In the early-18th century, absolute monarchies set about the task of reviewing fiscal systems in order to cover the expenses of war. Their aim was to increase taxes without harming economic development. However, in the case of the Kingdom of Castile, with its chaotic finances and huge deficits, this was impossible. The advisors of King Philip V, on the throne since 1700, were opposed to increasing fiscal pressure on Castilian taxpayers. The Crown of Aragon –that is, the confederation of realms formed by the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Valencia and the Principality of Catalonia– also expressed their disapproval of such a measure.
Catalonia had its own fiscal system, under which taxes were collected and administered by the country’s own government, known as the “Diputación del General” or “Generalitat”, and not by the king, as was the case in Castile. This state of affairs gave the Catalan people freedom to decide whether or not to contribute financially to the Spanish monarchy’s foreign policy. In truth, the Catalans were little enamoured of imperial policies, and often refused to pay.
After the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, Philip V’s ministers’ intention was that Catalonia, which had fought alongside Archduke Charles and the Anglo-Dutch alliance, should pay for the army that occupied the country. To this end, a new fiscal measure was introduced. Known as the 'catastro', or cadastre this poll tax was levied on property and people.
A distorted image
Although, it was explained that the new levy was aimed at achieving greater social justice in fiscal matters, the truth is that it was immediately seen as a punishment: a war tax dressed up as a civil tax. The coercive measures used to collect the poll tax included requisition and imprisonment. The amount stipulated to be collected –one million Castilian pesos– was disproportionate. Castile believed that Catalonia was still the prosperous land it had been before the war, and did not take into account the effects of the conflict on the population.
As a result, the amount set to be paid under the 'catastro' never corresponded to the real income of society as a whole. Nor did it take into account, for example, that a poor harvest might make it impossible to pay. As a result, there were years when the tax burden applied to Catalonia was so brutal that the Spanish collectors themselves recommended that it should be reduced.
Fiscal pressure in numbers
The 'catastro' poll tax became consolidated over the period from 1726 to 1744, parallel to the introduction of the new political regime brought in by Philip V. The amounts payable remained practically frozen, however, and eventually became out of date. The result was that, by the second half of the 18th century, when population and economic growth in Catalonia had made the relentless fiscal pressure more bearable, there was no longer any opposition to the tax. However, nothing could compensate for the drain on the country’s resources that had taken place over previous decades. In fifty years (1729-1779), indirect taxation rose by 248% in Catalonia, and total taxation, including the catastro, by 150%.
In 1845, tax reforms were introduced, and the 'catastro' was abolished. However, perceptions of Catalonia’s supposed lack of fiscal solidarity continued to abound in Castile, as the country had achieved considerable development through expansion of trade and industry. As a result of these perceptions, Catalonia continued to pay the price for the defeat of 1714 in other ways.