The People of Gibraltar

1851 - William Henry Bartlett

Smugglers, Spaniards and Moors - Porters, Touters and Idlers

William Henry Bartlett was a warm-hearted, sensitive and rather reserved Englishman devoted to his family and to a small number of intimate friends. He travelled widely and wrote a number of books which were essentially illustrated travelogues. He was also a prolific print illustrator who contributed to a remarkable number of engravings during his brief career.

William Henry Bartlett - self portrait

Around the middle of the 19th century he went on a grand tour of Europe which took in Malta, Gibraltar and Granada and recorded his experiences in Gleanings Pictorial and Antiquarian on the Overland Route which was published in 1851.

His visit to Gibraltar is interesting as - unusually for a Victorian traveller - he seems to have been prepared to criticise the actions of his own countrymen when required.

The opening chapter on the Rock opens on a foggy morning somewhere in the middle of the straits as his ship approaches land after several days at sea. He was excited at the prospect of seeing the famous Rock for the first time.

Bartlett doesn't tell us the name of the ship he was travelling on but sail assisted steamship were already making an appearance around the straits of Gibraltar at the time ( 1844 - Samuel Owen - The Tagus )

As he leaned against the ship's railings his first impression was a sudden noticeable increase in number and variety of ships within view. One of them was a rather suspicious looking felucca.
'That fellow', he was told by the ship's captain as he pointed it out, 'is a Gibraltar smuggler. He is just standing off and waiting for a signal from land.'

Even as he spoke - and despite the morning fog - Bartlett could see fires being lit along the Spanish coast while the vessel, with a corresponding shift of her sails, changed tack and moved towards the shore.

It was a nice case study of something Bartlett was already well aware of; Gibraltar was the grand depot for British goods intended for Spanish consumption without the intermediate process of having to fork out the heavy duties which would otherwise have to be paid. He thought it was a rather undignified process as it exacerbated the bitter feelings that the Spaniards already had concerning British possession of a fortress they considered to be rightfully theirs.

Nor, he suggested, was it either dignified nor honourable for his countrymen to turn a blind eye to what was so obviously an illicit racket. And it wasn't as if it were 'a secret wink'; they didn't just countenance but encouraged it openly.

These smuggling boats all took on their cargoes in the harbour at Gibraltar all of them hiding a heavy gun. When they landed the goods in Spain a daring group of mountaineers known as 'contrabandistas' carried them into the interior encouraged by the cooperation of many a well-bribed Spanish official.

The authorities did, however, maintain a number of fast-sailing guarda costas - or revenue cutters - which tried to keep a sharp look-out for these feluccas. They sometimes managed to board the smugglers from under the batteries of the Rock but they always ran the risk of being sunk by British guns if they happen to invade the jurisdiction of British waters. It was, Bartlett suggested rather surprisingly, something that brought into question:

"our very equivocal right to the jurisdiction of a fortress which, if truth must be confessed, we obtained in a very equivocal manner. and make use of for purposes more equivocal still. To bring the case home to our own business and bosoms, it is just as if the French had possession of Dover, and were to sink our revenue cutters, for endeavouring to cut out their smugglers. We cannot wonder that the Spaniards should regard our possession of Gibraltar with an evil eye."

On a brighter note, smuggling from Gibraltar was actually 'greatly on the wane'. He attributed this to two factors; the British military authorities of the Rock disapproved of it and the Spanish preventive service was improving.

Gibraltar from Gaucin - The men on the left are probably smugglers ( W.H. Bartlett )

Historically Bartlett's first suggestion is undoubtedly true. The upper echelons of the British military establishment on the Rock - including most of her Governors - all thought smuggling was bad for the moral of their soldiers. However Bartlett fails to take into account the enormous pressure exerted by British suppliers of goods to Gibraltar who had everything to gain by the system. Their influence at home made it difficult for any British authority to take the kind of restrictive action required - even though they would have probably been inclined to do so.

Signal Station on a high point of the Rock, for example, had long been used for the purpose of conveying information to smugglers as regards the movements of the guarda costas. According to another contemporary writer, 'few signals made are more exciting to the people of Gibraltar, than that of a smuggler pursued by a guarda costa.' There are no prizes for guessing on whose side the locals were on.

As the fog cleared the eastern side of the Rock came into view towering over Bartlett's ship, a long continuous precipice of over fourteen hundred feet in height. The tiny village of Catalan Bay was the only sign of human activity, its small, white houses looking as if they would surely soon be crushed by falling rocks.

An eastern view of the cliffs of Gibraltar. Catalan Bay is still hidden behind the low lying rocks in the middle distance ( 1854 - Vilhelm Melby )

As the ship turned the eastern corner the main town came into view, bristling with tier after tier of batteries and fortifications. It was said that there were about eighty guns defending the Rock in 1704 - now there were more than a thousand. This massive display of ordinance was nevertheless softened by the appearance of 'white barracks' and 'gay villas' adorned by 'green gardens and groves.' It was a scene that surpassed even his already high expectations of the place.

He does add an interesting observation: the guns are all pointing in the wrong direction. Rather than towards south in order to control the Straits as one would have expected, they actually pointed mostly towards the Bay in the west and Spain in the north.

Egged on no doubt by the mention of so many guns Bartlett is drawn towards Gibraltar's overwhelmingly military history and offers a potted version which gives pride of place to both the taking of the Rock and the Great Siege both entirely based on Drinkwater's famous account.

He then treats us to a trip through town starting at the Old Mole or Devil's Tongue which - despite his previous comments on the business being on the wane - was jam packed with dangerous looking Spanish smugglers and their well armed feluccas. Here in the company of some Moors recently arrived from Barbary he and his companions pushed their way through boatmen, porters, touters and idlers 'from almost every land' and struggled towards the entrance to the town where they were stopped by a functionary who asks for their names and country.

The Landing Place at the Old Mole ( W.H. Bartlett)

The words 'English Subject' acted as an 'Open Sesame' and without further ado they crossed the drawbridge and then through a deep gateway which penetrated the outer wall and from there into the market place.

The architecture of the town he found unimpressive. Narrow main streets intersected by even narrower lanes or ramps that clambered up the Rock with a confused jumble of houses huddled together without any hope for expansion and all of them ill-built and unsuitable for the climate which in summer was hot and oppressively close.

The hotels and tourist accommodations he dismissed as uncomfortable and enormously dear, although he does exonerate the Club House - once the home of Aaron Cardozo, a wealthy local merchant - and Griffiths' Hotel something of an institution in Gibraltar at the time.

The confines of what was essentially a fortress were reinforced by the word 'Military Quarters' which were found on the few 'tolerable' houses. Parties relieving guards marched at every corner and 'the narrow streets resounded to the thrilling drum and fife of the patrol.' Visitors could hardly move an inch without somebody demanding to see their permits or name some respectable person as surety.

View of the town and Moorish Caste from King's Bastion. The large building in the center middle distance is the Club House Hotel where Bartlett stayed during his visit to Gibraltar. Of the six civilians shown in the foreground, the front three are probably Spaniards and the other three Moors ( W.H. Bartlett )   LINK

Nor did he find the Convent impressive in any way. He thought anybody might pass by without suspecting it was the 'Governor's palace'. The Alameda Gardens, however, did meet with his approval - 'perhaps the most beautiful, but by all events the most singular promenade within the confines of Europe or perhaps the whole world.'

He also thought highly of The Mount , the official residence at the time of the Captain of the Port. It compared with any he had ever seen for 'the romantic peculiarity of the site' - airy rooms and Italianate gardens with statues and fountains and with magnificent views through the foliage of the 'Bay and its white sails, the town, and the mountains of Africa and Spain.'

A trip to the top of the Rock to Signal Station proved equally memorable. Up there perched upon the summit and surrounded by a cliff that plunged well over thirteen hundred feet into the sea below he found a tiny hut barely twenty foot square. It was, he wrote' the very picture of English tidiness', 'the habitation of the sergeant' and a most inviting place where 'at the tinkle upon the table the smiling hostess' would produce a thoroughly English luncheon of cheese, bread and butter all washed down with foaming bottled ale.
Signal Hill ( W.H. Bartlett )

The story of Simon Susarte and the Spanish attempt to surprise the Garrison in 1704 proved also an irresistible story but he extended it with a tale of his own. It seems that during the Great Siege a deserting soldier found himself trapped in a precipice between Charles V wall and Mount Misery from which he could neither descend any further nor retrace his steps. He cried for help, was brought back to safety with great difficulty. . . and was then promptly executed for desertion.

The Rock looking south towards the lighthouse ( W.H. Bartlett )  LINK

On another day he organised an excursion to Spain in order to view the ruins at Carteia. Passing through Landport gate and over the flat sandy isthmus he was struck by the difference between the two lines of Spanish and English guards. It was a flattering sight to his 'national vanity' - the Britons, 'stout, rosy, well appointed in bright scarlet coats', the others 'meagre, sunburnt, and half starved' in 'slouching unmilitary' posture.

Once he had stepped across the lines every object testified to the fact that he was in Spain; wretched barracks and even more wretched hovels for their hangers-on'. The Forts of San Felipe and Santa Barbara, once formidable but now in ruins thanks to Governor Campbell's interventions, added to the general picture of squalor and decay.

And yet as he moved on along the coast the small village of Campo or Campamento is described as a row of one story whitewashed houses and airy little cafes with billiard-rooms and tempting rows of bottles - all very inviting to the 'heated pedestrian'. The neatness of the place surprised him after his experiences while crossing the frontier and he was inclined - rather illogically - to attribute its attractiveness to its proximity to Gibraltar.

The Rock from Carteia ( W.H. Bartlett )  LINK

Back on the Rock after the wonders of Campo and Carteia a visit to Saint Michael's Cave was followed by another to the less well known St Martin's which had only recently been rediscovered by a soldier. It was a place which required a good head for heights to get to. With the skill of the born raconteur Bartlett tells us the story of a young boy from Gibraltar who had quarrelled with his friend. Proposing a visit to St Martin's Cave with two other boys he came up with a riddle;

'We are four that go up, but only three will come down.' As it happens it turned out not to be a riddle at all. The boy just chose his opportunity as they crawled their way towards the cave and pushed the lad he had quarrelled with off the cliff face.

The path to St Martin's Cave (W.H. Bartlett)

Inside St Martin's Cave (W.H. Bartlett)

The next day, a visit to the Moorish Castle - 'with no architectural detail other than one or two horseshoe Moorish arches and others of inferior dimension'. Later it was Windmill Hill and Governor's cottage - refreshing in summer but 'somewhat desolate' in the cooler months.

Governor's Cottage and O'Hara's Tower ( 1851 - W.H. Bartlett )    LINK

Another afternoon and a walk to Catalan Bay passing under the North Front of the Rock with a close view of the Devil's Tower - which he describes as an 'ancient Moorish barbican' - and in the distance, Spanish fishermen drawing in their boats on the 'eastern beach of the neutral ground'.

Devil's Tower (W.H. Bartlett )

Spanish fishermen in eastern beach ( W.H. Bartlett )

Of Catalan Bay itself he insists that 'no one should on any account omit to pay it a visit'. It was indeed a romantic little cove, a scene of quiet and seclusion which curiously contrasted with the bustle and noise of the town.

Catalan Bay in the distance from the Mediterranean Battery (W.H. Bartlett )

As with most travellers his overall view of the civilian population was a generalised blur of costumes and stereotypical racial characteristics. Aristocratic British officers in well groomed steeds mingled with the hoi polloi. Spaniards and Moors - whom Bartlett considers to be hereditary enemies - are engaged in the 'mutually beneficial' activities of trade.

The Spaniards he describes as 'sinewy in frame, swarthy of complexion, and somewhat haughty and independent in his mien and bearing.' They seem to have been a healthy lot with robust shoulders covered in close fitting jackets as well as strong limbs 'invariably encased in velvet breeches and embroidered leather leggings. Across their waist a crimson sash holding a dangerous looking 'navaja' which they were reputed to put into use at the slightest provocation. No well-groomed steed; instead they rode powerful mules with saddlebags and carbines at the ready.

The women wear black mantillas over their heads and flick their invariable fans although Bartlett is of the opinion that they are generally less graceful than the women of Cadiz or Seville. He also notices the typical Gibraltarian women's dress of the 'inferior ranks - a red clock with broad black edgings.

The Moors he eulogises as 'magnificent fellows' with costumes designed to show off their physical attributes. They all wear turbans which he tells us was somewhat old fashioned for the time as they were no longer used in either Egypt or Turkey. Their costumes were invariably loose and flowing although there were variations depending on their rank.

The ordinary trader who brought in fruit, fowls and eggs from Barbary wore striped robes of a rough material. The richer merchants were more tastefully attired with vests and long sleeved blue jackets as well as loose trousers of crimson cloth. Their legs were naked but they wore yellow slippers and they were 'scrupulous' in their personal cleanliness.

The turban and the yellow slippers identifies the man on the left as a Moor.
The traditional uniform of blue jacket and the red trousers suggests that he is a rather well off trader. The woman is a Gibraltarian resident in her traditional red cloak. The other two in the background are probably Spanish smugglers
( 1830s - William Mein Smith )

He hardly mentions the Jews which is surprising as ten percentage of the local population were Jewish, most of them either traders or porters. The Protestant 'scorpions' he identifies as red-coated 'English' soldier and their wives. In other words he follows the usual tradition of going into great detail about the appearance of Spaniards and Moors but somehow forgets to mention the bulk of the population.

The census of 1844 taken less than 5 years before Bartlett visited Gibraltar records a local population of nearly 16 000 people. Of these less than a thousand were British, about 1700 were Jews, 10 were Moors and none were Spanish. So what did he make of the 12 000 local residents that made up the rest of the local population? Perhaps it is best to quote him in full. They, were he wrote:

. . .'the mongrel population of a town which is peopled by stragglers and refugees from Patagonia to Poland.'

All of which seems to confirm that for all his undoubted insights into the prejudices and foibles of his own countrymen, he seems to have had the same blind spot that had afflicted every prior British visitors to Gibraltar. The people he describes in such detail were not the locals; they were visiting traders and smugglers.

The day his party left Gibraltar for Granada they were confronted with an unpleasant surprise - they needed passports which they naturally assumed were required by the Spanish authorities and that these would be issued by the Spanish consul. Not so. What they needed was a British passport, something which they eventually obtained after much bureaucratic tooing and froing and at considerable cost.

It was only then that they were able to obtain a visa from the Spanish consul for which they had to pay half the fees that their own government had charged them. It is quite evident from the length of the passage describing this affair and from the tone of the writing that Bartlett was less than enamoured with British officials on the Rock.

They took the boat at the Devil's Tongue landing and sailed across the bay to Algeciras where they found themselves in a thoroughly Spanish and 'vastly amusing' town where the streets, costumes and manners were in complete contrast to everything that they had left behind.

Gibraltar (1840 - W Hughes ) LINK