The city of Geneva and its fortifications, circa 1760.
The city of Geneva and its fortifications, circa 1760. Bibliothèque de Genève

The encirclement of Geneva by Spanish troops in 1743

For almost seven years, from September 1742 to February 1749, Savoy villages neighbouring the city of Geneva were occupied and troubled by Spanish troops. Although part of the War of the Austrian Succession and therefore the great history of Europe, the occupation has been all but forgotten by historians.

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier is a historian and board member of the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte (Swiss Historical Society). He has published a number of articles on 17th and 20th century Swiss history.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) was sparked by resistance from many states to the Pragmatic Sanction of 19 April 1713, in which Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, decreed that his daughter Maria Theresa of Austria would inherit the ancestral Habsburg lands after his death. Prussia was the first to oppose Austria, before Bavaria and then France and Spain under Philip V also became involved. In 1741 Spanish and Sicilian troops marched on northern Italy with their sights primarily on Milan, which then belonged to Austria. The invasion prompted the king of Sardinia to conclude the Convention of Turin with Austria on 1 February 1742, creating an alliance that triggered conflict with Spain. In March 1742, Louis XV authorised passage through France for Spanish troops waiting in Barcelona, but no sooner had they reached Nice than the Sardinians blocked any further progress. The Spanish therefore decided to change course, and headed instead for Chambéry. The Sardinian counteroffensive in the autumn of 1742 failed against the Spanish regiments commanded by the Marquis de la Mina, who had taken control of the area. This allowed Philip, Infante of Spain, son of the Spanish king and future Duke of Parma, to enter Chambéry and take up residence in the fortified château on 5 January 1743. Oaths of allegiance from the nobles and authorities of Savoy soon followed.
Chambéry, circa 1780.
Chambéry, circa 1780. Wikimedia
During the autumn of 1742 the international political situation was becoming increasingly tense. With this and the Spanish king's military manoeuvres in mind, the government of Geneva stepped up its diplomatic efforts in France and Spain, as well as with its Swiss allies. A modest, Calvinist city, Geneva had little with which to oppose the prevailing powers. As on previous occasions, it could only really rely on diplomacy to survive. Having received the news that the Spanish had taken Chambéry, in December 1742 Geneva hopefully dispatched Councillor François Jean Turrettin to Infante Philip’s secretary, Zenón de Somodevilla y Bengoechea, Marquis de la Ensenada. The latter assured the diplomat of Spain's good intentions, and that Geneva would not be disturbed.
The letter sent by the Infante of Spain to the government of Geneva on 17 December 1742, in which he reassured the Geneva seigneurie of his intentions.
The letter sent by the Infante of Spain to the government of Geneva on 17 December 1742, in which he reassured the Geneva seigneurie of his intentions. Geneva state archives
The arrival of a large troop of almost 20,000 men, made up of the regiments of Galicia and Asturias, did little to reassure the Genevans, however. They were concerned not only about the sovereignty of their territory, but also about the inevitable problems that the presence of an army of this size would pose. Indeed, the Spanish military staff wasted no time in banning the movement of wheat from Savoy on 7 January 1743. It also ordered various regions, specifically the parish of Lancy, to hand over the animal feed that the dragoons were demanding. The army corps gradually occupied the entire area surrounding Geneva, with officers claiming exemption from the bridge toll at the Pont d’Arve, which they were then granted.
Pont d’Arve, image from 1816.
Pont d’Arve, image from 1816. Bibliothèque de Genève
On 18 January 1743, 500 dragoons from the Seville regiment reached Carouge and were billeted around neighbouring villages. A few days later 300 men in six infantry battalions arrived in Annecy. Sixty dragoons took up quarters in Chêne, while on the same day Saint-Julien was occupied by more than a hundred infantrymen. At the same time two companies established themselves in Compesières, and two more in Bernex and Confignon.
State boundaries in the area surrounding Geneva were even more complex around 1740. The city of Geneva owned a number of separate, unconnected territories. Map of Geneva and surroundings, 1740.
State boundaries in the area surrounding Geneva were even more complex around 1740. The city of Geneva owned a number of separate, unconnected territories. Map of Geneva and surroundings, 1740. Bibliothèque de Genève
The Genevan authorities had trouble keeping track of the number of Spanish soldiers who appeared to be encircling the city.  They came under even more pressure in February, when the ambassador of France advised them to take all necessary precautions to defend themselves against a Spanish invasion. Events appear to have proven the ambassador right, because reports reaching the city’s leaders were becoming increasingly worrying. In February, Spanish dragoons in pursuit of deserters made an incursion into Geneva territory on the Rhône and assaulted the boatman at Peney. They put a pistol to his throat to get information from him, and forced the local commander, an officer in the Geneva military, to accommodate several men under his roof. On the other side of the territory, the Spanish took perverse pleasure in harassing and provoking the Genevans. In Carouge and Presinge, an infantry company took over the houses of Genevan citizens who owned land there. They levied war taxes without distinguishing between Savoyards and Genevans, and advanced to Jussy, where they abused peasant farmers. The colonel of the Spanish troops even attempted to seize the country house in Carra belonging to the commander of the Geneva watch to take up residence there. This provoked a vehement response from the French ambassador in Geneva.
View of Geneva in the 18th century.
View of Geneva in the 18th century. Bibliothèque de Genève
Reading the Council minutes for that year, the fears of Geneva’s governors are palpable. They were facing a critical situation. Security measures, however symbolic they might have been, were intensified. Suspicious individuals were arrested and fortifications strengthened – in 1743 Geneva spent 346,777 florins on repairing its walls. The number of sentry posts was multiplied, and farmers were charged with surveillance over the countryside. The commander of the watch dispatched inconspicuously dressed men to Savoy, Annecy, and into Chablais and the mountains to gather information on the Spanish military forces, and to find out if they were building the machinery for a surprise attack on the city. According to intelligence at the time, conveyed to the city by Dutch ambassador Frans Van der Meer in particular, Geneva was not to expect a siege, but rather a sudden strike like the one in 1602, which remained in Genevan memory as the Escalade. A deputy judge with his ear to the ground, Van der Meer even reported a plan to invade through the Cornavin gate on a Sunday, while the population was in church.
Minutes of the Council of Geneva, 30 January 1743.
Minutes of the Council of Geneva, 30 January 1743. Geneva state archives
Allied Zurich troops arrived in Geneva on 21 February 1743 to provide reinforcements, resulting in a range of proposals from Geneva’s city councillors on how to proceed. Some wanted a new defensive structure from which to maintain control over local waters, while others suggested fortifying the city’s ramparts. Yet military reinforcements did nothing to dampen the audacity of the Spanish dragoons. Some even dared to enter the city in search of trouble, as on 26 February when two show-offs started a fight with the gatekeeper at the hospital. There was another incident on 4 March, when five dragoons stationed in Roche turned up after midnight in Jussy where, intent on robbery, they broke down the door of Jacques Guillard. This resulted in an exchange of fire between the soldiers and the farmer, whose neighbours rushed to help. The Genevans nonetheless persevered with their diplomatic endeavours, entering into negotiations with the Infante of Spain in Chambéry at the end of March to press for the 1603 Treaty of Saint-Julien to be upheld. This was pressing because the situation was deteriorating fast. On 22 March a company of dragoons in search of food took over Avusy and beat to death a Genevan farmer who resisted. This mobilised the villagers, who succeeded in driving out the ruffians. It was a short-lived victory, however. Only a few hours later sixteen dragoons returned to invade the village and arrest nine unfortunate souls, who they took to Thoiry. Always short of supplies, the Spanish soldiers also helped themselves to the manor’s crops. In June they cut the fields belonging to a Genevan captain, and halted grain carts in Carouge on the orders of the Marquis de la Mina.
Farm in Avusy, in what is now the canton of Geneva.
Farm in Avusy, in what is now the canton of Geneva. Bibliothèque de Genève
The Spanish did, however, promise to respect the Treaty of Saint-Julien, which brought a period of calm for the Genevans despite a few minor violations. Although the officers applied strict discipline, the hunger was too much for some soldiers. In December 1743 two of them were arrested by the sergeant of the watch at the Pont d’Arve as they were extorting and abusing peasant farmers. A few days later, dragoons near Bougeries seized a cartload of grain. In January 1744, Spanish soldiers stationed in Vésenaz violently robbed female farmworkers on the road to Jussy. This resulted in a complaint to the Marquis de la Mina in Chambéry, who upheld it and punished those responsible. Infante Philip understood the importance of abiding by the treaties with the city of Geneva because he wanted to be sure of its cooperation. Full and unrestricted freedom of trade between Savoy and Geneva was therefore restored on 15 January 1744, for example, and the city’s sovereignty was respected from then on. In February 1744 Spanish commander de la Vega asked for permission to take his Calatrava regiment on the shortest route from Andalusia to Saint-Julien, which would have taken him through the fortified area of Geneva. Geneva refused on security grounds, without any reprisal from the Spanish authorities. It actually served Infante Philip to ensure a semblance of calm and collaboration with Geneva, because the city shared allies with the king of France. In addition, many profiteers helped Spanish deserters to escape to Switzerland in return for a few piastres, and bought weapons and even horses cheaply. One case in April 1746 attracted particular attention, when the farmers of Dardagny held a Spanish troop in the village and liberated deserters, who the Spanish were returning to Chambéry. Some Genevans even got dragoons to change sides by taking them into their service and using them to block and steal supplies heading for the city.
Trooper of the Calatrava line regiment, 18th century.
Trooper of the Calatrava line regiment, 18th century. Pinterest
For six years Geneva succeeded in evading the horror of a further Escalade, although it was unable to spare its direct neighbours what was surely a merciless military occupation. The assaults committed by the military contingent in Savoy were particularly cruel, according to sources. This explains the especially violent response to the Spaniards from the local population, despite recognition in 1743 of the Treaty of Saint-Julien. The Genevan authorities were doubtless relieved as the war came to an end to invite the various conflicting parties to the negotiating table. The peace deal was struck in Aachen on 18 October 1748.
Jaime de Guzman-Davalos y Spinola, Marquis de la Mina, senior commander of the Spanish troops in Italy until the end of the war, circa 1760.
Jaime de Guzman-Davalos y Spinola, Marquis de la Mina, senior commander of the Spanish troops in Italy until the end of the war, circa 1760. Wikimedia

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