The People of Gibraltar
1855 - Richard Ford - A Cloacal Nuisance

Messias, Benoliel and Caballeros - Rowswell and Bartolots
Sir Robert William Gardiner - General Don and Lady Don

Richard Ford, was born in London and was educated at Winchester and at Trinity College. In 1830 aged 34 he sailed for southern Spain hoping that the climate might improve his wife's health. They spent three winters in Seville and the intervening summers in Granada.

It was during this period that he obtained much of the information that he used to write the book that made him famous - A Handbook for Travellers in Spain. Published in 1845 Ford was immediately hailed by most critics as the author of the best account of Spain ever to have been written.

Gibraltar from the road to San Roque  ( Percy Justine )

According to the author of his obituary 'So great a literary achievement had never before been performed under so unpretending an appellation’. Not content with such fulsome praise, he continued with more. The book, he wrote, ‘took its place among the best books of travel, humour, history . . . politics and art, in the English language’

The book went through various editions but after the third the Handbook was emasculated to such an extent that somebody compared it to 'Niagara passed through a jelly-bag.' According to these same critics, the influence of Ford's masterpiece - which was reprinted in 1966 - has been profound.

My own personal opinion after having read several sections on Spain and all of those referring to Gibraltar is that the success of the book depends on whether readers will interpret much of what he writes as some sort of ironic comment on the human condition - or whether they will take it at face value.

If the later, then for my taste - and even taking into account the cultural milieu in which he found himself at the time - some of his comments border not just on the chauvinistic and racist but on the downright unpleasant. But perhaps readers can judge from themselves after a quick browse through my synopsis below which, of course, deals solely with his section on Gibraltar.

 1830s Richard Ford dessed for  Spain

Ford's opening gambit is to compare Gibraltar with Spain. Any tourist crossing the frontier between the two is immediately struck by the monumental contrast between one side and the other and invariably provokes 'the most odious comparisons.'

On the one side are the 'semi-moor natives' who seem unable to appreciate the disgraceful differences between themselves and the British. On the other,
the order, preparation, organisation, discipline, wealth, honour, and power of the United Kingdom - of Britannia, the Pallas of armed wisdom of Europe. 
The town of 'the Lines' - La Línea - is itself described as a series of hovels, the 'lairs of hungry bribe-taking Spanish officials'.

Contemporary postcard showing the 'frontier' between Spain and Gibraltar

People entering Gibraltar were required to get somebody living in the Rock to offer security - in the form of hard cash - for their best behaviour during their stay on the Rock. If such was indeed obtainable then permits for up to 20 days were issued by police magistrates.

Military Officers stationed in Gibraltar, however, had the privilege of being able to introduce strangers for 30 days. With 'characteristic gallantry' they generally exercised this perk in order to allow Spanish lady friends to enter the Rock.

As the Handbook is fundamentally a travel guide, Ford gives his readers some advice on where to stay. The Club-House Hotel (see LINK) is good and reasonable' with cool, large and airy rooms - but suggests that the wary traveller should agree terms beforehand.

The Club House Hotel in Commercial Square 

He recommends the table 'hote at Griffith's Hotel, a place that also boasts a certain Messias who is touted as the best local guide. Other recommendations are Fonda de Europa also known as known as Domoulin's French Hotel - which is cheap and airy and Parker's Hotel in Calle Real or Main Street which is even cheaper.

Main Street and Griffiths' Hotel  ( mid 19th century - Unknown )

In a section on the various type of currency used as legal tender on the Rock he two sets of Gibraltar merchants are mentioned. They were obviously financiers of some standing as it was from them that he advised visitors to obtain any letters of credit they might need. One was Mr. S. Benoliel (see LINK) and the other Mr. Cavalleros. Both were in business with other financiers with English names.

The Garrison Library, (see LINK) he liked - especially the splendid views from the windows. He mentions a stock of some 20 000 volumes of which he recommends Drinkwater's History of the Siege (see LINK) and Ayala's 'excellent' Historia de Gibraltar. (see LINK) Colonel James History of the Herculean Straits he considers 'a mess of dull matter handled in an uncritical manner' (see LINK) and Mr Urquhart's Pillar of Hercules he considers to be the 'Ne plus ultra of nonsense' - an opinion that I find hard to disagree with.

The Public Exchange - by which he probably means the Exchange and Commercial Library - (see LINK) is described as a mean building with a bust of General Don. George Rowswell and Bartolots are offered as the best booksellers on the Rock - which is not altogether surprising as the first was the local publisher of the Handbook and both presumably sold it.

Commercial Square with the Exchange and Commercial Library on the right ( 1903 - V.B. Cumbo )    (See LINK)

The population he suggests is anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 exclusive of the military but in daytime the place looked more peopled than it really was because of the number of sailors on shore leave and the large numbers of visiting Spaniards who would be in Gibraltar for the day and would return home just before the evening gun was fired.

For these non-residents Ford offers a quote from Wellington - 'The only way to get them to do anything on any subject is to frighten them.' It was, explained Ford, the only way to get round their 'enredos y embustes.' 'Nothing can ever be done without coming to extremities with them.' All good news for the wary traveller as even Spanish robbers were 'shy of attacking Englishmen' as they had a 'wholesome fear' of the strength of their gunpowder and their disposition to fight back.

Even in his historical snippets Ford finds it impossible not to take a swipe at the Spanish character. Castaños the Governor of Algeciras and hero of the Battle of Bailen during the Peninsular Wars (see LINK) - he was the first to inflict a defeat on one of Napoleon's invincible army - had greatness thrust upon him. The only reason he won was because of the sums he obtained from 'English' merchants in Gibraltar and because his opposite number, General Dupont, was indisposed.

Stereotypically he nevertheless classified the red-sashed Rhonda smuggler as one of the most picturesque people on the Rock. He is also considered to be a fine fellow - a cigar and a bota of wine will open his heart . . and, of course, 'he likes and trusts an Englishman.' Ronda must have proved a pleasant place as at the time just about everybody living there was either a contrabandista or his wife and children.

 Contrabandista from Ronda ( 1856 Richard Ansdell)  (See LINK

Generally he finds the differences in costumes found in Gibraltar curious - 'a motley masquerade', a halfway house between Europe Asia and Africa where every man appears in his own dress and speaks his own language.
A black date-merchant from the borders of the deserts of Timbuktu’ sits next to a newly arrived cockney reading a Guide to Gibraltar each staring at and despising his nondescript neighbour.
'Civilization and barbarism clash here indeed' - Civilization being whatever the British brought with them, barbarism being the culture of everybody else's. In Ford's opinion the monkeys were 'the oldest and wisest denizens of the Rock.'

He also disapproved of both the outward architectural design of the houses - which he considered to be built on the ‘stuffy Wapping principle with a Genoese exterior’ - and their interiors which he claimed were filled by their occupiers 'with curtains and carpets, on purpose to breed vermin and fever.' They were fit only for 'salamanders and scorpions'.

 The town looking north - built on the ‘stuffy Wapping principle  (1850s - Francis Frith)   (see LINK

Nelson, who is supposed to have had a soft spot for Gibraltar, once wrote in dispatches that he had often hoped that the small houses at the back of the town would all burn to the ground, and that ‘perhaps if half the town went with them it would be even better’.

The convent - or more specifically General Don's wife's garden - were grudgingly admired as were the Alameda Gardens although this latter is criticised for its decorations which were 'more military than artistic'. He also chose to remind his readers what the place had once been like had before General Don's initiative in 1815 - ‘Red Sands, a burning desert and a cloacal nuisance’ - an oblique reference to the fact that the water that supplied the whole town had once travelled through what was once the local cemetery.

Sir Robert William Gardiner, Governor of Gibraltar at the time when the Handbook was published. (See LINK)  By the 1850s General Don and his wife (see LINK) had long since disappeared from Gibraltar  

The Catholic Cathedral on the other hand had no redeeming features either present or past. It was, he wrote, both ‘poor and paltry’, and its priests prone to hypocritical or ostentatious ceremonies - 'mummeries' best vied in candlelight.' The usually much vaunted religious tolerance found in Gibraltar where Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Moslems lived side by side without any noticeable distaste for each other was simply a question of 'indifference' - or so he suggests.

The Jews were selected for special treatment. Their synagogue was noisy and there were no women in them as the Rabbis were of the opinion that they had no souls. Nor did they pray for them - instead they offered thanks to the Lord that they were not women themselves.

Of all the multiple cultures on the Rock he identified the Jews as the dirtiest and he is convinced that the yellow fever outbreaks (see LINK) which had occurred more than once in the recent past, were both endemic and 'nurtured on Hebrew filth fed by want of circulation of the air and by offensive sewers at low tide.’

Elsewhere he mentions that in Spain they were known as 'putos and that an unsavoury odour seems to be a characteristic of 'the Hebrew' - if not more so than in 'the orthodox Spanish monk.'

And yet for all its negatives Gibraltar has one great advantage; no customs houses, no searching of luggage and almost everything was free to be imported or exported. Nevertheless the guide is dismissive of the benefits to Gibraltar of Queen Anne’s ‘Free Port’ decree. (see LINK) The end result was that Gibraltar had essentially become a refuge for 'destitute scamps' and those who have ‘expatriated themselves for their own countries good': a place where revolutions were plotted against Spain and where her revenue was defrauded by cigar- makers who interfered with just about the only active manufacture in that country.

Nor did the law in Gibraltar escape his scathing disapproval; it was administered in accordance to that of England which meant that on the Rock rules which were written for the protection of the innocent were routinely used as escape routes by Gibraltar’s worst offenders.

A system of law designed over centuries for the benefit of a free and intelligent people simply did not work in a foreign Garrison with a ‘mongrel, motley, dangerous population, bred and born in despotism or under . . . the 'bowstring of the Kaid', or the ‘cuatro tiros’ of the Spaniards.

When the Spanish authorities noticed the gross violations of international law going on all the time in Gibraltar they refused to believe that the English could do nothing to stop it. As they didn’t believe the English to be stupid they were reduced to believing them to be liars.

George I once said that Gibraltar was a ‘barren rock, an insignificant fort and a useless charge,' and on the whole Ford tended to agree with him. ’Gibraltar was soon seen' and nowhere did a tourist get bored sooner - and it was not much better for the residents. For them it was both expensive and dull unless they happened to be either rich merchant or officers in the British army. There was no literature and no art - other than that of making money and firing guns.

On the whole it is hard to tell whom he disliked most - the Gibraltarians or the Spaniards. But the Handbook does prove the maxim that it possible to like a place yet detest the people who live in it. Undoubtedly there is much useful information for the traveller which for obvious reasons I have not included here. But it does seem a pity that Ford decided to use the faithful ploy of the theatre critic; an insultingly bad review will always prove funnier and more readable than a kind one.

The North Front   (1850s -Francis Frith)

For direct quotes from the Handbook (see LINK