The People of Gibraltar
1570s  - Los Mercedarios - White Cloister

Juan de Bernal and Rodrigo de Arce - Pedro Bustos and Juan Nuñez
Gabriele de Miranda and Diego Reno - Alonso Guerrero and Juan Romero
James Gabriel Montressor and Humphrey Bland - Lord Portmore and John Russell
Francis Carter and John Drinkwater - Admiral Darby and John Spilsbury
B. Cornwell, George Augustus Eliott and Bland

The Straits of Gibraltar  ( 1700s – From 1700s – From Galerie Agreable du Monde )
In 1580 Phillip II of Spain – and of course Gibraltar - became King of Portugal and therefore also of Ceuta. The distance across the Straits (see LINK) between Gibraltar and Ceuta is roughly 28 km in a straight line. 

A quick look at a map will convince most people that Gibraltar is ideally placed as a base for anybody involved in negotiating the release of a hostage held in North Africa. Not something that happens too often nowadays but a commonplace in the 16th century when the northern Mediterranean was infested with Moorish corsairs. Over the years these gentlemen had developed a nasty if lucrative habit of enslaving Christians who happened to fall into their hands only agreeing to release them after the payment of a hefty ransom. 

Negotiating these ransoms was fraught with difficulties – a mistake could cost you your life. Little wonder then that those who were prepared to pay usually turned to intermediaries for help.  In Spain and later in Gibraltar, these intermediaries were invariably a Catholic religious order which went by the rather flamboyant name of La Real y Militar Orden de Nuestra Señora de la Merced Redención de Cautivos – or the Orden de la Merced for short – or even shorter if you really wanted to save time – Los Mercedarios or Mercedarians in English. 

The Order was founded in the early 13th century with more than two centuries still to go for the final re-conquest of Moorish Spain by Christian forces. During those years the Order spread southwards and eventually arrived in Andalucia and then later in Gibraltar. 

Pedro Nolasco – French founder of the Mercedarios in Barcelona – Here he is doing what he was very good at - ransoming Christian slaves from their Moorish captors  ( Unknown )

Alonso Hernández del Portillo in his Historia de Gibraltar written in the very early 17th century offers several paragraphs explaining the origins of the Order on the Rock. According to Portillo the Mercedarios were allowed to settle in Gibraltar in 1581. Theoretically permission to do so would have come from Don García de Haro, Bishop of Cadiz. In point of fact the bishop happened to be away visiting Rome and the actual authorisation came from his side-kick, Don Diego de Mendoza. Portillo has – if rather inconclusively - identified a certain Fray Juan de Bernal as the founder of the Order in Gibraltar.
Vino por la primera piedra . . . de esta Santa Casa uno de los santos hombres de nuestro tiempo. Yo lo trate muchas veces y conocí algo de su santa vida y profunda humildad. Este fue aquel santo varón Fraile Juan Vernal (Bernal) uno de los excelentes Predicadores que en su tiempo hubo en España. 
He is not the only one to pick Bernal as founder but a more recent analysis of primary sources by Spanish historian, Francisco J. Quintana Álvarez has suggested that an earlier Mercedario ransomer - Fray Rodrigo de Arce - is a more likely candidate.

Arce was actively involved in the “trade” from 1579 to 1583 and seems to have been the first person to have realised that working from Gibraltar and Ceuta made it easier for the Mercedarios to carry out their ransoming attempts in Barbary. I can only guess as to how Arce financed his rather expensive activities but it would seem that rich individuals both in Gibraltar and elsewhere were prepared to donate considerable sums while identifying specific people which they wished to be ransomed. 


The Order’s coat of arms – the silver cross represents innocence and purity, the four red bars love and charity and the golden ones, kindness and nobility    ( Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy – Barcelona )

Rodrigo de Arce does not come over in the literature as a saintly do-gooder. The very opposite – he does so as a well connected and rather pragmatic individual. When Arce first arrived on the Rock he did not necessarily set up shop in so far as his Order was concerned. Instead he seems to have considered it a priority to enter into a series of personal arrangement with certain local Councillors. 

Reading between the lines Arce probably belonged to that species of Catholics who believes that any ends that promotes Catholicism will always justify the means. He may have been prepared to accept and do - even if at the expense of others - anything that would lead to an increase in the power and influence of his Order.

The affair of Friar Luis de Matienzo might be a case in point. Matienzo accompanied Rodrigo de Arce on several negotiating trips but on one occasion was himself required to remain in Barbary as a hostage presumably as an assurance of moneys still owing for the release of a number of captives. Arce seems to have waited three years to free him and his belated rescue package was enormous - 12000 gold escudos. If true this adds up to more than 62 million dollars in today's money - an enormous amount by any reckoning.

Arce’s ransoming successes must have led him to believe that it was probably worthwhile to officially set up a local branch of the Order in Gibraltar – using part of the Hermitage of Santa Anna as a physical base. He petitioned the Crown accordingly. The date given in the literature for the founding of the Order is 1583 which is understandably based on the date in which Arce’s petition was approved by Royal Decree - although the “cedula” itself states that the authorities received Arce’s request in January 1583

There is nevertheless plenty of evidence that the Order was well established in Gibraltar as early as 1581- by which time the Friars had already make themselves at home in the Hermitage of Santa Anna. The fact that it was now officially founded by Royal Decree was in many ways just a technicality. It is probably this interpretation of the timing of events that has allowed several contemporary historians to suggest that for all intents and purposes it was Fray Juan Bernal rather than Arce who was really responsible for the founding of the Mercedarios in Gibraltar whereas logic suggests that it was Arce. 


Bernal is depicted by most commentators as having been both a saintly man and an excellent orator – in other words somebody who was much more a man of the people than Arce, a priest who seems to have interacted with the hoi polloi in Gibraltar – as against Arce who seems to have regarded Gib as a business proposition. That history may have wrongly attributed the founding of the Order to Bernal is unfortunate - for Arce - but in my opinion this was not the result of some dark ecclesiastical conspiracy - as suggested by Quintana Álvarez - but simply an understandable incorrect interpretation of events.

Apparently Bernal was also just as brave man as Arce. He is reputed to have travelled to Barbary where he was personally responsible for ransoming a considerable number of men, women and children. Eventually he made one last trip to Seville and died in his favourite monastery cell.


Regardless of who exactly founded the Order in Gibraltar it seem certain that it was Arce who first made use of the existing hermitage of Santa Ana and purchased addition property surrounding it. According to local historian Tito Benady they did not take over the entire Monastery but built theirs around it allowing the nuns of Santa Ana to continue their own work.


The Monastery eventually extended from Calle real (Main Street) right through to Calle Santa Ana (Irish town) and along the southern side of Market Street which was then called Calle de la Carnicería  - today’s Market Street and a reference to a nearby slaughterhouse  (See LINK)    ( 1750 – James Montressor ) (See LINK)

Rather inappropriately, Portillo mentions the presence of a mancebía – a local brothel - or perhaps one should write the brothel as prostitution was tightly controlled at the time and this was supposed to have been the only one in town. 

By the late 1620s improvements on the Mercenary’s monastery in Gibraltar had not yet been finished. According to Portillo, Pedro Bustos, a rich local merchant offered to build a main chapel within the monastery on condition that he and his successors would be allowed to be buried there. In 1636 the Spanish poet Fernando Pérez Pericón (see LINK) saw fit to include a mention of the Monastery in his Descripción de Gibraltar, y de su Monte Llamado Calpe:

Portillo also mentions – among a list of the numerous statues of the Virgin Mary that could be found in the equally numerous monasteries, convents and churches of Gibraltar - two that were venerated within the Mercedarian convent:
En la Merced, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes  y otra muy devota Nuestra Señora del Socorro. 
Neither one nor the other seems to have survived but the later statue appears to have been involved over the years in a series of documented “miracles”. By the end of the 17th century the Convent in Gibraltar was mostly used for logistical purposes and the monks were rarely involved in ransoming activities. It is perhaps not too cynical to believe that those “Milagros” proved to be rather convenient - they brought about a considerable increase in alms at the expense of the competition – for example the even more well-know Virgen de Europa.


Virgen de los Socorros  ( Late 16th century – Cordoba ) With thanks to Francisco J. Q. Álvarez

In 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, Gibraltar was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces (see LINK) in the name of Charles III and most of the Mercedarios left Gibraltar. The British knew them as the White Friars because of their white tunic. The Monastery of Nuestra Señora de la Merced became the White Convent or White Cloister.


Mercedarios in their typical white garb paying out a hefty ransom to unknown ransomers  (unknown)


Among the friars stationed on the Rock, Juan Nuñez and two of his colleagues – Gabriele de Miranda and Diego Reno - formed part of a group of about a hundred Spaniards who opted to stay behind. All three appear on Colonel Joseph Bennet's 1712 list of British Gibraltar's original civilian population. (See LINK



In 1714, the friar Alonso Guerrero was instructed by the Order to investigate the activities of Juan Nuñez who was accused of living a particularly licentious existence on the Rock. Alonso Guerrero seems not to have had much success in this direction by the time he left Gibraltar to become the new “Comendador” of the Order. He returned to the Rock a year later as the “presidente in capite” of the local Convent during which time he helped out the parish priest, father Juan Romero (see LINK) who had also famously decided to remain on the Rock after the British takeover. 

Guerrero seems to have become quite popular with the local congregation who begged him to remain on the Rock. Unfortunately the British Governor would not allow him permanent residence - although he did manage to obtain permission to preach for nearly a year and a half. 


Whether Guerrero made use of the Monastery while he was in Gibraltar I have not been able to find out. What I do know is that he obsessively continued to gather information on the activities of fray Juan Nuñez – and by all events there was plenty of incriminating evidence available. For a start he was living with a mixed-race girl from Malaga whom he described as his niece. He also had a penchant for giving local women all sorts of presents including clothes and religious broaches which they then flaunted by wearing them in public. Worse still it seems he had become a compulsive thief persistently nicking the silver from the Convent and sending it to Portugal for sale there on his behalf.  


Guerrero eventually tricked him into leaving Gibraltar after which he was imprisoned and later handed over to the tender mercies of the Inquisition. During his trial he also admitted selling large quantities of his stolen goods to a Jew from Tangier.

Alonso Guerrero was, as were many Catholic clerics of the day, thoroughly anti-Semitic and his outspoken intolerance against the Jewish population in Gibraltar led to him to be accused by one of the Jewish residents of some serious misdemeanor. He was only saved from being thrown out permanently from the Rock though the intervention of Garrison’s Protestant Chaplain. Oddly enough his relationship with the Protestant community was very good - possibly the result of direct orders received from his superiors who had instructed him to act courteously and to offer his services wherever possible in any involvement with the British authorities.



French Mercedarios  ransoming captives from Barbary in the mid 17th century (Unknown)

In the mid 18th century, James Gabriel Montressor, (see LINK) Gibraltar’s third of a long line of unusually competent Chief Engineers, was ordered by his boss, General Humphrey Bland, Governor of Gibraltar, (see LINK) to survey the town with a view to finding out which buildings were already in use as barracks or officers quarters. Presumably Bland wanted to find out if there were any other available houses that could be used for such purposes. 

Montressor obliged with a magnificent plan of the town appropriately entitled A Survey of the Established Barracks for Soldiers at Gibraltar. (See LINK)  Montressor failed to name streets or identify buildings but in most cases both can often be guessed at by modern viewers. Such is the case for the White Cloister building in Irish Town.


Although I have labelled the entire block as White Cloister it is possible that only the southern (right hand) side was occupied by the original convent. A section of the next block shown to the north of the convent can be identified as once having been the Monasterio de Santa Clara   (1750 – James Montressor )  

According to local historian Tito Benady the English name for Calle Santa Ana – Irish Town - first appeared in the 18th century when the town was divided into districts. Gibraltar’s numerous Irish merchants residing in Gibraltar at the time were reputed to have had many of their warehouses on this street. Unfortunately, property owner lists of 1749 and 1777 do not show any Irish names.

Another suggestion is that it acquired its name from an Irish regiment that was barracked somewhere at this street, probably in the White Cloister. If so then the name must date from before 1720 when the Governor Lord Portmore, handed the convent over to the Royal Navy when the Convent became the main office and supply depot for the victualling agent - John Russell - and his two clerks. 

It was probably around this time that the building became known by the alternative name of Admiralty-house which gave rise to what was probably the assumption that it had become the headquarters of whatever admiral happened to be stationed in Gibraltar. In fact during the early part of the 18th century the victualler actually had his personal dwelling in College Lane. The nearby triangle between the Casemates and Cooperage Lane must have been his personal fiefdom as this was where many of the larger naval warehouses were found. The inference is that the rooms of the Monastery of the White Friars were being used as offices and stores for smaller and easily movable items such as food supplies. 


Today’s Casemates are shown on the left. The shot house was possibly inside the old medieval Atarazana - Bottom right is the triangular Navy Yard which enclosed the cooperage - where the water barrels were manufactured - the store houses and quarters used by the victualling clerk and his assistants  ( 1750s – J. Montressor )

By 1755 the Monastery building was still worthy of comment. According to Thomas James (see LINK) in his History of the Herculean Straits:
. . .  there were no more than four hundred houses in the town, properly speaking . . . The convent in that part of Gibraltar called Irish Town, was of the white friars, and is converted into a navy store-house : in it are apartments for the admiral or commodore of the Mediterranean Squadron.
In 1772, Francis Carter in his Journey from Gibraltar to Malaga (see LINK) also makes a passing mention which confirms its alternative name of Admiralty-house :
. . .lower down . . . is the grand battery, under which is the landgate (see LINK); above the town appears the hospital for the army, and in it Bethlem barracks, formerly a convent of Nuns; The admiralty-house in the time of the Spaniards, a monastery of White Friars.
It is perhaps unfortunate that Carter got the first bit wrong – the army hospital above the town was probably the Blue Barracks, originally a pre-1704 hospital run by Juan Mateos. (See LINK) "Bethlem" Barracks occupied the building once known as the Monasterio de Santa Clara .

Once the Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced but by the early 18th century either the White Convent, White Cloister or Admiralty-House   ( 1750s  James Gabriel Montressor )

The choice of the Monastery for use as a naval store was not a particularly good one. The building was situated one block away from the Line Wall and was relatively open to enemy fire from the Bay. During the so-called Gunner’s War a sentry had his head blown off while guarding it. In fact its inappropriateness would be fully exposed half a century later during the Great Siege when the building was often in the news. According to John Drinkwater see LINK) in May 1781:
The . . . .principal buildings are the Convent, or Governor's quarters, the Lieutenant-Governor’s house . . . . and . . . the Admiralty-house, formerly a monastery of white friars  . . 
On another occasion during a heavy Spanish cannonade a small posse of drunken soldiers decided to have some fun at the expense of the Roman Catholic residents. They entered the parish church of St Mary the Crowned (see LINK) , discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary inside its ruined interior and decided to place her in a whirligig after holding a mock trial in which they found the Virgin guilty of drunkenness and debauchery. When the affair was reported to the Governor General Eliott (see LINK) he casually ordered the Virgin to be moved to the White Convent where: 

        . . . she was by no means exempt from further insult and disgrace.


It was probably soon after this that one of the most memorable non-military event of the Great Siege took place. Drinkwater dedicated at least four pages of his well-known History of the Great Siege to this incidence. According to his version in April 1781 Admiral Darby’s squadron with 100 store ships from England entered the Bay. It would go down in history as the second naval relief of the Great Siege.see LINK) The Spaniards responded with a tremendous cannonade which somehow managed to leave Darby’s ships unscathed but caused immense damage to the town. A wine house in the Green Market caught fire - an event which according to Drinkwater was responsible for: 
. . . the commencement of the irregularities into which, through resentment and intoxication, the soldiers were betrayed. Some died of immediate intoxication, and several were with difficulty recovered, by oils, and tobacco water, from a dangerous state of ebriety. 
In other words military discipline went out of the window. Drinkwater, somewhat true to type, defended the troops and laid the blame squarely on the locals; 
The extreme distress to which the soldiers had been reduced by the mercenary conduct of the hucksters and liquor-dealers, in hoarding, or rather concealing their stocks, to enhance the price of what was exposed for sale, raised amongst the troops, (when they discovered the great quantities of various articles in the private stores) a spirit of revenge. . . .
A few lines further on, in case the reader had missed his point Drinkwater repeats his premise and adds what in my view is one of the most memorable lines of the book: 
It did not appear, through all their intemperance, that these irregularities arose from any cause so much as a spirit of revenge against the merchants. . . .  Among other instances of caprice and extravagance, I recollect that of roasting a pig by a fire made of cinnamon. 
Nevertheless, Captain John Spilsbury (see LINK) who was also stationed in Gibraltar during the Siege fails to make any mention of what must have been – at least according to Drinkwater - a very serious incident. Instead he writes:
They throw several shells at the White Cloister, and have damaged several casks of beef etc, belonging to the Navy . . .  
B. Cornwell, (see LINK) a "native opf the Garrison" who was also present during and after Admiral Darby's arrival tells a very different version of the event. Not only does he exonerate the civilians but lays even an even heavier blame on the garrison:
The bombardment continued so severe and incessant that the inhabitants were compelled to hurry away, and leave the greater part of their personal property in their stores and houses, at the mercy of the troops in the garrison. They were afterwards enabled, by paying very enormous sums, to procure some of their goods to be brought out from the town to their southward retreat (Hardy Town) . . . 

What all of them agree is that a week after the events described by Drinkwater had taken place: 
Two of the Artificer Company hanged at the White Convent for robbing that store. 
There is little doubt that Drinkwater “doth protest too much”. I get the impression that having to report such a lack of discipline by British troops - some of which must have been under his direct command – was not something he was willing to describe without finding some sort of justification for it. His over the top approach leads one to suspect that most of the stores that were ransacked were not those in which the locals may have hoarded supplies but rather those that were kept in White Cloister. It is also well worthy of note that his boss, General Eliott had actually ordered everybody on the Rock – shortly before the expected Siege had started - to store six months worth of supplies as a precaution.



Captain John Drinkwater – The book he holds in his hand is a reference to the Garrison Library (see LINK) which he founded shortly after the Siege had concluded


Generally, the Monastery building was beginning to show its age. At the start of the Siege the authorities had ordered the removal of the tops of the town’s taller buildings so as to deny enemy gunners using them as prominent bearing points. One of these was the cupola of White Cloister  It can't have done the overall structure of the building much good. 

By the mid 19th century the convent had all but disappeared – as confirmed by an “old Inhabitant” who published his Handbook of Gibraltar in 1844. (See LINK):

 Of the convent of white friars, only a large store remains, called the White Cloister, near the meat market . . . 
During the late 19th a three story building was constructed where the Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced had once stood. It was owned by Bland and Co (see LINK) – an important local business. 




Bland’s Cloister Building in Irish Town


Bland’s offices inside Cloister Buildings in the 1950s - All that was left of the Monastery were several pillars from its original cloister 
In the early 20th century an important local wine and spirit wholesaler Jerome Saccone and James Speed and Co with headquarters in Main Street owned non-bonded warehouse cellars in Horse Barracks Lane which were supposed to have been connected to White Cloister by a tunnel. I suspect that this story is probably apocryphal as the tunnel would have had to travel for quite a distance under both Main Street and Market Lane.

Head Office in Main Street - Jerome Saccone and James Speed and Co

Two pillars from the monastery incorporated as decorations to the entrance of Trafalgar House in Gibraltar at the time of writing    ( Ryan Azquez )




Finally, many thanks to Ryan Asquez for allowing me to read his paper on the Monastery from which I have taken much of its earlier history - Thank you Ryan.