The People of Gibraltar

1704 - Simón Rodríguez Susarte - Hero to Myth

At the top of a high ridge just below Charles V Wall in Gibraltar there is - or once was -  a prominent tourist plaque with the following inscription:
Led by a shepherd 500 Spanish soldiers climbed the east face of the Rock in 1704 from Catalan Bay to surprise the Garrison, but they were discovered and made prisoner. The Shepherd's path from near this spot was scarped away soon after. 
The plaque is in the wrong place, fails to mention Simon Susarte, the main protagonist 1 and hardly does justice to what was either a romantically heroic event, a good 18th century example of Spanish propaganda - or a wonderful myth. 2

In 1704 Anglo-Dutch forces under the command of Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt and Admiral George Rooke, captured Gibraltar in the name of Charles, the Archduke of Austria. Franco-Spanish forces loyal to Philip of Anjou - later Philip V of Spain  - under the command of the Marquis of Villadaria responded by blockading the Rock. This short and ineffectual campaign eventually came to be known as the 12th Siege of Gibraltar. 3

The twelfth Siege of Gibraltar  (1705 - from the book England's Glory)

The original story by Ignacio López de Ayala
The story of the shepherd and the climb was recorded as "historical fact" in 1782 by the Spanish historian Ignacio López de Ayala in his Historia de Gibraltar. His commentary can be roughly transcribed as follows.

On the 10th of November 1704, a Gibraltarian by the name of Simon Susarte, informed the Marquis of Villadaria that he had spent his childhood on the Rock tending goats and that he knew of a path along the 'impossible' east side that led to the top of the mountain. 

Villadaria had Susarte's story checked, found it feasible and arranged for a group of 500 Spanish volunteers led by Colonel Don Antonio de Figueroa to follow Susarte up the Rock. They would be joined shortly after by a main force of 1500 soldiers who were to meet them at la Silleta - the notch between Middle Hill and Rock Gun. The five hundred would be travelling light with no more than three rounds of ammunition apiece.

Late in the evening of the 10th Susarte led the first group of Spaniards up the side of the Rock. He used a path known as the Paso de Algarrobas which led towards los Tarfes - today's Windmill Hill' - before turning westward towards El Hacho or Signal Hill. They spent the night in St. Michael's Cave. 

An hour before dawn Colonel Figueroa took his troops up to the ridge while a small unit of men followed Susarte towards el Hacho where they killed the guard. The entire group then scrambled their way unseen to la Silleta and successfully carried out their mission to secure the area.  Reinforcements were supposed to climb up from the slopes above Catalan Bay.

When Hesse realised that the Spaniards had managed to scale the Rock, he ordered a regiment under his brother Henry to intercept them. There were casualties on both sides and Henry suffered a head wound. Once the Spaniards had exhausted their three rounds of ammunition the result was a foregone conclusion. Susarte managed to make his escape thanks to his knowledge of the various paths and goat tracks. Most of the rest were not so lucky. 4

It is probably worth pointing out that James Bell's 5 translation of Ayala's History whether  through choice or lack of ability,  does not follow the original version. 

Map of Gibraltar  showing places mentioned in the Simon Susarte episode  ( 1831 - Adapted from W.H. Smyth ) 

The primary source
Ayala quoted verbatim from a manuscript written by Juan Romero de Figueroa, parish priest in Gibraltar during the Anglo-Dutch capture of the Rock and an eye-witness to the event. Romero's notes went missing from San Roque during the upheavals of the Peninsular War and have yet to be recovered. Nevertheless the fact that the Ayala's quotes are stylistically identical to others written by Romero on the margins of the church's registers in San Roque make it easy to believe that Ayala's was an accurate transcription. 6

What other people wrote
The episode is recorded by an officer serving under Hesse who was also an eyewitness;
On the 31st Oct. 8 five hundred Spaniards attacked the Middle Hill . . . but were soon realised and 200 men with their commanding officer were taken, and the rest were either killed . . . or broke their necks over the rocks . . . 7
Prince George himself mentions the episode in a letter to the Castilian Admiral, Count Melgar;
On the 11th inst, they attacked over the top of the mountain using unknown tracks   which appeared impossible to travel on . . . . . with orders to secure la Silleta so as to wait for reinforcements of some two to three thousand men  . . . they did all this with such secrecy and skill, using rope ladders  . . . that it was only at dawn that we discovered that the mountain was full of people, but they were received in such a way that  very few of them ever returned . . 8
According to the Spanish historian Francisco María Montero the French General Canvanne was in charge of 3000  support troops who were supposed to climb  to the Silleta after it had been held by Figueroa's men. Cavanne refused to do so on the grounds that it would be wrong to allow the honour of retaking the Rock to fall on a local peasant. 9 Angel María Monti more or less repeated the story without actually mentioning Susarte. 10 Yet another, Francisco María Tubino, restricted himself to repeating Ayala's account but suggested that there were no survivors.11

The English historian John Drinkwater adds a few details of his own. In his version the volunteers took the sacrament, never to return till they had taken Gibraltar. Susarte is not mentioned by name but identified as a goatherd. Charles V Wall was scaled before the 'massacre' of the guard at Middle Hill and he gives precise details of Spanish casualties. There were 160 dead, killed or driven over the precipice - which is not named - and the colonel and thirty officers and the rest of the soldiers taken prisoner.12

G.T. Garratt takes his cue from Drinkwater. He also mentions the killing of the guard at Middle Hill. 13 Alan Andrews offers little that is new other than they started off by boat.  He refers to the party as the 'forlorn'. 14 George Hills suggests that the rendezvous was somewhere north of the Moorish Wall and 300 Spaniards lost their lives. 15

Local historian Dorothy Ellicott's account comes up with the suggestion that the Anglo-Dutch forces were not caught by surprise. The son of one of the guards was taking his father's dinner up to Middle Hill, discovered his father body and gave the alarm. 16 Philip Dennis simply refers to the incident but does not name the goatherd. 17 Another local, George Palau, repeats Ellicott's story of the boy discovering his dead father. 18

And these are not the only historians who accept the tale more or less at face value. David Francis suggests that the Spanish volunteers were spotted by the Catalan Guard at the cliffs known as Salto del Lobo which lie just below la Silleta, 19 while William Jackson 20 and Maurice Harvey 21 closely follow Ayala - although the former has Susarte climb Philip II Wall and the person giving the alarm a drummer boy.

None of the authors mentioned above actually give their sources which suggests that they all mostly took their lead from the original version - or some previous history quoting it. 

La Silleta and the Paso del Algarrobo
Frustratingly neither of these place names are in use today and it is hard to find a contemporary map identifying the first.  Very recently another historian, Roy Clinton has tried to identify the exact path taken by Susarte. His article contains evidence that la Silleta is today's Middle Hill, 22 and that there are references going as far back as 1771 to a British built parapet in the vicinity with musket emplacements. 23 A quick visit and a glance down towards Catalan Bay far below, leaves the modern observer in no doubt that whoever built it wanted to make sure that Gibraltar's defences would never be breached from here. 

As for the Paso del Algarrobo, a British map dated 1755  clearly identifies its position close to a hut captioned 'Scarp-rock guard house'. 24 Unlike the Middle Hill parapet this was a question of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. Understandably, Clinton is in no doubt that both Susarte and his exploits are well anchored in fact.

St. Michael's cave
For some reason George Palau 18 discarded St. Michael's as the chosen hiding place and opted for the more southerly twin caves overlooking the Mediterranean known as the Goat's Hair. He gives no source for his preference.

William Jackson 20 identified the Fig Tree and St. Martin's Cave as the hiding place. He may have been influenced by George Palao in this. The Fig Tree cave - or Sewell's Fig Tree caves - is the original name given to the Goat's Hair caves. His choice of St. Martin's cave was misplaced as this was only discovered in 1821 and was even then practically inaccessible. 25

Presumably the attraction of suggesting these alternatives instead of St Michael's is that all three are found well to the south and face the Mediterranean as against St. Michael's which faces west. One other quirky detail concerning St. Michael's is that several 18th century maps refer to it specifically as a place capable of sheltering 1000 men. Why 1000 rather than the obvious 500 is hard to understand.

Simon Rodríguez Susarte
George Palao with the help of the local parish priest of  San Roque - Father Caldelas - was able to uncover Susarte's  personal records in the registers of Saint Mary the Crowned, Gibraltar's principal Catholic Church. The books had been transferred to San Roque after the Rock had been taken by the British.   

Simon was born on the 6th of May 1676 and was the son of Pedro Rodríguez Susarte and Joana Muñoz. Simon was therefore 28 years old when the event took place. He was also a married man. Aged 23 he was married to Claudia Jacobo Ximenez by Juan Romero de Figueroa in the church of St. Mary the Crowned. 18

An attractive but unrealistic picture of Gibraltar - and of a rather oddly shaped Spain -  which nevertheless suggests the Rock's  imposing inaccessibility from the east (Unknown)

Official Spanish references 
Gibraltarians who maintain that they do not believe the story 2 claim that the Gaceta de Madrid - the official newspaper that covered the 12th Siege at the time in Spain - makes no mention of it. This is not strictly true. 

Although the Gaceta makes no mention of Susarte - or indeed of any local involvement -  it did carry a report of the event itself which it treated as a relatively minor skirmish involving 150 men led by Colonel Figueroa.  The actual text reads as follows;
El día 11 por la mañana 150 Españoles Voluntarios, comandados por el Coronel Figueroa, se arrojaron al Monte a desalojar a los enemigos, pero aviendo savido estos, se adelantaron en mayor numero; y después de una reñida contienda, con muertos de ambas partes, se retiraron los nuestros, cediendo al mayor numero, con pérdidas de algunos Oficiales.  . . . 26
Discrepancies between Ayala and La Gaceta
La Gaceta de Madrid was no bible. It was simply a four page semi-official newspaper with a marked tendency to toe the official party line. If somebody who was somebody in the court of Philip V of Spain didn't want something published  there was no question of doing so and be damned. And there were certainly several very good reasons why this particular story needed to be toned down. 27

Marquis of Villadarias
For a start the Marquis of Villadarias - whose bulletins were responsible for much of the reporting during the siege - was far more interested in defending his own role in the failure of the blockade than trying to promote the heroics of an insignificant local goatherd. As for the French, they could hardly disguise their contempt for Villadaria and his men dismissively referring to the event as l'affaire de la montagne. 28

For Villadarias the main problem was that l'affaire was simply one small part part of a planned three pronged attack every one of which failed. According to his reasoning it wasn't his fault but rather that of his troops who had refused to carry out his orders properly. There is more than a hint that he was accusing his soldiers of cowardice. It was certainly not the kind of thing the Gaceta would have been keen on publishing. 

The Spanish commander had appointed two leaders for the climb - the Marquis of Valdesevilla and his brother, Don Antonio de Figueroa. Valdesevilla  stumbled and injured himself at the start of the climb and was unable to continue. It was not an auspicious start. He also suggested that only a handful made it to the top and that when they were discovered the entire group retreated in confusion. 29

In the case of Colonel Figueroa, Villadarias was certainly doing him an injustice - he was no coward. In the Battle of Almansa he lost his right arm, On an expedition to Africa, two figures of his left arm, and as late as 1733 he was also injured in the battle of Yucatan. In Gibraltar, the only reason he surrendered was that he was hit twice in the chest and had his leg smashed by a bullet. 30

Villadarias' report also suggests that the Gibraltarians involved were paid to show them the way up - which manages to tarnish the goatherd's image as a hero but does little to make his involvement any less likely. 31

The general tone of Villadarias  report is that nobody did what they ought to have done and that nothing turned out right. He fails to mention that he had not followed up his own plan by failing to send in reinforcements. But perhaps more crucially there is no mention that he had sent his troops on a particularly dangerous expedition with an inadequate supply of ammunition. 

The three rounds of ammunition
Whether the state of the Prince of Hesse's defences at the time made it vulnerable to a surprise attack from above with a small number of well armed men is open to question, but it would seem very likely that a lack of ammunition would be decisive in turning the tide in favour of the defenders.

Ayala seems to have realised that this was the crux of the matter - the difference between the story of a fiasco and that of a heroic failure. From the merely descriptive, the Spanish historian's style changes to one of frustration and indignation. 
I write about an event that seems unbelievable, but what I write is true . . .  it is backed by the testimony of Berlando, the Marquis of San Felipe, by Bruzen de la Martiniere, by the priest from Gibraltar . . . and finally by an old man who was still alive in 1781 and was a friend of the goatherd Simon Susarte. . . . Who would have believed that they would have been supplied with only three bullets? It is incredible. . .  32
The evidence for the climb from the blind side is overwhelming. With one or two small reservations Ayala's original story seems a reasonable one. 

Whether Simon Susarte was in fact part of the story is slightly less conclusive although the circumstantial evidence is strong enough to suggest that he was. So much so that it would be tempting to say that if it could be shown that Susarte was not involved then some other Gibraltarian very like him must have helped Figueroa. 

An admirable episode in a decidedly unromantic siege - or a complete fiasco - as that well-known cynic Richard Ford so aptly put it, whichever one chooses it can still best be described as . . . Cosas de España! 33

The paths taken by Susarte and his followers  ( 1704 - Inventario de bienes del Mayorazgo de Changurel )


1. Clinton, Roy. (2011) - The Goatherd's Path - Gibraltar Heritage Magazine - No.18 - P83
2. There are no mainline British or Spanish historians who suggests that the episode was either propaganda or a myth, but one has only to mention the name of Susarte to the odd Gibraltarian to be met with considerable scepticism as to both his exploits and his existence.
3. Hills, George. (1974 ) - The Rock of Contention - R. Hale and Co. London - P 168 and on
4. López de Ayala, Ignacio. (1782) - Historia de Gibraltar -  Don Antonio de Sancha , Madrid - P 297
5. Bell, James. (1845) - The History of Gibraltar (Translated from Ayala), William Pickering, London - P
6. Hills, George. (1974 ) - The Rock of Contention - R. Hale and Co.,  London - P 487
7. Anonymous. (1705) - A Journal of the Transactions of Gibraltar by an officer under the Prince of Hesse Darmstadt - J Nutt, London P 3
The discrepancy in the date is because the officer was using the Julian calendar which was still in use in British territories long after almost everybody else in Europe had changed to the Gregorian. 
8. Kuenzel, Heinrich. ( 1859) - Das Leeben und das Briefwechsel des Landgrafen George von Hessen- Darmstadt - Friedburg & London - P 512 
9. Montero, Francisco María. (1860 ) Historia de Gibraltar y de su Campo - Imprenta de la Revista Medica - Cadiz - P 284/285
10. Monti, Angel María, (1852)  - Historia de Gibraltar - Sevilla - P
11. Tubino, Francisco María. (1863)- Gibraltar ante la Historia - Sevilla - P84
12. Drinkwater, John. (1787) - A History of the late Siege of Gibraltar - Dublin - 3rd Ed - P15/16
13. Garratt, G.T. (1939) - Gibraltar and the Mediterranean - Coward-McCann, Inc, New York - P 47
14. Andrews, Alan. (1959) - Proud Fortress - E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc New York - P 44/45
15. Hills, George. (1974 ) - The Rock of Contention - R. Hale and Co. London - P187/188
16. Ellicott, Dorothy, (1975) - Our Gibraltar - Gibraltar Museum Committee - P17
17. Dennis, Philip. (1990 ) Gibraltar and its People - David and Charles, London P24 
18. Palao, George. (1977) - Our Forgotten Past - Gibraltar Chronicle Printing Works - P20
19. Francis, David. (1975) The First Peninsular War 1702-1713, E.Benn Ltd, London and Tonbridge - P 131
20. Jackson, Sir William G.F. (1987) - The Rock of the Gibraltarians - Gibraltar Books, Northants - P107
21. Harvey, Maurice.( 2000) - Gibraltar a History - Spellmount, Staplehurst -  - P71
22. Clinton Roy. ( 2011) - - The Goatherd's Path - Gibraltar Heritage Magazine - No.18 - P76
23. James, Thomas ( 1771) - The History of the Herculean Straits - Vol 2 - P 312/313
24. Annonymous - (1762 ) - Advantages to England from the Possession of Gibraltar - The Gentleman's Magazine- P 104
25. Captain Brome (1868)  - Transactions of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology - 3rd Session - London - P 134
26. La Gaceta de Madrid - (1704) - 18th Novemeber ; 210
27. Álvarez Vázquez, Manuel. (2003)- Noticias de la Perdida de Gibraltar en la 'Gazeta de Madrid' - Almoraima 29 - P 334
28. Hills, George. (1974 ) - The Rock of Contention - R. Hale and Co. London - P188 
29. Álvarez Vázquez, Manuel. (2003)- Noticias de la Perdida de Gibraltar en la 'Gazeta de Madrid' - Almoraima 29 - P 345
30. Luna, Jose Carlos de. (1944) Historia de Gibraltar - Graficas Ugina - 2P 342 and on
31. Álvarez Vázquez, Manuel. (2003)- Noticias de la Perdida de Gibraltar en la 'Gazeta de Madrid' - Almoraima 29 - P 346
32. López de Ayala, Ignacio. (1782) - Historia de Gibraltar -  Don Antonio de Sancha , Madrid - P 297/298
33. Ford, Richard ( 1855) - Handbook for Travellers - Part 1 - John Murray, London - P 278