The People of Gibraltar
1832 - The Sprague Family - One Century of Service

John, Horatio and Victorine - Horatio, Antonia and Richard

According to U. S. State Department, Horatio Sprague, his son and his grandson set a  record - which is still standing - for one family holding a post consecutively in any official capacity.  They were Consuls to Gibraltar from 1832 to 1936. To quote the American Foreign Service Journal of 1993, 'One post, one family, one century of service.' 

The man who started it all was John Sprague who was born in 1752 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His mother and his grandfather were both French. Following his father's footsteps he studied to become a physician and graduated in 1772. A year later he married Rebecca Chambers. There is some evidence that he travelled to Europe, possibly France,  to further his studies, By 1775 he was back in the USA.

The family had no less than nine children of which Horatio was the fifth youngest. He was born in 1784. When his father died Horatio was 16 years old and was already working for a firm in Boston owned by his great uncle. In 1803 he and other members of the family decided to travel to the Mediterranean in order to investigate the possibility of opening a branch of their company in that part of the world.

They chose Gibraltar. The upheavals caused by the Napoleonic and later the Peninsular Wars meant that European shipping had become both hazardous and expensive - except for Gibraltar where the shipping trade was flourishing.

Gibraltar ( 1800 - Craig and Berry )

Within a very few years Horatio had established himself as a business man and was well received by the British establishment in Gibraltar - no mean feat as the Garrison was virtually a closed shop to anybody who was a foreigner in those days. His wealth and the fact that he spoke 'proper' English - as against the supposedly incomprehensible jargon used by most the rest of the local population - will have helped. 

Horatio Sprague   ( Unknown )

Unfortunately in 1812 the United States declared war on Britain mainly because of trade restrictions brought about by the latter's war against France.  It is a conflict which is scarcely remembered in Britain today as it has always been regarded as something of a side show in comparison to the much larger conflict against Napoleon. Nevertheless it meant trouble for Sprague. The Governor of Gibraltar at the time, General Don, ordered all Americans to leave the Rock and Horatio went to live in the nearby Spanish town of Algeciras.

It is a measure of the esteem with which he was held by the British authorities that war or no war, they allowed him to cross the Bay of Gibraltar every day and berth alongside the commercial wharf. Apparently he was also allowed to land and carry out his daily business in a small office near the wharf.

Shorty after the signing of the treaty that ended the war, Horatio returned to Gibraltar where he became a close friend of the French Flechelle family and promptly fell in love with their daughter. She had been born in Tangier and her name was Victoria Marguerite Ecolastique Flechelle  - but was known to everybody as Victorine. She was only sixteen years old; he was exactly double her age.

Meanwhile Horatio continued to show his well-known tact and unerring ability to solve intractable problems. In 1815 an American  merchant ship - the Commerce - captained by James Riley sailed out of Gibraltar and was wrecked in the northwest coast of Africa.  They were captured by Muslim slave traders, were forced to trek across the Sahara. They ended up as barterable slaves in Morocco.

James Riley ( Unknown )

Horatio secured their release - presumably by paying a hefty random - and was duly honoured with the Gold Medal of the Humane Society of Massachusetts. Riley went on to write a book of his experience in An authentic Narrative of the loss of the Brig Commerce, published in 1817.

The Capture of James Riley by slave traders. Riley's book was great success because it dealt with an inversion of the usual state of affairs - white slaves and black masters. ( Unknown )

Horatio and Victorine  set up house in Prince Edward's Road which overlooked the town and had wonderful views of the Bay, the Straits of Gibraltar and the coast lines of both Spain and Barbary.  It was also reputed to have had ' three drawing rooms and countless bedrooms' unusual, to say the least, for any house on the Rock. When in 1832, President Jackson appointed Sprague as consul for America in Gibraltar, part of the house in Prince Edward Road was set aside for the Consulate.

Horatio predecessor as consul - Bernard Henry - had been effectively thrown out of the job by the American Secretary of State who was on a crusade to stop abuses by Government appointees. Henry was cashiered for having spent too much time abroad - in fact he had more or less resided in England for most of his time as consul and had never bothered to notify his bosses.

Sprague approached his job with much more diligence than Henry although on the whole
the work involved was minimal. Now and again circumstances arose in which his renown tack was required. Such was the case  In 1837, when he had to deal with an incident in which the sailors of an American vessel - the USS Grand Turk - were press-ganged into service by the officers of a British ship in Gibraltar.

USS Grand Turk in Marseilles

The Spragues  ended up with a large family and Victorine seems to have spent half her life pregnant giving birth to no less than eleven children in more or less two year intervals - John in 1817, Daphnia in 1819 - she died at infancy - Rebecca in 1821, Horatio Jones in 1823, Victoria in 1826, Louise in 1828, Richard in 1830, Delphine in 1832, Anna in 1834, Charles in 1835, and Henry in 1837.

Despite this Victorine found time to involve herself in a variety of worthy activities. Someone has recorded that:
. . . she was well-known for her unostentatious benevolence and her charities were boundless, for she regarded affluence as a worthless possession unless subservient to the relief of poverty and distress. She was one of those rare people who do good by stealth and blush to find fame.

A letter from somebody in Malaga to a friend in Boston, Horatio Sprague's company acting as a sort of postal service

By the time Horatio Sprague died in 1848 at the age of 64 he had already become one of the oldest serving consul of the United States. According to a eulogy by one of his descendents - E.G. Sprague, Horatio was man of 'high moral character' with a 'good name' that he valued above 'riches or all worldly honours.'

That he had been a 'possessor of a handsome fortune' which had allowed him to 'bestow a generous hospitality on such of his own countrymen whom business or pleasure may have called to visit ' Gibraltar, must have helped him develop his reputation.

Reading between the lines - one gets the impression that it was 'his devoted attachment to the land of his birth' rather than any great feeling for the land of his life-long residence that really drove him. According to his eulogist it was a feeling  that 'became almost a passion'.

Horatio Jones Sprague - often referred to as Horatio Sprague Junior - followed as American consul almost immediately after his father's death. He was appointment by President Polk. After a short visit to America where he met the new president - Zachary Taylor - Horatio Jones increased his area of influence by being appointed Consular Agent at Algeciras and the Campo area.

 Horatio Jones Sprague

He was well qualified for both jobs; he spoke French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese as well as English - although some of the more snooty members of the Garrison would have quibbled as to how well he spoke the last. In 1854 he married Antonia Thorn Francia, daughter of a very rich Gibraltar merchant with business interests in the States. The Francias were one of the first Roman Catholic families to settle in Gibraltar. Antonia, however, was born in New York

Antonia - Horatio Sprague's wife and Mr Francia's daughter

In 1861 the American Civil War would inevitably make life difficult for any American consul anywhere. Gibraltar was no exception. A year into the war and the CSS Sumter came into port - C standing for 'Confederate'.  A damaged hull had forced her captain to try Cadiz for repairs but the Spanish authorities refused him entry. Moving quickly south- and casually picking up a couple of prizes on the way - she entered the port of Gibraltar.

CSS Sumter just off Gibraltar with two captured sailing ships   ( Unknown )

Shortly after three United States Navy ships the USS Tuscarora,  Ino and Kearsarge set up a semi-blockade to prevent the Sumpter from leaving port. In a sense they were wasting their time. Consul Sprague used his influence with local merchants They refused to provide any coal for the Sumter.

The refusal to deliver the fuel must have been done with the approval of Sir William Codrington the Governor of Gibraltar at the time and despite the fact that British sympathies were with the Confederate cause. One can only attribute this anomaly with Sprague's continuing influence in high places. As mentioned by the American writer, Charles A. Stoddard in 1892, Horatio was;
 . . universally popular and admirably adapted to the place. He has maintained the honour of government and discharged the duties of his position through all political changes. During the war of the rebellion his duties were especially trying, for the sympathies of England were with the Southern States and Gibraltar was a resort for their privateers. (See LINK)

The USS Tuscarora,  Ino and Kearsarge 'blockading' Gibraltar. The CSS Sumter is in there somewhere  ( Unknown )

In 1867 the Suez Canal opened and Gibraltar became an important staging post for American Vessels travelling to the East. One particular ship calling at Gibraltar during this period caused Horatio Jones more trouble than most. In 1872 an American Barkentine called the 'Mary Celeste' was found drifting in the Atlantic with nobody on board. She was brought into Gibraltar.

The subsequent investigation into what might have happened took place in Gibraltar and because of his position as American consul, Horatio Jones was appointed a member of the Board of Enquiry. The mystery of the Mary Celeste has now become one of those strange international legends that keep cropping up every so often. It is dealt with more fully elsewhere in another article. (See LINK)

Like his father before him Horatio was a believer in having a large family. All told, Antonia bore him eight children - John in 1855, Fanny in 1858, Rebecca in 1859, Antoinette in 1861, Horatio in 1867, Delphine in 1869, Richard in 1871 and Louise in 1875. Two years later Antonia died of Consumption at the age of 40.

Antonia Spraque - know as Antoinette 

In 1899, the then Assistant Secretary of State Alvey Augustus Adee visited Gibraltar and was lavishly entertained by Sprague. It was the kind of hospitality that was only possible because of the family's personal wealth. The consular salary at the time was $1500 per annum hardly enough to cover even the most petty of expenses.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alvey Augustus Adee

The Sprague's generosity was indeed something of an institution in Gibraltar. As the American journalist Charles W. March wrote in 1856:
The American consul, Mr. Sprague, who, in discharging his duties of the office in which he has succeeded his father, thinks himself also called upon to continue his father's unstinting hospitality - was wont to lend me his Arabian for a daily ride.' (See LINK)
The American clergyman Henry. M. Field was equally effusive in 1887.
A better man than Horatio J. Sprague could not be found in two hemispheres. Through all these years he has maintained the honour of the American name, and today there is not within the walls of Gibraltar a man - soldier or civilian - who is more respected than this solitary representative of our country. (See LINK)
It was something of a slap in the face for old Sir Arthur Hardinge, Governor of Gibraltar at the time. 

When Horatio Jones died in 1901, the position of American consul was taken up by his youngest son Richard Louis who eventually abandoned the house in Prince Edward Road - he considered it too large - and took up residence in an attractive house in the Mediterranean Terrace called Library Gardens.

New York Times Obituary for Horatio Jones Sprague  ( 1901 )

At a news conference held at the new address a newspaperman is reported to have asked Richard why he thought that the U.S Authorities has persisted over the years in appointing members of the Sprague family as Consuls in Gibraltar - even though they were far away from the corridors of power and had little political influence. The consul's reply was revealing; 'We always did our work and never bothered the State Department'.

Richard Sprague never married and when he died in 1934 - he was buried in the North Front Cemetery - there was no heir to take his place. The century long dynasty of Sprague American Consuls in Gibraltar was over.

Richard Louis Sprague

There is also an interesting coda - It has always been the policy of the United States only to appoint as consuls people who are American citizens. Neither Richard Sprague nor his father were - technically speaking - citizens of the United States - they were both Gibraltarians.

Richard Sprague on the left being introduced to the Duke- in white - and Duchess of York returning from their visit to Australia in 1927. It is hard to say where this photo was taken but  the man to the right of the duke is Sir Charles Monro, Governor of Gibraltar.