeditious and, what's more, they were carried out in public.

In the mid-19th century - Isabel reined from 1833 to 1868 - excessive consumption of alcohol had become a public nuisance. The Malaga of that time bore little relation to the city of today, and the fights which broke out in the street after people had been drinking prevented "decent people" (according to chroniclers of the time) going out into the street once darkness fell.

The fights caused by these troublemakers, who did not hesitate to draw their pistols, knives and even swords to resolve their differences when they were drunk, created an unsustainable situation, to the point that the 'golillas' (municipal police) and bailiffs found themselves outnumbered and unable to impose order when the situation became complicated because of the numbers of people involved.

All this is related by writer Diego Ceano in a delightful article in the magazine 'El Avisador Malagueño': «(...) The drunks took to the streets with no reflection whatsoever and needed no excuse to use sharp knives..." he reported.

The complaints about the worsening situation in a city which was already considered unsafe and conflictive by the rest of the country eventually reached the court of Isabel II, who decided to take action and gave explicit instructions to the local authorities.

In order for them to be effected immediately, the queen appointed Melchor Ordóñez y Viana-Cárdenas as governor of Malaga in 1843. He was a lawyer and minister who had been born in the city and who, at the age of 49, had already held several important positions at court. However, it was during his mandate in the city that he needed to use all his imagination to comply with the orders of a queen who was tired of public order offences in one of her provinces being added to her already long list of serious problems. The blame for this situation lay entirely with the drunks.

A night in the jail

Once he had been given his mandate, Ordóñez's first measure was to send every drunk who had been arrested to jail for the night, to try to discourage them from such behaviour.

As a historical curiosity, a few years before the civil governor took up his post, the city's principal prison had been moved from the Plaza de las Cuatro Calles (now the Plaza de la Constitución) to the San Rafael district because of the extremely insalubrious conditions in that area, which had been built by order of the Catholic monarchs.

However, the idea of a night in prison for drunkards did not work. They would sleep off their excesses and then, feeling better the next day, would start drinking again.

Jailing them was not Ordóñez's only attempt at imposing order. He also decreed that the taverns must offer free wine to everybody from 10pm onwards. Obviously, the bars closed their doors at that time so they didn't have to bear the cost of giving away wine, but even so this did not eradicate drunken behaviour completely.

The governor then decided to apply stricter measures. He did so in person, accompanied by the chief of police, and in the Plaza de las Cuatro Calles itself, where those arrested were dragged, chained with shackles, to make a public example of them.

In fact, this spectacle was watched by numerous curious local people every night. They enjoyed the sight of the governor forcing the drunks to drink 16 'cuartillos' of water, which was about eight litres. One jug after another, non-stop, until the drunk swore that they would never touch another drop of wine again as long as they lived.

A live form of 'torture'

Despite appearances, this was not a minor punishment, especially bearing in mind that those detained had already accumulated a large quantity of alcohol in their stomach and those extra litres were a real form of torture. Some chroniclers of the time referred to the "cries" that could be heard all over the city from those who were subjected to that punishment, and also the delight of local people who, as well as enjoying the free 'show', saw how the problem of unsafe streets was being dealt with.

This measure from Ordóñez had an almost immediate effect. Stories told by those who had been punished in the square dissuaded a great many people from returning to alcohol and causing conflict.

That was by no means the only decision which gave the civil governor a place in history. He was charged with drawing up the first regulations regarding bullfighting in Malaga city (1847) and he introduced several new bylaws which caused uproar among local people, such as obliging them to close the doors of their houses at 11 o'clock at night in summer and ten o'clock in winter, and only allowing them to water the plant pots on their balconies between 11pm and 7am. That, however, is another story.