#100PENMembers No.55: Josep Batista I Roca

Josep Maria Batista I Roca was a Catalán writer, historian and activist who was a key member of Catalán PEN and campaigned against censorship in Spain under Franco’s government.

Born in Barcelona in 1895, he attended Oxford University cementing a lifetime affiliation with Britain. However the most useful alliance that he made during this period was in visiting Dublin where he became captivated by the Irish nationalist movement, an interest which underpinned his work as an early advocate for Catalán culture and independence.

Although he was active during the Spanish Civil War – hoping that it might culminate in a free and independent Catalán state – he fled to London in 1938, leading a band of refugees to the border where he wrote to Hermon Ould for aid.

English PEN scrambled resources to bring Batista I Roca and the refugees to England.

By end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 Batista I Roca was working as Professor of History at Trinity College, Cambridge where he investigated the historic links between the English and the Cataláns and founded the Anglo- Catalán Society. Throughout his time in Britain, he made the case to the English and other Europeans for a Catalán state. In 1940 he was secretary of the Consejo Nacional de Cataluña  and travelled to London under Carles Pi I Sunyer, the head of PEN Club Catalán to the PEN London Congress. He took a very active role in PEN throughout his life, making the case for Catalán independence through the organisation and fighting for Catalán writers persecuted and silenced under Franco.

He was a key organiser and activist for Spanish writers within PEN. He organised a Spanish writers’ boycott of the Pasternak protests in 1958 in order to draw attention to the plight of writers in Spain, which he felt were being neglected. As he put it, ‘the Spanish writers thought it made no sense for them to sign against the Russians for their treatment of Mr Pasternak when nobody has expressed any concern about the way they are treated by the Spanish Francoist authorities.’

The Catalán Centre followed up this protest by submitting a series of detailed reports listing the persecution of Spanish and Catalán writers by the totalitarian government in Spain. Writing to the International Executive Committee in 1959, they stated that ‘it is hoped that some practical expression of concern will ensue from this grave violation of the freedom of expression and of the rights of writers stated in the P.E.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, and the fundamental documents and resolutions of UNESCO and UNO, of which Spain is a member.’

The reports detailed the state censorship of all books and periodicals, with ecclesiastical censorship resulting in the banning of the philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s work as anti-religious. They described the licenses for which publishers must apply in order to print books and separate ones for retailers which may dictate where and how a writers’ work might be sold and displayed. They outlined the purges of public libraries by ecclesiastical censors and lists the hefty fines levelled at writers and publishers. They also outlined restrictions on the receipt of foreign books, even by private citizens. The receipt of foreign books could lead to a citizen being placed on a government watch list. The reports are supported by a resolution by Catalán PEN insisting that PEN International take action on behalf of their Spanish colleagues.

Batista I Roca returned from exile in 1976 and continued to work for the Catalán cause within Spain and within PEN International. He died in 1978 and his personal library was given to the Biblioteca de Cataluña (Library of Cataluña), in total he donated around 1400 individual documents about history, but more especially, the history of Cataluña.