What is ‘Dos de Mayo’ and why does Madrid celebrate it?

While all of Spain usually enjoys a holiday on May 1st, madrileños also get a day off on May 2nd. Here's the fascinating story behind this day of celebration in the Spanish capital, and what it has to do with Napoleon.

What is 'Dos de Mayo' and why does Madrid celebrate it?
Goya´s Dos de Mayo of 1808 depicts heavy fighting between Madrileños and French troops. Image: Wikimedia/CC

On May 2nd, 1808 the last remaining members of Spain’s royal family were getting ready to be shipped off to France.

Fearing perhaps that if they didn’t keep on Napoleon’s good side they’d wind up (just as their French cousins had) with their severed heads rolling around an executioner’s basket, the Bourbons barely made a peep to protest the move while madrileños were encouraged to do the same with the authorities instructing citizens to exercise restraint and to treat the French forces with respect.

On the face of it, it appeared that Spain had fallen to French rule with barely a whimper of protest. That Napoleon had – by gaining permission from the Spanish king to march his troops into the country on the pretext of invading Portugal – subjugated an entire nation with a cheap trick. Nothing seemed to stand in his way. Nothing that is except for an unruly gang of ordinary madrileños who appeared outside the palace demanding that the royals remain. Stunned, the French forces unwisely opened fire sparking off a bloody war of independence that was to bring the French emperor to his knees.

Though the French were convinced a conspiracy was afoot, one of the most surprising things about the uprising on May 2 is that it was not orchestrated by anyone, rather that it was a spontaneous action made by a fiercely patriotic populace who simply refused to tolerate the idea of French rule. Incredible when you consider the fact that they were facing trained heavily-armed French troops without any support from the Spanish army – who had been given strict orders not to intervene.

Despite being outgunned, the citizens of Madrid fought with sticks, hoes, and even pitchforks all over the city. Huge battles raged in the streets and even women got involved throwing whatever heavy objects came to hand down onto the heads of French soldiers. It would, of course, be a losing battle. In Goya’s Charge of the Mamelukes, you can get an idea of the carnage that ensued; it shows Napoleon’s fearsome Mameluke troops cutting down madrileños with curved swords in Puerta del Sol.

Still, the reckless bravery displayed by Madrid’s working class majos was what finally inspired some Spanish soldiers to act. Captain Pedro Velarde along with Luis Daoíz defied orders and led a group of soldiers out to the Monteleón barracks where they defended their position against the French. They were assisted by ordinary men and even women, who joined in a hopeless battle to defend the barracks. One such hero was Clara del Rey – a 42-year-old mother of three who was killed in the uprising.

Refusing to give into French demands to surrender, the Spanish made their last stand in an archway to the barracks before being killed. All that remains of this building today is this very arch which sits in the middle of Plaza Dos de Mayo behind a statue of Daoíz and Vellarde.

Archive image of  Daoíz and Vellarde statue in front of the arch in Plaza Dos de Mayo. Photo: AFP

Other heroes of the uprising included Manuela Malasaña– a 17-year-old seamstress – who was shot the next day for defying the French and whose memory was so well-loved that the whole area of Maravillas was renamed in honour of her bravery.

Along with Manuela, around 400 or so Spanish were executed on May 3rd, 90 percent of whom were ordinary private citizens. It was their actions that inspired the military to take up arms against the occupying forces eventually leading to the liberation of the country in 1814 and the restoration of the lily-livered Ferdinand VII to the throne. Ferdinand’s subsequent betrayal of Spain’s working classes is an even more tragic story perhaps better left for another day…

How is it marked today?

Madrileños are given a bank holiday for Dos de Mayo, conveniently coming just after the Workers Day National holiday on May 1st.

Schools will be closed on Friday for a ‘puente’ bridging the two bank holidays of Wednesday and Thursday with the weekend. Although many see it as an opportunity to escape the capital for the weekend, there are plenty of festivities planned for those who want to stay.

The streets of Malasaña will be filled with art, music, dancing and events to mark Dos de Mayo including stages set up in Plaza Commendadores, Conde Duque, Plaza San Ildefonso. For a full schedule of events running from Tuesday evening through to Sunday, check HERE

A version of this article first appeared on The Making of Madrid, a blog about the history of the city. The author, Felicity Hughes, has just launched The Making of Madrid Tours. To find out more check out her Meetup or Facebook page.

READ ALSO: Off the beaten track: Eight Madrid museums you’ve probably never heard of

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How 22 Spanish orphans became ‘the vaccine’ to beat smallpox in the Americas

This is the unlikely story of how in 1803 one doctor, one ship and 22 Spanish orphans serving as human fridges helped the world beat smallpox by carrying out the first international vaccination campaign.

How 22 Spanish orphans became 'the vaccine' to beat smallpox in the Americas

We’re living through a time in history where the emergence and resurgence of viruses is becoming more prevalent, from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to the appearance of monkeypox, with several cases recently recorded in Spain, Portugal and the UK.

Monkeypox is a similar virus to smallpox, a devastating illness that was finally eradicated in 1980. The virus causes high fever, body aches, headaches and chills, as well as a rash of boils or sores. 

READ ALSO: Eight suspected monkeypox cases detected in Spain

While historians and scientists believe that smallpox has been around for the last 3,000 years, monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks occurred in a group of monkeys kept for research. The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The first vaccine

During the 18th century, smallpox was rife throughout the world and was killing millions. It was around this time that English doctor Edward Jenner saw that people who caught the milder bovine virus of cowpox never actually caught the deadlier smallpox.

So in 1796, he took the pus from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand and inoculated an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, rendering him immune to smallpox and creating the world’s first vaccine.

But it was in fact Spain that played a pivotal role in getting this vaccine out to the masses and helping to bring the smallpox virus under control. 

How did they transport vaccines in the 18th and 19th century?

Even today, transporting vaccines proves to be problematic, best evidenced by the specific temperature and storage requirements of some of the Covid-19 vaccines, as well the logistical delays and other distribution obstacles.

But back in the early 19th century, doctors and scientists came up against even more problems.

Health professionals at the time invented an ingenious method of taking the puss-like fluid from the sores of those with cowpox and placing it on a piece of material to dry out.

They would then travel to the next town and mix the dried puss with water, before scratching it into people’s skin to infect them with cowpox, thus protecting them from smallpox.

This method seemed to work in Europe, where distances between towns were relatively close.

The arrival of Spain’s Conquistadores in America led to the spread of viruses such as smallpox among native populations, killing millions, including the Aztecs of present-day Mexico.

However, the vaccine wouldn’t stay fresh long enough to take it further across the seas to the Americas. It wouldn’t even work for distances from one European capital to the next, only from town to town. 

Children become the vaccine carriers

This is where Spain comes in. The colonial power was desperate to send the vaccine over to its South American territories, where the virus was running rampant throughout the population, killing around half of those it infected.

In 1803, a doctor from Alicante in eastern Spain, Francisco Javier de Balmís, came up with a plan and asked Spain’s King Carlos IV, whose own daughter had died of smallpox, to fund a new mission.

His plan was to sail to the Americas with 22 Spanish orphans on board, infecting them with cowpox along the way, a plan that wouldn’t have much chance of being approved in this day and age due to human rights laws, but this was the early 18th century.

Francisco Javier de Balmís was integral in helping the first international vaccine campaign. Source: Foundling / WikiCommons

The cowpox vaccine only survived in the body for up to 12 days, so at the beginning of the journey only two of the orphans were infected with smallpox. Then, ten days later when they were sick enough and had boils all over their skin, doctors on board would lance these sores and infect two more boys. The aim was to keep this going every ten days until they reached South America.

Miraculously, the plan of using the orphans as vessels for the virus worked, and although all the children got sick, none of them died.

By the time the ship docked in Venezuela in March 1804, one boy still had fresh sores and puss which could be used to vaccinate the local population. 

Balmís and his team set about vaccinating the locals straight away and then split up, with half the team travelling through what is today Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and the other half up to Mexico.

Amazingly, using this method of lancing boils and moving from town to town, they managed to vaccinate around 200,000 people, most of whom were children.

Locals who received news of their arrival would greet the heroes with all the flamboyance of a Spanish fiesta – complete with music, bullfights and fireworks. 

The mission was not yet complete

Balmís left the 22 original orphans with adoptive families in Mexico and then set out on a new voyage with a brand new set of children for the Spanish colony of the Philippines.

The ship arrived in April 1805 and again astonishingly the plan worked. Here, Blamís and his team were able to vaccinate a further 20,000. 

This vaccination plan was so successful again, that Balmís took the vaccine to China to keep inoculating the population there too. 

Thanks to the ingenious methods of one Spanish doctor and the bravery of 22 Spanish orphans, Jenner’s original vaccine was able to reach the far corners of the world, vaccinating hundreds of thousands and saving countless lives.