The People of Gibraltar
1807 - Robert Semple – Invidious Distinctions

Samuel Serfaty 

Robert Semple was born in Canada in 1777. He was a merchant and governor of the Hudson Bay Company Red River Settlement. An inveterate traveller during the Napoleonic Wars his Canadian nationality allowed him to journey through countries that were denied to British subjects.

He published several books of his experiences, two of which mention Gibraltar - Observations on a Journey through Spain and Italy to Naples - in two volumes and published in 1807 and  - A Second Journey in Spain in the Spring of 1809 - published in 1809. The quotes shown below are taken from both books.

Robert Semple

Below me was the town of Algeciras, to the left that of Los Barios . . . and to eastward  . .  the small town and camp of San Roque. But what immediately and chiefly attracted my notice was the mountain or rock of Gibraltar.

The Town
The town lies principally at the foot of the western side; but barracks, houses and pretty gardens are gradually constructing along the whole face of the Rock, where by any means accessible.

This, however cannot be done without great labour . . .  and it is strictly forbidden to throw a stone, however small, from the upper part, lest it should loosen others which might roll down and so much mischief.

Gibraltar at all times an object of natural curiosity, was now rendered almost equally interesting through political occurrences. It was thronged with Spaniards, who came to visit their new allies; and with Frenchmen, who, with infinite difficulty had escaped from various parts of Spain, and sought protection under the British flag. . . A new sight was that of rows of long brass cannons and mortars, and piles of bullets, which may have been brought from the Spanish lines.

This last comment is taken from the volume published in 1809. The ordinance was presumably being moved into Gibraltar in anticipation of the complete destruction of the Spanish lines in 1810 by British sappers - with Spanish consent.

The Spanish Lines before their destruction by the British. The map also shows the Devil's Tower and the Torre del Molino ( 1799 - Barbie du Bocage - detail )

The People
Of the inhabitants it may be observed, that they are composed of all nations, and the English form perhaps the smallest part of the population. The rest is made up of Spaniards, Genoese, French, Italians, and Moors from the coast of Barbary.

The manners of the English are sufficiently hospitable, though not unmixed with little jealousies toward each other; and one is grieved to find here, as in most garrison towns, invidious distinctions drawn by the military officers between themselves and the mercantile class, which so materially contributes to their support.

. . . . as to the manners of the Spanish woman, little can be said in their praise. They are alluring and seductive to the stranger perhaps beyond any other woman in Europe; but they are seldom deserving of the honourable, nay almost sacred titles of faithful wives, of good mothers or unshaken friends . . .

Garrison Library
The Garrison Library affords by far the greatest source of amusement to the stranger at Gibraltar Every other object becomes familiar to him  but this is a perpetual feast. . .  A introduction is hardly necessary to procure admittance and the valuable collection of books does great credit to the taste and judgement of the selectors. ( see LINK )

Devil's Tower
all along the shores of the bay . .  are either towers still in use or the ruins of others which formerly stood here.  Of these the most singular is, perhaps, the Devil's Tower . . .  It is round and built on a small rock, the only one which shows itself above the whole isthmus of sand  . . .  and must have at all times commanded a view both towards the Mediterranean and the Bay.

It has no door beneath, and was probably entered by a ladder . . .  Or did the sea once cover the whole of this low isthmus . .  and was the Devil's Tower a beacon, on a rock surrounded by the waves? About a mile distant, to westward, are the remains of another round tower, of greater diameter. . . ( See LINK )

During WWII , the Governor, General Sir Frank Mason-Macfarlane ordered the Devil's Tower to be destroyed because he thought it interfered with the line of fire of one of the Rock's many guns. The second round tower was probably the Mill Tower. It no longer exists.

The Devil's and Mill Towers ( 1727 - Antonio de Montaigu de la Perille )

Moorish Castle
Some Moorish fortifications still remain  . . . The principal part is a large tower commanding all the rest. As there were said to be heads of arrows still sticking in the walls, we determined, to examine them . . .  after some trouble, we . . . succeeded in extracting several small pieces of iron, which had every appearance of being parts of the heads of arrows . . .

Moorish Castle  ( 1830s David Roberts )

The regular intercourse in times of peace, and the smuggling during war between Malaga and Gibraltar, naturally occasioned the inhabitants to be always friendly disposed towards England . .

Visit to Barbary
Three of the Englishmen with whom I had become acquainted . .  joined me in the plan of crossing over on the Barbary coast  . .  these were Sir William Ingilby, Dr. Darwin, the son of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and Mr. Theodore Galton. . . .above all we provided ourselves with an interpreter, a Jew, Samuel Serfaty by name, long resident of Gibraltar, but a native of Barbary, where the greater part of his family still was, and perfectly well acquainted with the language and customs of that country. . .

Their partiality to the English ( if they deign to shew a partiality for any Christian ) may be accounted for by the vicinity of Gibraltar, where many of their countrymen are established and protected, and which is supplied with a great part of provisions from the Barbary coast. . .

As we approached Tangier  . . . our Jew endeavoured to pass mounted, but he was immediately recognised . . . and he alighted in no small hurry to avoid being helped off his mule in a still more unpleasant manner. . .  In passing a mosque, be the path ever so muddy, the Jew must take off his slippers; scarcely dare he look upon the pure house of prayer.

A Jew takes off his cap to the Moor, and curses him in his heart.  . . At any time a Moor of the lowest cast may enter the house of a Jew, and commit a thousand insolences, which the other has not the power to resent.

We had expected that the inhabitants of Tangier, from the vicinity of Gibraltar and their great intercourse with the English, would prove more courteous than those of Tetuan, but of this we saw very few proofs. . . Mr. Green, the British consul . .  shewed us every attention . . . I noticed that in the street the British and French Consuls passed without taking the smallest notice of each other.

Mentioning the interpreter by name is unusual as is the many references to his ill-treatment by the Moors. It confirms a very good reason why the Rock's Barbary Jews seemed so prepared to put up with all sorts of petty harassments and indignities in Gibraltar; it was paradise compared with life in Barbary. Dr. Darwin was Francis Sacheverel Darwin. ( see LINK )

Finally, the second book includes a series of engravings of Spaniards in either their local or their trade dress. Local residents of the Rock of Spanish descent often continued to wear their national costumes for many years after their arrival in Gibraltar. It is quite possible that a visitor to the Rock in the early 19th century would have come across more than a few people dressed as shown below.

'A beau, somewhat above the lower orders . . . A lady dressed for the Prado . . . A man of the middling class' 

 'This Female Figure is arrayed in her winter mantilla . . . An honest Seller of Oil . .  A Water Seller'

'Bolero dancer  . .  A peasant from the province of Murcia' 

 ' A peasant of Aragon . . .Wife of Aragonese peasant  . . . Peasant of Catalonia'

'Smuggler and robber  . . . Mistress of the Smuggler . . . Hero of the Bullfight'

 'A Cavalier  . . . a Spanish Belle . . . Man above the lower classes ( Cadiz)'

'A Muleteer . . . Peasant Girl . . . Muleteer from Malaga'

'Bully of Sevilla . . . Peasant of Valencia  . . . working peasant of Valencia'