It was a rather fine day in June when some of the inhabitants of the Gibraltar suddenly became aware that something unusual was happening. The year was 1693 and Spain was an ally of England and at war with France.
The Rock - at peace - from Spain across the isthmus in 1693 ( Based on an oil painting by Théodore Gudin )
In the distance they could make out a large number of well laden and rather large merchant-men followed by four warships flying English flags. They were sailing through the Gut and were heading towards the Bay of Gibraltar. Nothing unusual here except that they were being pursued by some twenty French men-of-war.
What followed must have been a foretaste of what the inhabitants of the Rock would experience slightly more than a decade later when Anglo-Dutch forces made them a less than friendly visit and took over the town in the name of the Archduke Charles, pretender to the throne of Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession. (See LINK) But all that was in the future.
The merchantmen soon reached the Bay and immediately tried to shelter in the New Mole where the defensive tower known as the Torre del Tuerto (see LINK) would offer them some protection. That was the theory. In practice the tower only had eight serviceable guns, not enough to make the slightest difference. The warships took up their position opposite the merchantmen on the bay-side of the mole and even managed to land a few of their own canons to supplement those in the Torre del Tuerto. But it was all too little and too late.
The Torre del Tuerto ( 1607 - Adam Willaers )
The French squadron was led by Admiral Alain Emmanuel de Coëtlogon, a man who had as yet never lost a battle at sea and as far as I can make out - never would. In 1701 France would try to reward him by making him a marquis, but it was a title he would never use. Coëtlogon ordered the bombardment of the warships and by the second day he had either damaged or set fire to all of them. They were soon beyond repair.
According to a British historian writing about half a century after the event:
The greatest loss that befell the English was the sinking of four of the greatest merchantmen in the bay of Gibraltar where it was hoped they were safe . . . when the French squadron came before the place . . . one of the first bombs that were shot fell into one of these English ships: this, though it did no considerable damage, yet so terrified the commanders, that they could think of no way of saving their effects, but as it were by losing them.
After several days of relentless bombardment, both the warship and merchantmen captains finally gave up and tried to scuttle their ships before taking refuge in Gibraltar. Meanwhile Coëtlogon continued his relentless assault which was now aimed at the town itself. An anonymous naval officer later wrote to his sister Anne about his experiences at the time.
After a great defence, finding ourselves overpowered, we were forced to sink our ships and go ashore in our boats . . . the next day the French came upon us to burn the ships, part of which lay above water and I believe poured 2000 shot and bombs into the town amongst us. I, with some others were forced to retire into the mountains . .
The Expedition of Vice Admiral M. de Coëtlogon - the picture was commissioned by the Musée de l'Histoire de France in Versailles ( 1840 - Théodore Gudin )
The locals, on the other hand took refuge in the south many of them making a beeline for the Chapel of Our Lady of Europa. Since the Turkish raid of the mid 16th century (see LINK) it was held to be the safest place to go to whenever the town was in danger. According to a Spanish historian, the nuns of the Monastery of Santa Clara led the exodus.
Running out of ammunition, Coëtlogon finally withdrew but not before managing to take with him 13 merchantmen - from which one must assume that not all of them had been either properly scuttled or burned.
Once the danger had past, the local inhabitants turned their attention to the Englishmen who had sought refuge with them. The anonymous naval officer was unimpressed;
. . . we found the cursed Spaniards the worst enemy of the two, plundering us of all, and stripping overall of our men. . . I made two or three attempts to get into the castle (see LINK) where finding the Spaniards stripping some Englishmen I was forced to retire. I had neither bread nor water . . . never was men cast among such a pack of villaines.
The events outlined above took place during the Nine Years War - which was also known by a variety of other names. It was fought between the French King Louis XIV - the Son King - and a bewilderingly large European coalition led by William of Orange and King Charles II of Spain.
William of Orange and Louis XIV of France ( Godfrey Kneller and René Antoine Houasse )
Although a relatively minor skirmish in what was primarily a land war it deserves a special mention in that it forms part of the background to the eventual taking of Gibraltar by Admiral George Rooke and his Dutch boss - the Prince of Hesse - in 1704.
It was also the aftermath of part of a much larger confrontation known as the Battle of Lagos. A mid 8th century historian describes it - and the events leading up to it - as follows:
In the beginning of June 1693 the English and Dutch fleets sailed down the Channel. On the sixth, George Rooke was detached to the Straits with a squadron of three and twenty ships, as convoy to the Mediterranean trade. The great fleet returned to Torbay, where he pursued his voyage, having under his protection about four hundred merchant ships belonging to England, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Hamburgh, and Flanders.
On the sixteenth, his scouts discovered part of the French fleet under Cape St Vincent: next day their whole navy appeared, to the amount of eighty sail. Sixteen of these plied up to the English squadron, while the vice-admiral of the white stood off to sea to intercept the ships under convoy.
Sir George Rooke, by the advice of the Dutch vice-admiral Vandergoes, resolved if possible to avoid engagement, which could only tend to their absolute ruin. He forthwith sent orders to the small ships that were near the land to put into the neighbouring ports of Faro, St Lucar, and Cadiz, while he himself stood off with an easy sail for the protection of the rest.
An engraving based on Théodore Gudin's original picture - there are fewer wrecks and hardly any ships on fire. There are also fewer smaller boats carrying crews to shore. Both this engraving and the original have most of the action focused on the Old Mole rather than the New which would have been considerably further south and out of sight in this perspective ( Skelton )
About six in the evening ten sail of the enemy came up . . . An English ship of war and a rich pinnace were burned, nine and twenty merchant vessels were taken and about fifty destroyed by the Counts de Tourville and D'Eftrées.
Seven of the largest Smyrna ships fell into the hands of M. de Coetlogon and four he sunk in the bay of Gibraltar. . . . The French admirals, instead of pursuing Rooke . . made an unsuccessful attempt on Cadiz, and bombarded Gibraltar, where the merchants sank their ships, that they might not fall into the hands of the enemy. The value of the loss sustained on this occasion amounted to one million (pounds) sterling.
The total number of ships lost - both as a whole and for those lost in Gibraltar during this fiasco - varies according to every historical account that I have read so far. However it is safe to say that out of the original 400 merchantmen - some authority's say 500 - about half of them were probably either sunk or captured.
Most of the convoy was supposed to travel to Smyrna - today's Izmir in Turkey - hence the reference to the "Smyrna ships". I suspect not one of them ever made it. Another authority claims that Coëtlogon's fleet destroyed 19 merchantmen using fire ships and that they sailed away taking 13 prizes with them. That makes 32 ships which even if we excluded the four warships would have probably have been far too many for the New Mole to cater for at that time.
One local historian suggests that it was Rooke himself with part of his convoy that took refuge in Gibraltar - but it seems unlikely. As regards the million pounds lost, the merchants in England and elsewhere in the continent cannot have been overly amused at this monumental loss - in today's money that million pounds probably had a buying power of close to 4 billion in sterling. Admiral Rooke, however, road his luck and somehow avoided censure.
Admiral George Rooke (1705c - Michael Dahl )