The People of Gibraltar
1874 - Lord Napier - No Unusual Occurrence

Sir William Williams and Lord Napier - Mr. Chester and Mr. Barton
J.A. Crooks and Judah Levy - Y. Bergel and Henry Thornton
J.H. Recano and Richard Abrines - Francis Francia and Mr. Smith 
The Right Reverend Doctor Scandilla 


One fine day at eight o'clock in the evening an event occurred that induced the Captain of the Port of Gibraltar to set pen to paper. It would be a letter to one of his bosses, the Colonial Secretary, but it was meant for other eyes. The year was 1874.
Sir, I have the honour to report, for the information of His Excellency the Acting Governor, that  the British Steamer 'Cadiz' left the anchorage . . .  last evening for Malaga and stopped after passing the New Mole to take eight Spanish Faluches in tow (laden chiefly with tobacco)  . .  
After passing Rosia (see LINK) she was attacked by Spanish guarda costas . . . .  no time was lost in despatching a boat from the 'Samarang' as well as an armed boat from H.M. Gunboat Pigeon neither could find any trace of what had occurred. One thing is clear; a British steamer has taken to sea eight smugglers straight from this anchorage. It is no unusual occurrence, and not contrary to any port regulation. . .

General William Fenswick Williams - the Governor at the time. Williams is hardly mentioned in any of the modern mainline histories of the Rock ( 1858 - William Gush )

The letter does not allow the reader to understand exactly what it was that he was complaining about. Was it a protest against such a blatant act of smuggling?  Disapproval at the involvement of a British Steamer? Or was it the attack by a Spanish guarda costa on a ship carrying the British colours?


The authorities in Gibraltar, however, were in no doubt - the British Charge d'Affaires in Madrid was ordered to lodge a protest with the Spanish Government. It took the matter no further forward - if anything a few steps back;
I cannot express . . . the difficulty I found in meeting the Spanish assertion  . . .  that the contraband trade openly carried out at Gibraltar was the real cause . . . I have to see an end put to a state of things so injurious and offensive to Spain, and so discreditable to the British flag as the contraband trade openly organised at Gibraltar.
If it is true that the millstones of justice turn exceeding slow, then those of the British Foreign Office very often hardy moved at all. When they eventually  asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Carnarvon to consider whether it might not be a good idea to impose some sort of tobacco duty in Gibraltar, the Governor who had first been involved in the affair - Sir William Williams - was no longer in office. He had been replaced by the unfortunate Lord Napier.


Lord Napier - could those be the Keys of Gibraltar ( 1889 - Lowes Cato Dickinson )

Carnarvon incidentally, was not exactly renowned for his liberal ideas. One of his pet political topics was prison reform - he wanted the conditions inside prisons to be made less comfortable, that more time should be spent by prisoners on labour and that their diet be made less agreeable.

As regards this wee problem in Gibraltar, he was somewhat at a loss and decided to adopt his own version of the 'millstone' philosophy. He set up a long drawn out enquiry and sent to Gibraltar a Mr. Chester and a Mr. Barton - both of them customs and excise men - to advise him on how best to impose the suggested duty. 

After a solid month's hard work, Lord Napier wrote back to Carnarvon. He had been in close consultation with the two customs men and they had all come to the conclusion that imposing a customs tariff on tobacco would 'seriously injure if not destroy the freedom of the port.' To quote John D. Steward commenting on this affair in his book Gibraltar, the Keystone, it was:
. . .  amusing to find the two customs officers so thoroughly brainwashed that they join in condemnation of the evils of the custom system - their own profession and raison d'être. 
They were not brainwashed of course - rather they were smart enough to understand exactly which way the wind was blowing locally - far too strongly indeed for mere civil servants to attempt to rock the boat.  

Napier - an able and intelligent man under most circumstance - then asked his Lordship whether he thought it might not be a good idea to consult the members of the Exchange Committee of Gibraltar, (see LINK) whether they had any opinions of the subject. In effect he was suggesting that they ask the people who would have to pay the duty whether they approved or not. 

The report - which included Chester and Barton's conclusions - can be summarised as follows. The proposed tax would deprive thousands of Gibraltarians of their livelihoods, and the expenses involved in trying to enforce it would be horrendous. Instead they came up with a complex scheme which required  a restriction on the packaging of tobacco and the size of both importing and exporting ships.

The report was not to Lord Carnarvon's liking. He had sent his customs officers to set up a tax and they had instead come back to him with alternative suggestions. It was not what he wanted. He telegraphed Gibraltar and demanded their immediate return to London. Belatedly realising that the wind was stronger than that in Gibraltar Chester and Barton spent the trip back home reconsidering their original proposals and drafting the words of the kind of law that Carnarvon wanted.


The 4th Earl of Carnarvon - Secretary of State for the Colonies 

The Secretary of State then sent Lord Napier the copy of the new law and asked him to have it published in the Gibraltar Chronicle (see LINK). The Governor, horrified, wrote back immediately warning his boss once again that the imposition of such a law would create untold hardship in Gibraltar - especially among the poorer people of the Rock.

And here we have the crux of the matter. Lord Napier was well aware that if there were no smugglers there would hardly be any imports of tobacco into Gibraltar. He was also correct in saying that the poor would pay heavily if smuggling of tobacco became a thing of the past. But his real worry was its effect on the few but immensely rich merchants of the Rock. Without smuggling thei8r income would be drastically reduced.

Enter left, the Attorney General of the Rock who as Napier's right hand man had been made well aware of what had been going on. Basing his arguments on his interpretation of the law he launched into a sustained attack on the proposed tax. He argued that the UK Government didn't have the right to revoke Queen Anne's charter making Gibraltar a free port and that the clause in the law that allowed the Gibraltar authorities to fire on a ship that failed to stop would of necessity have to go before Parliament. In due course he got an appropriate reply from Carnarvon which mocked his arguments and put paid to his career 

Meanwhile Messrs Chester and Barton had been sent back in Gibraltar where they compiled several interesting facts and figures. There were, they said, 1430 locals employed in the tobacco trade. Most of the trade went to Oran - another free port on the African coast - and that half a million pounds worth of Manchester cotton goods were imported into Gibraltar in 1875. It was such an unreasonably high figure for such a small place as Gibraltar, that one would have expected the customs experts to have given a reason for this. They didn't.


The Commercial wharf with hulks and feluccas anchored nearby and in the Bay. This was where most of the goods were transferred on to smaller boats for smuggling into Spain  (Late 19th century )

It was time for the local merchants to enter the fray. The committee men gathered in the Exchange and Commercial Library and came up with no less than three unanimous resolutions. The first was proposed by J.A. Crooks and seconded by Judah Levy and argued that the new law was contrary to Queen Ann's order making Gibraltar a free port. The second was proposed by Y. Bergel and seconded by Henry Thornton. It insisted that people had invested heavily in Gibraltar in the belief that it would always remain a free port and would now be ruined. The third was proposed by J.H. Recano and seconded by Richard Abrines. Basically it gave the Exchange Committee powers both to raise money and to use it to defend themselves against the proposed tax. Francis Francia, the chairman of the committee then sent the whole lot to the Colonial Secretary under a covering letter:
I have the honour to enclose for the information of His Excellency a copy of the three resolutions passed at the meeting . . . . The Committee fully support the sentiments expressed in those resolutions and feel convinced that if measures in the above scheme are carried out, it will cause most material injury to all classes of this community, destroy Gibraltar as a commercial center and a free port, and bring untold misery to its poorer inhabitants.
It was in many ways a late 19th version of modern right wing political philosophy - if you pass laws that will affect the rich and powerful - it will be the poor who will be most affected through inevitable job losses and so forth.


Exchange and Commercial Library in Gibraltar - meeting place of the Exchange Committee ( 1890s )

The memorial had its desired effect. Napier postponed the Ordinance and sent a copy of the letter to Lord Carnarvon who sat on it for a month and half. The Colonial Secretary was at the time up to his eyeballs trying to impose a confederate system in South Africa because he believed that the existence of independent African States would result in 'a general . . . uprising of Kaffirdom against white civilization.' But it wasn't enough to stop him from eventually answering the Gibraltarian memorialist letter.

There was no reason why duties should not be imposed if the Government so wished. In fact such taxes had already been imposed in the past. Queen Anne - he implied - was dead. Also no new law was intended that would forbid the merchants from selling tobacco to whosoever they pleased. It was their customers who would be required to keep to the proposed regulations. And incidentally it was rubbish to say that this type of regulation was at variance with international law - as was claimed in one of the proposals.

It was at this point that the Right Reverend Doctor Scandella Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic of Gibraltar decided to intervene. He visited the Exchange Committee and offered to help. They asked him to keep his nose away from their affairs. He ignored them and wrote to Lord Carnarvon. 

The gist of his argument was that the entire Spanish neighbourhood close to Gibraltar - La Línea, San Roque, Algeciras, Estepona and Marbella for example - would be ruined. In so doing he actually acknowledges that almost all the tobacco imported into Gibraltar was destined for Spain - including the stuff which was supposed to be going to Oran, Mellilla and Ceuta. 


Right Reverend Doctor Scandella Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic of Gibraltar (1870s )

Somewhat illogically he was also of the opinion that any attempt to reduce smuggling would play into the hands of those who were against the present Government in Madrid. He then ended up by suggesting that if the law were to be put into effect, then the merchants had to be compensated for loss of trade - in much the same way that West Indies slave-owners had been paid off when they had lost their livelihood because of new legislation.

He was wasting his time. Lord Carnarvon turned his intellectual guns on the document and blew Scandella's arguments to shreds. A short hiatus followed - but not for long as the Gibraltar merchants and their British political and commercial allies regrouped and asked for and obtained permission to visit the Secretary of State in his own lair. In 1877 they all convened at the Colonial Office.

Among those present were two MPs, Mr. Hardcastle and Mr Mundella, Mr. Ashworth, President of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Pirrie, a London Merchant, and Messrs Francis Francia, Mr. Smith and Mr. Thompson representing the Exchange Committee.
All the old arguments were brought up yet again, and were duly shot down by Lord Carnarvon as he had all previous ones. 


The Foreign, India, Home, and Colonial Offices in 1866 - where Francis Francia and the rest met Lord Carnarvon in one of its many rooms

Nevertheless - and much to everybody's surprise - the Secretary of State gave way. He would rethink the whole thing and when the time was ripe would present his findings to Parliament. Meanwhile perhaps all these criticisms might be formalised in the near future so that he might take them into account.

Francis and his committee men must have been euphoric.  Back in their London hotel they wrote and sent in another letter. They then stayed on in the capital for a month at the end of which they produced yet another one. In this one they proposed a series of rather wishy washy regulations which were intended to make it more difficult for smugglers to ply their trade.

A few months after the Committee men had returned home, Lord Napier wrote to the Colonial Office informing them that smuggling had decreased dramatically as some of the new regulations that he had recently put into practice - such as that trading hulks would be deprived of their licences if they were caught loading at night - were proving very effective.
There can be little doubt that the local merchants were making an effort not to rock the boat too much  - at least not until the storm had finally passed them by.

And it did. Lord Carnarvon postponed the proposed duty on tax and other related regulations and smuggling continued more or less as before.  Well over a hundred years later the postponement was still in force and tobacco smuggling continued apace. 


I am not sure which of the hunters in the picture is Lord Napier, but there is no doubt that no matter how many letters he was required to write to Lord Carnarvon or how many smugglers there were in Gibraltar, the Royal Calpe Hunt (see LINK) would always take precedence.