The People of Gibraltar
1800s - The Gibraltar Chronicle - A Lilliputian Curiosity

Bouisson, Cowper and Fyer - Amiel, Dumoulin and the Lombards

On the theory that one can never have too much of a good thing the Garrison Library also happened to be the instigator of yet another well known local institution –The Gibraltar Chronicle.

It seems that in 1801 - according to the Chronicle’s own official history - several regiments stationed in Gibraltar were sent to Egypt to face Napoleons troops. Many of the officers’ wives and children remained in Gibraltar and casualty lists and other information on the campaign were posted on notice boards in the Garrison Library. The Military authorities, however, felt that it would be better if a bulletin was published every day to make the information more readily available to everybody; which was by no means a bad idea as women – even officers’ wives – were rarely allowed in.

The library committee duly complied and a four page bulletin was printed with the rather cumbersome title of Continuation of the Intelligence from Egypt received by His Majesty's ship Flora in three weeks from Alexandria. It was dated Friday the 4th of May 1801 notwithstanding the fact that the 4th of May was a Monday. As all subsequent issues appeared on a Friday, the actual date was probably the 1st May.

The first three pages were written in English and French – the first editor was a Frenchman called Charles Bouisson – and included the ‘glorious news’ of the British victory at Copenhagen. It was the start of the newspaper’s love affair with the admirable British admiral Horatio Nelson. The last page listed the names of those who had fallen in battle. Only officers were given a mention. 

The Battle of Copenhagen

By the third edition the name had been changed to ’The Gibraltar Chronicle’. It was published on the 15th of May 1801 and it quickly became Gibraltar’s first and most important newspaper. Printed by the Library Press it was sold by a shop opposite Bell Lane called H. and T. Cowper, one of several book sellers in Gibraltar at the time.
15th of May 1801 edition of the Gibraltar Chronicle

Its first “scoop” – and perhaps only real claim to any kind of fame – was a report on the victory at Trafalgar and the death of Nelson, which came out long before the news had reached England. 

Strangly muted dispatches from Vice-Admiral Collingwood about Trafalgar and Nelson's death which were only recieved on the 6th November  1805    (See LINK)

HMS Pickle carrying the news of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson to England - but the Chronicle had beaten everybody to it.

 An English pamphlet dated December 1805 about the Battle of Trafalgar - two months after the Gibraltar Chronicle's famous "scoop"      (See LINK)

To the locals it soon became ‘La Crónica’ but by no stretch of the imagination could it have been considered a popular rag. A copy of the paper in those early days would have cost more than a local labourer might have earned in a day. In fact for many years it would remain a military-owned, military-minded news-sheet for serving officers and was unashamedly used as a mouth-piece by the local British authorities. It did not lose its military character until well into the twentieth century

Charles Bouisson was an interesting choice as Editor. In 1794, four years after his arrival in Gibraltar, he was appointed Deputy Librarian to the Garrison Library. When the Chronicle was founded he became its first editor as well as the manager of its Printing Office, posts which he held for well over half a century.

Born in Toulon his presence in Gibraltar was the result of the social and political unrest caused by the French Revolution. Disaffected émigrés had fled from the worst of its many excesses and most of them may have left with the British forces after the French recapture of Toulon in 1794. Sarah Fyer recorded in her diary that most people in Gibraltar – by which she meant the British – were shocked to see that such large numbers of French refugees were being landed at Water Port. People felt that the French, whether they were Monarchists or Republican, were not to be trusted. 

 Charles Bouisson

Bouisson was obviously an exception. He is said to have been ‘a little man in his white cravat and knee breeches’, and was almost certainly an émigré. He retained his French nationality and never became a Gibraltarian as such.

According to Sam Benady in his article on ‘The French in Gibraltar’, the civilian population of the Rock originated from ‘the shores of the Mediterranean with a leavening of British and Irish blood.’ Most historians, he suggests, focus on the more numerical Genoese, Spanish and Jewish populations and hardly a mention is made of the French.

And yet during the early part of the 18th century the French formed a small but important group. Benady argues that they must have been influential enough to warrant publishing the more important news in the Chronicle in both English and French. The ‘famous’ account of the Battle of Trafalgar is written in parallel columns in both languages. Only very rarely were articles ever translated into Spanish – and never in Italian or Genoese - which one would have thought were far more important languages in so far as the locals were concerned.

Benady therefore argues that the Chronicle used French because even though it would seem that there were insufficient numbers of French-speaking readers on the Rock to justify the time and expense, the French community did make up in quality what they may have lost in numbers. Most were admirably educated people who were well connected with the British authorities.

The Amiel family, for example, were headed by Romain Amiel, a doctor who was appointed as Surgeon to one of the British regiments and eventually ended up as Chief Surgeon at the local Civil Hospital. The Dumoulin family came with aristocratic credentials, and Gustav Dautez, a later arrival was a well known naturalist who helped produce a book on Gibraltarian flora. The Lombards, also originally descended from an aristocratic family from a town near Toulon, were ship owners who were rich and influential enough to afford British Mediterranean Passes that allowed their ships to move about without having to worry about being attacked by Barbary pirates.

Nevertheless, Diane Sloma’s article on the Character and Style of the Early Gibraltar Chronicle, gives a more likely explanation. It was used because French was the lingua franca of diplomacy during the 19th century and the common language of the European aristocracy.

French or no French, Bouisson opening essay in the first Gibraltar Chronicle certainly makes sure that the reader is left in no doubt as to where the newspaper’s sentiments lay; ‘whether from the East, or from the North’ all have been ‘glorious to the British Nation. An ‘uninterrupted series of triumphs’, the unconquerable spirit of Britons’, and ‘OUR UNITED EMPIRE’ – in capital letters - ‘defy the world in arms.’ The ‘commerce of Briton will flourish,’ and ‘her glory will never rise so high as when she stands singly.’ So will the ‘valour of her intrepid sailors and soldiers’ perpetuate her Fame.’

There was of course no mention of the fact that of the eighteen enemy ships that had eventually struck their colours, ‘four foundered with their crews, others were driven ashore and wrecked and four were retaken by the Spanish’. By the time the triumphant fleet had entered the Bay, it had only managed to salvage four prizes.

There was also a tendency in future editions to include jingoistic poetry of the worst sort; ‘Briton! That word pronounced is an alarm;’ or ‘Britain! There’s noble magic in the sound.’ There is little doubt that such flowery, over the top language was common-place at the time but there is more than a little irony in the fact that Bouisson ends his maiden article by suggesting that the paper should concern itself solely with ‘nothing beyond plain matters of fact.’ This reminds one of Samuel Goldwyn’s famous comments when presented by an advert produced by his film publicity men. ‘The directing skills of Mamoulian, the radiance of Ann Stein and the genius of Goldwyn make this the world’s greatest entertainment.’ Goldwyn was ecstatic. ‘That, gentlemen, is the kind of ad I like; just facts, no exaggerations.’

There was more irony elsewhere. For some reason the editor decided to add a Latin tag to the banner heading. It read; Juvat immemmorata ferentum, Ingenius oculisque legi manibusque teneri. - Rulers value fair and proper laws - One must suppose that the majority of the local population lacked the classical education required to understand the Latin. If they had they might have argued that the ‘ruled’ were probably even keener on fair and proper laws than their rulers. Many a regulation and law imposed by the British authorities were anything but fair and proper.

Sloma’s article compares the freedom of the press in Britain – and by inference that of Gibraltar – favourably with that of Napoleonic France. The truth is that in Gibraltar at any rate, the authorities found it difficult to reconcile the security of the Fortress with that of a free press. As Tommy Finlayson mentions in his essay on the Press in Gibraltar, ‘even in those days of limited readership,’ the Governor, in the shape of General O’Hara, reserved the right of censorship for himself. One can be absolutely sure that no mention was ever made in the Gibraltar Chronicle about the various taxes and licences that were paid to him by the local landlords or of his celebrated sexual prowess as ‘Cock of the Rock’. The security of the Fortress was paramount.

In 1813 it was finally acknowledged that whatever propaganda the Chronicle was delivering to the personnel of the Garrison the message was passing right over the heads of most of the civilian population. As such the powers that be decided to publish a newspaper in Spanish. It was called El Cronista de Gibraltar. The Chronicle, however, attributed the creation of this new publication as a response to the wishes of many inhabitants of the Garrison who were ‘more conversant in Spanish than in the English Language.’ The Chronicle had unfortunately been misinformed. Nobody bought it and it closed after a couple of years. In fact one wonders as to who exactly did read either version in those days. 

1813 First page of one of the original editions of El Cronista de Gibraltar. According to Tito Benady, one of the reasons  why the Chronicle was allowed to publish in Spanish was to cater for rich Spanish merchants who  had become refugees on the Rock 'por encontrar la vida más agradable que en una Cádiz asediada'

By 1821 the weekly Gibraltar Chronicle became the daily Gibraltar Chronicle and Military Intelligencer, an aspiring provincial newspaper that despite its name carried news from just about everywhere in the world except Gibraltar.

The offices of the Gibraltar Chronicle -appropriately, the building is just next door to the Garrison Library

By the time Andrew Bigelow of 'Travels in Malta and Sicily' fame had managed to have a browse through the paper it had become a bulletin that did ‘no great honour to Gibraltar.’ It was, he opined predictably, ‘a Lilliputian curiosity, being printed on a small octavo demi-sheet' – an early precursor to the modern tabloid no less. All it offered were ‘some meagre British news taken from the ministerial mouth-piece’, along with weekly lists of shipping arrivals and departures. In 1833 Montgomery in his history of British possessions in the Med gives it the coup de grace – ‘as for the press, he writes, ‘there is little to say further than that a government newspaper exists.’ 

Over the next hundred years the Gibraltar Chronicle’s sub-title of Military Intelligencer was changed to that of Commercial Intelligencer. It stopped its practice of translating or writing articles in French and was no longer left unread by the local population. It never deserved whatever claims to fame the authorities and others often attributed to it but its influence in creating the identity of the Gibraltarian - as distinct from people who tended to be considered firstly as Genoese, Spanish or Jewish - was considerable.

1826 Gibraltar Chronicle with its new Commercial Intelligencer title.

It has often been claimed that most local Gibraltarians during the 19th century could hardly speak English properly far less read it. This may or may not be correct but there were certainly many who were quite capable of reading the Chronicle and would certainly have passed on whatever they might have considered of interest. Day after day whatever the news it would always have been viewed from a very British perspective.

If language is one of the most important contributions to cultural identity, then the Chronicle has much to answer for. Even today when the search for self-determination is still part of the political agenda in Gibraltar, most locals feel very pro-British. They are proud of what they believe is their British heritage.

As Sloma so neatly puts it, ‘when one meets a Spaniard, the initial conversation will be about the family. When one meets a Gibraltarian, it will be about the weather. ’One wonders whether this would have been so if the Gibraltar Chronicle had continued to be published in Spanish.

21st of July 1936 edition in Spanish after the advent of the Spanish Civil War