The People of Gibraltar
1848 - Thomas Debary - Indolent Natives

Hughes, Thompson and Rule

Thomas Debary was a clergyman and a staunch member of the Church of England with a strong belief in its 'apostolic commission'. He had very little sympathy for those who wished it to be merged with the Church of Rome. He was in fact of the opinion that the Papal empire was on its way out and his writings generally reflect these views very clearly.

The front cover of a Spanish translation of Thomas Debary's book. The picture is probably a Spanish artist's idea of what he thought a Wesleyan priest should look like. It almost certainly bears little resemblance to the real Debary

In 1848 he was recommended by his medical advisor to spend the winter abroad for the sake of his health and he took himself to Madeira and then to the Canary Islands. The following winter was spent in Cadiz visiting various other towns in Spain.

Shortly after his return to Britain he published his Notes of a Resident in the Canary Islands one of the first ever to be written in English about the place. It contains a chapter on his thoughts on Gibraltar, a place that he had actually visited once before.

His introduction to the Rock is relatively unoriginal; the first thing that attracted his attention were the 'strings of Jews with black caps and loose frocks; turbaned Turks, Moors, merchants, contrabandists, majos' - all of whom amused the eye. In stark contrast were the 'fife and drum' and the 'neat, clean, most invincible ' aspect' of the red-coats.

Sailors of every hue - from admirals to able seamen and skippers of smuggling faluccas - filled the wharfs and streets and - more interestingly from Debary's point of view - the 'creeds of this chequered population' seemed as numerous as the types of the people on the Rock.

When Gibraltar was originally taken by Ferdinand and Isabella there were three religions - Roman Catholic, Mohammedan and Jewish. Since then the British had added Protestant Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Wesleyan.

This rather innocuous, not to say complimentary, introduction to Gibraltar is effortlessly ruined as he is sets about describing various local beauty spots with inevitably contemptuous references to the local population. The wonderful Alameda Gardens - 'would that the indolent natives' learn what paradise a little care and industry would furnish them with': Europa Point - nothing of interest here other than the Hebrew inscriptions in the burial ground of those 'despicable Jews': Rosia Bay - a vicinity with a Roman Catholic chapel of ease and a Wesleyan school-room.

Generally Debary was disheartened by the state of religion on the Rock. The fault, he claimed, lay with the English who after 1704 - and even after the Great Siege - had allowed ' a heterogeneous population composed of all manner of indifferent characters' to drain back into Gibraltar.

Given a population of about 20 000 people, it was upsetting that less than 2000 of these were Protestants. In fact the Catholics had managed to install a bishopric on the Rock by appointing Dr. Henry Hughes as Vicar Apostolic and Titular Bishop of Heliopolis. The 'real Bishop of Gibraltar', Dr. Tomlinson was not appointed until 1842, less than a decade before Debary's arrival.

Dr. Henry Hughes, Bishop of Gibraltar

Dr. Hughes he dismissed as 'a man with Irish papistic zeal, somewhat inflamed by the AndalucĂ­an sun.' The Wesleyans - whom he seems to have held almost in equal contempt as the Catholics - is also given the once over. Their chapel - known locally as 'La mision protestante' - he found 'repulsive- looking'.

The Reverend William Harris Rule, the proselytising Methodist preacher who had also visited Gibraltar in the mid 19th Century he described bitingly as 'a little firebrand, saturated with sectarian bigotry, and puffed up with his knowledge of the Spanish'.

The Reverend William Harris Rule. The photograph was taken in the 1860s

His visit to the South of Gibraltar allowed him to compare the two schools he found there, one managed by the Catholics the other by the Methodists. The first was run by an Irishman ' with a much less open hand than the Wesleyan.' There were sixty five children only one of them of English parents - one too many according to Debary.

The Methodist school-room on the other-hand was large, airy and clean and by far the nicest in Gibraltar. All told, together with other schools on the Rock they taught upwards of three hundred 'scholars' - game set and match to the Methodists.

On a less spiritual level Debary experienced one of those ferocious storms that Gibraltar is prone to every so often over the years. The Alameda was converted into a wilderness with some of its finest trees uprooted. Apparently he had a good view of the effects of the gale from the window of a his room which overlooked the Bay. From one or two of his comments it seems he had taken up lodgings with a local Presbyterian preacher - 'an eloquent man, and so popular that he emptied the Wesleyan Chapel.'

Still on a strongly critical mode he compares the two cathedrals of Gibraltar which were found close to his lodgings - the Roman Catholic one had a tower and 'its bells were ringing'

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned in the early 20th century

'But not a note of calling to prayers' from the 'uninteresting edifice' called the English Cathedral. Built in the Moorish style one can only agree with his comment - it is still not very easy to say why it should have been. Architecturally, he insists, the church can be considered a failure. Curiously most of the children attending the school attached to the Cathedral were Spanish - which one would imaging he meant they were children of local residents.

The Protestant Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in all its Moorish splendour taken in the 1900s.

Debary also makes another observation. Gibraltar, he insists, is said to be a favourite garrison with the military and proceeds to give the reasons why. The climate is healthy and pleasant, the scenery picturesque, the Garrison Library excellent, the nearby corkwoods - a favourite for picnics and hunting, an 'exquisite' place.

Debary went on one of these expeditions himself. Tethering his horse close to an old convent he was tended to by a local priest and was appalled by the fact that the good padre actually cooked and served his party some bacon and eggs. By his reckoning it exemplified 'the degraded state into which the Spanish Church had been brought.'

The convent at the cork-woods near San Roque.

Whether the rank and file of the Garrison were just as enamoured with the place as their officers he gave no inkling.

A few days later he left the Rock for good on one of the many boats that ran periodically between Gibraltar and Tangier, in this case the Spanish 'correo' or Consular falucca. On board he was accompanied by hundreds of poultry-baskets and a human cargo made up mainly of Moors and Jews. He gave the latter a parting shot by suggesting that they might sometimes look 'sagacious and chastened' but more often than not they will appear ' cunning and obsequious.'

Thomas Debary was typical of so many visitors of the era - anti-catholic, anti-Jewish, indeed anti anything that was not traditionally British. His religious obsessions and prejudices form part of the baggage of the era. In fact the only more or less interesting observation in the whole article is his keen awareness of his countrymen's huge mistake. They never managed to populate the Rock with the kind of people he would so dearly have loved to admire.