On the night of August 27-28, 1893, there was spontaneous public outcry in Donostia-San Sebastián at the refusal of the municipal band to play the politically-charged Basque hymn “Gernikako Arbola” (The tree of Gernika), due to the presence in the city of both the queen regent of Spain and the prime minister, Práxedes Sagasta. The resulting protest was met with force by the authorities and by the morning of August 28 three protesters had been killed and many injured.
The resort city of Donostia-San Sebastián was full of people that Sunday, August 27. As the municipal band was entertaining a large crowd, there were requests to play “Gernikako Arbola” but, on the prior orders of city hall, the band’s conductor declined to do so. The song was considered too political by the authorities due to is defense of the Basque fueros, the specific rights on which a form of Basque home rule had existed for centuries, until their abolition in 1876. With both the queen regent and prime minster of Spain summering in the city, the public authorities took the decision to ban any rendition of the song for fear of causing offense to the illustrious visitors.
Tempers rose among many of those attending the concert and some young people set off firecrackers in protest. A demonstration was quickly organized, with shouts of “Long live the fueros!” and “Death to Sagasta!” as it passed by the Londres Hotel, at which the prime minister was staying. The atmosphere grew tenser as more people joined in the protest, and stones were thrown at the hotel. Some people even tried to get over the barriers outside and enter the premises, which resulted around midnight in the appearance of a squad of civil guards that opened fire on the public. Three people were killed: Vicente Urcelay, Rufino Aspiazu, and Justo Perez.
In the days that followed there were more demonstrations and more confrontations between protesters and the security forces. Meanwhile, other demonstrations were taking place throughout the Basque Country in sympathy with the people in Donostia-San Sebastián. At this moment, the city hall intervened, calling on the central authorities to withdraw their security forces and promising to take the initiative to quell the unrest, which, ultimately, it did; although not without leaving a simmering resentment among certain sections of the Basque population. The issue of the abolition of the fueros was, then, still very important even nearly twenty years later.
In Basque Nationalism and Political Violence (p.67), Cameron J. Watson comments on the events:
The violence of the event certainly brought public attention not only to the level of social protest within the Basque provinces, but also to the actions of the Civil Guard, an organization associated with the institutionalization of the liberal state in Spain. Indeed, it was the raison d’être of the organization to serve the Spanish government, whatever its political complexion, against any opposition. The incident also reflected that although a liberal state had been institutionalized, traditional recourse to force, a staple tactic of Spanish government throughout the century, had not been relinquished. The evidence suggests, then, that the liberal state in Spain was not as tolerant as may have been perceived. That same day, a strong military presence had been posted to Bilbao in order to offset republican demonstrations in the city. It was clear from the level of social protest of varying political persuasions that Spain was suffering a grave domestic crisis. However, what was perhaps most significant about the Donostia–San Sebastián disturbance was the scene of these events itself, a place of liberal tradition and the summer residence of the monarchy.