Spanish original and photos
In Alcalá in my time [1940s], there was a floating population without fixed employment, who lived on their earnings from wild asparagus, artichokes, herbs and other edible plants, snails, contraband, poaching, the harvest, and above all the production of charcoal. They were casual workers, landless, who were obliged to work when and where they could. Our fellow countryman Juan Romero Mejias, in his work on the traditional trades and crafts of Alcalá, tells us that the carboneros [carboneros] were the most abundant. In my childhood we sang a song at school which went:
The carboneros on the street corners
Announce their charcoal, made from holm-oak
Charcoal from holm-oak, dirt from the oak
Trust is not found in Man
[But it is found in the trunks of the laurels1]
If this song could be sung anywhere, it would be in Alcalá. Because the carbonero came to be the most popular figure in the town. Weatherbeaten men, faces and hands stained black from the charcoal. That image was left imprinted on our souls! But far from frightening the children, he was someone who embodied hard work, treated with affection and fondness. Nobody refused to shake hands with a carbonero, because they knew their hands would not be stained; it was the only means he had to feed his family.
The charcoal season was long, seven months; from the middle of October to the middle of May. It was the time when fewer hands were needed on agricultural tasks – sowing, weeding, pruning and harvesting. The only concession granted by the livestock farmers in the meadows was charcoal-making, but with restrictions.
Agustin Coca Pérez, another fellow countryman, has left us a popular definition of the carbonero: A worker in the countryside, who is employed during the winter and part of the summer, felling trees, pulling up roots, and making charcoal ovens”, Agustin wonders when they first made charcoal in Alcalá, and provides his own answer – since charcoal was first invented. In fact it goes back several centuries. He gives us a clue with this anecdote: “Once upon a time a swineherd fell asleep by the campfire. A piglet came along and started grubbing with his snout. He grubbed and grubbed until eventually he put out the flame. When the swineherd woke up, he went to warm himself and, not seeing a flame, he started to poke the embers, discovering that the firewood had turned into charcoal.”
The word carbón was brought to us by the Romans to refer to carbon1, “a fossil substance, black and combustible, originating from plant matter, although after undergoing physical and chemical changes over the years, it converts itself into coal.” It was found in many places around Alcalá, among them Los Santos and Los Carrascales, exploited by the engineer Lavinqui (19th C). Charcoal, made from wood, was “a light, porous, solid substance obtained by the removal of water from wood; it burns almost without flame and is used as a combustible fuel.” Romero Mejías describes the job of carbonero as hard, painful, unrewarding and poorly paid. He evokes the legendary Alcalá carbon-making teams: los Cantúos, los Roncos, los Tiburones, los Perol, los Tizón, los Petronilos, los Mena ….
For his part, Coca Pérez describes the long process of charcoal production. First they collected the primary material, that is, the dried wood which would be converted into charcoal. The best came from small branches cut from the alcornoque [cork-oak] or the quejigo [Portuguese oak] with an axe or saw, or the acebuche [wild olive], coscoja [Kermes oak], arbutus, heather, etc, Then the oven would be constructed on a piece of clean, flat ground, where a curved base was set up.. The armaero arranged the oven, starting with two parallel trunks on which the wood was criss-crossed; the smallest bits were placed nearest the entrance to start the fire going. Then they built the sides and 'shoulders', then the back part, and finally the crown or top part. Next they prepared the kindling, using twigs of lentisco [a type of shrub], laid out in a fan-shape and covered with firewood. Then they would cover it all with earth, using panniers to raise it off the kindling, and leaving an opening at the front part with two tubes, on the left and right, to permit the passage of air. They then lit the fire in the opening, where the smallest twigs were. The fire would go right up into the crown of the oven. The front part of the oven would cave in, and they would cover the holes with more earth. Eventually the fire would die down and they would use thin poles to make air-holes. The fire would be drawn to the rear of the oven and the cooking process would be finalised. It only remained to take off the earth, remove the charcoal and pile it up. Finally the muleteers would load it into their panniers or wrap it up in sacks ready to sell.
When the sowing, threshing and cork-cutting were over, the grape-pickers would arrive from the Jerez region and form teams to go charcoal-making. Those who worked for a daily rate received their pay fortnightly and would then return to the town to see their family and get a change of clothes. The working day was from sunrise to sunset - some fifteen hours cutting wood, piling it up and building the ovens. The hornero was in charge of lighting the ovens. The foreman of the team would regulate the hours of work; the start time, meal times and cigarette breaks. Those who worked for themselves did not stop day or night. They worked in teams or in family groups. The muleteers arrived for the charcoal and took it to the loading dock, where trusted intermediaries would to weigh and purchase it. These men were the ones who sold on the charcoal.
On the way out from La Playa, where the road curves down towards San Antonio, there is a large rock, as black as coal, which has been there forever. Sánchez del Arco says that in the 19th Century it was called “Peña del Corral”. The children went there to play among those granite rocks. Occasionally some men would stop us going up there. This happened when they were drilling blast-holes, which they would fill with explosives to shatter the rock into smaller pieces. Later these would be crushed and used in road-building. Behind la Peña was a plot belonging to Muñoz, with a loading dock where the muleteers would bring their mule-trains loaded up with charcoal, which would be weighed and sold. The sacks and panniers would then be loaded onto lorries to supply the Bay of Cádiz, where it was a fuel of primary necessity. It was said that, previously, when ships were powered by steam, Alcalá supplied coal to the ports of both Cádiz and Algeciras. So it was that the children called it the “Peña de Carbon”, because next to it would be great piles of black fuel.
The sight of the muleteers, their mule-trains loaded with panniers of charcoal, was a romantically picturesque image which appeared in the streets and alleys of Alcalá for a good part of the year, as did the coal lorries struggling through the streets on their way to the seaports. In La Línea de la Concepción, there is a hill called Sierra Carbonera. There was a lot of woodland there too, and they used to make charcoal for Algeciras and Gibraltar. But the supply of wood ran out and they stopped making it there. In Alcalá, its use declined when new fuels came into use: steam, carbide, coal, oil, butane gas, electricity, petrol, natural gas, oxygen, nuclear fuel, wind energy and other substances which are being tested to obtain new sources of energy.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
1. The last line of the verse, without which the previous line doesn't make sense, was provided by a contributor from the WordReference.com forum.
2. The word carbón can mean either coal or charcoal in Spanish. In this article it refers to carbón vegetal, or charcoal, as opposed to carbón mineral, or coal in the English sense of the word. The Spanish word for carbon is carbono.
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