The People of Gibraltar

1830 - Benjamin Disraeli - Stupid Enough

General Don, Lady Don and Brunet - Baron Field and Frank Hall Standish 

Benjamin Disraeli was born in London in 1804. Ever the flamboyant Jewish dandy, he was also a clever and successful political animal. By 1868 he was Prime Minister of Great Britain.

As a young man he travelled throughout Europe - including a visit to Gibraltar. He left us a record of his experiences in two letters to his father. Here is the first.

Gibraltar, July 1, 1830 

I write to you from a country where the hedges consist of aloes all in blossom - fourteen, sixteen feet high. Conceive the contrast to our beloved and beechy Bucks. I say nothing of geranium s and myrtles, bowers of oranges and woods of olives, though the occasional palm should not be forgotten for its great novelty and uncommon grace. We arrived here after a very brief and very agreeable passage, passed in very agreeable society. . . .This Rock is a wonderful place . . .  

'This Rock is a wonderful place' ( 1829 - Edmund Patten )

The Locals
. . . with a population infinitely diversified. Moors with costumes radiant as a rainbow or an Eastern melodrama; Jews with gabardines and skull-caps; Genoese, Highlanders, and Spaniards, whose dress is as picturesque as that of the sons of Ivor. 

Disraeli arrived in summer on board the steamship HMS Messenger, the mail packet from England to Gibraltar. His travelling companion was his friend and his sister's fiancé, William George Meredith  Disraeli's original idea was a short stay on the Rock and then onward to Malta. But he seems to have enjoyed both the place and its people enough to make him stay on longer than originally intended. He lodged in comfort at Griffith's Hotel in Commercial Square, but perhaps more importantly, he had with him a letter of introduction from George Henry Borrow, a well known English travelogue writer. ( see LINK )

The Garrison and Exchange Libraries 
There are two public libraries - the Garrison Library, with more than 12.000 volumes; and the Merchants', with upwards of half that number. In the Garrison are all your works, even the last edition of the Literary Character; in the Merchants' the greater part. 

Commercial Square - The main building is the 'Merchant's' or the Exchange Commercial Library. Griffith's Hotel is on the far left corner   ( 1840s  - Thomas Colman Dibdin )

Each possesses a copy of another book, supposed to be written by a member of our family, and which is looked upon at Gibraltar as one of the masterpieces of the nineteenth century. You may feel their intellectual pulse from this. At first I apologised and talked of youthful blunders and all that, really being ashamed; but finding them, to my astonishment, sincere, and fearing they were stupid enough, to adopt my last opinion, I shifted my position just in time, looked very grand, and passed myself off for a child of the Sun, like the Spaniard in Peru. 

Frontispiece to Disraeli's Vivian Grey

A wonderful description!. The novel must have been Vivian Grey . It is hard to say whether Disraeli's opinions on the intellectual ability of Gibraltar's literati  referred to civilian or military readers. My own feeling is that most of those who 'were stupid enough' were officers of the British army as they were much more likely to have read the book. The 'Merchant's' is of course the Exchange and Commercial library. ( See LINK )

General Don and Lady Don
We were presented to the Governor, Sir George Don, a general and G.C.B., a very fine old gentleman, of the Windsor Terrace school, courtly, almost regal in his manner, paternal, almost officious in his temper, a sort of mixture of Lord St. Vincent and the Prince de Ligne.

English in his general style, but highly polished and experienced in European society. His palace, the Government House, is an old convent, and one of the most delightful residences I know; with a garden under the superintendence of Lady Don, full of rare exotics, with a beautiful terrace over the sea, a berceau of vines, and other delicacies which would quite delight you.

He behaved to us with great kindness, asked us to dine, and gave us a route himself for an excursion to the Sierra de Ronda, a savage mountain district, abounding in the most beautiful scenery and bugs! 

General Don was not just 'English in manner' - he was English through and through with a marked distaste for anything and anybody who wasn't English - or didn't look English. He must have been on his best behaviour as Disraeli - although a devout Anglican since he was twelve - was hardly a typical Anglo-Saxon. Lady Don's involvement in looking after the Convent's gardens confirms the general suspicion that she had more than a little to do with her husband's decision to create the Alameda Gardens.

General George Don

Robbers and Smugglers
We returned from this excursion, which took us a week, yesterday, greatly gratified. The country in which we travelled is a land entirely of robbers and smugglers. They commit no personal violence, but lay you on the ground and clean out your pockets. If you have less than sixteen dollars they shoot you; that is the tariff, and is a loss worth risking. 

I took care to have very little more, and no baggage which I could not stow in the red bag which my mother remembers making for my pistols. You will wonder how we managed to extract pleasure from a life which afforded us hourly peril for our purses and perhaps for our lives, which induced fatigue greater than I ever experienced, for here are no roads, and we were never less than eight hours a day on horseback, picking our way through a course which can only be compared to the steep bed of an exhausted cataract, and with so slight a prospect of attaining for a reward either food or rest, I will tell you. 

Disraeli was simply confirming the experiences of many members of the garrison who ventured forth either on picnics to the cork woods at La Almoraima or took part in the various social activities of the Calpe Hunt. ( See LINK )

The country was beautiful, the novelty of the life was great, and above all we had Brunet. What a man! Born in Italy of French parents, he has visited, as the captain of a privateer, all countries of the Mediterranean: Egypt, Turkey, Syria. Early in life, as valet to Lord Hood, he was in England, and has even been at Guinea. 

After fourteen years' cruising he was taken by the Algerines, and was in various parts of Barbary for five or six years, and at last he obtains his liberty and settles at Gibraltar, where he becomes cazador to the Governor for he is, among his universal accomplishments, a celebrated shot. 

He can speak all languages but English, of which he makes a sad affair - even Latin, and he hints at a little Greek. He is fifty, but light as a butterfly and gay as a bird; in person not unlike English at Lyme, if you can imagine so insipid a character with a vivacity that never flags, and a tongue that never rests. Brunet did everything, remedied every inconvenience, and found an expedient for every difficulty. 

Never did I live so well as among these wild mountains of Andalusia, so exquisite is his cookery. Seriously, he is an artist of the first magnitude, and used to amuse himself by giving us some very exquisite dish among these barbarians; for he affects a great contempt of the Spaniards, and an equal admiration for the Moors. Whenever we complained he shrugged his shoulders with a look of ineffable contempt, exclaiming, 'Nous no sommes pas en Barbarie!' Recalling our associations with that word and country, it was superbly ludicrous. 

I have not been able to trace Brunet anywhere else in the literature but he obviously made a great impression. He must have been recommended to Disraeli by General Don.

At Castellar we slept in the very haunt of the banditti, among the good fellows of Jose Maria, the Captain Rolando of this part, and were not touched. In fact, we were not promising prey, though picturesque enough in our appearance. Imagine M. and myself on two little Andalusian mountain horses with long tails and jennet necks, followed by a larger beast of burthen with our baggage, and the inevitable Brunet cocked upon its neck with a white hat and slippers, lively, shrivelled and noisy as a pea dancing upon tin. 

Castellar ( 1860 - George Washington Wilson )

The Guide
Our Spanish guide, tall, and with a dress excessively brodé and covered with brilliant buttons, walking by the side and occasionally adding to the burthen of our sumpter steed. The air of the mountains, the rising sun, the rising appetite, the variety of picturesque persons and things we, met, and the impending danger, made a delightful life, and had it not been for the great enemy I should have given myself up entirely to the magic of the life; but that spoiled all. 

It is not worse; sometimes I think it lighter about the head, but the palpitation about the heart greatly increases, otherwise my health is wonderful. Never have I been better; but what use is this when the end of all existence is debarred me? I say no more upon this melancholy subject, by which I am ever and infinitely depressed, and often most so when the world least imagines it; but to complain is useless, and to endure almost impossible; but existence is certainly less irksome in the mild distraction of this various life. 

I am not sure what the 'melancholy subject' was. Perhaps he was referring to his own poor state of health at the time. The stress caused by mounting debts and the furore caused by the publishing of his book Vivian Grey had led to a nervous breakdown. Perhaps he was referring to this.  

Fashion and the Garrison
Tell my mother that as it is the fashion among the dandies of this place - that is, the officers, for there are no others - not to wear waistcoats in the morning, her new studs come into fine play, and maintain my reputation of being a great judge of costume, to the admiration and envy of many subalterns. 

I have also the fame of being the first whoever passed the Straits with two canes, a morning and an evening cane. I change my cane as the gun fires, and hope to carry them both onto Cairo. It is wonderful the effect these magical wands produce. I owe to them even more attention than to being the supposed author of-what is it ? -I forget! 

The Straits
These Straits, by-the-bye - that is, the passage for the last ten miles or so to Gib, between the two opposite coasts of Africa and Europe, with the ocean for a river, and the shores all mountains - is by far the sublimest thing I have yet seen . . . When I beg you to write, I mean my beloved Sa, because I know you think it a bore; but do all as you like. To her and to my dearest mother a thousand kisses. 

Tell Ralph I have not forgotten my promise of an occasional letter; and my dear pistol-cleaner, that he forgot to oil the locks, which rusted in conveyance. I thank the gods daily I am freed of Louis Clement, who would have been an expense and a bore. Tell Irving he has left a golden name in Spain. Few English visit Gibraltar. Tell Lord Mahon, inquiries made after his health. 

Adieu, my beloved padre. 
Your most affectionate son,

Irvine was Washington Irvine - the well known American author and historian  and writer of several books on Spain. On the whole Disraeli was wrong about the lack of English people visiting Gibraltar - quite a few did throughout the eighteenth century and, like him, left us their impressions.

July 14, 1830.  My dear Father 

Lady Don
We passed a very pleasant week at Gibraltar, after our return from Ronda. We dined with the Governor at his cottage at Europa, a most charming pavilion, and met a most agreeable party. Lady Don was well enough to dine with us, and did me the honour of informing me that I was the cause of the exertion, which, though of course, a fib, was nevertheless flattering. 

She is, though very old, without exception one of the most agreeable personages that I ever met, excessively acute and piquante, with an aptitude of detecting character, and a tact in assuming it, very remarkable. To listen to her you would think you were charming away the hour with a blooming beauty in Mayfair; and, though excessively infirm, her eye is so brilliant and so full of moquerie that you quite forgot her wrinkles. 

Altogether the scene very much resembled a small German Court. There was his Excellency in uniform covered with orders, exactly like the old Grand Duke of Darmstadt, directing everything; his wife the clever Prussian Princess that shared his crown; the aides-de-camp made excellent chamberlains, and the servants in number and formality quite equalled those of a Residenz. 

The repast was really elegant and recherche even for this curious age. Sir George will yet head his table and yet carve, recommend a favourite dish, and deluge you with his summer drink, half champagne and half lemonade. After dinner Lady Don rode out with the very pretty wife of Colonel Considine, and the men dispersed in various directions. 

General Don
It was the fate of Meredith and myself to be lionised to some cave or other with Sir George. What a scene, and what a procession! First came two grooms on two Barbs; then a carriage with four horses; at the window at which H. E. sits, a walking footman, and then an outrider, all at a funeral pace. We were directed to meet our host at the cave, ten minutes' walk. 

During this time Sir G. tries one of the Arabians, but at the gentlest walk, and the footman changes his position in consequence to his side; but it is windy, our valiant but infirm friend is afraid of being blown off, and when he reaches the point of destination, we find him again in the carriage. 

In spite of his infirmities he will get out to lionise; but before he disembarks, he changes his foraging cap for a full general's cock with a plume as big as the Otranto one; and this because the hero will never be seen in public in undress, although we were in a solitary cave looking over the ocean, and inhabited only by monkeys. 

The cave is shown, and we all get in the carriage, because he is sure we are tired; the foraging cap is again assumed, and we travel back to the Cottage, Meredith, myself, the Governor, and the cocked hat, each in a seat. In the evening he has his rubber, which he never misses, and is surprised I do not play 'the only game for gentlemen! You should play; learn.' However, I preferred the conversation of his agreeable lady, although the charms of Mrs. Considine were puzzling, and I was very much like Hercules between - you know the rest. 

In this case it was the  Duchess of Connaught visiting St Michael's in 1879 - Disraeli probably suffered a similar ordeal. 

It is refreshing - and typical - of Disraeli to be so infinitely more interested in the idiosyncrasies of General Don's dress and demeanour than in the wonders of what one must presume to have been St. Michael's cave. Disraeli's travelling companion Meredith testified that his friends lectures on morals and politics had a great effect on General Don - but it does seem unlikely. Nevertheless, he may have mocked the old Governor but he obviously admired his wife who was sixty six at the time - shades of his eventual relationship with Queen Victoria. It is also interesting to note that Don was a keen bridge player.

Disraeli's Hair
I am sorry to say my hair is coming off, just at the moment it had attained the highest perfection, and was universally mistaken for a wig, so that I am obliged to let the women pull it to satisfy their curiosity. Let me know what my mother thinks. There are no wigs here that I could wear. Pomade and all that is quite a delusion. Somebody recommends me cocoa-nut oil, which I could get here; but suppose it turns it grey or blue or green! 

I made a very pleasant acquaintance at Gibraltar, Sir Charles Gordon, a brother of Lord Aberdeen, and Colonel of the Royal Highlanders. He was absent during my first visit. He is not unlike his brother in appearance, but the frigidity of the Gordons has expanded into urbanity, instead of subsiding into sullenness - in short, a man with a warm heart though a cold manner, and exceedingly amusing, with the reputation, of being always silent. As contraries sometimes agree, we became exceedingly friendly. 

Charles Gordon and Lord Aberdeen were cousins of Byron - and anybody who was related to Byron couldn't help but be admired by Disraeli. 

Lord Aberdeen - a good friend of Byron ( Unknown )

Baron Field
The Judge Advocate at Gibraltar is that Mr. Baron Field who once wrote a book, and whom all the world took for a noble, but it turned out that Baron was to him what Thomas is to other men. He pounced upon me, said he had seen you at Murray's, first man of the day, and all that, and evidently expected to do an amazing bit of literature; but I found him a bore, and vulgar, a Storks without breeding, consequently I gave him a lecture on canes, which made him stare, and he has avoided me ever since. 

The truth is, he wished to saddle his mother upon me for a compagnon de voyage, whom I discovered in the course of half an hour to be both deaf, dumb, and blind, but yet more endurable than the noisy, obtrusive, jargonic judge, who is a true lawyer, ever illustrating the obvious, explaining the evident, and expatiating on the common-place. 

Judge Barron Field

Baron Field - actually Barron Field - was a barrister, a judge  and a poet. Before being appointed as Judge of the Court of Civil Appeals in Gibraltar, he had been a judge of the supreme court of New South Wales and Advocate-fiscal in Ceylon. It was probably his dabbling in poetry - he wrote the first two volumes of verse to have been published in Australia - that mostly stuck in Disraeli's craw. 

Frank Hall Standish
I have met here Mr. Frank Hall Standish, once a celebrated dandy, and who wrote a life of Voltaire, you remember. 

Standish was an author and art collector. He spent most of his life travelling Europe but his main home was in Seville. He may have been visiting at the time.

Frank Hall Standish on a black hunter

King's Death
We have heard of the King's death, which is the destruction of my dress waistcoats. I truly grieve. News arrived last night of the capture of Algiers, but all this will reach you before my letter. My general health is excellent. I have never had a moment's illness since I left home, not counting an occasional indigestion, but I mean no fever and so on. The great enemy, I think, is weaker, but the palpitation at the heart the reverse. I find wherever I go plenty of friends and nothing but attention. 

Your most affectionate son . . .

The King in question was that of George IV although Disraeli seems to have been more concerned with the sudden need for sartorial restraint than in any sadness for his monarch.

Generally Disraeli’s letters tell us more about himself than about Gibraltar. Name-dropping, waspish and snobbish by turn - but unexpectedly for a man who would one day be such a brilliant politician - he viewed the place not in political terms but with the eyes of a novelist enjoying the local colour. 

He tried to ingratiate himself with the upper echelons of the Military establishment little realising that he was almost certainly considered by most of them as ‘that damned bumptious Jew boy’. Or maybe he did. He may have been bumptious but he was no fool.

But mostly one can forgive him whatever his youthful faults as his opinions about Gibraltar - and its local people - were generally complimentary. Unlike his hero Byron who could so easily have influenced his opinions, he did not consider Gibraltar to be ‘The dirtiest and most detestable place in existence’.

Finally, perhaps it would be appropriate to paraphrase one of his own quotes; Like all great travellers, he had perhaps, seen more than he remembered, and remembered more than he had seen.

The Rock   ( 1830 - William Mein Smith )