The People of Gibraltar
1841 - Rev. William Robertson - Boiled Goosberries

The Rev. William Robertson was a relatively obscure Presbyterian clergyman who was asked by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to visit the Rock. His remit was to find out the state of the church in Gibraltar.  In 1845 he published his Journal of a Clergyman during a visit to the Peninsular in the Summer and Autumn of 1841, an account both of his travels and of his stay on the Rock and from which all the quotes shown below are taken.

Robertson put up at the Club House Hotel in Commercial Square and 'being bent on sight-seeing' he dutifully visited most of Gibraltar's more obvious tourist curiosities - The Moorish Castle, the Galleries, St Michael's Cave, and the views from the top of the Rock. His encounter with the 'monkeys' of Gibraltar, however,  was not a conventional one.

The Apes
The monkeys which abound on the rock are very uncertain in their movements, and not to be always met with. The only individual of the race I have seen, is one chained in the court of the Fusiliers' mess-house. It is larger than the generality, being about two feet high.

The cook shaves the poor fellow's face every Monday morning, which gives him a hideously human appearance. At first he struggled, and resisted this barbaric operation very stoutly ; but being coaxed with a glass of rum, (how truly says General Cockburn that Gibraltar is a very drunken place !) he now submits to be lathered and scraped with considerable philosophy.

The apes in their proper habitat ( 1854 - E Widdick )

In 1810, Lieutenant-General Cockburn wrote Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar which included the following passage; 'Gibraltar was always a drunken place; and I am sorry to observe it still is - almost every man I saw (not on guard) was reeling drunk,' - hence the reference above.

The Markets
The fish market . . near the Land-gate, which opens on the Spanish lines . . displays an amazing variety of the finny tribe . . great numbers of which also are strange both to eye and palate. Among many unknown varieties, there are always to be seen numbers of long eel-shaped creatures, mottled like serpents with heads like cats, and grinning like monkeys.

The fruit market is a more attractive exhibition. Here are to be found, in endless variety and prodigious abundance, all the vegetable luxuries of the sunny south; immense melons, piled in heaps resembling the piles of cannon-balls in an arsenal—great panniers of figs of various kinds, comprehending the large green fig with red pulp, a native of Gibraltar; and the highest flavoured of all, the enormous purple fig, one of which would fill an ordinary-sized tumbler, and various other sorts—a vast profusion of grapes, some purple and gushing," others firm and fleshy . . .

. . but supreme above all the rich, but most delicate muscatel from Sandy Bay, near Algeciraz. This grape is unrivalled by any in Europe, and far surpasses the best of our hothouse grapes . . . Apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots, are in great abundance, but infinitely inferior in point of flavour to our own. The last are familiarly termed " Kill Johns" in Gibraltar, owing to their dangerous and sometimes fatal effects on poor John Bull . . .

The eel-shaped serpents were either moray or conger eels - both probably still caught off Gibraltar today. Sandy Bay in Algeciras is hard to place but might have referred to vineyards behind Getares Beach.

A corner of the fruit market in the late nineteenth century - those cannon-balls were still around ( Unknown )

The People of the Rock
The singular assemblage which the streets of Gibraltar present of various tribes and nations, kindreds and tongues, strikes every stranger the moment he lands. All the states of the Mediterranean, and many others besides, have their representatives here; and the languages one listens to in the streets remind one of Babel. British soldiers and civilians, Italians, French, Portuguese, and Spaniards, are the most numerous of the Europeans.

The boatmen are chiefly Italians, and the porters are Jews. The Moors and Jews present a most striking contrast. A nobler-looking animal than the Moor is rarely to be seen in any part of the world; a more abject and miserable-looking object than the native Jew of Gibraltar is seldom to be met with. He stoops almost double as he shuffles along slipshod and dirty, his eyes, like boiled gooseberries, are fixed on the earth, and his sallow lean countenance is expressive of nothing but meanness.

The bad press which the Jews of Gibraltar have endured over the years from writer after writer - and from century to century - is remarkable, especially so as some of the richest and no doubt best dressed people in Gibraltar were Jewish. The problem is that the almost unconscious anti-Semitism of the day created its own vicious circle - if somebody happened to look slipshod and dirty or happened to have eyes like' gooseberries, that person would be labelled a Jew even if he happened to be the most rabid Catholic in town.

Spain and the Spaniards
The Spanish population of Gibraltar are noways remarkable in their appearance ; neither are the inhabitants of the neighbouring country by any means so striking in their appearance as the free and wild mountaineer of Ronda, who frequently visits Gibraltar in the prosecution of his smuggling avocations.

Another very remarkable contrast is forced upon the attention every time one crosses the Spanish lines—it is betwixt the Spanish and British soldier. The smart red coat, the clean white trousers and gaiters, the well-polished shoes and burnished arms, the erect figure, measured step, and disciplined appearance of the latter, give him the appearance of a beautiful and highly finished piece of mechanism ; while the dirty and slovenly dress, untrimmed beard and unwashed face, rusty firelock and lounging gait of the latter, remind one of a mad beggar more than of a soldier. In fact, most of us have seen in our country towns the very counterpart of these Spanish warriors, in the person of some half-witted creature rigged out in a ragged and soiled militia uniform.

There is great freedom of intercourse betwixt Gibraltar and Spain. I have been provided with a pass from the governor, authorizing me to wander at will in the neighbouring country; but I have not once had occasion to show it. I ride almost every day unquestioned through the Spanish lines, nor have I ever had any unpleasant encounter with either soldier or peasant. Others, however, have been less fortunate, and owing to the excessively irascible and inflammable temper of the Spaniard, a small pocket-pistol ought to be the invariable companion of every traveller in Spain, more for the purpose of overawing the knife than for any more deadly object.

The Spaniard is so accustomed, on every occasion and on the slightest insult, real or imaginary, to whip out his long knife, which he is exceedingly dexterous at sheathing in the body of the offender, that some convenient weapon becomes absolutely indispensable.

He could thank - or blame - the Calpe Hunt ( see LINK ) for much of his experiences here. During the middle of the nineteenth century, relations between the upper classes and the authorities on both sides of the border couldn't have been better. The Governors of the Campo area and of Gibraltar were on the best of terms and the master of the Hunt just happened to own most of the land over which the event took place. Going through the frontier was a painless activity.

However, and it was a big however, the ordinary Spanish farmers were not altogether enamoured with having people trampling all over their crops in pursuit of foxes and often retaliated violently. Also the conglomeration of so many well off people in what was relatively uninhabited woodland or countryside attracted every petty thief and bandit for miles around. Very often that small pocket pistol didn't do the trick. Here is one way they got their revenge - as Robertson himself wrote in another chapter.

The Cork-woods
I lately happened to meet in Rotterdam a lad who had been head waiter in the Club hotel in Gibraltar . . . from whom I heard of a contretemps . . which occurred to some of my Gibraltar friends shortly after I left the Rock. They had gone to spend a day in the Cork-wood, and had picketed their horses while they were enjoying their rural repast. This ended, they prepared to return home ; but, to their no small dismay, neither horse nor saddle was to be found. In fact, they had been cleverly and quietly carried off without disturbing the social party to whom they belonged.

Picnicking at the Almoraima cork-woods ( Unknown )

Another Anecdote
On one occasion this year, as two officers of the garrison were returning from their usual ride, and passing the Spanish guard, it happened—fortunately a most uncommon occurrence—that the soldiers on guard were intoxicated.

Our officers were challenged by the drunken sentinel, and one of them found with no very comfortable sensations the muzzle of a loaded musket within half a yard of his breast. He was a young man of considerable wealth, which circumstance suggested to his companion a banter, which sounds sufficiently burlesque in a position of such imminent peril:

" I say, what's the worth of your fortune now? " "I shall have a tussle for it at any rate," replied the spirited young man; and instantly precipitating himself from his horse, and at the same time beating up the muzzle of the musket, he closed with the Spaniard, and they rolled together on the ground.

The musket went off harmlessly, and the Englishman being promptly assisted by his companion, the soldier was secured and carried in triumph to Gibraltar. He was immediately given up to the authorities at St Roque, but what punishment was awarded I do not know.

Stories of British derring-do and Spanish cowardice - or worse - spice up the literature of almost every British and American visitor to Gibraltar. There was something so appealing and romantic about these tall, well-dressed, well-spoken and usually financially well endowed British officers that even if the many anecdotes about their moral and physical superiority over the Spaniards were false they really ought to have been true.

In the above anecdote there is the unquestioned assumption that a British officer had the God given right to cross any border without having to suffer the indignity of being held up by a frontier guard. That the guard in question was a 'drunken sentinel' simply helps justify events even further - but it would have been exactly the same even if he hadn't.

The principal supplies of provisions for Gibraltar are from Barbary. Animal food of all kinds is bad and dear. The Barbary beef and mutton are better than the Spanish; but both are bad. Fowls may occasionally be had tolerably good, and the Spanish pork is excellent. Some of the regiments frequently get mutton from England by the steamers, which proves a great luxury.

Bread at Gibraltar is indifferent, which is singular, for Spanish bread is almost uniformly the best in Europe. It is peculiarly white, the whitest in Europe, and remarkably sweet. It is exceedingly close in its texture, and weighs heavy, but keeps good for many weeks. Some people think it heavy and indigestible—to me it appears the very perfection of bread. Vegetables and fruit are the cheapest and best articles of consumption to be found in Gibraltar. Fish are also in great abundance, and in great variety.

One would imagine that this bread was a precursor of 'pan duro' which was still a staple right up to the middle of the 20th century. Having tried it I can confirm that it is indeed ' exceedingly close in its texture' and is both 'heavy and indigestible'.

An engraving of ships off Gibraltar used as the frontispiece of the book ( 1841 - From a picture by J.M.W. Turner )

Mules and Horses
Almost the only beast of draught used in Gibraltar is the mule. This is the most valuable animal in Spanish zoology; and in the common carts we often see a team of six or eight perfect specimens of symmetry and strength. They are large, often near sixteen hands, clean-limbed, broad- chested, powerful animals. Gibraltar resounds with their dissonant bray.

The horses are mostly poor garrons, though often better than they look. I found a useful and very safe hack, but as vicious as a tiger, and marvellously expert at mischief both with hoofs and teeth. Some of the officers have very handsome Andalucian horses, and there are a few showy, small-boned, high-bred, cat-gutted, worthless Barbs.

The mention of the use of mules as draft animals is a rare one. Nevertheless, twenty years after this was written some 100 uniformed War Department mule drivers - known locally as Los Carreteros del Rey - sailed for Suez to take part in the Suakin Expedition. There was a railway to be built in the Sudan which required military protection and thus the need for army transport.

It has always been suggested that these men were drawn from Gibraltar because it was conveniently close to the Sudan but perhaps the fact that Gibraltar has so many expert local muleteers may also have had something to do with it.

As regards horses, Garron is the Scottish term for an undersized and much despised beast. and Barbs were Barbary horses, usually of great hardiness and stamina. The ones in Gibraltar were obviously not up to standard.

Of these, the Gibraltar trader is perhaps the most striking, and a most suspicious-looking craft she is. She lies rather low in the water, sharp in the bows, and carries enormous lateen sails. Her cargo looks peaceable enough, but not so her crew, who are far too numerous to be required for the management of such a vessel if she were honest, and have a desperado look about them which seems to intimate some other employment besides peaceable navigation—a suspicion which is more than confirmed by the no way equivocal appearance of two large swivel-guns poking out their wide black muzzles from under a tarpawling amidships.

In short, she is a smuggler—a lawless freetrader— and her numerous and daring crew require the guarda-costa to be well armed and well manned before she presumes to ask any questions. These vessels are fair traders in the bay of Gibraltar, but contrabandistas on the Spanish coast, whose honesty must not be questioned on the open sea, but are recognised smugglers near the shore. Hence the fruitful ground of squabbles betwixt our cruisers and the Spanish coast-guard.

Possibly a Gibraltar Trader - ( 1836 - J. F. Lewis )

When detected landing contraband goods, they are of course liable to seizure; but we consider ourselves bound to protect them in all other circumstances, however suspicious. It appears not very dignified for a great power like England to protect the smuggling trade on the coasts of helpless Spain, who has no strength to retaliate or resist. 

But besides that the trade is profitable—that excuse betwixt nations for everything that is lawless and opens a considerable mart for British produce, it is obviously the duty of Great Britain to protect her own subjects on the high seas, and to prevent their being kidnapped by the cruisers of any other nation, in circumstances where the charge of contravening the laws of that nation within its own jurisdiction cannot be fully substantiated.

Hence the watchful jealousy with which our ships of war regard the motions of the guarda-costas near the entrance to the Mediterranean; and perhaps the most exciting signal now made from the signal-tower on the Rock, is that which telegraphs "a Gibraltar vessel pursued by a Spaniard." 

Catalan Bay and Smuggling
. . Catalan village, a singularly pretty and romantic hamlet, occupying a few yards of level ground at the back of the rock, at the foot of the gigantic precipice which rises immediately behind, and between it and the margin of the sea. It is a fishing village, very neat and clean, with little gardens between some of the houses, and a pretty sandy bay in front. It belongs to Gibraltar, and offers an exceedingly convenient place of refuge to the smugglers, who, when hard pressed by the Spanish coast-guard, and unable to make their escape through the straits into the bay of Gibraltar, are sometimes obliged to run their craft ashore here, where they are under British protection.

Algeciraz is a very pretty, clean town, with a large fruit-market, abounding with every species of vegetable luxury; a handsome square paved with large flat stones, many beautiful and luxuriant gardens, an alameda of course, and an aqueduct of hewn stone, of an extent and workmanship apparently out of all proportion to the size of the place which it supplies with water.

Gibraltar from Algeciras ( Unknown )

1840 Census
Robertson also gives details of the 1840 census which shows just how difficult the British authorities were finding it to classify the population in some sort of meaningful way.

It simply doesn't add up. The reason is that the worryingly high number of 'Romanists' includes that huge floating population of 4241 Aliens. Also that Protestant figure is misleading; only about 800 were of proper British stock.

Another interesting demographic statistic is that out of about 200 Spaniards, 1400 were women whereas out of 1000 Genoese, 600 were men. Over the years, both would marry each other.

The Rev William Robertson's value as an observer is no better or worse than so many others who came before him, but it does confirm that British prejudices were continuing to flourish during the middle of the nineteenth century in so far as their perceptions of both the Spanish and the local civilian residents of the Rock were concerned.