The People of Gibraltar
1737 - George Whitfield - O Drunkenness!

George Whitefield was one of the most popular preachers of the eighteenth centurty. He was born in Gloucester in 1714 and studied at Pembroke College, Oxford in 1731. It was there that became acquainted with the Methodist teachings of John and Charles Wesley. Shortly after leaving university in 1737, he travelled to Georgia - via Gibraltar - to help the Wesleys with their missionary work.

George Whitfield

An autobiography recording his experiences - Journal of a Voyage from Gibraltar to Savannah in Georgia - was published in 1740. Understandably the book deals mostly with religious matters but the various comments on Gibraltar are worth reading. The following is a selection of some of his more pertinent observations on the Rock and its residents.

About ten in the morning comes Capt. M on board, telling me that one major S . . . had provided me a convenient lodging at one merchant B's and desired that I would come on shore. . . .
About the middle of the town major S gave us meeting, conducted us to our new lodgings ( which were very commodious ) and engaged us to dine with him and Capt. M . . .
About eleven was introduced by doctor C to General C who was desirous of meeting me . . . and after a little serious conversation, we went to Governor S's . . . Doctor C told me that he had not known Governor S absent himself from prayers once these several years . . .
Dined with friend H at Governor S's. . . . Dined and supped at Mr. A's, chief civil magistrate in Gibraltar and was entertained with uncommon love and affection. . . We supped at B's of the victualling office. . . .

The Governor in question was General Joseph Sabine yet another of a long line of corrupt administrators of the Rock. His religious fanaticism was probably the result of his strongly held beliefs in the supernatural. It was said that as he lay awake one night in his bed, dangerously ill of his wounds after a battle, he noticed the curtains by his bed drawn back and was amazed to see the figure of his beloved wife, who was back home in England at the time, standing there before him. A few weeks afterwards he received ‘the melancholy news that his beloved consort was dead.’

General Joseph Sabine (1711 - Godfrey Kneller)

Mr. A is unknown but his main remit - as instructed by Sabine - was to ensure that all complaints between civilians and locals should always be resolved in favour of the soldiers. As long as the civilian population was synonymous with Genoese, Spaniard and Jew the system seems to have worked. On the whole nobody ever complained. They knew that if they did they would be kicked out of town and if they happened to be householders they could easily be dispossessed. It was even worse for aliens. They were thrown into the dungeon, flogged and then thrown out of town. As for Jews they were usually exiled to Tetuan where the ‘chances were pretty high that they would be hanged’.

Major S must have been the town major to which all travellers had to present themselves to explain their business. Generally this passage suggests that it was probably a very good idea to have decent letters of introduction when visiting Gibraltar in the early eighteenth century.

Went in the afternoon to see the Jewish synagogue and was surprised to see one of the head of them come from the further end and put me into one of their chief seats. But afterwards he told me he had heard my sermon yesterday against swearing and thanked me for it. Not unto me, not unto me, 0 Lord! but unto thy name, be all the thanks and glory . . . .

After morning exposition in the church, went and saw the Roman Catholics at High mass; and shall only make this remark - That there needs no other argument against Popery than to see the pageantry, superstition and idolatry of their worship. . . .

Went into a Romish chapel, wherein were the relics of a vast deal of pageantry, and several images of the Virgin Mary, dressed up, not like a poor Galilean, but in her silks and damasks. Oh . . . who has bewitched these people that they should . . go a whoring after their own inventions.

A confirmation - if any were needed - of the contempt of Protestant England for any form of Catholicism. Even the Jews were held in better esteem.

The Evils of Drink
Went in the afternoon to visit a deserter, who had sent me a letter, desiring me to intercede for him to the governor, he being apprehensive he should die for the desertion. I intended to answer his request, but the governor was so merciful that he ordered him to be whipped only, which I thought punishment little enough. O Sin! What Mischief does thou make in the world!

Visited an unhappy man in prison who last night, in a drunken fit, murdered a fellow soldier. I providentially met him just as he was apprehended and laid before him the terrors of the Lord. At first he seemed unconcerned, but in a short time he was pricked to the heart; desired me to come and see him; and today trembled and wept bitterly. O Drunkneness! What mischief hast thou done!

In the evening, I had near, if not more than a thousand hearers; and I took occasion from the poor man's wickedness and misfortune to warn the soldiery, not to be drunk with wine, wherein is excess. A sin that easily besets the men of Gibraltar! May they hear and fear, and sin no more presumptuously.

Despite the overuse of exclamation marks Whitefield simply confirms what was common knowledge at the time. Drink was definitely the curse of the working soldier in Gibraltar - including his officers, and there was precious little anybody could do about it. Powerful people, starting with Sabine, were making too much money from its sale. They were hardly prepared to make any real effort to curb the sale of alcoholic drink. In one of his many invites to dine with the Governor, Whitefield describes the fare on one occasion as cena dubia. No doubt a Michelin star repast with copious quantities of different wines for each course.

From a contemporary map of Gibraltar ( 1744 - R.Erskine and G. Knowles - Detail )