The People of Gibraltar

1540 - Catalan Bay - La Almadrabilla

Aiarardo, Anry, Andre, Angela Bagetto, J Bagetto, Barrios, Bernado, Bernaso, Beyso, Bistur, Bonfiglio, Boniche, Borras, Calamaro, Canesa, Canova, Cavedo, Cavilla, Agustin Cerisdola, Francisco Cerisola, Ceratti, Cincola, Corali, Dalmedo, Danino, Delfiano, Deveau, Doley, Dorio,Estella, Fabre, Facio, Fava, Gandulfo, Cavilla, Giomo, Gracion, Granados, Hernandez, Jenkins, Leandro, Lagaro, macari, Maestreta, Lorenzo Milan, Nicolo Milan, Masaferro, Moglia, Francisco Molinari, Geronimo Molinari, Vicente Molinari, Montuani, Oliveira, Palme, Palinez, M.J. Parody, Parody, Patron, Pasegi, Perez, Peruso, Picareto, Picharello, Pichenbrown, Pichinbum, Pucha, Domingo Roba, Jose Roba, Lazaro Roba, Vicente Roba, Roch, Roshan, Sans, Serra, Simon, Stella, Triaga, Valerino, Verano, Victoria, Vigua, Vila and Viva, Manuel Delipiani, General Don, Willie Isola, Joseph Baglietto, Pascual Fava, Pte Houghton, Pte Cox, Pte Dornin and Pte Kirby

Mi Caleta, chiquita y bonita
Con sus cuatro casas,
Vale más que Buenos Aires,
Con sus grandes plazas.


A ditty that probably dates from the late 19th century: it refers to a small bay and village between Eastern Beach to the North and Sandy Bay (see LINK) to the South known to the local population as either la Caleta  or as Catalan Bay. Both names are used indiscriminately by Gibraltarians and can be used to refer to both the village and its beach or to the Bay itself although there are several 20th century authors who distinguish between the village - la Caleta - and the bay - Catalan Bay - although I find it hard to understand why.


Uniformed soldiers taking a break while on duty in Catalan Bay ( 1860s - George Washington Wilson ) (See LINK

On the other hand it would be easy to hazard the guess that la Caleta was the original name for the bay although there is an anomaly in the use of the generic Spanish name for a small cove rather than giving it a specific name.

During those years in which Gibraltar was part of Spain - and indeed several decades after it had been taken over by the British - the word 'caleta' was in common use to name most of Gibraltar's western bays and coves such as la Caleta de San Juan Verde, la Caleta de los Remedios and la Caleta de Landeras.

Perhaps the fact that Sandy Bay was the only other cove on the east coast of the Rock and that it was more or less inaccessible at the time meant that it was probably unnecessary to give la Caleta a specific name.


Catalan Bay - the road south towards Sandy Bay - Sir Herbert Miles Road - had not yet been built  ( 1860s - George Washington Wilson )

Another possibility is that it did once have a specific name which was abandoned over the years as unnecessary. There are persistent references - particularly in the older Spanish literature - of a cove on the east side of the Rock called la Caleta de la Almadrabilla. In some of the accounts this cove can be identified as la Caleta. 

The term Catalan Bay, on the other hand, may or may not be of origin British - it appears on several old maps as Bahía de los Catalanes.  It is also hard to say where the bay got this name from. There are several theories. 


Bahía de los Catalanes ( 1779 - Caballero )

For a while it was suggested that the place had been assigned to Catalan soldiers who are known to have helped Hesse’s Dutch army during the capture of Gibraltar (See LINK) but it seems rather unlikely as Genoese, rather than Catalan, was the language spoken in the bay during the late eighteenth century and many of its inhabitants continued to do so until the late nineteenth. 

Catalan commentators are often of the opinion that Hesse's Catalan contingent was ordered to land at Catalan Bay. There is very little evidence to support this theory which in any case offers an unlikely scenario.  It would have been very difficult for Catalan troops to have taken any meaningful part in any proposed invasion. Land communications between Catalan Bay and the west side were practically non-existent at the time. 

Another suggestion was that Catalan Bay was an English mispronunciation of La Caleta or that the British had somehow confused the Genoese for Catalans but both explanations also seem unlikely. For a start very few Catalans were ever listed on any census taken during the early years after the capitulation. Nor were there any houses in Catalan Bay during the early 18th century which makes it impossible for there to have been a large community of either Catalans or Genoese living there.

Perhaps the least likely explanation is that offered by a New Zealand newspaper - the Bruce Herald in 1883:
The most peculiar colony is that of Genoese, at the back of the rock in the quaint tumble-dawn village known as Catalan Bay. These are the descendants of some shipwrecked mariners from an Italian vessel, who were cast ashore here, and presumably prospered, sending home for their wives and families, and establishing themselves permanently on an hospitable soil.
The most likely theory is one offered by a local historian. There is considerable evidence that during the 17th century Catalan fishermen travelled to the south of Spain every summer in order to fish for Boquerones - or anchovies -which were quite plentiful in this part of the world. 

Their main base was at the mouth of the river Palmones which is more or less opposite Gibraltar. It was an ideal place to beach their boats and salt their catch in readiness for taking back home at the end of the season. During the War of the Spanish Succession which took place at the beginning of the 18th century, Catalonia allied itself to the Archduke Charles of Austria which meant that the fishermen were in effect enemies of Bourbon Spain.

It is therefore quite possible that they moved out of the beaches of the river Palmones and set up shop on the Eastern side of the Rock which was by then in English and Dutch hands. When peace was established in 1713 they returned to the more sheltered waters of the Bay. But by then the Catalan association had stuck. 


Catalan Bay ( Early 19th Century print - C. Reiss )

The departure of the Catalans meant that for much of the eighteenth century very few people actually lived in Catalan Bay. From time immemorial - and long before the Catalans or Genoese had made their appearance - the place was used by local fishermen who remained there during the summer months living in caves at the back of the bay. The reason for this rather impermanent arrangement was that despite being relatively close to the main town, the beach could only be accessed with great difficulty by land and was probably mostly approached by boat.


Catalan Bay ( Early 19th Century print - Unknown )

Standing orders for the siege of 1727 refer to the bay as the Genoese Cove. This alternative name never caught on, but the suggestion is that it was now mainly inhabited by Genoese. The reason for their presence is open to conjecture but one rather convoluted theory offers at least one possible reason.

The people of the Ligurian Alps were dependent on chickpeas and chestnuts for their diet and were well known for making their pasta, bread and polenta from these ingredients. Whenever the crop of either of these failed - which it did with unnerving regularity - the peasants found it difficult to survive. The usual solution was to move to Genoa in the hope of finding a job in what was at the time was a very prosperous sea port. 

A considerable number of them did not find work which forced them to emigrate elsewhere. Andalucía was a popular choice. There was a shortage of labour in this part of Spain as the people there were themselves emigrating to a new life in South America. The Genoese of Catalan Bay were very likely people who were part of this exodus from Liguria. 


Late 19th century - William Faden

So . . . what to make of all that. 

My own opinion is that the original Spanish name of the cove may have been la Caleta de la Almadrabilla or Almadravilla - both being quite common names for Spanish beaches. From perhaps the 15th right through to the early 16th century there were no houses and the only people one might find on it were a few local Spanish fishermen who may have used the caves at the back of the beach as shelter whenever it was necessary to stay over a period of time.

During the 17th century an increase in the number of fishermen using it may have lead to the simplified use of the generic name of 'la Caleta' instead of its more cumbersome original name.  There was in fact no real reason to give it a specific name as it is my contention that the only other bay it could be confused with - what we call Sandy Bay today - was probably quite inaccessible at the time and perhaps only came into existence as a proper beach in the 19th century. 

The name of this beach, for example, does not appear on older maps of Gibraltar and I have never come across it in the literature even up to the end of the 19th C. It appears for the first time on a 1743 map as La Calita del Hacho And then again in 1888 as Playa Algarrobo. Both these were presumably taken from old place names on the towering Rock just above the beach and that neither were probably ever actually in popular usage.


1743- John Hardesty ( Detail )


Plage Garrobo ( 1888 - A. Simon  )

Sandy Bay was relatively inaccessible - other than by boat - right up to the 19th C, and it would seem that it never had a proper name - other than whatever the fishermen from la Caleta perhaps knew it as. Its eventual English name of Sandy Bay referred not to its sandy nature - it was anything but sandy in my day - but to the huge sand dunes that must have dropped right down on to a narrow strand just as it appears on this photo. 


Catalan Bay fishermen just off Ailsa Craig, the modern name given by the Black Watch to the Rock on the right. It means that the shoreline just behind the house is Sandy Bay.

The Catalan Bay name is harder to decipher and I am still in two minds as to which of the various alternative theories is the most appealing. Regardless of the origins of its name, la Caleta eventually became a village with its own community that was identifiably different to that which had developed on the main north western town of Gibraltar.

The 1777 the census gives the names of about 50 fishermen living in Catalan Bay. They were all men and there were only four buildings in the village. One can only surmise that the fishermen had left their families in Genoa and were still simply involved in seasonal fishing. 

In 1787, the Spanish military commander in San Roque complained to the British authorities that construction work was being carried out in Catalan Bay. It has been suggested that this early reference identifies the year in which the place was first permanently settled.

In the early 19th century a barracks was built close to the beach. It was manned by about fifty men and ten officers. The small civilian population - Genoese to a man - was kept in check by a plethora of strict military regulations. The local men earned their living from fishing while their women washed clothes for both the Garrison and the town.  

The presence of such a large number of military personnel meant that in effect the place was run right up to the end of the 19th century by the War Department. Apparently they did not do a particularly good job of it. The few and cramped civilian houses were generally in a bad state of disrepair. They had no latrines and most famlies got rid of their waste by chucking it into the sea. What pavements existed were in a dreadful state. Despite all these negatives, the locals were considered to be healthy, active and sober individuals. Three wells supplied them with an ample supply of good drinking water. 

In 1811 a huge rock fell in Catalan Bay killing 18 individuals and injuring quite a few Spaniards from San Roque who had taken shelter there. They had been driven out of their homes by the French during the Peninsular War. The rock itself ended up on the southern end of the beach. The Catalan Bay locals gave it the the name of la Mamela. It was shaped like a woman's breast. 


The French leaving San Roque during the Peninsular War  ( 1800s - Gerald Hare  )

By 1816 the local community had increased to about two hundred individuals. Nevertheless not one family had lived there for more than six years and a good number hadn’t even lived there for more than one. 

Catalan Bay remained a small and rather inaccessible village but it now obvious that living in caves had definitely become a thing of the past. At least two pleasant wine houses which were also used as hostels by the fishermen were opened by Joseph Bageto and Manuel Delipiani.  A few years later the Governor, General Don, (see LINK) ordered that 
 . . the establishment at Catalan Bay’ should be confined to fishermen, with a few persons employed by them.

Catalan Bay fisherman  ( Late 19th century )

Numbers continued to increase but there were still a large number of individuals who viewed living in the village as a temporary stay. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the economic depression which had forced Genoese fishermen to become itinerate workers had become less acute. The seasonal fisherman disappeared from the scene and the population finally became made up entirely of permanent residents.

By the 1830s, the place was well established. The village was protected by a single gun placed on the beach a short distance from a rather unnecessarily large military barracks. The local store was run by a local called Pascual Fava and there were two areas in front of the houses reserved for the game of Boules. Almost unusual for the era there were several public toilets and no less than four wells, one of them open to the public at large.  There were at least three identifiable caves at the back of the village, at least one of them being inhabited - It was called la Cueva de Anna Viva, presumably the name of the person who lived in it. 


Catalan Bay Inhabitants  - Tellingly not a single surname corresponds with any of those of the known Catalan men who participated in the conquest of Gibraltar  ( 1830's - Piaget et Lailavoix )

By 1860 the population stood at 260 and sixteen years later on the night of 30th of November 1876, another accident brought the Bay back into the news. A small boat from a Spanish gunship ran into trouble when it was hit by a squall just off the Bay. It was pitch dark and the position of the boat could only be identified from the shouts of the crew. A guard from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers by the name of Houghton who happened to be on duty in Eastern Beach that night managed to launch a boat with the help of three Spanish boatmen who together with one of the wrecked crew managed to rescue four men whom they found clinging to the upturned boat.

When they returned to the shore they discovered that that one of the crew was still missing. The boat was launched once again with several other soldiers - Privates Cox, Dornin, and Kirby helping out. Houghton stayed in the boat while the other three searched for the missing man whose body they subsequently recovered.  Curiously, when commendations for valor were distributed, Houghton and the three Spanish fishermen were overlooked.

Yet even as late as 1884, however, the place was not so well known as to ensure that everybody could spell its name correctly - a recommendation for valour for a certain private McVane who rescued a fellow soldier from drowning in the vicinity mentions the place as Catalin Bay.


'Catland' Bay ( 1861 - H.S.Bush ) (See LINK


'Catland' Bay ( 1884 - A Quinton )


La Catela, Catela Bay  ( 1885c - From Meyers Konversationslexikon )


The photograph on the postcard was taken in Gibraltar's Commercial Square which was in the middle of town and nowhere near Catalan Bay


Catalan Bay  - At last correctly spelt and positioned  ( 1840s - J.Colman Dibdin ) (See LINK

In 1893 the people of Catalan Bay will have been inconvenienced - and perhaps economically enriched - by the building of the massive water catchments on the east side of the Rock. The structure began slightly south of the village and stretched all the way to Sandy Bay completely covering the Great Gibraltar Sand Dune. The first section was completed in 1903. 


Catalan Bay with the smooth face of the Water Catchments looming above it  ( undated but probably turn of the century )

In 1903, even as millions of pounds were being spent updating and improving the harbour on the Western side of the Rock, the Rawson Committee strongly advised the construction of a completely new harbour on the east side in the neighbourhood of Catalan Bay. The committee contended that it would be 'fourteen times more safe' than the west side. The work would have taken about ten years and would require the immediate expenditure of five million pounds. The Government baulked at the price and the recommendation was left to gather dust in whatever place unwelcome recommendations are normally filed. 


Proposed Eastern Harbour ( 1903 - The Sphere ) 

In 1917 - according to the Gibraltar Directory - very stormy weather caused a landslip at Catalan Bay with great material damage but no loss of life. Nevertheless, by the early twentieth century a proper road was opened but this was soon destroyed two years later by yet another landslide making the place even less accessible than before. For a number of years after World War II Catalan Bay was only be reached by land through a tunnel - William's Way.


The village from the Bay and not much changed from the previous century. The barracks is still there.


Stormy weather at Catalan Bay


Extending the 'Water Catchments' ( 1925 )



A well attended beach in 1925 


Cleaning the Water Catchments ( 1953 - Ralph Crane )

In 1938 and during the Spanish Civil War (see LINK) the inhabitants had a front line seat when the badly damaged Spanish Republican destroyer the José Luis Díez was beached by her captain in Catalan Bay a few meters from the village in order to avoid her being taken by Nationalist ships.


The destroyer José Luis Díez right in front of the village of Catalan Bay

By the end of the 20th century the people of Catalan Bay, mostly known as ‘Caleteños’, continued to speak Spanish with an Italian accent. Their long, close contact with their original home city gave the community perhaps a stronger cultural identity with Genoa than their many immigrant compatriots on the other side of the Rock. 



Vegetable vendor in Catalan Bay village ( 1930s )



Fish Vendor - or cat feeder - in Catalan Bay village  (1940s )


References and Notes (See LINK