The People of Gibraltar
1436 - La Barcina - Jamás la tu Fama

Enrique Pérez de Guzmán, second Count of Niebla and Juan Alonso Pérez de Guzmán 

The well-known historical event known as la Reconquista - the retaking of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors by Christian forces - occupied everybody involved for nearly 800 years. 

It requires only a casual reading of the events that took place during and after the definitive taking of Gibraltar by Castilian forces in 1462 to understand why it took as long as it did. Internecine warfare, persistent petty squabbling, and the insistence on an incomprehensible protocol among the Christian leaders ensured that la Reconquista would never be a blitzkrieg.  Ironically the events that took place during the previous siege of Gibraltar - the seventh - probably ensured that it would never take another 800.


         Moros y Cristianos during the age of chivalry - sadly missed during the seventh siege of Gibraltar                                    ( Unknown )

In 1436 Enrique Pérez de Guzmán the second Count of Niebla and grandson of Alonso Pérez de Guzmán who had captured the Rock in the name of Ferdinand IV of Castile during the first siege of Gibraltar - decided it was time to recover the Rock. He was tired of the constant raids which Berber galleys based on the Rock had carried out against his properties which extended from Cadiz to Tarifa.

He intended to storm Gibraltar with a force of about 5000 men and put his son, Juan Alonso de Guzmán, 1st Duke of Medina Sidonia, in command of most of the army.  The idea was that Juan Alonso would use his troops to blockade the isthmus while he and some of his most trusted knights attempted to land on the south. 1

When the strategy was put into practice, Enrique discovered that the Moorish defences were much stronger than he had anticipated. One suspects that his reconnaissance had been nonexistent. Unbelievably he had failed to notice that nearly a hundred years earlier the Moors had extended the sea wall all the way to Europa Point in order to prevent anybody doing precisely what he had planned to do. 


Sketch showing the southern wall that the Conde de Niebla failed to foresee.  The text reads ' aqui fue la batalla de don enrico quando se hogo'. Well over a hundred years after the event it was still worthy of comment   ( 1567 - Anton van Wyngaerde )

Whatever the case he managed to land most of his small force on a narrow beach just in front of that part of the wall that would one day be known as the Saluting Battery. It was a big mistake as both he and his small force soon found themselves trapped between the wall and the rising tide. Enrique decided to withdraw but was drowned when his stranded men tried to board his boat and capsized it. 2


The Saluting Battery   ( Late 19th century )

A more romantic version insists that the tragedy occurred because he courageously went back to the scene of the battle in order to try and save his knights rather than make good his own escape. In a Moorish version of the event the Christian knights are chased away from Gibraltar and the Count drowns in the nearby Rio Palmones, which happened to be in spate at the time. 3   


Map showing the position of the Rio Palmones relative to Gibraltar. It means that the Moorish forces would have had to chase the Count over two other rivers before catching up with him on the third ( 1843 - Donet - detail) 

Most modern histories, however, follow the Christian version and are more or less in agreement as to what happened next - the Moors recovered Enrique's body, decapitated it, and hung it inside a barcina - or wicker basket - on top of one of the towers that stood on either side of the Puerta de la Barcina - presumably the western one closest to the sea as the basket and its contents were meant to be visible to any passing ship. 

Other versions suggest it was hung either on the Watergate or even on top of the Tower of Homage. 4 Despite the best efforts of Juan Alonso de Guzmán to recover his father's body by offering ransom money  the Moors refused to budge and the body remained in place both as a reminder and a warning. 

To paraphrase Maurice Harvey in his History of Gibraltar quoting Talleyrand on his comment about the murder of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon I - it was much worse than just a crime - it was a serious tactical blunder. The recovery of the body of the Count became a matter of honour in the minds of the Christian rulers. It took precedence over other matters and indirectly led to the fall of Granada in 1492 and the end of the Reconquista.

According to some local  historians, a consequence of all these rather melodramatic events was that the area closest to the bay in the older section of town where the Moors hung the Conde de Niebla's body became known as la Barcina. The name is known to have been in use right up to the mid 17th century and perhaps beyond. 5

The first part of the story - the attempt to recover Gibraltar and subsequent drowning of Don Enrique is very well documented. To give just one example, not more than a few years after the event the Spanish poet and favourite of Juan II of Castile, Juan de Mena,  wrote a semi-epic poem of the event;

. . . . El Conde e los suyos tomaron la tierra 
Que estaba entre el agua y borde del muro, 
Lugar con ménguate seco e seguro, 
Mas con la creciente del todo se cierra 
Quien llega más tarde presume que yerra, . . . . 

Mientra morían, e mientra mataban 

De parte del agua ya crecen las ondas, 
e cubren las mares soberbias e ondas 
Los campos que antes los muros estaban . . . . .
. . . 
Jamás la tu fama, jamás la tu gloria 
Darán en los siglos eternos memoria, 
Será la tu muerte por siempre plañida.

The most remarkable thing about this poem, however, is that there is absolutely no mention of the subsequent Moorish humiliation of the Count's decapitated body. Much less any mention of any 'barcina'


Perhaps the celebrated poem about the fate of the Conde de Niebla being read by Juan de Mena to King Juan II

Most of the other available literature - much of it in the form of Crónicas of one or the other of the many kings of Castile and elsewhere - suggest that the Count's body was actually put inside a coffin and  then placed in a prominent position on top of the tower of Homage

The theory that the name of la Barcina is somehow connected with the Duke of Niebla's demise is therefore very hard to sustain. Historically the first person to mention the possible connection is Alonso Hernández del Portillo. However, a closer reading of his hand-written manuscript shows that he was quoting the Spanish 15th century historian Esteban de Garibay who actually makes no mention of any barcina. According to Garibay, Niebla was put inside an 'ataud.' 7

Worse, Portillo himself was of the opinion that Garibay was talking nonsense  -' un disparate' is the phrase he used. Portillo himself offers what is tantamount to yet another 'disparate' in suggesting that the name derives from the Barca family - of Hannibal fame - who, he writes,  once repaired their galleys in the area. 

He also offers the rather unreasonable suggestion that if the story of the barcina were in fact true then the corresponding Puerta de la Barcina ought to be called la Puerta de Gebeci - which he considers to be the Moorish word for 'barcina'.  8

It is nevertheless curious that the majority of the more recent - and even older -  general histories of the Rock persist in placing the body inside a barcina thus perpetuating as fact what is probably not even a myth but what appears to me to be a misinterpretation of Portillo's original comments. 9. 10. 11. 12.


Even more perplexing were the attitudes of both Moors and Christians a quarter of a century or so later when the Christian forces finally retook Gibraltar. During the byzantine negotiations and downright quarrels  which ensued between the nineteen year old Rodrigo Ponce de Leon and the Duke of Medina Sidonia over the protocol of the surrender the Rock, the Moors insisted that they should hand the place over to the later because of the respect they had for his father.13. 14.

As an example of diplomacy at its most hypocritical it takes some beating. So much so that it is hardly believable. Unless of course, the Duke's body had never actually been placed in a barcina but had been kept inside a coffin somewhere inside the castle precincts.

Which leaves us with the question - where does the area get its name from? Local archaeologist Kevin Lane suggests that it might derive from the old Andalusian meaning for barcina which is - carga o haz grande de paja - which in turn would refer to the packaging used to transport grain and other merchandise and which would probably have been found either full or empty strewn all over the place beside the main commercial mole.

Local historians such as Tito Vallejo and Tyson Lee Holmes have suggested a corruption of the Moorish 'dar a-sinaha'  which gave us the English word 'arsenal'. However, it is possible to eliminate the middlemen - the original Moorish 'dar a-sinaha' - and go straight to the Spanish word 'la dársena' or 'parte de un puerto resguardada artificialmente de las corrientes para que las embarcaciones puedan cargar y descargar con comodidad' It is an appealing theory that fits the bill rather nicely.


Part of the Barcina area and the atarazana - the long building on the left - which was still in existence in Portillo's day    ( 1625 - Luis Bravo de Acuña - detail )

Yet another possibility is that the chronology is wrong - first the area became known as the wicker basket or barcina for reasons that had nothing to do with Niebla- and then as time passed and by association the Count was mythically hung up in one of them.

Unfortunately and as with the hanging wicker basket, there is no hard evidence for any of these ideas.