The People of Gibraltar
1800 - Alexandre de Laborde - A View of Spain

At some point or other in his life, the French Count Louis-Joseph-Alexandre de Laborde a military attaché. an antiquarian, a politician, a figure of high society and - more interestingly from my point of view - a traveller and a writer. Two of his works - Itinéraire descriptif de l'Espagne published in 1808 in five volumes with an atlas and the Voyage Pittoresque et Historique en Espagne finally published in 1818 in four folio volumes - included such a large number of maps and other engravings that they almost ruined him.

A translation in English of the Itinéraire descriptif de l'Espagne was also published in 1809. It included a chapter on Gibraltar and it from Volume III of this 1809 edition that the following quotes and notes are taken.


On his journey south through Spain, Laborde travelled via 'Torre molinos', Fuengirola, 'Marvella' and Estepona. He tasted the wonderful wine of Manilva, crossed the 'Guadier'  -  the river Guadiaro - gave San Roque a miss and took the path directly to Gibraltar. That last bit wasn't easy. To get there you had to travel through a sandy isthmus where in places the sand was sometimes five foot deep.  The Spanish customs were at the Spanish lines near the fortress of San Philip on the western side of the Spanish lines. The strip of ground between this and the Rock was the Neutral Ground which served:
. . .as a lounge for the officers of the garrison, and the fishermen anchor their boats there.

An engraving of the Rock by Jean Alexandre Noel that appeared in Laborde's Voyage Pittoresque - one of the many that nearly ruined him    ( 1809 )

Laborde was struck by the number of 'lakes' or lagoons on the isthmus and thought that it would just be a matter of time when the British cut a canal across the isthmus isolating the Rock from Spain.


Map showing imaginary canal across the isthmus  ( Unknown date - L.Denis - detail )

After admiring the sight of the rugged perpendicular heights of the North Face of the Rock Laborde then offers a potted history of the Rock, the origins of its name and a brief description of the place and its fortifications, the latter of which he was relatively unimpressed.
Not-withstanding the multiplied means of defence in Gibraltar, the place is not impregnable on the sea-side; and the King’s' bastion, on which M. D’Arcon directed his floating batteries, seems to me the true point of attack. Since the last siege, (see LINK) they have increased the works of this line; but such as they now are, they are not proportioned to the others, and the means that might be opposed to it, if, the besiegers were masters of the sea, and directed the enterprise better.
We also learn that the Tower of St George;
. . . was built under the directions of general O'Hara; (see LINK) his intention  was to raise it to a sufficient height to command the whole of Cadiz and observe all that passed in that port; but the English government did not approve of the undertaking which is therefore left in an unfinished state, and O'Hara has been obliged to defray the costs out of his own pocket. 

O'Hara's Folly   ( 1844 - George Lothian Hall ) (See LINK)

He may not have had the savvy to understand the folly that O'Hara's tower turned out to be but he was undoubtedly impressed by what the English had made of the Rock;
It is impossible to do justice to the taste and magnificence of the English, on seeing the care with which they have embellished the rock; they have spared nothing to cover it with trees and flowers, to support the earth with walls and other props, to cut a number of roads through the solid rock, and make them passable on horseback and in carriages up to the very top; they have even sown some artificial meadows for their flocks . . 
The 'marine hospital' - by which he meant the old Naval Hospital - the large number of country houses with attached gardens on the south side of the Rock he viewed as precursors to a new town that would one day be as big as that of Gibraltar itself. The area to the south of Charles V Wall (see LINK) he calls the Field of Mars reminding us that it was once known as the Red Sands. On Sundays and other holidays the Garrison converted it into a "grand" parade ground. As regards the population;
The prevailing religions are the Catholic, the church of England, and the Jewish; each of them has its own burying-ground, among the sandy earth of the mountain. It is observed, that there is less order and propriety among the tombs of the Catholics than those of the church of England, where they have each a stone tablet, with a laconic and expressive inscription. The Jews observe the same custom, but the Spaniards do not appear to have treated these monuments with the same religious respect . . . . The greater part of the inhabitants are military . . . . 
The population of Gibraltar is hard to determine given that a large number of people were expelled from Gibraltar a few years earlier in 1797 as a result of a revolt by the civilian population. Laborde actually puts the figure at 3000 excluding a garrison of 6000 men. A figure of about 7 000 residents  is probably a more reasonable estimate for the civilian population in 1800 a figure that would have outnumbered the largest garrison Gibraltar has ever had in its entire history. Of the civilian population the large majority would have been Catholics many of them of Genoese a few of Spanish origin, all of them residents and none of them Spaniards. 
The population of Gibraltar . . .  is continually increasing, if we may judge from the number -of new buildings lately erected. All the houses are painted black on the outside, with white borders or ledges, shewing the number of stories; which, is generally two or three; this method, which at first sight has a sombre appearance, is well suited to a country where the reflection of the sun is so violent. They say that this custom is adopted for two reasons, the first to mask the town from the enemy, the second because there are there many people of weak sight. 

Map of the Bay of Gibraltar by the Spanish cartographer, Vincent Tosino included by Laborde in one of his publications on Spain
The activity and precautions of the police maintain the greatest order in public manners, as well as the salubrity and cleanliness of the streets; no beggars are to be found here, as in the towns of Spain, and you meet with none of those hucksters, who live at the expense of the most indigent part of the community, or any of those knaves who frequent all the public places in other towns.
Though all the streets are well lighted at night, no one is allowed to walk without a lanthorn and a permission from the general, as they oblige people to answer immediately the challenges of the sentinels, a great number of whom are stationed in the town, as well as patrols and watchmen. The permission is written on a card, containing the name of the bearer . . . 
The toleration of the different religions does not disturb public tranquillity or social harmony. The decorum observable in the Catholic church is equal to the order which prevails in that of the English, and the fervour so much remarked in the Jewish synagogues . . . . . Gibraltar has a theatre, which, though small, is well laid out, and adorned with taste. Forwant of regular actors, the officers of the garrison perform, during the greater part of the year, a number of English plays. . . 
The theater was probably the one near the Castle owned by Thomas Cowper which was rather lucky to remain undamaged during the Great Siege. As regards the eyesight of the locals, it is hardly believable that it could have been any worse than that elsewhere in Spain. Nevertheless, all in all this was a rather complimentary summary of civilian Gibraltar something which is reinforced by his somewhat grudgingly sympathetic treatment of Jews (see LINK) and their traditions.
. . . . this people possess the advantage of retaining the Hebrew language, by teaching it to their children in their infancy, and by this means it is preserved, though rather changed. Their mode of transacting business is well. known;  everyone is aware to what a pitch they carry usury and imposition. However, I have had the means of convincing myself, that in Poland and other countries, where the Jews are the only traders, they content themselves with a moderate profit often repeated, which is then as valuable to them as a more advantageous bargain, and not so burthensome to those who are their dupes. 

Map of Gibraltar, probably included in the original French version of Itinéraire descriptif de l'Espagne
Their religion is not tolerated in Spain, except in Gibraltar, and they live more securely here than in any other part of Europe; and so great a number of them assemble from all parts, that, in process of time, this famous rock will be nothing more than a colony of Jews. 
Marriage is one of their most solemn family ceremonies. The hall of the house of the betrothed,- where the union is celebrated, is generally highly ornamented. At the end a stage is erected, on which seats are placed, one for the bride, and others for her mother and married sisters, as girls are not allowed to assist at this solemnity. 
The other women, who are invited, sit round the saloon, and they are dressed with the utmost elegance, some in the ancient Jewish costume, which is very fashionable on the coast of Africa., They must assume an appearance of modesty and reserve, and they act it very naturally, permitting only now and then a few glances.  
The bride then enters with her mother and sisters dressed in  white, Her face is covered with a long veil, behind which her features are distinguishable. The bridegroom soon arrives with the rabbi and .the bride's father, and in their turn follow the persons invited. The ceremony is nothing more than a mixture of well known forms, both ancient, and modern.

A Jewish lady from Gibraltar (   1833 - John Frederick Lewis )  (See LINK
A cup of wine is brought, which the new married couple drink one after the other; they then give it to the doctor, who performs the marriage ceremony ; he passes it to the father, who, perhaps, to prove that no one can share the affections of the two lovers, breaks the glass into pieces in the presence of the whole of the company. The rabbi then reads the names and rank of the contracting parties, and the duties to which they mutually engage themselves . .
As regards commerce and contraband Laborde was of the opinion that the combined profits from these was not enough to justify the expense entailed in the maintaining the fortress.
The commerce with Africa is neither certain nor regular; and although the contraband traffic with Spain, both in money and goods, is one of their principal branches of trade, that cannot be sufficient to indemnify England for a million and a half of piastres, which on an average it costs annually to  maintain this point in the Mediterranean, where in other respects the duties collected are very small. The importance of Gibraltar is therefore founded rather on national vanity, than on any real benefit.
Nevertheless. as regards smuggling;
This contraband trade (see LINK) is carried on here in the same scandalous manner as on the frontiers of Portugal and France. However, it must be acknowledged, that lately more precautions have been taken in this respect, and more opposition made to this smuggling. Several king's ships, called guardacostas, are employed to prevent it, which are continually cruizing from the Bay of Algeziras . . 
There are also some companies of Catalonian light troops stationed along the roads and footways of the coast leading to Gibraltar they pursue smugglers with activity, and oblige them to shew their passports  . . . the vigilance of these men . . . and the commandant of the district  . . . is beyond description; the trappings of the horses, and the clothes of the men, even the soles of their shoes do not escape examination  . . . nobody is allowed to carry more cash out of the country than appears necessary for the time mentioned in the passport. . . 

Smugglers making good their escape with the Rock in the background  ( Unknown )

Perhaps it is worth mentioning that from 1803 onwards, France and Great Britain were at war with each other and that by 1808, Spain had become an ally of Britain against Napoleon. It therefore  seems unlikely that a Frenchman - particularly such a well connected one as Laborde - would have been allowed to enter Gibraltar during the intervening years. In 1800, however,  Laborde was an attaché of the French embassy in Madrid and it is very likely that most of the material that appears in both his books refer to this period of his life.

There is an interesting footnote in which Laborde discloses that many of his observations in this chapter were taken verbatim from somebody called Mr. de Beramendi. Whoever he was, he certainly wasn't a local man. My own feeling when reading his comments on Gibraltar is that Laborde never actually visited the place and that the relevant chapter is based on hearsay. But of course, I could be wrong.