The People of Gibraltar
1846 - William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta in 1811. Author, illustrator and editor he was also known for his satirical writings as well as for his most famous novel - Vanity Fair. Thackeray also travelled throughout the Mediterranean and published his Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo in 1846.

William Makepeace Thackeray

He dedicated almost an entire chapter to Gibraltar which is quoted below in full.

GibraltarSuppose all the nations of the earth to send fitting ambassadors to represent them at Wapping or Portsmouth Point, with each, under its own national signboard, and language, its appropriate house of call, and your imagination may figure the main street of Gibraltar; almost the only part of the town, I believe, which boasts of the name of street at all, the remaining house-rows being modestly called lanes, such as Bomb Lane, Battery Lane, Fuse Lane, and so on. 
In Main Street the Jews predominate, the Moors abound ; and from the 'Jolly Sailor,' or the 'Brave Horse Marine,' where the people of our own nation are drinking British beer and gin, you hear choruses of 'Garry Owen' or 'The Lass I left behind me'; while through the flaring lattices of the Spanish ventas come the clatter of castanets and the jingle and moan of Spanish guitars and ditties. 
It is a curious sight at evening this thronged street, with the people, in a hundred different costumes, bustling to and fro under the coarse flare of the lamps ; swarthy Moors, in white or crimson robes; dark Spanish smugglers in tufted hats, with gay silk handkerchiefs round their heads; fuddled seamen from men-of-war, or merchantmen ; porters, Galician and Genoese ; and at every few minutes' interval, little squads of soldiers tramping to relieve guard at some one of the innumerable posts in the town. 
Some of our party went to a Spanish venta, as a more convenient or romantic place of residence than an English house ; others made choice of the club-house in Commercial Square, of which I formed an agreeable picture in my imagination ; rather, perhaps, resembling the Junior United Service Club in Charles Street, by which every Londoner has passed ere this with respectful pleasure, catching glimpses of magnificent blazing candelabras, under which sit neat half-pay officers, drinking half-pints of port. 
The club-house of Gibraltar (see LINK) is not, however, of the Charles Street sort; it may have been cheerful once, and there are yet relics of splendour about it. When officers wore pig-tails, and in the time of Governor 0'Hara, (see LINK) it may have been a handsome place ; but it is mouldy and decrepit now; and though his Excellency Mr. Bulwer was living there, and made no complaints that I heard of, other less distinguished persons thought they had reason to grumble.

The Club House Hotel - probably in its later reincarnation as Connaught House.
Indeed, what is travelling made of? At least half its pleasures and incidents come out of inns ; and of them the tourist can speak with much more truth and vivacity than of historical recollections compiled out of histories, or filched out of handbooks. 
But to speak of the best inn in a place needs no apology ; that, at least, is useful information; as every person intending to visit Gibraltar cannot have seen the flea-bitten countenances of our companions, who fled from their Spanish venta to take refuge at the club the morning after our arrival : they may surely be thankful for being directed to the best house of accommodation in one of the most unromantic, uncomfortable, and prosaic of towns. 
If one had a right to break the sacred confidence of the mahogany, I could entertain you with many queer stories of Gibraltar life, gathered from the lips of the gentlemen who enjoyed themselves round the dingy tablecloth of the club-house coffee-room, richly decorated with cold gravy and spilt beer. I heard there the very names of the gentlemen who wrote the famous letters from the 'Warspite' regarding the French proceedings at Mogador ; and met several refugee Jews from that place, who said that they were much more afraid of the Kabyles without the city, than of the guns of the French squadron, of which they seemed to make rather light. 
I heard the last odds on the ensuing match between Captain Smith's b. g. Bolter, and Captain Brown's ch. c. Roarer: how the gun-room of Her Majesty's ship 'Purgatory' had 'cobbed' a tradesman of the town, and of the row in consequence : I heard capital stories of the way in which Wilkins had escaped the guard, and Thompson had been locked up among the mosquitoes for being out after ten without a lantern. 
I heard how the governor was an old , but to say what, would be breaking a confidence; only this may be divulged, that the epithet was exceedingly complimentary to Sir Robert Wilson.

General Sir Robert Wilson.
All the while these conversations were going on, a strange scene of noise and bustle was passing in the market-place, in front of the window, where Moors, Jews, Spaniards, soldiers were thronging in the sun; and a ragged fat fellow, mounted on a tobacco barrel, with his hat cocked on his ear, was holding an auction, and roaring with an energy and impudence that would have done credit to Covent Garden.

Commercial Square - 'a strange scene of noise and bustle was passing in the market-place, in front of the window ( 1900s Cumbo y Montegriffo ) (See LINK
The Moorish castle is the only building about the Rock which has an air at all picturesque or romantic ; there is a plain Roman Catholic cathedral, a hideous new Protestant church of the cigar-divan architecture, and a court-house with a portico which is said to be an imitation of the Parthenon : the ancient religious houses of the Spanish town are gone, or turned into military residences, and marked so that you would never know their former pious destination.

Moorish Castle - 'the only building about the Rock which has an air at all picturesque or romantic'  ( 1830s - David Roberts )   (See LINK

'Hideous new Protestant church of the cigar-divan architecture' ( Unknown )
You walk through narrow white- washed lanes, bearing such martial names as are before mentioned, and by-streets with barracks on either side ; small Newgate-like looking buildings, at the doors of which you may see the sergeants' ladies conversing, or at the open windows of the officers' quarters, Ensign Fipps lying on his sofa and smoking his cigar, or Lieutenant Simpson practising the flute to while away the weary hours of garrison dullness. I was surprised not to find more persons in the garrison library, (see LINK) where is a magnificent reading-room, and an admirable collection of books.

The Garrison Library 'where is a magnificent reading-room' ( J.M.Carter )  (See LINK
In spite of the scanty herbage and the dust on the trees, the Alameda is a beautiful walk; of which the vegetation has been as laboriously cared for as the tremendous fortifications which flank it on either side. The vast rock rises on one side with its interminable works of defence, and Gibraltar Bay is shining on the other, out on which from the terraces immense cannon are perpetually looking, surrounded by plantations of cannon balls and beds of bomb-shells, sufficient, one would think, to blow away the whole Peninsula.

'Plantations of cannon balls and beds of bomb-shells, sufficient, one would think, to blow away the whole Peninsula' ( 1870s George Washington Wilson )  (See LINK
The horticultural and military mixture is indeed very queer : here and there temples, rustic summer seats, &c., have been erected in the garden, but you are sure to see a great squat mortar looking up from among the flower-pots ; and amidst the aloes and geraniums sprouts the green petticoat and scarlet coat of a Highlander ; fatigue parties are seen wending up the hill, and busy about the endless cannon-ball plantations; awkward squads are drilling in the open spaces ; sentries marching everywhere, and (this is a caution to artists) I am told have orders to run any man through who is discovered making a sketch of the place. 
It is always beautiful, especially at evening, when the people are sauntering along the walks, and the moon is shining on the waters of the bay and the hills and twinkling white houses of the opposite shore. Then the place becomes quite romantic: it is too dark to see the dust on the dried leaves ; the cannon-balls do not intrude too much, but have subsided into the shade ; the awkward squads are in bed ; even the loungers are gone, the fan-flirting Spanish ladies, the sallow black-eyed children, and the trim white-jacketed dandies.

Alameda Gardens - 'a great squat mortar looking up from among the flower-pots' ( From an old postcard )
A fife is heard from some craft at roost on the quiet waters somewhere ; or a faint cheer from yonder black steamer at the Mole, which is about to set out on some night expedition. You forget that the town is at all like Wapping, and deliver yourself up entirely to romance ; the sentries look noble pacing there, silent in the moonlight, and Sandy's voice is quite musical, as he challenges with a 'Who goes there?' 
'All's Well' is very pleasant when sung decently in tune; and inspires noble and poetic ideas of duty, courage, and danger: but when you hear it shouted all the night through, accompanied by a clapping of muskets in a time of profound peace, the sentinel's cry becomes no more romantic to the hearer than it is to the sandy Connaught-man or the bare-legged Highlander who delivers it. 
It is best to read about wars comfortably in Harry Lorrequer or Scott's novels, in which knights shout their war cries, and jovial Irish bayoneteers hurrah, without depriving you of any blessed rest. Men of a different way of thinking, however, can suit themselves perfectly at Gibraltar ; where there is marching and counter-marching, challenging and relieving guard all the night through. 
And not here in Commercial Square alone, but all over the huge rock in the darkness — all through the mysterious zigzags, and round the dark cannon-ball pyramids, and along the vast rock galleries, and up to the topmast flag-staff where the sentry can look out over two seas, poor fellows are marching and clapping muskets, and crying 'All's well,' dressed in cap and feather, in place of honest nightcaps best befitting the decent hours of sleep. 
All these martial noises three of us heard to the utmost advantage, lying on iron bedsteads at the time in a cracked old room on the ground floor, the open windows of which looked into the square. No spot could be more favourably selected for watching the humours of a garrison town by night. About midnight, the door hard by us was visited by a party of young officers, who having had quite as much drink as was good for them, were naturally inclined for more ; and when we remonstrated through the windows, one of them in a young tipsy voice asked after our mothers, and finally reeled away. 
How charming is the conversation of high-spirited youth. I don't know whether the guard got hold of them : but certainly if a civilian had been hiccupping through the street at that hour he would have been carried off to the guard-house, and left to the mercy of the mosquitoes there, and had up before the governor in the morning. 
The young men in the coffee-room tell me he goes to sleep every night with the keys of Gibraltar under his pillow. It is an awful image, and somehow completes the notion of the slumbering fortress. Fancy Sir Robert Wilson, his nose just visible over the sheets, his night-cap and the huge key (you see the very identical one in Reynolds's portrait of Lord Heathfield ) peeping out from under the bolster !

Lord Heathfield and the Keys of Gibraltar ( Sir Joshua Reynolds)
If I entertain you with accounts of inns and nightcaps it is because I am more familiar with these subjects than with history and fortifications : as far as I can understand the former, Gibraltar is the great British depot for smuggling goods into the Peninsula. You see vessels lying in the harbour, and are told in so many words they are smugglers ; all those smart Spaniards with cigar and mantles are smugglers, and run tobaccos and cotton into Catalonia ; all the respected merchants of the place are smugglers. 
The other day a Spanish revenue vessel was shot to death under the thundering great guns of the fort, for neglecting to bring to, but it so happened that it was in chase of a smuggler ; in this little corner of her dominions Britain proclaims war to custom-houses, and protection to free-trade. 
Perhaps ere a very long day, England may be acting that part towards the world, which Gibraltar performs towards Spain now ; and the last war in which we shall ever engage may be a custom-house war. For once establish railroads and abolish preventive duties through Europe, and what is there left to fight for? It will matter very little then under what flag people live, and foreign ministers and ambassadors may enjoy a dignified sinecure ; the army will rise to the rank of peaceful constables, not having any more use for their bayonets than those worthy people have for their weapons now who accompany the law at the assizes under the name of javelin-men. 
The apparatus of bombs and eighty-four pounders may disappear from the Alameda, and the crops of cannon-balls which now grow there may give place to other plants more pleasant to the eye ; and the great key of Gibraltar may be left in the gate for anybody to turn at will, and Sir Robert Wilson may sleep in quiet. 
I am afraid I thought it was rather a release, when, having made up our minds to examine the rock in detail and view the magnificent excavations and galleries, (see LINK) the admiration of all military men, and the terror of any enemies who may attack the fortress, we received orders to embark forthwith in the 'Tagus,' which was to carry us to Malta and Constantinople.

The Tagus
So we took leave of this famous rock — this great blunderbuss — which we seized out of the hands of the natural owners a hundred and forty years ago, and which we have kept ever since tremendously loaded and cleaned and ready for use. To seize and have it is doubtless a gallant thing ; it is like one of those tests of courage which one reads of in the chivalrous romances, when, for instance, Sir Huon, of Bordeaux, is called on to prove his knighthood by going to Babylon and pulling out the Sultan's beard and front teeth in the midst of his court there. 
But, after all, justice must confess it was rather hard on the poor Sultan. If we had the Spaniards established at Lands End, with impregnable Spanish fortifications on St Michael's Mount, we should perhaps come to the same conclusion. Meanwhile, let us hope during this long period of deprivation, the Sultan of Spain is reconciled to the loss of his front teeth and bristling whiskers — let us even try to think that he is better without them.

St Michael's Mount - A Spanish Colony off Cornwall!  ( 1830 )
At all events, right or wrong, whatever may be our title to the property, there is no Englishman but must think with pride of the manner in which his countrymen have kept it, and of the courage, endurance, and sense of duty with which stout old Eliott and his companions resisted Crillon and the Spanish battering ships and his fifty thousand men. 
There seems to be something more noble in the success of a gallant resistance than of an attack, however brave. After failing in his attack on the fort, the French General visited the English Commander who had foiled him, and parted from him and his garrison in perfect politeness and good humour. 
The English troops, Drinkwater says, (see LINK) gave him thundering cheers as he went away, and the French in return complimented us on our gallantry, and lauded the humanity of our people. If we are to go on murdering each other in the old-fashioned way, what a pity it is that our battles cannot end in the old-fashioned way too.
Thackeray's rather harsh condemnation of the place as unromantic is well deserved - massive fortification of British design do not sit well with anyone's idea of a Mediterranean town.

His comments on smuggling were spot on. In fact things became so bad that Sir Robert Wilson's successor - General Sir Robert Gardiner (see LINK) - was forced to try to tackle the problem head on. The local merchants made absolutely certain that he would fail and the poor man was forced out of office. (See LINK

Thackeray's aside on what Englishmen would think of a Spanish possession just off Cornwall is not something that present day Gibraltarian would care to dwell on, but much as one would like to ignore it - he had a point.

Generally he also confirms that despite General Don's (see LINK) reforms and the important political change of status from fortress to colony, Gibraltar had hardly changed since the early days of the century. The bulk of the local population remained largely invisible and Gibraltar continued to be a place full of soldiers, Moors, smugglers, a few Barbary Jews and the odd dark-eyed seƱorita. Be all that as it may, Thackeray was an easy author to read - and still is - which is why he has been so much quoted over the years by so many other authors who visited Gibraltar.