The People of Gibraltar
1729 - An Existential Emptiness

Kane and Henry Murray - William Healey and Richard Catton
Ambrosio Arecio and Giacomo Morello - David Azulay and Isaac Almosino
Pedro de Salas and Joseph Sabine - Stephen Conning and Mrs Conning
William Lucas and Hargrave - Juan Romero and Francesco Feroci
Jacob Faschina and Alderman Ben Monso - Bernardo de Molina

By the beginning of 1729 an abnormal number of soldiers from the Garrison began to report sick. The local population are not mentioned but they must have been affected as well. The physicians 
attributed this to the too frequent drinking of new wine a great deal of which was sour and mixed for sale.
Inevitably the civilians were blamed and the Governor ordered a penalty to be levied on anybody caught selling sour wine. But the demand for drink was so great that sour and adulterated wine continued to be sold and the ‘hospitals were all filled with the sick.
Wine, however vinegary and watered down could hardly have been responsible for the deaths of about five hundred individuals who were buried within three months. The probable cause was yellow fever, a disease new to Europe, and making its appearance for the first time in Gibraltar. It was thought to have been brought over by contaminated ships from Barbary that had been involved in the slave trade. It would take a long time and an enormous number of deaths before anybody was able to understand exactly what was happening.
By the end of the ‘Gunners’ War’ a large portion of the old part of town, Villa Vieja ended up badly damaged by the incessant bombardments. Villa Vieja was built in the 12th century and was in effect the original town of Gibraltar. It was situated on the North West side of the Rock and was therefore quite close to the Spanish batteries. It received more than its fair share of the bombardment.
The Villa was surrounded by walls with a gate leading to the newer part of town to the south and another one to the north at a place where the rock face sloped down gently towards Spain. For reasons of security Kane had ordered the soldiers to get rid of the slope below the north gate making it impossible to climb. In so doing he destroyed the gate itself and exposed a part of the town to enemy fire that would otherwise have been spared. All told ‘a hundred houses were by that means laid in rubbish.’
Sketch of the Rock dated 1710. It is hard to make out which of the slopes shown on the left side were demolished by General Kane. It was probably one of those shown at the very bottom close to the sea.
After the siege the damage to the bottom section of Villa Vieja was simply levelled and converted into an esplanade. The demolished north gate was replaced by Land Port Gate ( see LINK ) which became the only exit to the north and the main thoroughfare from the Spain into the Esplanade – today’s Casemates.
This old daguerreotype shows the road from Spain to Gibraltar. The ‘new’ Land Port Gate is roughly where the red rectangle is
In the coffee houses of London support for the war had been lukewarm throughout to say the least. Some historians have been quick to criticise the lack of help toward the war effort by local merchant but have failed to highlight the reluctance of London based businessmen to pay high war risk insurance. They refused to send much needed supplies because they thought the risk was too great and the cost too high. It meant that - as Allan Andrews comments in his book, Proud Fortress - the raising of the siege at the end of May 1727 was received with ‘massive calm. They wanted to know more about Spanish intentions before expressing any great jubilation.’
The Spaniards obliged by not withdrawing from their positions in front of the Rock as everybody had expected. Instead they ominously began to improve the military lines that they had used during the war by converting them into permanent fortifications. Nevertheless the British merchants soon got their wish. In 1729 the Treaty of Seville confirmed their trading rights. It allowed them to resume their more or less risk-free commerce especially along the African coast where many of them continued to make their fortunes shifting slaves from there to the Americas and the West Indies.
Abolitionist cartoon of the late 18th century
Locally the British authorities in Gibraltar continued to be as careless in their attitudes towards the local population as they had been before the siege. There was little change from an economic point of view. In fact the end of the war saw Gibraltar and its Garrison in exactly the same position as it had been before it had started. Food and services were still required and the only way these could be obtained was from people from without and that in effect meant Barbary.
As before the civil population was still small in comparison to the military although the records show a surprisingly high proportion of Spaniards. Either those that had been thrown out by Kane had been allowed to return or a new lot had managed to smuggle themselves in. During the decade from 1727 to 1737, several British civilians came over to the Rock and managed to get themselves some of the more lucrative civilian jobs available.  

Henry Murray arrived as a merchant in 1735 and William Healey became a wharf keeper soon after in 1737. Shortly after that Richard Catton came and found employment as Port Sergeant.  Unfortunately for the administration there were many more immigrants with decidedly non-British names; Ambrosio Arecio and Giacomo Morello arrived from Genoa and David Azulay and Isaac Almosino, both Jews came over from Tetuan. ( see LINK )
Before the introduction of English law in Gibraltar in the middle of the 18th century, the locals were more or less allowed to administer their own civil legal affairs. Public order, however, was in the hands of the military. Any breaches of the peace or more serious crimes were dealt with by sentries and patrols under the responsibility of the Town Mayor who - when dealing with a local inhabitant - invariably decreed that the culprit should be thrown out of town.
Not long after the end of the war, however, a body of local men was recruited by the army to act as frontier guards. By Gibraltar standards this was a most unusual decision on the part of the British. The military were effectively allowing a bunch of people that they had always made quite clear they did not trust - to take the place of trustworthy British soldiers. To understand why the authorities took such an unprecedented step one has to appreciate the insufferable conditions experienced by the ordinary soldier. 

There are quite a few accounts which record the endless ennui of garrison life on the Rock. None of them, however, have - the Gibraltarian historian Mark Sanchez has reminded us - quite matched the ‘existential emptiness’ expressed in the diaries of an anonymous soldier posted on the Rock at the time.
April 12th - A recruit who refused to work, carry arms, eat or drink was whipped for the fifth time. After which being asked by the officer he said he was now ready to do his duty.      
May 7th - This morning Ensign Stubbs of Colonel Egerton’s regiment retired a little out of the camp and shot himself.
June 17th - Today two corporals of the Guards boxed over a rail until both expired, but nobody can tell for what reason.
October 11th One of Pearce’s regiment went into the belfry of a very high steeple, threw himself into the street, and broke his skull to pieces.
There is little wonder then that the regular soldier put on detachment duty anywhere close to the Spanish lines - whether in the Devil’s Tower area or the Neutral Ground - often chose to desert. Their dissatisfaction with life in Gibraltar made the Spanish mainland appear like paradise. As an answer to the problem the authorities hit on the idea of employing locals to do the job. From those who volunteered, they chose men with wives and families living in the town and had therefore every incentive to stay on the Rock.
The earliest reference to the guard is a letter dated 1715 from a British Admiral. In it he confirms that an Algerian pirate had captured a local boat near the back of the Rock. The four men on board were ‘not only inhabitants but formed part of the guard there.’ Apparently he went so far as to send a boat to Algiers and insisted they be freed as ‘British subjects.’

Early 18th century Algiers

The Guard’s first commander was a Spaniard called Pedro de Salas who was about fifty years old and had once been a supporter of the Austrian Archduke. For some unknown reason he was given the military title of ‘Sergeant’ and his men were called the Spanish Guards. Later when most of them were recruited from Genoese rather than Spanish volunteers they adopted the new name of the Genoese Guards. 
The overall success of this initiative led to an increase in their duties and they were often called upon to help the military when dealing with crimes involving civilians. The fact that de Salas knew the locals and was able to make himself understood - something that the British soldiers could not - eventually made him and his men almost indispensible.
One can speculate as to whether these local guards were ever required to line up in Grand Parade every morning as had the British soldiers that they replaced. If so it may have been the source of a certain amount of pride for the locals to see a ritual enacted by their own people which they would normally have associated with the British military. However, if the character of the local population had been anything like that of their present day counterparts, their response would have been one of ridicule – or perhaps even more likely – envy. Guarding those gates must have offered ideal opportunities for smuggling. 
In an attempt to improve conditions for the common soldier a brand new barracks was constructed outside the town facing Rosia Bay. It took about five years to build and was completed during Sabine’s term as Governor. It was designed to repulse any attempt at a surprise attack from the rear from Spanish troops stationed in Ceuta. It was also intended to accommodate a whole infantry regiment with their officers occupying the North and South Pavilions. The architects and designers underestimated the number of soldiers involved and almost from its inauguration tents had to be pitched in the front courtyard to accommodate the overflow.

Old sketch of South Barracks from the Rock  ( 1779 - John Spilsbury )  ( see LINK ) 

As usual in the history of Gibraltar much of the information we have about punishments refer to those dished out to soldiers who had committed breaches of discipline.  Records of any locals being subjected to the cat are few and far between but there is at least one well known case. It occurred in 1732 during the term of office of the Governor General Joseph Sabine who had once been a member of parliament and was well acquainted with the rule of law.

Several years previously, Sabine had bought himself a handsome pile in Herefordshire called Tewin and promptly launched himself into an expensive crusade of refurbishment. The house, with its massive marble halls and staircases and collection of fine art became so well known at the time that George I is reputed to have visited it at least twice on the pretext that he needed a pied-à-terre for his hunting expeditions. When Portmore died Sabine was offered the Governorship which he eagerly accepted. He needed the money to repay the debts incurred on Tewin.
Sabine, incidentally was a rather cranky individual and a strong believer in the supernatural.  Once, as he lay awake one night in his bed, dangerously ill of his wounds after some battle or other, he noticed the curtains by his bed drawn back and was amazed to see the figure of his beloved wife, who was back home in England at the time, standing there before him. A few weeks afterwards he received ‘the melancholy news that his beloved consort was dead.’

When Sabine arrived he found Gibraltar in reasonable shape. The destruction caused by the Gunners’ War had been cleared or repaired, military defences had been strengthened and seawater had been allowed into the marshland to the north creating a lake which would later be known locally as La Laguna.

Mid nineteenth century photograph showing La Laguna bottom right
On arrival Sabine abandoned all legal niceties and gave himself what were in effect dictatorial powers. Despite muted grumbling, the locals soon found themselves at the wrong end of a one-sided form of Solomonic justice dished out by the Governor’s appointed Judge Advocate. It went as follows - any complaints between a civilian and a soldier were to be settled in favour of the later.
As long as the civilian population was synonymous with Genoese, Spaniard and Jew the system seems to have worked. On the whole nobody ever complained. They knew that if they did they would be kicked out of town and if they happened to be householders they could easily be dispossessed. It was even worse for aliens. They were thrown into the dungeon, flogged and then thrown out of town. As for Jews they were usually exiled to Tetuan where the ‘chances were pretty high that they would be hanged’.
General Joseph Sabine – Governor of Gibraltar
It was into this arbitrary world of General Sabine that a certain Englishman called Stephen Conning and his young wife came to in 1732. He had been employed by the Ordinance Department in Britain and had been sent to Gibraltar to work on repairs to the Convent – the Franciscan monastery - which had only recently been taken over as the official residence of the British governors of Gibraltar. He was a master carpenter.
Unfortunately for Stephen, his wife became very quickly bored and almost inevitably became involved in an illicit love affair with William Lucas, a dashing young lieutenant of the Twenty-Fifth Regiment of Foot. He was just as dissatisfied as she was with life on the Rock.
There were few places in Gibraltar at the time where anybody could carry out an illicit relationship so they chose what they thought would be the safest place: Conning’s own house. The couple usually timed their romantic assignment for the middle of the afternoon as this was when Stephen was sure to be busy at work at the Convent. As luck would have it the husband came home early one day and caught the couple in bed. There was the inevitable tussle and by the time it was all over Stephen Conning found himself under guard in the dungeon at Grand Parade on a charge of assaulting a British officer.
Brought before a court marshal, there was only one possible outcome. There was no jury, no defence and as Thomas Finlayson a local historian who researched this little story tells us - there could be precious little justice when both prosecutor and judge were both in uniform. The presiding advocate found the defendant guilty of assault within minutes and sentenced him to 300 lashes at the whipping post. 

The fact that Conning was English however must have carried some weight. The Town Major was prepared to reduce the sentence if Conning admitted his guilt and asked to be pardoned. The good carpenter refused. ‘I have’ he said, ‘been guilty of no crime and stand in need of no pardon.’
Taken aback by such insolence the Town Major decided that he would need to be put in his place. He ordered that an extra three tails should be added to the ‘cat’ and increased the sentence to 3 600 lashes. Conning apparently took his punishment and eventually returned to work where he was feted as a hero by his fellow workers. 

They admired his courage. Here was somebody who had at last stood up to the military and had denied the authority of their courts. The injustice of the whole thing stuck in many a craw and they urged him to write to London in the hope that it might put a stop to such things happening again in the future. With the help of his colleagues and the testimonials of the Barrack Master and several other carpenters and masons, Conning sent his complaint directly to the King.
By pure chance the letter was intercepted by Queen Caroline – George II was away in Hanover. She was shocked. She summoned the Secretary of State and asked him to look into the matter. What followed was a series of lengthy letters in which Sabine’s main argument was that any action taken to appease Conning would only serve to undermine his authority.
George II’s wife – Queen Caroline. A satirical verse of the period went like this: 'You may strut, dapper George, but 'twill all be in vain, We All know 'tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.'
Fed up to the back teeth with his impertinent master carpenter he then made several serious errors of judgement. First, he banished Conning from the town. Then when Conning decided that he had had enough and tried to sell his property prior to returning back home to England, he intervened again. Houses in Gibraltar, the Governor told him, were not his to buy or sell: only he as Governor could do that. Conning appealed to the Privy Council but they decided against him.
Stubbornly refusing to give up he left for London and decided to prosecute the Governor over the court marshal and although this was the first time that a civilian had ever sued a governor the Solicitor-General allowed him to issue a writ against Sabine. In the end, Conning only received £700 in damages – as against the £10 000 he had asked for, but there is little doubt that this was a triumph for the little man. In fact the story has an even happier ending. 

Conning returned to Gibraltar, found his wife a changed woman and returned with her to England, to live, presumably, happily ever after. Sabine on the other hand died a few years later. His body was taken for burial in Hertfordshire and it is said that the coffin in which his body rested had been made by Stephen Conning.
This rather charming story carries a rather less delightful corollary. The story of a plucky Englishman makes for good reading - especially if the reader is an Englishman. But if Conning had been either Spanish, Genoese, Jewish or indeed anything else that wasn’t British, it would have been very unlikely that he would have been able to do what he did. For them there was no proper form of redress and whatever they did would have been unlikely to have been recorded in Parliamentary papers or to have found its way into the records of the Lord Chief Justice in London
Examples of governmental high-handedness during the first half of the century are of course common-place. When Juan Romero, ( see LINK ) the old Vicar of the Catholic cathedral died he was succeeded by José de la Peña, a man who had more than once suffered the antipathy of Governor Hargrave. As previously mentioned the Governor felt that Romero’s successor should not have been chosen by the Bishop of Cadiz. 

Perhaps believing that attack was the best defence the new Vicar took a more aggressive approach towards the British than Romero and tried to challenge the authorities on various issues. On one occasion he took it upon himself to excommunicate a certain Francesco Feroci, one of the original inhabitants who had chosen to stay behind in 1704.

Nevertheless as with most things there is one tiny exception to the rule. There is a tantalising reference to a complaint made against General Sabine by a certain Jacob Faschina, a non-British born resident of Gibraltar. What the complaint was about - or whether indeed Jabob won his case - is not clear but one of the witnesses was Alderman Ben Monso, a Moor from Barbary. Apparently he was sworn upon the Koran, the first time this had ever been accepted in an English court of law.
Feroci was a successful businessman who made quite a bit of money supplying cartridge paper to the Garrison. Enough money in fact to buy himself a property in 1717 and a while later, to marry an English Protestant called Mary. This kind of ‘mixed marriage’ was an event of some consequence at the time as can be deduced from the fact that for the next hundred years, records of any local men marring British women are very few and far between.
In 1726 he fell out with de la Peña because he felt that the amount of money that he had been assessed to pay as a contribution towards the Feast of Our Lady of Europa was much too high.  De la Peña took offence and excommunicated him. It was a disproportionate response. Excommunication in the 18th century was a serious matter, both from a religious and a social point of view. The person was cut off from his community and tended to be ostracised by everybody.
When Kane - who was in charge at the time - found out what had happened he took umbrage and decided to do something about it. Firstly he made a point of humiliating the Vicar by publicly reprimanding him. He had, he declared, shown great contempt for the King’s authority and ordered him to lift the ban. When de la Peña refused Kane did a little bit of over-reacting himself and threw both him and his vice-curate, Bernardo de Molina, out of town. As regards Ferroci, anyone who refused to deal with him would also be thrown out of Gibraltar. Most of the locals complied either through fear of the threatened reprisals or because of no great love for de la Peña. 
But there were of course, the usual underlying reasons for the Governor’s rather over the top reaction to what was after all none of his business. The British authorities continued to be worried about the number of Roman Catholics living on the Rock. Their fear was that in the case of yet another Spanish assault - and a new one was almost always on horizon in those days - the population would turn against their Protestant masters. 

This anxiety was almost certainly misplaced. It was the product of the usual irrational dislike for Papists – also normal for the time - rather than any real anti-British attitude by the local Catholics who were well aware that it was the British side of their bread that was buttered.
In any case the lumping together of Spanish and Genoese under a single Catholic banner of like-minded people did not reflect the reality of the relationship between these two communities. A few years after the events described previously, the Vicar’s successor was accused of smuggling some of the church’s relics and valuables out of Gibraltar to San Roque. He was found guilty by a military court and was made to face the humiliation of being drummed out of town to the beat of the Rogue’s March while troops lined Main Street all the way from the Cathedral to the city gates. His fate had been sealed not by the British but by the evidence of some ‘Genoese and other bad Christians’.

Gibraltar from modern San Roque

It is probably worth pointing out that the Vicars of the Catholic Church were for many years selected exclusively from the Spanish clergy. Ferroci, the man who was excommunicated was a Genoese which perhaps explains the reluctance of his particular community to support the Vicar. In other words these events suggest a more complex relationship between the Genoese, the Spaniards, and the British authorities than one might have expected, but the idea of ‘them’ and ‘us’ in so far as the Catholics and the British were concerned was still very strong – master and servant, rich and poor, British and foreigner, the differences were many.  

Although some locals may have been prepared to cooperate, others were more willing to rebel. The overall feeling however, remained one of uncertainty and suspicion among the local Catholics and of fear and dislike between Catholics and Protestants. The Jews on the other hand, somehow managed to keep themselves in some sort of neutral middle ground. They continued to be indispensible not just to the Garrison but to everybody else on the Rock.