O'Hara, the Duke of Kent and Mr. Bouisson
Letters from Gibraltar No 7
The author's opening sentence in his seventh letter is more than enough to prepare the wary reader.
The author's opening sentence in his seventh letter is more than enough to prepare the wary reader.
Having said so much about the 'phisique' of Gibraltar, it is only just that I should touch a little on the 'morale'. For the present, therefore, I will leave the brown hills, the blue skies, and all the beautiful combinations of Nature that spread around this romantic rock, to speak of the artificial and heterogeneous thing called its society. . .
'The beautiful combinations of Nature that spread around this romantic rock' ( 1866 - Samuel Coleman )
And so he did.
One might look at Gibraltar as critically as one wished without being forced to confront its ill-assorted and ill-proportioned elements. It had none of the redeeming qualities of London society - for example - but possessed plenty of its evil ones. Here we have etiquette without elegance, display without means, jealousy without motive and dissipation without pleasure.
In his view, the main problem was that the community of Gibraltar was made up of so many different classes, each with its own social mores and divisions. Unusually he was quite prepared to blame his own countrymen for this unsatisfactory state of affairs.
The military officers and those of the civil establishments, who themselves hang but loosely and jokingly together, unite in looking down on their mercantile countrymen; the latter in their turn silently despise the unjust pride that so offends them, and pay interest with hatred; the Spaniards and foreign settlers never trouble their heads with a thought of seeking acquaintance that might cost them a duce, ( a Spanish coin value two pence-halfpenny ) ; and all unanimously agree in snubbing the Jews, who, happy in their own company, and richer than all their neighbours, openly enjoy themselves in good-humoured disdain of Christian prejudice and Christian envy.
Now, I do believe that Gibraltar, in the possession of any other European power, would produce a circle of society at once gay and happy; but so much of the bitter of pride and prejudice is infused with the feelings of our countrymen, that wherever they shall form the leading people of a foreign place, they are disliked by the inhabitants.
They may be respected for their wealth, feared for their power, and admired for their talents; but to be beloved - 'ma foi ce nest pas Anglaise, cela'. Their very politeness, their very condescension is offensive to all . . . . It is this, however, that is the main cause of separation between the opulent inhabitants of Gibraltar and the military and official people; and a more perfect separation, perhaps, never existed between inhabitants and sojourners in any town - not excepting that inhospitable nest of grinders, Sheffield.
They are as much divided in sociality, as if the one party were in Siberia and the other in Heligoland. Yet they walk in one promenade, ride on one beach, dance in one ball-room, and bow to each other as if they were the best of friends! One would think that this would tend to make the English more anxious to encourage society amongst themselves; but it has no such effect.
There is no real cordiality in them. A huddled up coterie-dinner of half a dozen, or a hole-and-corner tea-party is occasionally perceived, but like the bubble on an eel-pond it passes away, and all is again still and stagnant. Even in these emanations it is a thousand chances to one that you find more than two or three females!
The above is as sustained a criticism of his own countrymen as is to be found anyway in the literature of the day. And yet it is the last sentence that somehow gives him away. It was this sad lack of contact with members of the opposite sex that really seemed to have annoyed him. Could he have been a bachelor?
I was remarking on this subject some months ago to a friend, and he gravely assured me, that the reason the ladies of the garrison did not keep a more general intercourse with each other, was to be attributed to the high state of their domestic virtue. Be that as it may - but I cannot help thinking that my friend was more generous than philosophic; for on being present at an amateur concert, a few days after, I found the rooms filled with ladies . . .
The fact is, the ladies of Gibraltar are very well disposed to rational gaiety, but I believe petty jealousies have crept in amongst them, and spoiled what otherwise might have been a great blessing to the garrison. The man who holds a certain rank in life is never so acutely sensible of his importance as his wife is; the tiny points that fly about his pride fall harmless, while they stick like so many mosquitoes on his wife's sensibility.
Small rank is always the most irritable in itself, but when transferred from the possessor to his better half, it becomes doubly so. We have had feuds here about precedence, between individuals who, had they been packed up, sent to St. James's, and weighed in the balance of the Lord-in-waiting, one against the other, would not have turned the scale from its equilibrium. The consequences were endless; parties were formed; bickerings followed, and disunion pervaded all.
In his eyes, Gibraltar was the typical small village where everybody knew what everybody else was having for breakfast - disapproved and made sure that all were made aware of their disapproval. But there was more to it than just personal feuds and the lack of women.
'The ladies of the garrison did not keep a more general intercourse with each other, was to be attributed to the high state of their domestic virtue' - View of the Dockyards from the Alameda Gardens ( 1828 - F. Benucci )
When I arrived here last year, the town was without any place of amusement to which one could resort, with the exception of a monthly subscription ball, which was the most squalid and miserable entertainment that can be well imagined—skeleton quadrilles, griping lemonade, dry and dirty sandwiches, long cold faces, and two packs of cards! With three languages in the rooms nothing was said, and with some sparkling regimentals nothing was done!
By the by, it would excite risibility in an anchorite to think of the Spanish women alone who attended the balls - their imitating English dress and English manners was the perfect ludicrous—frills, feathers, and flowers, mixed up with fans, mantillas, and high hair-combs! But I will spare the gentle creatures, and say no more, except, indeed, to beg of them to stick to their most graceful and becoming of all costumes, and leave those ladies they imitated to the complexity of dress which, from long habit, they at least know how to set off to the best advantage. Oh, I wish I had it in my power to prevent them from spoiling their pretty olive faces with green and yellow ribands!
The 'three languages' comment is interesting. Were the locals invited? Or were they foreign consuls and their families? Again it is hard to tell whether those Spanish women were the wives and daughters of visitors from across the border or those of local non-British merchants. His comment about their 'pretty olive faces' is a typically British backhanded compliment. It borders on the racist by today's standards but would probably have been accepted as quite broad-minded at the time. But all was not lost.
A musical society has been within these few months established here, and has met with cordial support. Its concerts, which are public once a month, are brilliantly attended, and the officers of the garrison who perform, acquit themselves with éclat. They play the best pieces of Rossini, in a style highly creditable to their talents.
The officers also are turning their attention to form a theatrical society, and have already made some progress; and the appointment of some men of taste to the regulation of the ensuing balls, promises that something better than we had heretofore may be expected in that quarter. We have an excellent theater spacious assembly rooms, superior music, and a numerous garrison; all we require is, unanimity and the exertion of taste to make Gibraltar as pleasant as its scenery is beautiful; and of this consummation, as I said before, I do not quite despair.
We have also a club, which was commenced last December, and it is found to be a sort of rallying point to companionship. Here we may take our coffee, read the papers, chat together, or play billiards, whist, or backgammon. This establishment was for several months rickety and unstable, but it has lately begun to flourish, and bids fair to make a stand.
The author's enthusiasm for this club is surprising as his detestation of the game of whist makes one suspect that it was something of a phobia. The following diatribe - which includes his disapproval of drink, a perennial British pastime in Gibraltar - probably confirms this suspicion as fact.
Drinking and whist slaying. The former is the bane of all happiness, and the latter but a dangerous and treacherous pastime. Drinking, although going much out of fashion, is still considered by most nations as a part of the English character.
We are caricatured for and upbraided with it by our neighbours the French; and the following anecdote will tend much to show in what light the Germans look upon us with regard to such habits. Previously to peace being concluded between Morocco and Austria, the latter power sent some troops and ships of war to Algazeras, the town on the opposite shore of our bay. The Austrian officers invited those of our garrison to a ball. Several accepted the invitation; and what was the highest compliment ( as they thought ) which the Germans paid to their guests?
Why, pouring down their throats every kind of strong liquor! The most expensive wines were in profusion, but the 'coup d'amitíe' was a goblet of rum! When elevated by their feelings of respect and delight, they ran about the rooms armed with large glasses of strong spirits, and seizing their guests in the fraternal embrace, cried out, as they pressed the beverage, 'Rom! rom ! drink de rom ! English man lof de rom!' What a commentary on our habits! However, when the Austrian officers afterwards visited our garrison balls, they had an opportunity of judging of their own error, for they got nothing from us but lemonade.
Whist, the great amusement of Gibraltar, is, as I said before, dangerous and often vexatious; but it has the negative merit of diminishing indulgence in the pleasures of the bottle. A little of it is good and harmless, but excess in that is nearly as bad as excess in drinking.
Like the latter, it has the power of taking the mask off our characters, and like it also, leaves behind it a head-ache. What a touchstone is a whist-table! What a variety of events it produces in the mind! What a diversity of character it develops! It is a field where every man may figure, and a system most men fancy they understand. It beguiles us from the center of ordinary caution, and makes us yield unconsciously to our nature.
The temper of the mind is laid bare by it, and you discover the irritable, the mild, the generous, the selfish, the avaricious, the careless, the tyrannic, the slavish, the cunning, the bold, the silly, and the wise. We have all sorts of whist players here. We have dictators, whose assumed knowledge of the game makes their opinions despotic. We have the lecturers, whose vanity and disappointment produce a lesson after every hand. We have the doubters who have no opinion, and wait five minutes for an impulse.
We have the fretters who groan at every trick, and the chucklers who exult with a grin at their neighbour's losses. We have the submissive, who are ruled by the dictators, and the resigned who listen to the lecturers, taking all things for the best. The last, however, are the fewer number, and I find that they are generally the best of husbands, patient, meek, and gentle. What a little world is a whist-table!
It is a matter of great amusement to me to observe all these vanities called into action, and a subject of interesting reflection to mark how little human intellect can control chance and foresee events. I have read the best treatises on the game, and noted the best players, yet find in both plausibility without truth; a system without a foundation. The best players I see constantly beaten by the tyros. The fact is, that the excellence of art in whist goes no farther than an aptitude in guessing at the probability of events: the rest is, coolness, common sense, and good cards.
The last quality I really believe to be four points in the five, and will do more than all the science of Matthews, Hoyle, and Payne. It is the wise law of nature that no two things can be precisely alike. The very variety which occurs in our mode of thinking and reasoning on the game and its probabilities, constitutes the beauty of whist. It would not be the game of whist if its events could be as we wished.
If we could 'finesse' with a certainty of success, where would be the doubt? and if there be doubt, where is the certainty of doing any given thing? Besides, the science of the good whist-player, not only requires another's science to produce the desired effect, but requires that other to think as he himself does, from different sources of thought, separate and distinct hands of cards . . . . But, Gentlemen, perhaps I am wandering from my proper subject.
Yes indeed . . . but it is interesting to realize that playing whist must have been one of the great pastimes on the Rock - the Calpe Hunt during the day, whist at night - and perhaps all day in winter. The attractions of the Garrison Library ( See LINK ) - Mr. Bouisson, being the chief librarian at the time - also warrant several very complimentary paragraphs, as do General. O'Hara, the 'late Duke of York and Mr. Pitt', and those 'fifty pounds per annum allowed by the Treasury for necessary repairs' of the building itself.
Inside the Garrison Library (1846 - Thomas Colman Dibdin )
But it would appear that the library and its attached printing press were no longer doing as well as it had a few years back. The yellow fever epidemic of 1828 probably had much to do with what he perceived as a general economic decline on the Rock. The author also mentions reading Galignani’s Messenger, a daily newspaper for the English-speaking community on the Continent to which several notable English authors contributed. One suspects that the Gibraltar Chronicle was far too parochial and restricted in the kind of news it published to satisfy literary minded people like Maginn. ( see LINK )
. . . The library press, at which, besides a daily paper, pamphlets and posting-bills were printed in the various languages of the South of Europe, as well as in English, and which had hitherto been pretty constantly employed, feels the effects of the decline of the Gibraltar trade.
Merchants no longer get any printing done, the subscribers to the daily paper are successively withdrawing their names, and the advertisements, which were so productive, have dwindled to an insignificant number. But worst of all, the printing of the forms required for the public departments, which had been secured to the Library press by the Lords of the Treasury, with a view to promote the prosperity of the institution, acknowledged to be so useful, was withdrawn lately.
Gibraltar Chronicle - 1826
The following comment also implies that the political upheaval in Spain after the Peninsular war, was having an unsettling effect on everyday life in Gibraltar.
Our town is filled with Spanish Constitutionalists, amongst whom are some of the leading talents and a few English partisans. They are awaiting an expected rising in Spain, which, it is believed, is more distant than they calculate upon.
But Maginn was soon back to his pet hobby horse - the dreadful state of social life on the Rock. This particular bout of criticism is worth the read as it more or less describes the everyday routine of the Garrison officer. There is little doubt that whatever Maginn was after - and despite his murmurings to the contrary - it did not really involve people outwith those that he considered to be of his own class.
The state of our society, which I spoke of in my last letter, has long been a theme of wonder to the military denizens of the Rock. While all tongues agree in lauding the social advantages of most of our other colonies, none are heard to praise Gibraltar for such. Yet one would think that Gibraltar should not stand last in, or be entirely excepted from, the catalogue of social places, for its natural and local advantages are far greater than many others. Its fine climate, its proximity to England, its freedom of intercourse with the pleasant fields of Spain, its considerable population, its number of military and naval officers, its cheapness of provisions, and its abundance of luxuries, furnish it with the main elements of comfort and pleasure.
But, strange to say, something exists in it to mar the most rational and essential of enjoyments, that of society; and while the people of our remote colonies delight in generous intercourse with each other, those of Gibraltar divide themselves into little independent circles and hole-and-corner knots . . .
. . . Here are men with large houses and no small means, who keep up a contracted circle with bon-bons and country wine, over which they yawn or egotize till half-past eleven of a night. Here are also five regiments and sundry departments. We have no lack of ladies, and abound with gallant young men, yet the whole of last winter passed with only one ball . . .
This ball was given by that spirited corps the 53rd, on the occasion of receiving new colours. It was a fancy ball, accompanied by a magnificent supper; and it displayed, in its extent and arrangements, a style and quality that reflects the highest credit on the gallant officers who honoured us with it.
This happy excitement, however, did not diffuse itself . . . I will mention an anecdote by way of illustration: On one occasion a gentleman set a good example, and gave the garrison a proof of his good intentions and liberal mind by a ball and supper; he filled his rooms with guests. All the world could not be asked, for his house was not so extensive as the four quarters of the globe.
A gentleman who had partaken of the pleasures of the entertainment, called next day on a lady who had not. What were her words of salutation? She threw her Bulam countenance into a sardonic smile, and, said she, 'O dear, I understand you were at the Beef and Port-party last night!
The regiments, I have no doubt, are well disposed to do everything to increase the pleasures of society, but they have not as yet hit upon the right way of turning this disposition. They invite Mr. So and So to the mess. Mr. So and So invites, in return, the individual who invited him, and who is now hitched into the little circle, and there stops the matter. This is self in its purity - a paltry petty self, without the redeeming colouring that softens the principle when viewed on a larger scale.
We have a fine climate and a beautiful country for picnic parties in the summer, long nights and large houses for assemblies in the winter, and if we would bring these elements into proper form, we should be no more the theme of commentators, and held up to each other and the world as a community without those feelings and habits that are the best ornaments of civilization.
But all was not lost.
Viewing this winter, as far as it has gone, comparatively with pre- ceding time, it is only justice to say that it has made a better beginning than its predecessors. The head of one of the departments has given the garrison a ball and supper on a full and generous scale. The exemplary effects of it remain yet to be proved.
The officers have also set their histrionic talents to work and have treated the town with a dramatic representation. They have repaired and decorated the principal theatre in tasteful style; their scenery is good, and the performance went off well. But even in this attempt to lighten our exile, the busy devil, that is our plague, showed again his cloven foot.
The musical society . . was applied to for assistance, in the general hope that the garrison could not only furnish in themselves the stage, but the orchestra. The request was refused, thus again illustrating the discordant elements that make up our community. However, a regimental band, with hired musicians, made up in a great measure for the illiberality.
The play was 'The Castle Spectre,' and the after-piece 'Bombastes Furioso.' The fashion of Gibraltar filled the theatre and presented an exhilarating scene full of fair promise. An address was written and spoken by one of the Thespian amateurs, which tended much to put the audience in good humour by startling them first with disappointment, in order to enhance by contrast the approaching festivity.
The Castle Spectre by Mathew Lewis, was an extremely popular dramatic romance of the day ( 1836 - Dante Gabriel Rossetti )
Bombastes Furioso was a burlesque tragic opera written by William Barnes Rhodes ( Unknown )
The author then turns his attention to a type of Englishman that he dislikes. He calls them Muttons.
The Muttons form a branch of our English population here. They are not fixed, but such a number pass and repass, that we are never without some.'. . . I was a long time trying to hit upon an appellative for those people sufficiently euphonic and expressive, but without success. A writer in the 'Atlas' newspaper has, however, happily saved me further trouble in the matter, and I adopt the term as a valuable acquisition to our language, and as particularly forcible in describing the march of manners in our improving country.
. The Muttons! What a happy appellation! . . . I wish my limits would admit of copying the whole of the clever article that gave me the genial hint, and I would readily do it, for it ought to be repeated again and again, even with Addison's essays; but referring to it, I trust, will answer the purpose. . .
'English pride,' says the piquant writer, 'is not Spanish pride, nor French pride, nor German pride, nor Italian pride; but is different from them all, and is a genus per se. The French people have designated a certain and pretty extensive class of English female beauty under the not flattering denomination of Visage de Mouton.
English pride may in some measure be similarly designated; there is something Muttonish in it; nine tenths of it is sheepishness. The Englishman shows his pride in not speaking, not moving, not knowing how to look. . .
Now, Gibraltar is the gate through which flocks of those I speak of pass, to browse along the banks of the Mediterranean, or over the mountains of Spain, and also the way by which they return to their pen-fold in London. It is highly amusing to see them meet; to see them stalk in amongst the military Muttons of the Rock, (for we have a few in the garrison,) and observe their sheepish stare; how they look at each other, flock together, and follow the leader without opening their lips!
These travellers usually wear tight cravats or no cravats, small sharp hats, kid gloves and eye-glass. They are never known to smile, and seldom speak more than a monosyllable at an effort. They go through a short course of dinners here. We meet them at table, and out of doors; in the crowd, and in the holes and corners; but evening or morning, day or night, drunk or sober, they are still the same - all raddled with proper mutton mark. They stare and we stare: if they drop an 'Oh!' we drop an "Ah!"- sympathetic dullness spreads like mist over the flock, and finishes the pleasures of mutton society!
As a grand finally the author gives us an account of an accident that took place within Gibraltar's famous excavations ( see LINK )
Explosion in the ExcavationsI have now to mention a melancholy occurrence which took place here last month. The artillery were being employed in their periodical practice of firing at a mark. While the heavy ordnance on the north front of the rock, which overlooks Spain, were so engaged, a powder-chest in a chamber of one of the highest tiers of the excavations caught fire, and the consequent explosion hurled eight artillery-men out from the mouths of the rock to instant destruction. The unfortunate soldiers were literally shot from the embrasures into mid air at a height of eight hundred feet, and scattered on the earth below burnt and shattered to pieces! I saw them a few minutes after the accident—their jackets, belts, and shoes were perfect tinder, and alike black with their mutilated bodies.
'The unfortunate soldiers were literally shot from the embrasures into mid air at a height of eight hundred feet' - The Rock showing the 'Excavations'. ( 1830 - David Roberts )
The officer of the guard on the Neutral-ground below the height, saw the smoke of the explosion, and describes the appearance of the men in the air as like small bundles of rags; while another, who also saw the spectacle, compared the bodies to a flock of crows that were suddenly shot. How the fatal accident happened nobody can tell, for the three men who were wounded in the battery, but not forced out, and who are now recovering, declare that they know nothing of the cause.
With the exception of the paragraphs on the accident, Maginn's complaints seem trivial and at times contradictory. Is he really proposing more contact within the various 'classes' found in Gibraltar? It seems highly unlikely that he was suggesting greater contact with the local community. Reading between the lines I suspect he was complaining about the way Gibraltar was run by the British authorities.
In the 1830s the Governor was General Don, a man who was invariably praised to the sky by most visitors during his term of office and by those who arrived long after he had left. And yet Maginn fails to mention him at all. Instead he praises the Duke of Kent - a man who whatever his other qualities, proved a complete a fiasco as a Governor of Gibraltar. ( see LINK )