Gibraltar - a melodramatic view ( Unknown - Late 18th century )
As can be gathered from the frontispiece of the English edition of Alessandro Bisani’s book - Lettres sur divers endroits de l'Europe, de l'Asie, et de l'Afrique - 1791 the author was “an Italian Gentleman” – this despite the fact that he wrote the thing in French. My English translation was published in English in 1793 with – as can be seen below - a rather longish title.
Regardless of language the book is simply a series of letters written by the author to an unknown person, the first one dated 29th April 1788. His arrival in Gibraltar is dated March 11th 1789. A second letter with his comments on his activities there is dated April 1789 – all of which suggests he must have spent at the very least three weeks wandering about the place.
The following quote more or less covers the entirety of everything he had to say about Gibraltar. It is a more or less unique account in that I have not come across all that many “Italian Gentlemen” who visiting the Rock in the late 18th century and leaving us a commentary on their experiences.
Arrival - After a long and tedious passage, we are now per forming quarantine in this bay, which discord has so often stained with gallant blood. Alas! When will men cease to become dupes to the ambition of their rulers? What avails it to be enlightened, if we cannot discover that war cast never be advantageous to any people ; that this scourge is equally ruinous to the conqueror and the conquered; and that it is the height of madness to sill a life so fleeting and transitory with pain and anxiety ?
The reference is to the Great Siege of Gibraltar (see LINK) which ended in February 1783 – or just six years before he arrived. Gibraltar had been practically destroyed by nearly four years of bombardment and it would take very much longer than six years to repair the damage. Apart from the above paragraph, Bisani makes no further mention of any of this.
Main Street Gibraltar looking north at the end of the Great Siege (1793 - Capt Thomas Davis )
Excuse these reflections: they are the more melancholy, as it is to be seared that the wishes in which they originate will never be realised. This famous Calpe, one of the Pillars of Hercules, (see LINK) has in it something majestic . . .
The English have forced nature to bring forth whatever they please, insomuch that the earth now produces oranges and potatoes in common with figs, lettuce, etc. Colonel Green (see LINK) has procured earth from Portugal in order to make a garden, which costs him immense sums, and which is without doubt the finest in the place.
The houses are small, but commodiously built; and the shops are fitted up in the English style. The town is lively for it is inhabited only by soldiers, and everybody knows that soldiers are never dull. The garrison consists of nine regiments, composing a body of five thousand men. They are all very neat; they are exercised every day, and the most rigid discipline is kept up amongst them. Notwithstanding the difficulty of making an escape, two sentries lately deserted from Europa point.
The officers are never idle: when not engaged in military duty, their time is divided between the pleasures of the table and of play. Sometimes they amuse themselves in fishing or coursing on the neutral grounds.
“The officers are never idle” - Casemates Gibraltar ( Early 19th century – Unknown )
Attracted by the allurement of gain, there are here about two thousand Genoese, Spaniards, Portuguese, and English, who exercise various trades. There are likewise two thousand Jews, almost all from Barbary, some of whom retain the dress of the country; and as these people are by no means held in contempt in this place, it is to them almost a land of promise. The coin chiefly current here is Spanish. Provisions are very dear. Port and sherry are the only wines that can be procured at a reasonable price.
The local population had been severely affected by the Siege as many of them had been forced to leave. Smallpox and scurvy also took their toll. The post Siege census of 1787 records 3386 civilians but by 1797 it had risen to 8000. All of which suggests that Bisani’s estimate may have been quite accurate.
The author was also quite perceptive in realising that immigrants from Genoa and elsewhere found it more than worthwhile to put up with the indignity of living inside what was in effect a rigidly controlled military garrison - there were all sorts of opportunities for making money – both legally and illegally. (See LINK)
Barbary hawker – Gibraltar (Unknown )
Jewish Marriage - A few days ago I saw a Jewish marriage. On the eve of the wedding day, the betrothed lady appeared in public in a hall hired for the purpose : she was veiled, and attended by an old rabbi; and on her arrival, the populace set up such shouts of joy, that it was found necessary to send half of them away. After remaining seated for some minutes on the throne (the name given to a feat covered with damask, at the foot of which was a cushion of the same stuff), an old woman took off her veil, and immediately afterwards coffee and sweet meats were served up.
Next day the bride and bridegroom went again at the same hour to the same place. The bride resumed her former seat, the rabbi and the bridegroom standing up before her. On the forehead of the latter was a small scroll of parchment, on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments; and his shoulders and breast were covered with large band of white silk.
He poured some white wine in to a glass presented to him by the rabbi; and the latter after singing a Hebrew hymn, which the spectators repeated, drank a little of the liquor, and then offered it to the bridegroom, who, after tasting it, let the glass fall into a silver bason, by way of precaution against all sorts of magic: he then laid hold of the bride's right hand, and put the wedding ring on her forefinger.
The rabbi read the contract, containing several articles, among which were the two following: "That the husband should not take his wife into foreign parts without her consent; and that should the parties wish for separation, the party ﬁrst proposing it should be obliged to pay the other eight hundred piastres;” which seems intended to render a divorce more difficult.
After reading the contract, the married lady took of her veil, the rabbi and the husband then drank again, and all the company withdrew. Directly over the head of the bride was a handkerchief suspended from the ceiling, containing, as I was told, some “pieces of money, intended to serve an auspicious omen.
The bride wore false hair, according to the custom of the "Jews of the country, which does not allow married women to wear their own hair. What seems most extraordinary in these marriages is, that the husband, after enjoying the first-fruits of marriage, abstains for a week from the nuptial bed, or for a whole fortnight, if he has married for the second time.
About a decade or so later another visitor to Gibraltar, Alexandre de Laborde, also left us a description of a Jewish marriage in Gibraltar (See LINK)
Petrified Bones - On digging amidst the rock, a cistern very curious on account of its stalactites has been discovered on the northern side; and in another place, a well sixty feet in depth, at the bottom of which in a reddish chalky gravel were some petrified bones: some of these, on being taken up, evidently appeared to have belonged to human bodies.
Pedants, who pretend to know everything, say, that in order to fix the epoch of the petrifaction of these bones, we are only to go back to the eighth century, that is to say, to the period when the Moors passed over to this continent. Philosophers, however, are unable to come to any decision on the subject. (See LINK)
"Homo neanderthalensis" on the eastern side of the Rock – the three caves afrom left to right are Bennett’s, Gorham’s and Vanguard’s - ( 1950 - Maurice Wilson )
Petrified bones are mentioned by Gibraltar’s early 17th century historian Alonso Hernández del Portillo in his Historia de Gibraltar. (See LINK) The bones were very much in the news at the time. Thomas James in 1771 (see LINK) and by John Drinkwater in 1779 (see LINK) both mention them. Like Bisani they hadn’t a clue as to what they were and where they came from. I have to admit that I don’t either.
St. Michael's cavern is well deserving of attention: it is extremely spacious; and its depth, which is upwards of one thousand feet, much exceeds that of Antiparos, according to Mr. F , who has seen them both. The entrance into this grotto is near the summit of the rock: these places formerly were extremely steep; but at present the way up is by small well beaten paths. We descended into it by the help of a cord, to prevent us from slipping; for the slope is very steep . .
St Michael’s Cave ( 1796 - Rev Cooper Willyams ) (See LINK)
It is a precipice which comes out on a level with the sea, and which is so slippery, that notwithstanding the ropes which the passenger holds by, he runs a continual risk of breaking his neck in the descent. The soldiers, after working and polishing the fossils, make them into small toys, which are very pretty.
Moorish Castle - To the north is a Moorish castle, (see LINK) built probably about the time when the Moors invaded Spain, which was towards the beginning of the eighth century. They entered by Algesiras, called the ancient Gibraltar, which the Spaniards retook in the middle of the fourteenth century, after a long siege, the first in which cannon were used.
The text reads “Parts of the Moorish Castle Gibraltar 1780” ( W.R.E. Booth – Detail ) (See LINK)
In some parts of this rock diamonds have been found, which have a very fine lustre even when uncut.
A very good police has been established in this town, which is governed by a general; and next to Ireland and Jamaica it is said to be the best government under the British crown.
The governor's palace was formerly a convent. There are here daily eighty guards and two hundred sentries. It is very entertaining, after the second evening-gun, to hear the whole rock resound, with the system of Leibnitz, All is well! Which the sentries repeat every quarter of an hour, when all really is well.
Since the last war, this place has been constantly supplied with ammunition and provisions sufficient for three years: but vegetables, fruit, lemons, and excellent oranges are imported hither from the coast of Barbary - Portugal supplies it with wine, Marseilles with preserves and perfumes, and Genoa with sweetmeats.
The bay is spacious, and abounds with plenty of fish. The fleet now here consists of fourteen men of war, two of which make an annual cruise into the Levant, to protect the British trade. This bay serves likewise as a rendezvous for the vessels of other powers, which, on their entrance, always salute the English admiral and the garrison.
View of the Bay from Rosia (See LINK) ( 1780s Unknown )
Great toleration prevails here: the Catholics have a church, at the door of which a sentry is always posted, to protect them from insult; and the Jews are better treated here than anywhere else. As to the soldiers, they are excused from worshiping God between four walls: after the example of an ancient people, they offer up their prayers every Sunday in the open air, on the parade.
Adieu ! we are going to set sail for Africa.
The reason for the open air worship was not through choice - the soldiers were not “excused” to worship outdoors. The problem was that at that time Gibraltar simply didn’t have a Protestant church large enough to hold them. King’s Chapel - the only possible alternative - was much too small and was in any case usually the preserve of officers. In the early 19th century General Don (see LINK) remedied this situation when he ordered the Church of the Holy Trinity to be built