1840 - Théophile Gautier - Alighting in Ramsgate
Born in the Hautes-Pyrénées, Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier soon became well known as an influential Romantic literary figure. He was a poet and novelist, dabbled in art criticism and journalism in general, was a friend of Victor Hugo, wrote the odd play yet is still perhaps best remembered - at least to me - for his 300 odd page travelogue - Un Voyage en Espagne which was published in 1843. An English translation appeared in 1853 under the title Wanderings in Spain. It includes about four pages of his opinions on Gibraltar as he saw it in 1840. It is from these that the following quotes are taken.
Arrival - About four o’clock we were in sight of Gibraltar, waiting for the health officers to be kind enough to come and take our papers with a pair of tongs, and see that we had not brought in our pockets some yellow fever, blue cholera, or black plague.
Gautier's flippancy is misplaced. Ending not much more than a decade prior to his visit and over a period of about a quarter of a century, more than 10 000 people had died on the Rock of various epidemics (see LINK) the colour of which were anything but a joke.
The Rock - The aspect of Gibraltar completely confuses all your ideas: you no longer know where you are, or what you see. Just fancy an immense rock, or, rather, a mountain, fifteen hundred feet high, rising suddenly and bluffly from the midst of the waves, and based on a tract of ground so flat and level that you can scarcely perceive it.
Nothing prepares you for it, nothing accounts for its being there; it is connected with no chain of mountains; but it is a monstrous monolinth thrown down from heaven, the corner of some planet broken off during a battle of the stars - a fragment of some broken world.
Who placed it in this position? God and Eternity alone know. What adds still more to the singular effect of this inexplicable rock is its form. It looks like an enormous, prodigious, and gigantic Sphinx, such as Titans might have sculptured, and compared to which, the flat-nosed monsters of Carnac and Giseh are but what a mouse is in comparison with an elephant.
The outspread paws form what is called Europa Point; the head, which is somewhat truncated, is turned towards Africa, which it seems to look at with profound and dreamy attention. What thoughts can this mountain be revolving in its mind, in this sly meditative attitude? What enigma is it about to propose, or endeavouring to solve? The shoulders, loins, and hind-quarters stretch towards Spain in nonchalant folds and beautifully undulating lines, like those of a lion in a state of repose.
The Romantic Rock of Gibraltar ( 1857 - Vilhelm Melbye ) ( see LINK )
The Rock as a romantic object? Perhaps in Melbye's eyes but not the reality. Gibraltar maybe described as a thoroughly impressive place when viewed from a distance either within the context of its Bay or from the Straits. Close up it may continue to astonish - but the word 'romantic' is never one that comes immediately to my mind.
The town is situated at the bottom of the rock, and is almost imperceptible, being a wretched detail lost in the general mass. The three-deckers at anchor in the bay look like German toys - little miniature models of ships, such as are sold in seaport towns - and the smaller craft seem to be flies drowning in milk ; even the fortifications are not apparent.
The mountain, however, is hollowed out, mined and excavated in every direction; its belly is full of cannons, howitzers, and mortars; it is absolutely crammed with warlike stores. It is an example of the luxury and coquetry of the Impregnables. But all this offers nothing to the eye, save a few almost imperceptible lines, which are confounded with the wrinkles on the face of the rock, and a few holes through which pieces of artillery furtively thrust their brazen mouths . . . .
Gibraltar was called by the Arabs, 'Giblaltah' - that is to say, the Mountain of the Entrance; and never was a name more appropriate. Its ancient name was Calpe. Abyla, now Ape’s Hill, is on the other side of the straits in Africa, close to Ceuta, a Spanish possession. . it is there that the Spaniards send their most hardened galley-slaves. . .
It is hard to say whether Gautier bothered to research the origins of the name of Gibraltar. By the mid 19th century the accepted view was that it came from Gebel Tariq - Arabic for the mountain of Tariq in honour of the man who landed close by and began the Moorish conquest of Visigothic Iberia. ( see LINK ) However he may have read John Carr's travelogue ( see LINK ) in which he preferred "Ghib-laltah, or Mountain of the Entrance".
Gibraltar, situated on a peninsula at the entrance of a gulf, is only connected with the continent by a narrow strip of land called the Neutral Ground, where the custom-house lines are established. The first Spanish possession on this side is San Roque. Algeciras, whose white houses glisten in the universal azure, like the silvery stomach of a fish floating on the surface of the water, is exactly opposite Gibraltar; in the midst of this splendid blue, Algeciras was having its little revolution.
We heard indistinctly the popping report of fire-arms, like the noise made by grains of salt when thrown into the fire. The ayuntamiento even took refuge on board the steamer, and began smoking cigars in the most tranquil manner in the world.
The officers of health not having found that we brought any infectious disease with us, we were surrounded by small boats, and in another quarter-of-an-hour, we were on shore.
The effect produced by the appearance of the town is the strangest it is possible to conceive. By taking one step, you have your five hundred leagues, which is rather more than even Tom Thumb did in his famous boots. Just now you were in Andalusia, at the next moment you are in England. From the Moorish towns of Granada and Murcia, you suddenly alight at Ramsgate: you see brick-houses with their areas, their low doors, and their English windows, exactly like those at Twickenham or Richmond.
Ramsgate - aka Castle Road, Gibraltar ( 1950s - Mansell )
If you go a little further, you will perceive cottages with their painted railings and gates. The public walks are planted with ash and birch trees, with elms and the green vegetation of the north, so different from those small plates of varnished metal which pass for foliage in southern climates.
The town of Gibraltar in the mid 19th century was no Ramsgate - even less a Twickenham or a Richmond. In fact one of the oddities of Gibraltar's otherwise admittedly unremarkable architecture - at least along Main Street - was and still is the almost universal use of thoroughly un-English wooden Genoese style shutters. ( see LINK ) True, on the whole Gibraltar does not look particularly Moorish but forgetting to mention what was by far most dominant building in Gibraltar - the Moorish Castle - is odd to say the least.
The Moorish Castle (1860s - Carl Goebel ) ( see LINK )
The Englishman - Englishmen have so strong an individuality that they are everywhere the same and I really cannot understand why they travel, for they carry all their customs with them, and bear their houses on their backs exactly like snails. Wherever an Englishman may be, he lives precisely as he would do in London; he must have his tea, his rump-steaks, his rhubarb pies, his porter, and his sherry, if he is well; and his calomel, if he is ill.
By means of the innumerable packages he lugs about with him, the Englishman always enjoys his home and his comfort, which are necessary to his existence. How many objects do our insular neighbours require in order to live - how much trouble do they give themselves to feel at their ease? - And how much do I prefer to all this complicated array, Spanish abstemiousness and privation!
The Englishwoman - It was a very long time since I had seen a female with one of those horrible coal-scuttle affairs, one of those odious pasteboard cases covered with a slip of stuff, and called bonnets, in which the fair sex bury their faces, in so-styled civilized countries. I cannot express the disagreeable sensation I experienced at the sight of the first Englishwoman I met, with a bonnet and a green veil on her head; I seemed, all at once, to be placed face to face with the spectre of civilization, that mortal enemy of mine, and this apparition struck me as a sort of warning that my dream of vagabond liberty was at an end, and that I should soon be obliged once more to re-enter the mode of life of the nineteenth century, never to leave it again.
Before this Englishwoman, I felt quite ashamed of having neither white kid gloves, eye-glass, nor patent leather shoes, and I cast an embarrassed glance on the extravagant embroidery of my sky-blue mantle. For the first time during six months, I felt that I was not presentable, and that I did not look like a. gentleman.
The Jews - At Gibraltar, which has become heretic since the English occupy it, there are a great number of Jews, who have either been driven away, or looked on with an evil eye by the Spanish, who, if they have no more religion, still possess superstition. They walk about the streets, displaying their hooked noses, thin lips, and yellow, polished foreheads surmounted by rabbinical caps, placed on the back of the head, and their threadbare, narrow, sombre-coloured robes.
Mid 19th century ( M.C.Perry ) ( see LINK )
The Jewesses, who, by a singular privilege, are as beautiful as their husbands are hideous, wear picturesque black cloaks, bordered with scarlet and having hoods. Their appearance caused us to think vaguely of the Bible, of Rachel at the well, and the primitive scenes of the time of the patriarchs, for, like the women of all oriental races, they still preserve in their long black eyes and the golden tints of their complexions, the mysterious reflexion of a world that has now disappeared.
Jewish Woman of Gibraltar in Fiesta Dress ( 1835 - John Frederick Lewis ) ( see LINK )
The Arabs - There are, also, at Gibraltar, a great many natives of Morocco, as well as Arabs from Tangiers and the places along the coast: they have little shops, where they sell perfumery, silk sashes, slippers, fly-flappers, ornamented leathern cushions, and other knick-knacks of barbarous industry. As we wished to purchase a few trifles and curiosities, we were conducted to one of the principal dealers, who lived in the upper part of the town.
We had to pass through a number of streets like staircases, which were less English in their character than the streets in the lower part of the town, and whence, at certain turnings, our eye glanced over the gulf of Algeciras, which was magnificently illuminated by the last rays of daylight. On entering the Morocco merchant's house, we were enveloped in a cloud of oriental perfumes: the sweet, penetrating odour of rose-water greeted our olfactory organs and made us think of the mysteries of the harem and the marvels of the Thousand-and-one-Nights.
The merchant's sons, two fine young men about twenty years of age, were seated on benches near the door, enjoying the coolness of the evening. They possessed that purity of features, that limpidity of look, that careless nobleness, and that air of amorous and pensive melancholy which belongs to pure races.
Their father had the grave, majestic look of a Magian king. We considered ourselves very ugly and mean-looking by the side of this solemn personage; and it was in the most humble tone, with hat in hand, that we asked him if he would deign to sell us a few pairs of yellow morocco slippers. He nodded affirmatively, and, on our observing that the price was rather high, he replied in Spanish, with great grandeur,
“I never overcharge; such practices are only good for Christians."
Thus our want of loyalty in commercial transactions renders us an object of contempt in the eyes of barbarous nations, who cannot understand that a man will perjure himself, in order to make a farthing or two more.
Having made our purchases, we went down again to the lower part of the rock, and took a stroll along a fine promenade planted with trees of northern climes, intermixed with flowers, sentinels, and guns, and where you meet with broughams and horsemen just as you do in Hyde Park. All that is wanting there is the statue of Achilles Wellington.The reference is to a huge 18ft high statue of Achilles, a monument to the Duke of Wellington and his victories in the Peninsular War. It had been unveiled in 1822, not in Hyde Park, but in Park Lane in London. I suspect Gautier was just trying to be funny - but the joke was misplaced - he must have missed the rather unmissable statue of Wellington that had in fact been erected in 1819 in that "fine promenade planted with trees" otherwise known as the Alameda Gardens.
Statue of Wellington - Alameda Gardens ( 1846 - J.M.Carter ) ( see LINK )
This promenade is outside the town, at Europa Point, in the direction of the mountain inhabited by the monkeys. This is the only spot in Europe where these amiable quadrumanes live and multiply in a savage state. According as the wind changes, they pass from one side of the rock to the other, and thus serve as a barometer: everyone is forbidden to kill them under very heavy penalties. As for myself, I saw none; but the temperature of the place is hot enough to allow the most chilly macacuses and cercopithecuses to fully develop themselves, without fires or air-stoves.
The promenade is outside the walls of the town, but is not at Europa Point which lies a considerable distance further south. He is also probably correct as to the movements of the Gibraltar apes, but not about their characters - these 'quadrumanes' are anything but 'amiable.'
Abyla, if we can believe its modern name, must delight, on the coast of Africa, in a similar population. . . The next day we left this park of artillery and land of smuggling . . .
It is a curious if not entirely inaccurate description of Gibraltar but a pity that he did not comment elsewhere on the later. Generally Gautier's Gibraltar is dominated by its geography - a wonderfully shaped rock to be admired from a distance. His descriptions of the town suggest that he had either a rather poor memory or was very unobservant. If we are to believe him the majority of its inhabitants were more or less non-existent.
Théophile Gautier ( c1856 - Nadar )