The People of Gibraltar
1784 - Irresponsible Rascals

Eliott, Spilsbury and Drinkwater - Wilkie, Whaley and Leinster

Late eighteenth century German satirical print showing the Spaniards going home after the end of the Great Siege       
( unknown engraver )   LINK

For many years after the Great Siege Gibraltar remained what was essentially a bomb site. Drinkwater left us a vivid description of what the town looked like. The buildings, he wrote, ‘exhibited a most dreadful picture of the effects of so animated a bombardment. Scarce a house north of Grand parade was tenantable; all of them were deserted. Some few near South Port continued to be inhabited by soldiers’ families, but in general the floors and roofs were destroyed, and the bare shell only was left standing.’ Apart from its quickly repaired taverns, the rest remained uninhabitable for years. The damage caused by the cannons was just one part of it. All the houses had been stripped of timber to build the huts in the Black Town.

The Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned with its missing top was unused, almost in ruins and covered in debris. The authority’s offer of repairs in 1787 would come at a price. Some twenty years later when they were finally carried out, one third of the ground area of the Church was lost to a capricious grand design to straighten out Main Street. The Jews shook their heads in disbelief and wisely decided to repair the damage to their own synagogues by themselves. A visitor in 1792 was appalled to see that most of the houses were still in ruins.

View of Main Street looking south just after the end of the Great Siege. The Line Wall batteries on the right are unmanned.

To make matters worse the attitude of the British towards the civilian population continued to be both unhelpful and contemptuous. Garratt tells us that ‘it would be hard to exaggerate the irresponsible rascality of those Jews, Levantines, dissident Spaniards, Moors and Italians who found their way back to Gibraltar after the Great Siege.’ They had, he wrote, discovered ‘innumerable ways of making money’ as they continued ‘to occupy the cramped and shoddily-built town which had been so hastily erected on the ruins.’

View of Main Street looking south just after the end of the Great Siege. The Line Wall batteries on the right are unmanned.

Garratt offers no evidence for his comments, fails to mention the ‘irresponsible rascality’ of his own countrymen, and forgets to remind his readers that many inhabitants were forced to live in a derelict town because they had no other alternative. In fact the various census figures for this period suggests that a large number of the ‘inhabitants’ were people who were specifically employed by the authorities to carry out reconstruction work - and were then thrown out when no longer needed. It meant that the Rock ended up with a smaller population than before the Siege.

The main problem was that the decade following the war was one of general economic depression which made sure that life on the Rock would continue to be unpleasant for everybody and not just the locals. Soldiers continued to desert long after peace had been declared – ‘seven musicians sailed in a boat taking their instruments and music with them’. A boat’s crew knocked their officer on the head and took their leave. Insolence was the order of the day. Drunken fights were ending up with people in hospital with fractured skulls and the loss of eyes. Soldiers spent their spare time teasing animals and baiting other soldiers. A Corsican who had put up with more enough of persistent bullying stabbed his tormenter and ended up receiving 500 lashes for his pains ‘and then 300 more’.

Most of the blame actually lay with Elliot. The Governor had absentmindedly allowed so many of his officers to take their leave from the Rock that there weren’t enough of them to maintain even a modicum of restraint among the troops. Those that had stayed found it hard enough to discipline themselves.

Rare peacetime picture showing Eliott facing his chief engineer, William Green with a flamboyantly dressed soldier looking after his horse.

Elliot may have eventually been honoured and feted by his countrymen but as yet another military historian pointed out, ‘the nation showed little gratitude to the bulk of the soldiers and sailors’ that had saved Gibraltar. It would pay the consequences in the mutinies of Spithead and Nore.’

Elliot also seems to have gone out of his way to make life as difficult as possible for the locals. Many of his actions hindered rather than encouraged any sort of quick recovery and the joys of no longer being under siege were soon forgotten as he deluged them with a series of inexplicable regulations.

A hut belonging to an elderly barber was pulled down because he had been accused – erroneously it so happens – of selling some of the Government’s supply of iron. The poor man committed suicide rather than face what he thought would be an undeserved fate.

The Governor then insensitively demanded payment of all arrears in ground rent, most of it unpaid because the inhabitants had not been in Gibraltar during the Siege. Nor were many of those who had remained on the Rock in any position to pay up. To make matters worse in 1786 Elliot decided that importing tobacco into Gibraltar was a worthless activity because it was ‘a small proportion of British trade’ and that in any case it was ‘foreign not English tobacco that the Spaniards’ were keen on smuggling’.

He may have been correct as regards the ‘foreignness’ of the product but not so as regards the volume of trade. In effect he was blocking the one source of ‘export’ trade that might have speeded up the recovery. It also led him into a serious confrontation with several local merchants including a partnership known as John and George Ward.

Three Spanish smugglers look back at the source of their contraband. They may have been carriers but the people who making most of the profit lived on the Rock (Unknown)
When hostilities between Spain and Britain finally petered out the Governor issued orders for the huts and sheds of the Hardy Town to be levelled which meant that the locals had little option but to return to town. They were allowed to do so but only if they were able to confirm that they were bona fide residents, something that was never an easy thing to do in Gibraltar. Nor were they allowed to leave Gibraltar unless they could give details as to where they were going and for how long on pain of being expelled for good.

To make matters even worse, Elliot also forbad the inhabitant to make any lime, an important requirement for the repair of badly damaged stone houses. He also banned the employment of soldiers by civilians. The net result, as Spilsbury put it, was that ‘the town would not be rebuilt in a hurry.’ When they finally got round to it, ‘the greatest part’ of the place was rebuilt on the old foundations and according to the original Spanish plan, which according to Drinkwater, was ‘much to be regretted.’ 

View of the Rock from the south, drawn a decade or so after the end of the Siege. The huts of Hardy Town are no longer visible and the houses and military barracks south of Charles V wall all seem to have been properly repaired.  Not so the main town. The ruined facades are clearly visible in the distance on the far left of the picture (John Carr)

Garratt was probably right in at least one respect. His gut feelings about people who he perceived as foreigners probably reflected those of the British authorities at the time. The civilians, of course pressed in vain for some sort of compensation but not surprisingly nobody paid much attention.

There was also a big increase in the number of Spaniards as those who had decided to desert during the Siege were now free to wander around the town. As they had no possible means of supporting themselves the number of robberies and assaults increased dramatically. They were not the only ones to make a nuisance of themselves. Wine was plentiful again and the soldiers were perpetually drunk.

The stuff they drank was known as thunder and lightning, a mixture of a heavy Catalan drink called Blackstrap and a sweet white Malaga wine. The officers were just as bad. One captain employed a couple of privates for the specific purpose of collecting him at midnight from wherever he happened to be dining that night.

According to Allan Andrews the officers restricted their breakfasts to a little something and a cold punch to follow and then tried to get rid of their hangovers with a ‘spot of rackets’ until midday. Then it was some watered down Madeira to keep them going until dinner. This was, as Lieutenant-Colonel Wilkie noted ‘the most lucid period of the twenty-four hours’ for everybody in the Garrison. Incredibly, officers on guard duty often had their beds carried to their posts.

Quartermaster Taylor. This gentleman was one of the officers who served under General Elliot. Later while back home in Edinburgh ‘his extreme corpulence rendered him very conspicuous, and induced a certain Mr. Kay to make him the subject of the present etching’.

All of them, officers and men still seemed to bear a grudge against the Jews, a throwback from the days when they had been accused of hoarding and profiteering. When they were not quarrelling with them they quarrelled among themselves. As someone ironically commented at the time, ‘a fine scene of drunkenness and fighting etc is going forward.’

Court-martials for rioting were a commonplace but the Governor seemed loath to punish anybody despite the stiff sentences being imposed by the courts. He tended to forgive them after having ‘made them a very pathetick speech.’ Some of the soldiers’ wives also felt a general sense of freedom and good will after the war. More than one was caught in bed with men who were not their husbands often with serious consequence for the wife, her spouse and the adulterer.

The slow return to Gibraltar of those British Protestant inhabitants who had fled before the Siege had little effect on the overall climate of lawlessness. The celebration on the first St. George’s day after the end of the war, were a complete fiasco. According to Spilsbury who recorded this event in great detail and with undisguised glee the whole thing started with an endless gun salute answered by rounds of fire from the troops. Endless in the sense that both the guns and the soldiers were in such poor shape that it proved impossible to complete the cannonade. ‘Never’ it was said, ‘was a worse salute performed by the Artillery.’

The celebrations then moved to the Convent where field officers and other staff were invited to ‘a bottle of wine and a pound of beef each gratis’ so that the ‘Captains and subalterns are the only ones not taken notice of on this day’s entertainment.’

At dusk the lamps were lit to illuminate the colonnades but they were soon blown out by the wind. As the place surrounding the Convent became dark and deserted with no music to liven things up there was little joy to the celebrations and the few people present moved away towards the south to watch a scheduled firework display. This had been organised for the evening but ‘it rained at times very hard and of course did them no service.’ In any case the fireworks were ‘too much of a sameness’ to have been any good.

The rain then leaked through the canvas that had been set up in the Convent gardens for the benefit of those guests who had stayed behind while those that had gone off to the south to watch the spectacle found the town gates shut when they tried to return home. Getting wet with the rain they gathered in front of the gates and pressed for them to be opened. ‘Some lives’ it was said, ‘were in danger of being lost’ when the guards – who were probably drunk -threatened to open fire on them.

Captain John Spilsbury incidentally is one of the least quoted of all those who kept diaries during the Great Siege and for a very good reason; his notes were not published until 1908. The original hand written text was donated to the Gibraltar Garrison Library where it was subsequently edited and published by the librarian. 

Curiously Captain John Drinkwater’s own well known and endlessly quoted version was printed by one T. Spilsbury of London. This has led to the conjecture that the two captains may have come to some arrangement as some of the statistical figures on both diaries are remarkably similar. All of which is rather a shame as Spilsbury, unlike everybody else, continued to be as unenamoured of Elliot after the war as during it. A refreshing tone of mockery permeates his account.

In any case it wasn’t just Spilsbury who was fed up. Many another officer seems to have had enough of post Siege conditions in general and of Eliott in particular. ‘Several Captains have taken great pains to get home and sell out, but have been refused.’ Captain Billinge, we are told, was not allowed to ‘get leave either to sell out or go home but is kept to die here; what quintessence of humanity!’

A satirical print dated 1790 suggesting that Baron Heathfield was quite unfit to be Governor of Gibraltar           ( S.W. Forbes )   LINK

Elliot’s financial dealings were also having an effect on his officers’ pockets. ‘It appears the Governor takes all the inhabitants money at 38p per dollar so that we can never get it at less than 39; what management for us.’ Not only that, but during a period in which fresh beef had become easily available, Elliot made sure that his principal officers kept the lion’s share with very little to spare for anybody else.

When Spilsbury’s colleagues put on a couple of plays called Cross Purposes and True Blue at the theatre in Calle Comedia, the Governor apparently disapproved of the content and put an end to it. In fact the regiments that arrived in 1782, just after the failure of the floating batteries and just prior to the end of the Siege were thoroughly disenchanted by Elliot’s discipline. The Governor had tried rather ineffectually to keep them busy repairing the damaged town as well as salvaging some of the ships which had sunk in the bay during the war. Their reluctance to take part in the later activity is hardly surprising. For approximately every penny of prize money given to the common soldier, the Governor and his senior officers received over a thousand.

Looking up Calle Comedia from Gunner's Parade in 1833 (Frederick Leeds Edridge)

In 1788 Thomas 'Buck' Whaley - Irish aristocrat, politician, gambler and traveller - visited Gibraltar on his way to Jerusalem. He had recently made a bet worth £15 000 with the Duke of Leinster and his friends , that he would be able to travel to Jerusalem and back within two years. That would be nearly two million pounds in today's money.

Despite the devastation that he found on the Rock - the storehouses and barracks destroyed in the lower part of the town had not yet been rebuilt since the siege - he seems to have been much taken with Gibraltar and its exotic inhabitants. To him 'all was masquerade' as he heard the 'odd and confused noise resulting from a dozen different languages spoken at once. Jews of all nations, Moors, Turks, and Christians were indiscriminately mixed together, each having a different dress, countenance, and religion.'
His journey up the Rock towards St. George's Hall revealed a different story; there were apple geraniums growing everywhere and the 'place was ornamented with neat cottages built by officers' as well as 'many gardens formed and cultivated with vast labour and expense, the produce of which every proprietor sends to the common market.'

Gibraltar in 1783. The place is probably Gunner's Parade and that barrel may have been full of Blackstrap ( Unknown )

That the officers had quickly made sure that they at any rate were not going to suffer the deprivations of a derelict town is understandable. That the locals were still making a killing out of their gardens need further explanation. The problem was that for various reasons and the lack of bribes may have been one of them, relations with Morocco had deteriorated once the Siege had ended and the Pasha was refusing to supply the Rock with its usual provisions. It meant that the cost of food in Gibraltar - 5 years after the end of the siege was just as high as it had been during it. It was a good time to be a Genoese gardener.

As was the custom with distinguished visitors, Whaley , who knew Eliott personally , was invited by the Governor to a party in the Convent. His record of this event is strangely at odds with what one would imagine a party at Convent to be like. Whaley tells us that he was introduced to a very beautiful sixteen year-old Spanish girl, who, apparently 'did not dislike the fandango' - whatever that might mean. Also one of the musicians, who was introduced to him as her uncle, was a 'fat friar of the Franciscan order, and so much of the bon-vivant as to have been excommunicated by the Pope'. He was probably, hints Whaley, the young girl's father.

 Thomas Whaley as a very young man

Generally he found 'very little society at Gibraltar, but he was struck by the 'perfect harmony' which 'subsisted between the Garrison and its few inhabitant.' An incomprehensible comment as relations between the British and the the local residents could not have been worse. He was probably referring to the relationship between the Military and the few British civilians living there at the time. He left the Rock with regret. He had been more taken by the hospitality he had experienced than impressed by the fame that the place had acquired through its memorable defence.

Whaley continued on his way to Jerusalem and then returned to Dublin within the two year time limit. He claimed his bet and Leinster paid up.