The People of Gibraltar
1828 - Benito de Soto - Dead men tell no tales

Barbazan, Don and Murray - Basso, Sanchez and Ellms

Benito de Soto was a Spaniard - or at any rate as much of a Spaniard as anybody who was born in a small village near La Coruña would consider himself to be. Perhaps he would have preferred to have been known as a Gallego. As a young man he showed exceptional abilities as a mariner, a useful trade in his part of the world and one which would keep him in full employment for the rest of his relatively short life.

According to an anonymous author writing in the Military Sketch Book in 1830, De Soto's career as a pirate began in 1827 in Buenos Aires  where he was hired by the Captain of a ship called the Defensor de Pedro. The man intended to sail to the eastern ports of Africa to barter cheap local rum for negro slaves. It was, the captain had been told, a lucrative business. De Soto would be well rewarded.

Months later somewhere along  the coast of Angola, the Captain left his ship to make the necessary barter arrangements. To maintain discipline on board during his absence he left  his mate in charge.

Pirates carrying rum on shore to purchase slaves

It was an unfortunate decision. His second in command was a thoroughly untrustworthy individual. During the voyage from Buenos Aires to Africa he and De Soto had concocted a plan to take command of the Defensor at the first oportunity and turn it into a pirate ship. 

This was their oportunity. They confronted the rest of the crew and gave them five minutes to come to a decision - either they joined them in taking over the ship or they would be put on boats and set adrift. A few loyal members of the crew refused the invitation. None of them were ever heard of again. They had all been thrown overboard.

It soon became quite clear, however, that the mate was simply not up to the job, Benito De Soto was one of the first to realize that something had to be done. The appropriate moment arrived after a heavy drinking session. When the new self-elected captain returned to his bunk De Soto took his chance. He silently entered his cabin and shot his sleeping partner through the head. The rest of the crew received the news with a collective sigh of relief and agreed that it would be a good idea to allow De Soto to take over as captain.

The Defensor del Pedro was renamed La Burla Negra and its new captain eventually claimed the honour of being the last real pirate of the 19th century. The ship invariably sailed under Columbian colours and its notoriety was no doubt partially responsible for the dread with which authentic Columbian pirates were held at that time.

All told De Soto destroyed nearly a dozen ships including the Topaz, the Cassnock, the New Prospect. Melinda, and the Simbry. He was also responsible for injuring and killing well over 100 people. On one particulartly unpleasant occasion La Burla Negra came upon a small brig which De Soto boarded and plundered and then casually murdered the entire crew - except for one notable exception: an individual who had made it known to De Soto that he could find the quickest route back to La Coruña. A few weeks later when in sight of land and after having followed this man's advice, a pleasantly surprised De Soto called him up to the Captain's look out:

'Amigo, is that really the harbour of  La Coruña?'
'Si, mi capitan,' replied the pilot.
'In that case',  smiled De Soto, 'you have done well and I thank you for your service'
He then shot the  man dead and calmly threw his body overboard.

In 1828 while cruising just off the Ascension Islands, La Burla Negra captured a British ship called the Morning Star bound for England. Using grappling hooks to keep the two ships together De Soto politely asked the Captain of the Star and his mate to come on board his ship. He gave them strict assurances that they would not be harmed.  Once on board both were  immediately set upon by De Soto and his crew and hacked to death.

The mate of the Morning Star begging for his life.  He was hacked to death.

De Soto then instructed one of his lieutenants, a fellow called Barbazan, to board the Morning Star with several crewmen and kill everybody on it - immediately. Barbazan, however, decided on a change of plan when he realized that there were a number of females aboard the Star.  After slaughtering as many of the crew as possible he trapped the rest in the main hold. The women were then taken to the Captain's cabin for some leisurely entertainment.

Helpless women in the Captain's cabin.

Before returning to the pirate ship Barbazan fastened down the hatches trapping the men and women of the Star inside the hold. He then bored a series of holes below the  ship's water line  so that the ship would sink and drown the lot of them.

Later, while La Burla Negra sailed away into the sunset, one of the women escaped and managed to free the rest of the crew. A passing vessel reached the slowly sinking Morning Star and took the survivors on board. Most of the passengers were returned safely to England but several - for unknown reasons - were taken to Gibraltar. De Soto was furious with Barbazan. He had failed to obey his explicit order to kill everybody immediately: the captain was a true believer in the old pirate adage -  'dead men tell no tales.'

Shortly afterwards the Burla Negra was caught in a heavy gale and the men were forced to abandon ship. They eventually made their way ashore near Cadiz where De Soto tried to pass himself off as an honest shipwrecked seaman. The authorities, however, soon became suspicious and De Soto was obliged to leave. He made his way to Gibraltar and took up quarters in a cheap posada in the neutral ground. He stayed for several days and eventually managed to obtain a permit that allowed him to enter the Garrison.

There he took up residence in a dingy tavern in one of the narrow lanes just off Main Street close to the Casemates. Owned by a local resident called Basso, it was reputed to have been the preferred haunt of some of the most disreputable people on the Rock. Many of these were Spaniards, others were either Moorish or Jewish. Not one of them was legitimately entitled to be on the Rock and whatever documents or permits they held had never been approved by the British Authorities.

Charles Ellms, a contemporary British author who wrote several books about pirates seems to have known De Soto before his arrest in Gibraltar and visited him several times while he was in prison. Ellms tells us that throughout his stay on the Rock De Soto dressed expensively in silk stockings, white trousers, and blue frock coat. His  spotlessly clean white hat was of the best English quality. His appearance far from being that of a brigand was much more that of a London preacher. He face, of course, remained that of a mariner, and was deeply tanned by the sun. But he went about his business - whatever that might have been - giving the impression of being a pleasant and honest  man. As part of his cover-up story De Soto had told Basso that he was on his way to Malaga on important business. He was simply waiting for a friend.

A drawing of Benito de Soto taken from a photograph taken a few days before he was hanged.

Eventually De Soto's luck ran out: he was recognised by one of the survivors of the Morning Star. His pirate philosophy would prove correct - Dead men tell no tales but it was impossible to get live ones to stop talking.

De Soto was arrested, put on trial, found guilty of piracy and sentenced to death. Meanwhile - and he was in prison for year and a half - he continued to argue his innocence,  complaining constantly about the injustice of it all. It was only when the Governor of Gibraltar, General Sir George Don, officially sentenced him to be hanged that he finally gave in and admitted his guilt.

General Sir George Don, Governor of Gibraltar

Gallows were specially constructed in the neutral ground close to the water and Gibraltarians who witnessed his execution seem to have been impressed by his demeanour. When the hangman discovered that he had set the rope at the wrong height, De Soto calmly stood on his own coffin and obligingly placed his head inside the noose.

'Adeus todos' were his last words as he moved forward to make things easier for the hangman. At the time, the words created a huge debate in Gibraltar. People found it hard to believe that a Spaniard would have spoken in Portuguese at the  moment of his death.

By the time the pike with his severed head was finally removed from the neutral ground De Soto had became a very minor footnote in the overall history of the Rock. And yet the repercussions were far greater than anyone would have imagined.

An engraving of the Rock in the 1830s (Thomas Rosco) 
The gallows were probably constructed at the end of the beach on the far right of the picture

A year earlier in 1827 a large part of General Don's time as Governor had been taken up  composing carefully worded letters to Sir George Murray, the  Secretary of State for War and the Colonies at the time. Don's correspondence assured his boss that he had put into place a series of new procedures which were intended to restrict the admission of foreigners into the Rock. In fact he considered the matter of such overriding importance that he personally intended to review the renewal of each and every permit. To discover so shortly after this commitment that a notorious criminal had been able to take up residence in town and wander around freely all over Gibraltar was disconcerting to say the least. Murray was outraged. When the results of the inevitable enquiry were published, outrage gave way to apoplexy.

General Sir George Murray. Not just Secretary of State for War and the Colonies but Master General of the Ordnance - He had yet to hear about De Soto when this portrait was made. (Henry Raeburn)

De Soto had apparently obtained a glowing letter of recommendation from a British vice-consul in Galicia and a 'legitimate' permit from the Spanish authorities in Algeciras. With these two bogus pieces of paper he was able to obtain a one-day entry permit at Waterport under the name of José Peregrina Sanchez. Not content De Soto then convinced a local broker to stand surety  for him for such a large amount of money that it allowed him to bamboozle the authorities even further. The town major's office extended his residence permit indefinitely - for 'business reasons.'

It was an intolerable state of affairs. Murray responded with a barrage of memoranda and insisted on a variety of new measures. For a start the responsibility for the control of entry into Gibraltar was removed from military hands and given to a newly created police force. It would be  based on the Metropolitan force which Murray's colleague Robert Peel had recently introduced in London. The Gibraltar 'Civil' Police quickly  became operational on the 25th of June 1830.

Gibraltar policeman of the early 19th century

But perhaps even more pertinently Murray was adamant that Gibraltar should adopt a whole  new raft of bureaucratic controls. The only person now authorised to grant permits was the civilian police magistrate. Any residence of over three days required the personal attention of the Governor and the granting of  a permanent residence permit was reserved for the Secretary of State himself. Best of all he insisted - probably because he would in future have to authorise each and every one of them himself  - that a Gibraltar Passport be designed for people who had proved their legitimate right to reside in Gibraltar.

Thus by a quirk of history it would seem that a murderous psychopath was indirectly responsible for the setting up of what was arguably the second oldest modern police force in the world as well as the creation of a passport which would - for the first time - define the word 'Gibraltarian' for those who lived on the Rock.

The coda was of course that these legislative measures failed to control the flow of illegal immigrants into Gibraltar.  As so often in the past it foundered because of the seemingly  innate capacity of  local people to evade those laws which they disapproved of. In other words these new regulations failed to convince those who were already legitimately established on the Rock to accept as aliens those people who they considered to be similar to themselves  both in interests and in culture.

Shortly afterwards in 1830 the results of a hastily conducted census must have made for depressing reading in Government circles: the civilian population of Gibraltar had risen by nearly 2 000 souls. Almost all of these were 'aliens' .

Waterport wharf in 1883 with customs and police control huts in the foreground.
By then it was far too late to stop the influx of 'aliens' that the British authorities had been so keen to put a stop to.