The People of Gibraltar

1854 - John Overton Choules - 'Charley'

'Charley' and Mr Roberts - Horatio and Antonia Sprague

In early 1853, Cornelius Vanderbilt - one of the richest Americans in its entire history, took his family on a grand tour of Europe in his steamship yacht, the North Star.

The North Star ( 1852 Bard )

Aboard ship was the pastor, the Rev John Overton Choules, a friend of Vanderbilt. Choules had already undertaken an extended trip to Europe and had written a book about his experiences in Young Americans Abroad and it seems likely that part of the deal was that he should write a similar book about the Vanderbilt's trip. Whatever the case the outcome was The Cruise of the North Star; a narrative of the excursion of Mr. Vanderbilt's Party which was published in 1854,  and which included a chapter on Gibraltar. Below are some quotes from the book.

Cornelius Vanderbilt  ( Howell & Meyer )

The People
What a strange medley of characters the streets present! Here are white-turbaned, white-trousered and petticoated Moors; keen-bargaining, black-eyed Jews; swarthy Spaniards; bright-tartaned Highlanders ; gaily-dressed English officers, beautiful women in mantillas, and red-coated soldiers, at every step. The streets are all alive with a busy, bustling population.

Our party are watched closely by the shop-keepers, and a good-looking Jew has caught the ladies; we fill his shop, and even crowd his back-room. The shelves and counters are loaded with Spanish and Moorish curiosities. Andalusian scarves, embroidered table-covers, Malaga figures, costumes, cushions, slippers, vases, coral, silks, old laces, china, and I know not what else, were the sore temptations. One thing I do know, that before the ladies left they had well-nigh emptied the store.

Main Street Gibraltar ( Unknown )

In our shopping expeditions we found ourselves in a curiosity store, kept by a Moor, who is known as 'Charley'. He is the handsomest black man I ever saw. His eyes are wondrously fine, but his face has been tattooed in his early youth, when he was a slave in Barbary. Charley has been to Timbuctoo, has been a great traveller, speaks several languages, and has managed to accumulate some considerable cash. 

This man is, in my estimation, 'the character' of the town. His costume is thoroughly Turkish, or, more correctly, Moorish; parts of his dress very costly. In his shop we made many a pleasant lounge, and ate his dates, which he always brought out. I think that our acquaintance was mutually agreeable; for certainly Charley, having found favor with our ladies, made extensive sales to all our party, and I fancy at leaving he must have had possession of several hundreds of dollars. His card of business is as follows:

Hagge Said Guesus,
Dealer in Moorish curiosities, etc. etc. etc.,
No. 7 Main Street,

A shrewder salesman than 'Charley' is not often found. I am writing from an inkstand which I purchased from him, and he said, 'O, you will wish you had bought a dozen when you get home!' Well, Charley, you were right there; for my Moorish inkstand, with its castellated sides, is a general favourite, and nearly every one covets it; but I shall keep it in remembrance of as clever a darkey as I know. But he was far too clever to let me off an inkstand, and sundry other memorials have I to show of our transactions in trade. I wanted some large vases. 

'Well,' said Charley, " what you want such big things; you can't car them a-ship and not break.' And he strongly urged smaller matters; but I was set on my idols, - a pair of large vases, made in Barbary. Charley was wrong; the big things reached home in safety, and Charley, like his prophet, was a false one. I commend all travellers to the Rock to put themselves at once into commercial intercourse with Hagge Said Guesus; and I do not think that there is one of the North Star party who would not like to shake hands again with 'Charley.'

 Gibraltar ( Illustration from the book )
 I had nearly forgot to say that Charley always addresses the ladies as 'my dear; ' and the good-humoured expression which is enthroned on his handsome round visage is only clouded when a customer objects to his prices, which he prides himself upon never abating. Inkstand, and sundry other memorials have I to show of our transactions in trade . . . . 

An interesting account and an interesting address. 'Charley' is one of a handful of resident Negroes mentioned in the literature on Gibraltar. If he was indeed as much of a local character as Choules suggests, being black will had as much to do with it as anything else.  No. 7 Main Streets put Charley's shop in a prime position close to the Casemates as well as any tourist trade entering the town from Waterport wharf. 

Mr. Roberts
Among those whose politeness I feel bound to record I will mention Mr. Roberts, who keeps a fine chemist's store, where every drug and chemical may be procured in as much perfection as in London or Paris. Mr. Roberts, with hundreds of the inhabitants of the Rock, visited the yacht; and when he came off to us the day we sailed, he politely brought a box of ice, which for a day or two proved exceedingly comfortable and refreshing.

Mr Sprague - The US Consul 
On reaching the town, we all met, at four o'clock, at Mr. Sprague's, where he had prepared an elegant dinner. The table was covered with every luxury that the climate furnishes. The game and fruits were in rich profusion, and the dessert was principally furnished from his country house and gardens. 

The hospitalities of this day are inscribed upon our memories. Mr. Sprague is a gentleman of the most polished address, resides in a noble mansion, and is the worthy successor of his honored father in an office which he long held to the credit of his country.  The mother of Mr. Sprague did the honors of the table with great dignity, and our ladies probably enjoyed the day as much as any they had passed upon the excursion. Mrs. Sprague's daughters were in Boston, on a visit to a sister who resides there. ( see LINK )

Horatio Jones Sprague - US Consul 

Dinner at the Officers' Mess
Having ordered our boatmen to meet us at the Ragged Staff, as the town gates would be closed on our return, we at a little past seven got into the carriage and ascended the rock, which is a slow process, but every winding turn showing us new beauties, and at eight we reached the comfortable quarters of the regimental mess. A more superb look-out was never seen than this building affords.

The accommodations are very fine, and all that gentlemen can desire. At a little past eight we were summoned to the dining-room, and a more magnificent one is not easily found. It was a company night, of which there are two every week. There were twenty-two or twenty-four officers at table, all in uniform. The table was loaded with massive plate, belonging to the regiment, which is distinguished for the elegance of its equipage.

Our dinner was one of the best I ever met out of Paris; indeed, it was thoroughly Parisian, as the arrangements of the mess are under the supervision of an artist from the French capital. The Epergnes were very large, and bear the name of the regiment; and the immense candelabra and other adornments rendered it a brilliant scene. The band played during the evening . . . 

For the ordinary soldier, Gibraltar was a dreadful place to be posted, for an officer of the British army it was one of the best. The opulence of mess life was of course a given in any regiment anywhere in the British Empire. But the description above gives one the feeling that on the Rock everybody in the Garrison from the humblest subaltern to the Governor himself could count on that little bit extra - excellent food and the best burgundy that money could buy. That the Vanderbilt party  - multimillionaires accustomed to that little bit extra - were impressed, suggests a very high standard of sumptuousness indeed. 

A Picnic in the  Corkwoods
On Wednesday . . .several of the officers . . proposed to the . . .  an excursion on horseback to the Cork woods, a place famous for picnics, and situated a few miles within the Spanish dominions. From a lady who made one of the party I received the following account of the jaunt, and thankfully made use of her kind communication. The events of the jaunt I heard most graphically described the next evening by several of the English gentlemen, and one bore the marks of his accident.

"My dear Doctor Choules : 
According to promise, I proceed to give you a brief account of a most delightful picnic to the Cork wood groves, in the vicinity of Gibraltar, given us by several of the officers of H. B. M.'s 44th regiment, and of the Royal Artillery. The invitation was kindly extended to all our party (as you are aware), but from indisposition, and dread of the long ride on horseback, several declined. 

At ten o'clock of a rather cloudy morning, we were equipped in our travelling-dresses, and mounted on very tolerable horses. I was more fortunate than the rest; Mr. H., of the artillery, having insisted upon my riding one of his horses, a very beautiful animal, which had won the races at Seville not long previous. 

I gladly availed myself of his kind offer, I can assure you, and off we started, in great spirits. We soon reached the neutral ground, dividing Spain from Gibraltar, and it certainly looks as if it had no owner. It is quite barren, with scarcely a habitation upon it, about a mile in length, and half a mile in width. The outposts, only a few rods apart, soon told us we were in her Spanish majesty's dominions. 

We passed a few miserable-looking houses, the inhabitants eying us rather suspiciously, as they do not like the English officers to enter their territory. In a short time we arrived at San Roque, a quiet little town, about two leagues distant from Gibraltar. It is to this town that the newly-married couples of Gibraltar generally repair to spend their honeymoon. 

San Roque   ( 1860s - George Wasington Wilson )

Here we stopped a few minutes for refreshment, and to readjust our dresses. San Roque, like other Spanish towns, has an amphitheatre for bull-fights, and an Alameda, or public shady walk. Our way now lay through a wild country, the only road a foot-path, over which we had to pass in Indian file. I was told by Capt B. that a British officer had been attacked and robbed, recently, in passing over this very ground. 

This in no way excited our fears, our escort being gallant and powerful. We were obliged to ford several small streams, and in crossing one Mr. L.'s horse very coolly laid down and took a refreshing roll in the water, greatly to his discomfiture. We soon came in view of the cork-trees. They are a wide-spread, shady tree; the foliage is very thick, and of a dark green. 

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the tree, except the bark, or cork, which covers the trunk to the depth of six inches. We rode through the wood for about two miles, until we reached a very humble country inn, where the only accommodation found was an empty barn, from which was separated, at one end, an old wine-shop. We tasted some of the wine, but found it disagreeable. 

We expected that the officers' ' tiger,' whom they had sent with lunch, would be here awaiting our arrival. In about half an hour he made his appearance, having had great difficulty in crossing the Spanish line. We dismounted, and, after selecting a large tree, the ladies reclined under its shade, while the gentlemen provided our repast. A large pine table was brought, also a few rustic chairs, and we were soon engaged doing ample justice to the liberal entertainment set out for us. 

Picnic at the Almoraima Cork woods ( Unknown )

The chicken salad was made by an artist; and, as we had been well appetized by our long ride, the viands and wines were very grateful to our hungry palates. We were disappointed with the appearance of the cork groves; they were not so picturesque as we had expected. The tree is large and beautiful, but the forest, covering a vast plain, is monotonous. 

After passing a couple of hours agreeably enlivened by social chat, and having cut off some pieces of cork as reminiscences, we set out on our return, which proved to be full of adventures. . . . Mr. S. in crossing a farm, was denied passage by the peasants, who seized hold of his bridle, and threatened violence; but Mr. S. nothing daunted, laid about right and left with a heavy riding-whip, and forced his way through. 

We then made a fresh start, and, as it was getting late, took a short cut across the sandy beach at the head of the Bay of Algeciras. Independently of the novel incidents of our excursion, we were charmed with the gentlemanly demeanour and courtesy of our entertainers . . .

These outings were a feature of - and organised by - the Royal Calpe Hunt, ( see LINK ) one of the most important institutions of 19th century Gibraltar. Rich Spanish landlords welcomed contacts with the upper echelons of Gibraltar's Garrison society - the peasants were less pleased with these constant invasions of their farms and properties.

A great deal of smuggling goes on here, by men who carry articles into Spain. This morning . . . a sad occurrence took place; at early daylight one man was found dead and two others mortally wounded, on the sandy bar known as the neutral ground. They had been pursued by the Spanish revenue force, and shot whilst attempting to escape. They were brought into the town, but the wounded men were regarded as beyond cure. These smugglers are known as 'rock scorpions,' -  persons who live by a contraband trade, and by their wits.

There are several interesting points to this. The first is that these men had not been dragged off to face the music by the Spanish revenue officers. The most probable reason is that the smugglers even though badly wounded somehow managed to drag themselves close enough to British territory as to discourage any further action. If so then it was a good reminder of the uneven relationship that existed at the time between the a super power - the British - and a country in economic decline. Spain.

As regards 'Rock Scorpions' this is  a rather ambiguous term that has changed its meaning over time. However in the 1830s it was almost always used to describe people who had actually been born in Gibraltar - as against British ex-pats and long term visitors from elsewhere. Those smugglers, however, were far more likely to have been Spaniards than people from Gibraltar.

'A smuggler's dash for liberty. An exciting scene on the frontier at Gibraltar' ( 1902  - The Graphic Magazine )