The People of Gibraltar
1711 - Giovanni Battista Sturla - The Genoese Consul

Portmore, Hesse and Elliott - Berro, Role and Noble
Hayles, Jacks and Paddon - Ansaldo, Grecco and Rosa Maria

Giovanni Battista Sturla was an interesting individual who has been described by more than one historian as a forceful and interesting character with an unusual propensity for attracting trouble.

He was the son of Antonio Maria Sturla and Maria Victoria Chacan both of Final in Genoa. He was a resident of Gibraltar before it was taken by Anglo-Dutch forces under Prince George of Hesse-Damstadt and Admiral George Rooke, and must have come to Gibraltar as a young man well before the takeover. After 1704 he decided to stay on and make himself useful to the new masters. He subsequently spent most of his working life reaping the benefits of what would prove to have been two very wise choices.

The Taking of Gibraltar ( 1704 - Louis Boudan )

In 1705 Prince George, in the name of the Archduke Charles of Austria - alias the Pretender to the Spanish throne, Charles III - decided to issue twenty-six property grants to certain Gibraltar residents in recognition of services rendered. The properties in question were those of people who had left after the surrender of 1704. Sturla was one of the beneficiaries. The grant was not to be sneezed at. It stretched from 142 Main Street to 91 Irish Town, an extensive piece of real estate by any yardstick.

Prince George of Hesse-Damstadt - Governor of Gibraltar for about two days ( 1705 - after Thomas Murray )

In 1705 - perhaps finding himself for the first time with enough money to do so - he married Doña Juana Manuela Barleta, the daughter of Don Jaime Barleta and Doña Beatrix de Herrera, both of them distinguished Spaniards who had also chosen to stay on after its capture. Sturla's children were Anthony Mary Joseph - born in 1708 , Beatrix Vicenta - born in 1710, and Maria Josefa Eugenia - born in 1711.

Doña Juana must have been about 16 years old when she had her first child. She died in 1712 when she was only 20 years old. She was buried in the Convent, at the time not yet the residence of the Governors of Gibraltar.

When Hesse left the Rock, Sturla ingratiated himself with the new man - Major General Roger Elliott. In fact he seems to have spent most of his time acting as an intermediary for many of the Governor’s more shady activities. When Elliott instituted a special tax on foreign boats attempting to land their goods in Gibraltar it was Sturla who was made responsible for obtaining signed declarations from the Genoese captains and boat owners. The affidavits affirmed that the illegal taxes they were being forced to pay had absolutely nothing to do with the Governor.

Major General Roger Elliott, Governor of Gibraltar - Like Giovanni Battista Sturla he was in it for the money ( 1700s - Unknown )

In 1707 the Genoese government appointed Geronimo Role – a newly arrived merchant - as consul in Gibraltar. Role soon found himself in trouble with the authorities. Elliott, who treated him with contempt, had listed him as a Jew. It meant that he had to pay more than he would normally have had to as a Genoese for the privilege of being a resident on the Rock. Worse still, he soon discovered that Genoese ships were refusing to pay him his consular fees which made up an important part of his official income. Role complained and in 1708 the Genoese Ambassador to London took up the matter with the British Government.

When Elliott received a letter from London asking him to improve his relationship with Role in particular and with the Genoese inhabitants on general he was absolutely furious. He immediately summoned the poor consul and demanded to know the reason for his disgraceful denunciation. Was he not aware that those malpractices that he had tittle-tattled to his ambassador were attributable to the Governor's secretary and had nothing to do with him?

The unfortunate Role next became embroiled in a dispute with a Genoese Captain called Grecco, a privateer who was plundering Spanish ships for miles around Gibraltar despite the fact that Genoa was not at war with Spain. Sturla went out of his way to side with Captain Grecco and his constant interference eventually took its toll. In 1711 Giovanni Battista Sturla was officially appointed Genoese Consul to Gibraltar. Role continued to live in Gibraltar for another ten years but no longer did so in an official capacity.

In 1713, Sturla remarried in Cadiz - he obviously did not believe in prolonging his period of mourning more than was necessary - but he made sure that the union was validated in Gibraltar by the Catholic Church a couple of months later- presumably to avoid any future problems regarding his wife's residential status. His new lady was Doña Maria Theresa de Coca y Molinari.

She gave him five children, all born in Gibraltar - Maria in 1714, Maria Barbara Feliziana in 1716, Maria Theresa Francesca in 1721 and Sebastiana Fabiana Antonia Maria Josefa in 1723 - her godfather was Jean Berliez, the French Consul in Gibraltar - and Teresa Gertudis in 1724.

We hear about him again a few years later when the British authorities sent a certain Captain Paddon on a mission to Barbary in order to obtain the release of some ‘prominent individuals’ who had been ‘caught up in the trade’ - whatever that might have meant.

Paddon was also there as ‘Her Majesty’s plenipotentiary’ with full authority to smooth the very heavy work of reaching some sort of commercial understanding with the Emperor of Morocco concerning Gibraltar's status as a free port and the residential rights of both Barbary Jews and Moors 0n the Rock.

It was during these delicate discussions that he was obliged - as he put it - to ‘facilitate the peace’ by buying three Moorish slaves for the Genoese Consul at Gibraltar. The fact that a British plenipotentiary should be making deals on behalf of a foreign consul becomes more understandable when one realises that Sturla was not just Elliott’s hatchet-man - the authorities considered him a useful person to have on their side - and not just to cope with the increasing number of Genoese people living in Gibraltar

In any case, his request for slaves can hardly have been a surprise to the British authorities. The Genoese consul was known to have owned at least one black slave girl. Her name was Rosa Maria and he eventually had her baptised in the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned. Pretty female slaves were the ultimate fashion accessory of the period.

Certificate of Baptism of Rosa Maria, Sturla’s young black slave,

The Abolition of the Slave Trade act was still about a hundred years in the future and there was nothing odd about slaves being bought or sold in Gibraltar. What is surprising is that in the entire historical literature of Gibraltar slaves are rarely if ever mentioned other than - mistakenly - as transmitters of the various plagues that visited the Rock from time to time. One would have imagined that they would have come in handy to do all that dirty work during the first few decades after the takeover.

The Barbary slave Negro trade

In 1721 Sturla was at the centre of an official complaint by the Spanish authorities. He was holding goods in Gibraltar that were the property of a French trader who was already in prison in Cadiz for smuggling merchandise into Spain. Sturla defended himself during this convoluted affair by insisting that he was holding the goods for Lord Portmore.

It seems unlikely that this particular Governor of Gibraltar - who is known to have personally disliked the consul - would have soiled his hands on something as petty as this; he had far bigger fish to fry. Whether his secretary, Lieutenant Thomas Cockayne may have been involved is another matter.

The Rock of Gibraltar ( 1721 - Willem van der Hagan)

It was also during Lord Portmore’s – or should one say the even more corrupt Thomas Stanwix’s - term of office, that two resident Protestant merchants called William Hayles and William Jacks, together with several of their British colleagues, formally requested the setting up of a Court of Justice to settle commercial disputes – especially those involving the collection of debts. The main reason for their request was that they were owed money by a local Genoese gentleman called John Baptist Sturla.

Hayles had apparently entered into partnership with Sturla trusting him with both money and goods and together they had financed a cargo of merchandise for England. Hayles had left Gibraltar before the vessel had set sail and when he returned he had found that the cargo had been sent elsewhere and that Sturla had pocketed the proceeds. London agreed and the merchants got both their ‘court’ and a debtor’s prison. There is no record of Sturla having had the honour of being the first to be imprisoned in it.

In effect this was Gibraltar’s first ‘Charter of Justice’, although the word ‘justice’ is probably the wrong one as there were issues that made the Charter less attractive than it might appear at first sight. For a start settlements were based on Spanish law and hardly anybody in authority knew that particularly well. The court was also headed by a military officer and the Governor himself was essentially the Court of Final Appeal. Also the commission that had looked into the matter had thought it appropriate to set up a separate Criminal Court for major crimes which made for added confusion.

Nevertheless, Sturla can lay claim to having been one of the people mainly responsible - albeit indirectly - for setting up Gibraltar's first civilian court of justice. It is also almost certain that he will have found a way of making full personal use of its shortcomings.

Rather unexpectedly Sturla seems to have been a man of some substance in his own right. For a start most Spanish records – including the archives of the Catholic Church – refer to him as Don Juan. The use of the honorific title of ‘Don’ is a commonplace nowadays but in the eighteenth century it was used to denote either nobility or - at the very least – a person of great substance.

Another indication of Sturla’s status in Gibraltar is that Hesse referred to him as a ‘vassal of the King’ in documents granting him his properties in Gibraltar. Vasallo del Rey was a formal title which was only given to those noblemen who provided military service to their King during war time. It was by no means an easily obtainable honour.

In 1725 - squeezing some extra time from his many other legitimate and illegitimate affairs – he accepted yet another lucrative sinecure. He was appointed French Consul in Gibraltar. That same year, with a fresh and thoroughly unwanted blockade by the Spaniards well on its way, Sturla found himself in deep trouble when a letter appeared in the Consul’s office in Tetuan making fun of the British war effort. Most of it referred to some ill-conceived plan to invade Algeciras. It was not a particularly earth-shattering revelation but Lord Portmore was absolutely furious. He threw Sturla out of Gibraltar.

Algeciras. Its population was made up almost entirely of people who had left the Rock after the exodus ( 1734 - Juan de Subreville )

Much later it was discovered that the actual originator of the letter had been John Noble, Sturla’s English secretary. Clayton, who was the next Governor, invited him to return presumably on the grounds that the ex-consul was a man with whom he would be able to do business. Sturla refused and apparently never returned to Gibraltar. In 1759, now probably about 80 years old, he was still known to be alive.

John Noble on the other hand did return to Gibraltar and seems to have been able to settle there without being inconvenienced unduly by the authorities. In 1726 he bought a property from Doña Beatriz Barleta - Sturla's mother-in-law and now a widow - and prospered as a merchant.

It is very possible that Sturla moved to Genoa after his problems with Portmore. There is evidence that suggests that he had another daughter with Maria Theresa. Her name was Ana Maria Sturla. This girl was born in Loano sometime after 1727 but moved to Gibraltar just before 1759 as she is recorded as having married Nicholas Berro that year.

Nicolas was the son of John Baptist Berro a Genoese sea captain who like Sturla was granted property in Gibraltar by Hesse for services rendered. The marriage cannot have done any harm to both families' fortunes - Sturla was still a rich man and the Berro's would very soon became one of the largest property owners in Gibraltar

Contemporary Map of Gibraltar. Sturla's and Berro's prperties were in the areea of Gibraltar known at the time as La Turba. Only a portion of it is shown on this map. It lies to the south of the line leading from the Old Mole ( 1720 - Gabriel Bodenehr )

The family name of Sturla no longer exists on the Rock - It does not appear on the 1791 census or on any during the 19th century. The 1777 census does mention a John Baptist Sturla but this gentleman was a winemaker who arrived on the Rock in 1753 and does not seem to have been related in any way to the former Genoese Consul. 

Nevertheless Sturla's DNA is almost certain to be found within Gibraltar's present day gene pool. Rich men tended to have large families whose children in turn married others of equal or similar wealth. If the Berro's were rich then even more so were the Ansaldo Family. ( see LINK ) The marriage of John Baptist Charles Ansaldo to Barbara Ambociana Francesca Berro ensured the union of three of the wealthiest families on the Rock at the time.

Sturla was a man of his time. To be a non-British resident in British Gibraltar in the early 18th century was to be considered a nobody - and Sturla was anything but. Civilian life on the Rock may have been the epitome of hell, but Sturla was there for the money. He may have been a scoundrel - but that was an inevitable consequence of living in a place that was under the authority of even greater scoundrels. A larger than life individual and a born survivor, Giovanni Battista Sturla deserves to be remembered as a true Gibraltarian.