General George Don and General Alos
Letters from Gibraltar No 4
Letters from Gibraltar No 4
The 4th letter starts with a long diatribe against Barbary which was set off by the killing of a certain Mr. Hill near Cape Sparte and has little to do with Gibraltar. Nevertheless the preliminary paragraph is worth quoting in full.
It has long been a matter of astonishment to me, that while the leading powers of Europe were so unceremoniously busy in helping themselves to territorial slices, Barbary never excited their appetite. England, France, Russia, Austria, and Spain, have stretched their arms far and wide to grasp possessions less desirable; fleets and armies have been sent to the most remote parts of the globe in pursuit of conquest ; while this state, rich in produce, infamous in government, and sunk far below the level of humanity, was not only left unmolested, but suffered to lay all under contribution: - a horde of pirates, who for centuries have set at nought national compact, insulted all the flags of Europe, plundered promiscuously every ship that came in their way and chained down their mariners to the most degrading slavery. . .
After various digressions the author then continues with his description of the Rock.
. . . On going out of the town towards Spain, through the fortifications, the fish market appears on the right, and the fruit-market on the left, well stocked with their respective commodities, both close to the gates of Gibraltar, ( see LINK ) and within a strong line of batteries; while in front, through this line, opens a passage to a commodious quay or wharf, on which the trading vessels land their merchandise.
The wharf close to the Old Mole ( 1844 - George Lothian Hall ) ( see LINK )
It is before this quay that all such vessels anchor, and through this passage is their communication with the town. The landing-place described in my last letter, and called the New Mole, is solely for the use of vessels connected with the service. From the quay of which I now speak, there is no land-communication with Spain; the road thither from the town winds to the right of the passage I mention, ( see LINK ) through high stone fortifications, and passes across a wide piece of water at the foot of the rock, called the Inundation.
View of the Inundation from Hanover Battery ( 1890s - George Washington Wilson )
( See LINK )
( See LINK )
Here, and across the Inundation to the Neutral Ground, the rock appears in the fullness of its colossal magnitude, and here it is that the spectator is impressed with the impenetrable strength which it offers to any attack from the land side, however mighty such an attack might be. The great head of the mountain, indented and abrupt by Nature, is scarped and pierced at every point that commands the approach.
From its various elevations, and the numerous apertures that look like the mouths of little caves, project every species of cannon and mortar. These apertures are port-holes from batteries of the excavations, a work of astonishing labour and ingenuity; and were they lighted up at night, one might fancy them windows of a giant's subterranean palace, such as romance writers have imagined.
Not only are the batteries, of which they form a part, dug out of the solid rock, but also arched, and high galleries leading to them; large magazines, and two spacious halls-all in the depth of the rock. These excavations pass round the whole north or land face of the mountain in irregular tiers.
The North Front - 'indented and abrupt by Nature' ( 1844 - George Lothian Hall )
On crossing the Inundation, a neck of flat land presents itself. This neck bends gradually in its course to the left, and joins the main land of Spain at half a mile distance. It is about a quarter of a mile in breadth ; one edge of it skirts the bay, and the other the Mediterranean Sea. It is green near the rock, presenting the appearance of a thin pasture for the space of several acres, but as it approaches Spain, it becomes sandy.
This is the Neutral Ground. When I arrived at Gibraltar, it was the seat of a very handsome village of wooden houses, bedecked with little flower-gardens, leafy wall-climbers, green window-shutters, and all the usual cottage ornaments, but now every vestige of it is swept away, and the road from the garrison, that displayed an animated and rural picture a few months ago, has become an open waste.
Various camps and villages encroaching on to the Neutral Ground in the early 19th century
( 1830's - Piaget et Lailavoix )
This has been done by the orders of Government, but for what reason we do not know. Some conjecture that it was to prevent smuggling; others that it was to check the increasing population, and the Spaniards thought that it was an indication approaching hostilities. Whatever may be the view of the Authorities in pulling down the little dwellings, the measure is replete with inconvenience to the garrison, for in summer many of the officers, as well as the merchants, with their families, used to retire to enjoy sea-bathing, or the refreshing breeze which generally blows there even in the hottest weather ; and it afforded a very pleasant relief to the monotony of the camp, which was last year on the Neutral Ground.
However, without substantial reasons, such an order would not have been sent out from London; and although many families have been left houseless, and some agreeable resources to the garrison curtailed by it, we should be contented, knowing that wiser heads than ours had well considered the matter.
From the passage, one can also only presume that non- British residents had neither the time nor the inclination to cool off in summer. Be that as it may, the passage seems to be a rather back-handed compliment to the Governor, who would ultimately have been responsible for the order to demolish the houses. Maginn's 'handsome village' on the Neutral Ground finds its origins in the various yellow fever epidemics that plagued Gibraltar during the early 19th century.
During the secondary epidemics of 1813 and 1814 the Governor General Don managed to persuade General Alos, his Spanish counterpart in the Campo Area, to allow a large number of the civilian population to move out of their overcrowded houses and set themselves up temporarily on the Neutral ground between the two countries. The Spanish General not only agreed but generously supplied the civilians with food. ( see LINK )
It 1828 Yellow fever returned with a vengeance. Modern estimates suggest a figure in excess of 2300 deaths. One can only presume that Maginn just missed the worst of it as he hardly makes a mention of the epidemic anywhere in his 'letters.' The removal of all these camps can probably be attributed to General Don. He was never too happy with them in the first place. Unlike Maginn, he thought of them as places inhabited by ‘wretches of the worst description’, with a tendency to succumb to ‘every evil of licentiousness.’ ( see LINK )
The broad scarped face of the rock, with its lofty and perpendicular peak, faces the Neutral Ground. It strains the neck to look at its bold gigantic top; everything on the flat beneath it seems atoms in comparison, and the tower on its peak looks like a tin fairy-work. The huge cannon, which all along push out their heads through cave-like openings in threatening aspect to the wide country before them, seem to the eyes of those below like the pigmy artillery of a toy-shop, while the men as they stand upon its rugged edge, appear shaped upon the blue sky above like Lilliputians.
Within fifty yards of the base of this peak, and near the waves of the Mediterranean, is the common burial-ground, where whole battalions sleep in their sandy graves. Few stones tell the names of those that he below them; no church-bell rings above their heads; but when the sea lashes the beach, and the wind sweeps by the high rock, and the thunder of the cannon roars from their caves, and the sulphurous smoke mingles with the mist of the peak, one would almost wish to lie along with the dead so sublimely honoured.The Soldier's Cemetery
Warns the gaunt Rock o'er ocean throws
A strange supernal shade,
Hard by its base in deep repose
Are laurell'd legions laid :
Cold is each heart and busy head,
O’er them no death-bell rings;
Few sculptures mark each low, lone bed;
The brave ask nobler things!
And seas, which raving lash the shore;
Gales round the rock which sweep;
Cannon from cloudy clefts, whose roar
Astounds the thund'ring deep -
Wail them with knell an minstrelsy
Sublime; their deeds declare;
Honour their last home awfully;
Oh! would that I slept there !
North Front Cemetery (1870s -George Washington Wilson - detail )
The rock from this all round the eastern side rises abrupt and high from the sea ; there is, however, a rugged path at its base for more than half way, and a spacious cleft about the centre of its length, in which stands a little fishing village, nestling in the most picturesque manner between projecting masses of stone, and overrun with sedge and wild shrubs. The inhabitants of this village are the only people that dwell on this side of the rock: the remaining portion of it is the free ground of the monkey, the eagle, and the sea-bird.
A rare mention of the village of the Catalan Bay ( 1861 - Henry Stratton Bush )
Gibraltar is now much improved to what it has been. All that part which I have described reaching from the New Mole to the town, and in which the Alameida is situated, was, before Sir George Don became Lieutenant-Governor, a wretched waste, the receptacle of the filth of the town and the half buried dead; the roads were of the worst description, and the streets scarcely paved.
But now the waste has thrown up the most luxuriant foliage, dunghills have changed to picturesque gardens. and broken paths have given way to roads an pavement that would defy the critical scrutiny of Mr. McAdam himself. It does not certainly come up to the praises of a certain physician, who lately declared before the college of his faculty, 'that Gibraltar was cleaner than Bath, and without a single beggar;' but I shall not be wrong in admitting that few towns in England present a cleaner appearance.
The light colours of the houses, together with their various styles of building, Genoese, Spanish, venetian and English, the open spaces of the town and judicious admixture of ornamental trees, the bright sky, the clear sea around, all combine to give Gibraltar a particularly cleanly aspect; and for this it is wholly indebted to the active-minded Governor, who has devoted more than twenty years of his life to its welfare.
Could he have been making up for his previous hidden criticism of General Don and his removal of the Neutral Ground camps and villages? I suspect that the Governor was not quite the paragon of virtue many a historian attribute to him. Nor was he the instigator of every single worthwhile project ever undertaken during his tenure - but it is quite true to say that that Gibraltar improved enormously during his tenure. ( see LINK )
Maginn's then concludes with an overview of the various regiments stationed in Gibraltar at the time, where they were quartered - Casemates, the centre of town, Europa Flats, and Windmill Hill - as well as the names of their colonels.
The principal buildings of the rock are the Court-house, the Garrison Library, the Exchange, the different barracks, some of the officers' quarters, and the splendid mansion of a Jewish merchant, none of which would disgrace the most esteemed city. There is also a civil hospital here formed, and directed by Sir George Don, the conduct and utility of which forms a striking contrast to the total want of such an institution which sullied the former governments of the rock, however otherwise brilliant they may have been. The man who stands on the top of Gibraltar, and casts his eyes along its base, must be blind indeed if he cannot see the finished picture of a well-regulated colony.
P.S. I have just heard that a soldier of the 94th fired at the serjeant of his drill to-day on the open parade. The man ap ears to have been intoxicated when he committed the rash act ; but it is ascertained that he loaded his musket in his barrack-room before he went to parade. The ball only slightly grazed the arm of the serjeant, and passed harmless through a crowd of men.