Esquilache Riots - Background


Esquilache's plan was to substitute the long capes and broad-brimmed hats (chambergos) worn by madrileños with French-style short capes and three-cornered hats, in an attempt to "Europeanize" and modernize Spain. The long capes were thought to facilitate the concealment of weapons, while the large hats were thought to conceal a person's face, a safeguard for criminals.

Intended as public security measures, they did not immediately catch the attention of the populace, as more pressing issues fanned the flames of popular discontent, namely the rising prices in bread, oil, coal, and cured meat, caused in part by Esquilache's liberalization of the grain trade. Moreover, these measures at first were only applied to the royal household and staff (January 21, 1766).

Under pain of arrest, these royal functionaries adopted the measures en masse. Having applied these initial measures, Esquilache proceeded to apply them towards the general population. The writer and government official Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes and the body known as the Council of Castile warned him that the confiscation of hats and cloaks would cause ominous rumbling amongst the populace.

Esquilache nevertheless went ahead with these measures, and on March 10, placards appeared in Madrid prohibiting the wearing of these garments. Popular reaction was immediate: the placards were torn off the walls. Soldiers were mobilized and local authorities were attacked by the populace.

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