The People of Gibraltar
1893 - Richard Harding Davis - Rulers of the Med

Richard Harding Davis was born in Philadelphia in 1864. He was asked to leave both Lehigh and Johns Hopkins University for neglecting his studies and opted to become a journalistic by profession. When he was 26 he became the foreign correspondent of Harper's Weekly which - in addition to his contributions to the magazine - allowed him to write a number novels - such as Soldiers of Fortune which was published in 1897. He is best known as a war correspondent but he also wrote several travelogues. In one of these - The Rulers of the Mediterranean - he includes a chapter on the Rock of Gibraltar.

His letters were also published posthumously in 1917 under the title of Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis - 1864 - 1916. Below is a selection of quotes taken both from his travelogue and from the three letter to his mother which he wrote during his visit to Gibraltar. All the otherwise unattributed illustrations are from the book. They may have been drawn by Davis himself.

Richard Harding Davis - He is credited with making the clean-shaven look popular among men at the turn of the 20th century.

The first sight of Gibraltar is, I think, disappointing. It means so much, and so many lives have been given for it, and so many ships have been sunk by its batteries, and such great powers have warred for twelve hundred years for its few miles of stone, that its black outline against the sky, with nothing to measure it with but the fading stars, is dwarfed and spoiled.

It is only after the sun begins to turn the lights out, and you are able to compare it with the great ships at its base, and you see the battlements and the mouths of cannon, and the clouds resting on its top, that you understand it; and then when the outline of the crouching lion, that faces all Europe, comes into relief, you remember it is, as they say, the lock to the Mediterranean, of which England holds the key.

And even while you feel this, and are greedily following the course of each rampart and terrace with eyes that are tired of blank stretches of water, someone points to a low line of mountains lying like blue clouds before the red sky of the sunrise, dim, forbidding, and mysterious—and you know that it is Africa. . . .

The Rock from the Bay

Gibraltar, February 12, 1893.
Dear Mother,
I am now in Gibraltar. It is a large place and there does not seem to be room in this letter, in which to express my feelings about Moors in bare legs and six thousand Red-coats and to hear Englishmen speak again. When I woke up Gibraltar was a black silhouette against the sky, but toward the south there was a low line of mountains with a red sky behind them, dim and mysterious and old, and that was Africa. Then Spain turned up all amethyst and green, and the Mediterranean as blue as they tell you it is. They wouldn't let me take my gun into Gibraltar. They know my reputation for war.


The Town and its People
Nine out of every ten of those who visit Gibraltar for the first time expect to find an island. It ought to be, and it would be one but for a strip of level turf half a mile wide and half a mile long which joins it to the sunny green hills of Spain. But for this bit of land, which they call 'the Neutral Ground' Gibraltar would be an island, for it has the Mediterranean to the east, a bay, and beyond that the hills of Spain to the west, and Africa dimly showing fourteen miles across the sea to the south. . . . 

It struck me as being more different kinds of a place than any other spot of land I had ever visited, and one that changed its aspect with every shifting of the wind, and with each rising and setting of the sun. It is the clearing-house for three most picturesque peoples—the Moors, in their yellow slippers and bare legs and voluminous robes and snowy turbans; the Spaniards, with romantic black capes and cloaks and red sashes, the women with the lace mantilla and brilliant kerchiefs and pretty faces; and, mixed with these, the pride and glory of the British army and navy, in all the bravery of red coats and white helmets, or blue jackets, or Highland kilts. . . .

A Gibraltar 'type' - A Highlander

A Gibraltar 'type' - A sailor

Gibraltar, February 14, 1893.
Dear Mother,
The luck of the British Army which I am modestly fond of comparing with my own took a vacation yesterday as soon as I had set foot on land. In the first . . . cholera had quarantined the ship I wanted to take to Algiers. The Governor was ill shutting off things I wanted and his adjutant was boorish and proud and haughty.

Then I determined to go to Spain but found I had arrived just one day too late for the last of the three days of the Mardi Gras and too early for bull fights. . . . So on the whole I was blue. . . . I called on Harry Cust's brother and told him who I was and he took me in and put me at the head of the table of young subalterns in grand uniforms and we had marmalade and cold beef and beer and I was happy to the verge of tears to hear English as she is spoke.

Then we went to a picnic and took tea in a smuggler's cave and all the fox terriers ran over the table cloth and the Captain spilt hot water over his white flannels and jumped around on one leg. After which we played a handkerchief game sitting in a row and pelting the girls with a knotted handkerchief and then fighting for it . . . I am now deeply engaged for dinners and dances and teas and rides and am feeling very cheerful again. . .

Today I am going over the ramparts as much as they will allow and to-morrow I go to Tangier where I expect to have some boar hunting. I would suggest your getting The Evangelist in a week or two as Dr. Field's letters cover all I have seen. I do not tell you anything about the place because you will read that in the paper to the H. W. but I can assure you the girls are very pretty and being garrison girls are not as shy as those at home in England. I am the first American they ever met they assure me every hour and we get on very well notwithstanding.

You can imagine what it is like when Spaniards, Moors and English Soldiers are all crowded into one long street with donkeys and geese and priests and smugglers and men in polo clothes and soldiers in football suits and sailors from the man-of-war. 

Of course, the Rock is the best story of it all. It is a fair green smiling hill not a fortress at all. No more a fortress to look at than Fairmont Park water works, but the joke of it is that under every bush there is a gun and every gun is painted green and covered with hanging curtains of moss and every promenade is undermined and the bleakest face of the rock is tunnelled with rooms and halls. Every night we are locked in and the soldiers carry the big iron keys clanking through the streets.

Gardiner's Battery ( 1880s - George Washington Wilson )

Although Davis' book is about the 'Rulers' of the Med and not the ruled, it is still surprising for a man of Davis' sophistication to limit his comments on the local population - both formally in the book and informally to his mother - to the usual stereotypical bare legged Moors, romantic Spaniards and women with mantillas - and confirms his lack of interest when he chooses as 'Gibraltar types ' one Spanish and three British military men.

'Dr. Field', incidentally, was the Rev Henry Martyn Field, an American Presbyterian clergyman, a contemporary and the author of a book - Gibraltar - which is covered in another chapter elsewhere. LINK

Main Street and the Military
Gibraltar has one main street running up and clinging to the side of the hill from the principal quay to the most southern point of the Rock. On this street are the bazaars of the Moors, and the English shops and the Spanish cafés, and the cathedral, and the hotels, and the Governor's house, and every one in Gibraltar is sure to appear on it at least once in the twenty-four hours.

But the colour and tone of the street are military. There are soldiers at every step—soldiers carrying the mail or bearing reports, or soldiers in bulk with a band ahead, or soldiers going out to guard the North Front, where lies the Neutral Ground, or to target practice, or to play football; soldiers in two or threes, with their sticks under their arms, and their caps very much cocked, and pipes in their mouths.

Everybody walks in the middle of the main street in Gibraltar, because the sidewalks are only two feet wide, and because all the streets are as clean as the deck of a yacht. Cabs of yellow wood and diligences with jangling bells and red worsted harness gallop through this street and sweep the people up against the wall, and long lines of goats who leave milk in a natural manner at various shops tangle themselves up with long lines of little donkeys and longer lines of geese, with which the local police struggle valiantly.

Goat Maid in Gibraltar ( 1907 - Robert Urie Jacobs )

All of these things, troops and goats and yellow cabs and polo ponies and dog-carts, and priests with curly-brimmed hats, and baggy-breeched Moors, and huntsmen in pink coats and Tommies in red, and sailors rolling along in blue, make the main street of Gibraltar as full of variety as a mask ball.

And you will marvel not so much at the engineering skill of whoever it was who planned this defence as at the weariness and the toil of the criminals who gave up the greater part of their lives to hewing and blasting out these great galleries and gloomy passages, through which your footsteps echo like the report of cannon. 

The engineer responsible was Sergeant Ince - also dealt with in another chapter. LINK. The local policemen are indeed mostly local men - the Gibraltar Police Force became operational in 1830 making it is the second oldest in the old Commonwealth after that of London. The Huntsmen belonged to the Calpe Hunt and were almost certainly on their way to Spain for the day and those goats would later be allowed to roam the upper Rock, many of them tended by Maltese goatherds.

The Neutral Ground
The northern face of the Rock—that end which faces Spain, and which makes the head of the crouching lion—shows two long rows of teeth cut in its surface by convicts of long ago. You are allowed to walk through these dungeons, and to look down upon the Neutral Ground and the little Spanish town at the end of its half-mile over the butts of great guns. 

Gibraltar from the Neutral Ground (1880s - George Washington Wilson )

The other side of the Rock, that which faces the Mediterranean, is unfortified, except by the big guns on the very summit, for no man could scale it, and no ball yet made could shatter its front. To further protect the north from a land attack there is at the base of the Rock . . a great moat, bridged by an apparently solid piece of masonry. This roadway, which leads to the north gate of the fortress . . . is undermined, and at a word could be blown into pebbles . . . virtually changing the Rock of Gibraltar into an island.. . .

A line of sentries pace the Neutral Ground, and have paced it for nearly two hundred years. Their sentry-boxes dot the half-mile of turf, and their red coats move backward and forward night and day, and anyone who leaves the straight and narrow road crossing the Neutral Ground, and who comes too near . . . is shot. Facing them, a half-mile off, are the white adobe sentry-boxes of Spain and another row of sentries, wearing long blue coats and queer little shakos, and smoking cigarettes.

British Sentry

Spanish Sentry

Modern Gibraltar
Up above, where the Signal Station is, and where no one, not even an officer in uniform not engaged on the works, is allowed to go, are the real fortifications. What looks like a rock is a monster gun painted gray, or a tree hides the mouth of another. And in this forbidden territory are great cannon which are worked from the lowest ramparts. These are the present triumphs of Gibraltar.

Signal Station (1880s - George Washington Wilson )

Gibraltar is a grand and grim practical joke; . . .What looks like a solid face of rock is a hanging curtain that masks a battery; the blue waters of the bay are treacherous with torpedoes; and every little smiling village of Spain has been marked down for destruction, and has had its measurements taken as accurately as though the English batteries had been playing on it already for many years.

The Rock is undermined and tunnelled throughout, and food and provisions are stored away in it to last a siege of seven years. Telephones and telegraphs, signal stations for flagging, search-lights, and other such devilish inventions, have been planted on every point, and only the Governor himself knows what other modern improvements have been introduced into the bowels of this mountain . . .

Gibraltar, February 23, 1893.
Dear Mother
I love this place and there is something to do and see every minute of the time . . . Everybody was glad to see me after my return from Tangier. I dined with the Governor on Monday, in a fine large room lined with portraits of all the old commanders and their coats-of-arms like a little forest of flags and the Governor's daughter danced a Spanish dance for us after it was over.

On Tuesday . . . . went over into Spain to see the meet and we had a short run after a fox who went to earth, much to my relief, in about three minutes and before I had been thrown off.

There are no fences but the ground is one mass of rocks and cactus and ravines down which these English go with an ease that makes me tremble with admiration. . . . went to an inn and it was such an inn as Don Quixote used to stop at, with the dining-room over the stable and a lot of drunken muleteers in the court and beautiful young women to wait on us.

It is a beautiful country Spain, with every sort of green you ever dreamed of. We had omelettes and native wine and black bread and got warm again and then trotted home in the rain and got wet again, so we stopped at the guard house on the outside of the rock and took tea with the officer in charge and we all got down on our knees around his fire . . . 

Tea at the Officers' Mess after the Hunt

This is the most various place I ever came across. You have mountains and seashore and allamandas like Monte Carlo in their tropical beauty and soldiers day and night marching and drilling and banging brass bands and tennis and guns firing so as to rattle all the windows, and picnics and teas.

On Washington's birthday I gave a luncheon because it struck me as the most inappropriate place in which one could celebrate the good man's memory . . . the Governor would not think of coming at first, but I told him I was not a British subject and that if I could go to his dinner he could come to my lunch . . .

The impression is that the authorities seem to have been more security conscious that usual - especially as regards Signal Station which has finally lost its original purpose as a look-out. The fine large room was in the Convent and the Governor was Sir Lothian Nicholson. Davis' insistence on the Nicholson attending his soiree is a nice example of an American's disdain for protocol. A second mention of the Calpe Hunt shows this well-known Gibraltar institution was as popular as ever- and if the sketch is anything to go by - with both sexes.

Sir Lothian Nicholson

The Subaltern in Gibraltar
The life of a subaltern of the British army . . . who is stationed in Gibraltar, impresses you as being as easy and satisfactory a state of existence as a young and unmarried man could ask. . . .

. . . he enjoys the good things the world brings him with a clear conscience. He has duties, it is true, but they did not strike me as being wearing ones . . . As far as I could see, his most trying duty was the number of times a day he had to change his clothes, and this had its ameliorating circumstance in that he each time changed into a more gorgeous costume.

There was one youth whom I saw in four different suits in two hours. When I first noticed him he was coming back from polo, in boots and breeches; then he was directing the firing of a gun, with a pill-box hat on the side of his head, a large pair of field-glasses in his hand, and covered by a black and red uniform that fitted him like a jersey.

A little later he turned up at a tennis party at the Governor's in flannels; and after that he came back there to dine in the garb of every evening. When the subaltern dines at mess he wears a uniform which turns that of the First City Troop into what looks in comparison like a second-hand and ready-made garment. . . . When eighteen of these jackets are placed around a table, the chance civilian feels and looks like an undertaker.

Every day at Gibraltar there is tennis, and bands playing in the Alameda, and parades, or riding-parties across the Neutral Ground into Spain, and teas and dinners, at which the young ladies of the place dance Spanish dances, and twice a week the members of the Calpe Hunt meet in Spain, and chase foxes across the worst country that any Englishman ever rode over in pink.

There are no fences, but there are ravines and cañons and precipices, down and up and over which the horses scramble and jump, and over which they will, if the rider leaves them alone, bring him safely. And if you lose the rest of the field, you can go to an old Spanish inn like that which Don Quixote visited, with drunken muleteers in the court-yard, and the dining-room over the stable, and with beautiful dark-eyed young women to give you omelette and native wine and black bread. . . .

Calpe Hunt in 1895 ( Unknown magazine print )

Richard Harding Davis liked the Rock and the Spanish hinterland - but most of all he loved the military, its paraphernalia, uniforms and life-style. I have omitted several lengthy paragraphs in which he describes - admiringly - a defence exercise carried out by the entire garrison, officers on horseback, guns blazing. Telephones, telegraph, electrictity and other 'devish inventions: the population of Gibraltar was now close to 20 000 people, the 19th century was drawing to a close - but the ordinary Gibraltarian citizen continued to be an amorphous backdrop to a gloriously British and overwhelmingly military theme.

The following is his closing sentence on the chapter on Gibraltar;

I hope when the Rock is attacked, as it never will be, that they will all cover themselves with glory. It never will be attacked, for the reason that the American people are the only people clever enough to invent a way of taking it, and they are far too clever to attempt an impossible thing.