The People of Gibraltar
1780 - Juan de Aquas – Problem? What Problem?

Plan submitted by Juan de Aguas which he claimed would allow Spain to recover the Rock from the British   - A = Punta de Europa  -  B= Punta de San Gracía (1780 )

In 1704 Gibraltar was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in the name of Charles III Pretender to the throne of Spain. (See LINK) Unfortunately the Pretender failed to become King and Gibraltar theoretically should have been returned to Philip V – the French Pretender who did become King of Spain. Instead it became a sort of limbo land until the British decided that it might be worth their while to keep it.

They did so and eventually their claim was acknowledged in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht. (See LINK) Unfortunately the treaty was poorly drafted allowing both the Spaniards and the British to interpret the various clauses whichever way they considered useful to their point of view. But even if the Treaty  had been a model clarity the loss of Gibraltar would never have been accepted by Spain, 

The capture in 1704 was immediately followed by the 12th Siege (see LINK) and then twenty odd years later in 1727 by the 13th. (See LINK)  In 1778 the Great Siege finally put an end to Spain’s direct attempts to regain what she had always considered her own territory. This lack of success on the field of battle brought about a curios phenomenon - the production of all sorts of plans thought up by every military crank imaginable on how to go about recovering the Rock. Over nearly three-quarters of a century, numerous thoroughly detailed and mostly unrealistic “solutions” were offered to the Spanish Court. 

A selection of the many plans submitted to the Spanish Court which were supposed to improve the chances of retaking Gibraltar    (Various dates and sources)

I will however resist the temptation to give a general overview and critique of the various plans submitted – and there is certainly much to criticize here – and concentrate on a proposal thought up by a certain Juan de Aguas. This interesting piece of history – including the plan shown at the beginning of my essay - has been hidden away among many other treasures in the archives of the Museo Naval of Madrid.

Theoretically it was a very simple plan. All that was required was the construction of a breakwater – together with its own defensive structures – right across the Bay from Punta de San García near Algeciras on the Spanish side to Punta de Europa on the other.

Modern view from the fortress of Punta de San García towards Gibraltar

The proposal takes the form of a dialogue between an Irishman and a blind Spanish newspaper seller – a dialogue which is often allegorical in nature. It includes several verses as well as the words of a song and is dedicated to Prince Carlos who later became Charles IV of Spain
In modern parlance Aguas was the epitome of the born optimist.  He dismissed the problem of building a breakwater along an entire Bay of considerable depth by acknowledging that he had no idea how to do this and would leave it to others who were certain to be able to figure out how to get round the problem:
As regards the depth (of the Bay) I don’t know what it is . . . but I am sure clever people will know . . 
The Geology and bathymetric profile of the seabed, the action of tides and dominant winds could therefore be brushed aside as irrelevant.

The small problem of the enemy’s response to the building of a breakwater in their immediate vicinity was also dismissed with hardly a bated eyelid.  As soon as the work was within firing range of the Rock, Spanish guns would demolish the British ones. These later he views as incapable of changing their focus on to any new threat from an unexpected direction totally ignoring the fact that Gibraltar happened to be one of the most powerfully defended fortresses in the world.

Detail Juan de Aquas plan

Aquas plan was conceived in 1780. The Great Siege (see LINK) had only just started and had several years to go. Luckily – for the Spaniards – it was never put it into practice. However, two years later another slightly less harebrained proposal was accepted and Chevalier D'Arçon’s notorious “Floating Batteries” (see LINK) entered the annals of the many sieges of Gibraltar. 

The Floating Batteries

With acknowledgements and thanks to Ángel J Sáez Rodríguez from whose article - Conquistar Gibraltar como sea - Una locura de Juan de Aguas – I took most of the above.