The People of Gibraltar
1887 - John Augustus O’Shea - Salivating Loons

Known as The Irish Bohemian, John Augustus O’Shea was born in County Tipperary, son of a journalist. He followed in his father's footsteps and became Paris correspondent for the Irishman and later worked both for the New York Daily News and the London Daily Standard. Among other works he wrote three novels and his personal travelling experiences were published under the title of Romantic Spain in 1887. Gibraltar is extensively covered in the second of the two volumes. His introduction to the Rock is - to say the least - somewhat 'Irish'. Here it is.

Where I went to school we had a droll lad, whose humour developed itself in mispronunciation. Hugh used to call Sierra Leone, 'Sarah Alone' . . . Stromboli, 'Storm Boiler'; and Gibraltar, 'Gabriel Tar'. . . . And here I was at Gabriel Tar.

British Spain is small, . . . but it is mighty strong. The population, comprising the garrison, is less than fifteen thousand; but behind that slender cipher of souls are the millions of the broadest and biggest of empires . . . Gibraltar is but a huge garrison. In the moat by the gate . . a big drummer and a tiny manikin-soldier with cymbals were practicing how to lead off a marching-past tune. 

Gordon Highlanders - There were several Scottish regiments stationed in Gibraltar during O'Shea's stay on the Rock ( National Gallery of Scotland )

The Plazas and Calles of Spain have been parted with. The names of streets, hostelries, and stores are English. Instead of tiendes and almacenes and fondas, you have any repositories, regimental shoe-shops, and porter-houses. There, for example is the celebrated Cock and Bottle. and further on the Calf's Head Hotel'. If you traverse Cathedral Square, no larger than an ordinary-sized skittle-alley, you arrive at Sunnyside Steps to the Europa Pass. Notices are posted by the roadside cautioning against plucking flowers or treading on the beds under pain of prosecution.

But the bazaar bewilders you with its alien figures, its confusion of tongues, and its eccentric contrasts of dress. In five minutes you meet Spanish officers; nuns in broad-leaved whit bonnets; a bearded sergeant nursing a baby; bare-legged, sun-burnished Moors; pink-and-white cheeked ladies'-maids from Kent; local mashers in such outrageously garish tweeds; stiff brass-buttoned turnkeys; Jews in skull-cap and Moslems in fez; while you are lost in admiration of a burly negro, turbaned and in grass-green robe, with a face black and shiny as a newly-polished stove, you are hustled by a sailor on cordial terms with himself who is vigorously attempting to whistle 'Garry Owen'.

But above and before all, the sights and sounds are military. Sappers and linesmen and artillerists pullate at every corner; fatigue-parties are confronted at every turn; the bayonet of the sentry flashes in every angle of the fortress . . . . 

Military Parade in North front ( 1897 - Unknown )

Every tavern looks like a canteen; the gossip is of things martial; the music is that of the reveille or tattoo - the blare of brass, the rub-a-dob of parchment, or the shrill sound-revel of Highland pipes . . . . The ladies one meets all have husbands, or fathers, or uncles in the Service; even the children - those of English parents well understood - keep step as they walk . . . . Gibraltar is the wrong place to bring out a young lady . . .

This is highly gratifying in the civilian sojourning the place; for he insensibly succumbs to the genius loci . . . and feels that if he is not an officer he ought to be.

O'Shea's comment on the overwhelming military feel of the Rock was almost certainly a very valid one - in fact I would say that it remained that way until nearly the end of the twentieth century.

As regards drinking houses, any visitor in the nineteenth century asking a local to recommend a good pub would likely as not be directed to the Coquenbotelie. This, of course, was local patois - or Llanito - for the celebrated Cock and Bottle mentioned by O'Shea. Elsewhere he mentions the Fortunes of War tavern and the Horse-Barrack Lane pub. A reference to saccone sherry refers to a local company, Saconne and Speed who were important local importers of beers, wines and spirits.

He also apparently demonstrates that it is possible for a visitor to describe the variety of alien looking people found on the Rock without actually insulting any of them. Unfortunately his subsequent offerings are not quite as pleasing;

The people of Gibraltar
Poor British subaltern! . . . He is sheep and bears his fleecing without a kick. Watch those lazy, lounging, able-bodied, smoking, and salivating loons who prop up every street corner and monopolize the narrow pathways - these all live by him; they eat up his substance, and fatten thereupon. These are the touting and speculating sons of the rock, the veritable Scorpions . . . .

The first words these loons pronounce must be baksheesh,. They are born to beggary in their mouths . . . . There he is below, of every type, lolling outside the hotel-door that looks on that Commercial Square which is so thorough a barrack-square. . . .

Contemporary photo of Commercial Square not looking particularly barrack -like ( Postcard by local photographers, Cumbo and Montegriffo )

Gib is a haunt of the Hebrews; they or their myrmidons beset the subaltern at genial hours, after luncheon or after mess, pester him with vamped-up knick-knacks for sale . . . The 'cap'n' who may have left Sandhurst but six months, may be weakly good-natured, and ignore the fact that his income is not elastic; some day that he thinks of taking a run to England Ben Solomon, who seems to be able to read the books in the Adjutant-General's Office through the walls, pounces upon him with his little bill, and he is arrested if he cannot satisfy his Jewish benefactor.

Loans are advanced at a high rate 'per shent' by the harpies . . . The plain truth is, Gibraltar is a den of thieves, and has been the burial-pit of many a promising young fellows hopes. There are two tariffs for everything - one for natives, the other for British subalterns and the British tourist . . . .

Except the enterprising gentry who devote themselves to cheating the Spanish excise by smuggling cigars and English goods across the border, the Scorpions live by and on the garrison . . . . There is a tolerable infusion of English blood among the Scorpions, but hardly of the healthiest or most respectable.

Uncritically blaming the tempter for pandering to weaknesses of the tempted is probably a result of O'Shea's Catholic upbringing and the role of the devil in leading us all - so unwillingly - to damnation. Unfortunately the ploy of non-British people lending money to the British - and not just to junior officers but to the very highest echelons of the army - was already in place by the beginning of the eighteenth century. It was not so much a method of making easy money as a form of self defence.

The 'infusion of English blood' is a reference to those soldiers who married local girls and chose to retire on the Rock. That he considered these poor fellows to be neither healthy nor respectable was an expression of the class consciousness of the era - O'Shea himself was probably considered as beyond the pale by certain members of the Garrison - some of which he also gives a gentle going over.

The Garrison
But we have other specimens of the genus officer . . . so busy killing time. The lean bronzed aristocratic major whose temper long years in India have not soured; the squat pursy paymaster . . . the raw-boned young surgeon with the Aberdeen accent; the 'ranker' erect and grizzled, and looking ever so little not quite at his ease, you know, for the languid lad with fawn coloured moustache straddling the chair beside him is an honourable; the jovial portly Yorkshireman, who is in the Highland Light Infantry, naturally; and the lively loud-voiced Irishman, laughing at his own jokes, - all are here . . .

He does not gamble or curse like his Spanish confrere; his passions are not deep, nor is he quick to quarrel. Then let him race at the Neutral Ground; let him hunt with the Calpe pack; and let him back his fancy for the big event at Epsom. These are his chief excitements at Gib . . .

An Adjutant of the 83rd Foot, Gibraltar (Unknown )

Stereotypical fellow following stereotypical activities - all harmless good natured fun - unlike his comments on the locals and those Spanish confreres. No doubt Gibraltar was not the most exciting of postings but it did have its moments - the Calpe Hunt for one, a decent salary, plenty of servants and the possibility of getting away home on holiday for others. Elsewhere in the same chapter he somewhat contradicts himself as regards Gibraltar's lack of charm - at least for the well off military man;

What an officer can do in Gibraltar
There are racing and chasing at the station, and theatrical balls . . . and most of the men were going to Cadiz by special boat next day, en route for the Jerez races, which are the best . . . meeting in Spain . . . The meets have to come off, naturally, outside the frontier of British Spain. The Sport is pretty good . . . the riding hard and the horses invariably Spanish. There is a Spanish lyrical and theatrical troop in the town . .

The Rock (1890s H. Brabazon Brabazon )

Occasionally charity concerts are given by amateurs, and plays are even performed in Lent. Champagne of the Fizzers, has won a reputation by his success on the boards when he dons the habiliments of lovely woman beyond a certain age.

At this particular time . . . this fortified fragment of Empire is dull; but usually it is gay . . . the officer quartered here . . . can make maps and surveys of the Neutral Ground, and watch the guard mounting on the Alameda, or read an account of the siege in Drinkwater's days; and when he tires of the green cloth and its distractions . . . . he can throw a sail to the breeze in the unequalled |Bay, or take a flying trip to Tarifa to sketch the beautiful from the living model, or go to Ceuta to see the Spanish galley-slaves . . . or steam to Tangier to riot in Nature and a day's pig-sticking.

The problem really was that O'Shea himself - like many a tourist before and after - had quickly tired and become bored with Gibraltar.

Boring Gibraltar
One wearies of the same scenes of beauty, and would fain barter the Cork Woods for the chestnuts in Bushy Park, the bright Bay and the wachet sky pall on the senses, and a dull river and drab clouds would be welcomed for change.

The day rises when the conversation with the same set, the stories repeated often . . . the fiction palmed upon the latest novice that he must go and have a few shots at the monkeys if he wishes to curry favour at headquarters, misses fire; the calls of the P and O steamers, and the thoughts that their passengers within a week . . . will see the little village works its effect; even bull-fighting is a bore and one sighs for Regent Street . . .

Local ladies, the frontier and a Bull-fight in Spain ( 1888 - The Illustrated London News )

John Augustus O'Shea's section on Gibraltar is rather unsatisfactory; it is full of jargon and obscure references to people, places and events which have nothing to do with Gibraltar and are almost impossible to understand by a modern Gibraltarian - much less by a casual outsider.

His self-consciously semi-ironic style of writing is probably a result of his many years of journalism and sounds contrived and tiresome to the modern ear. His observations offer little that is new and much that is based on his own peculiar prejudices. For him, Romantic Spain came to an abrupt end at North Front.

Lovers Walk in the Alameda Gardens - perhaps the antithesis of O'shea's view of Gibraltar ( 1865 - Gustave de Jonge )