The People of Gibraltar

1838 - George Dennis - Nondescript Spaniards

George Dennis was born in Middlesex in 1814 and lived to the ripe old age of 84. He was a well known traveller and explorer and his written accounts and drawings of Etruria are still used as a references in Etruscan studies.

George Dennis

When he was 22 he set off to explore Spain and Portugal writing at least some of his experiences in A Summer in AndalucĂ­a which was published in 1839 and which includes a rather interesting chapter on Gibraltar.

As one would expect, the author mentions all the usual sights - the excavations, the Alameda, St Michael's Cave, the Moorish Castle and so on -  but his comments on the people of Gibraltar and their relationship with the British are the ones that are the most revealing. This together with a lengthy discourse on smuggling and its consequences make George Dennis' book very much worth a read.

Frontispiece with engraving of Ronda - home to many a Gibraltar contrabandist ( Unknown ) 

It was broad daylight when we reached the small village on the frontiers of the Spanish territory, where the 'arrieros' were obliged to procure a licence to enter the Fortress though I, as a British subject was only required to show my passport. . .

The People
. . . Even to one not fresh from the cities of Andalucia where a unity of dress, manners, and language prevails, the great variety in these respects to be met with in Gibraltar would be surprising enough, for here are congregated individuals from many different countries.

Besides British civilians, and others in the general European costume, whose nationality is to be determined only by their physiognomy and accent, there are the military of the garrison in various uniforms, who form a large proportion — perhaps one-third— of the population.

Then there is the British sailor swaggering through the streets with his trousers at once of the tightest and the loosest, his hands stuck in his pockets, and his low-crowned straw hat cocked on the side of his head, with its long ribbons streaming in the air - the Catalan or Genoese sailor with his red pendent cap, brown jacket, crimson sash, and bare sun burnt feet and legs — the dingy, ragged charcoal-burner from the mountains of Algeciras - the 'contrabandista' in his trim and gay majo dress, strutting as proudly as the British soldiery, and much more gracefully - and the nondescript Spaniard, muffled in his 'capa parda'.

To these and many others from Europe Africa adds the stately Moor in turban rich vest, loose and short white drawers, and yellow Morocco slippers, or wrapt in the thin shroud-like 'haik' - and the filthy, greasy Jew with untrimmed beard, small black or blue skull-cap, long jacket, loose blue breeches, held up by a red worsted sash, and bare arms and legs, shuffling along in his slippers as he carries some burden on his back, or supports it on a pole resting on his shoulder and on that of a comrade.

Other Israelites of a somewhat higher class, in light-blue gowns girt by red sashes, will be sitting cross-legged in the streets, or hawking rolls of cloth from door to door. The swarms of this race in Gibraltar particularly strike the attention of the traveller who enters from Spain, as no Jew has for centuries been allowed to enter that country.

'Israelites of a somewhat higher class, in light-blue gowns girt by red sashes'   ( Unknown )

As to the costumes of the women, there are but three varieties. The hooded cloak of scarlet, edged with a broad border of black velvet - address, I believe, peculiar to the Rock ; the mantilla and fan of the Spanish residents, sometimes assumed by the natives also; and the bonnet and gown of the English lassies. As the languages to be heard in the streets are even more various than the costumes, Gibraltar is a very Babel.

'The hooded cloak of scarlet, edged with a broad border of black velvet — a
dress . . .peculiar to the Rock'   (Unknown )

The Town
Another peculiarity is the strange jumble of buildings. Here the open-courted, airy Spanish house contrasts with the close, small-roomed English dwelling — there the glass-fronted, deep, and well-stocked shop, the counterpart of which might be found in Cornhill or the Strand, stands by the side of the small, open stall of the Moor or Jew.

Then the crowds, the bustle, the uproar, the evidences of trade and industry in Gibraltar, contrast forcibly with the deep repose of Spanish cities. Besides handsome vehicles dashing along with gay officers and gayer dames, and equestrians curvetting through the streets on their way to Europa Point, or on excursions into the Spanish territory, there are carts and trucks conveying goods, porters laden with burdens, and men of business hurrying to and fro regardless of the heat Gibraltar has thus an air of far more activity than the neighbouring seaports of the Peninsula which have four or five times its population.

'Porters with their burdens' ( Unknown )

The character of its possessors causes the difference. The commercial enterprise of the English is transfused into their colonies, and seems to affect all who come within the sphere of their influence. The Italian, French, and Moorish residents here catch the spirit; even the Spaniard lays aside his habitual sloth, and bestirs himself in the pursuit of wealth.

But what more than all must strike the traveller who enters the Fortress from Spain, is the state of society on the Rock. On coming from a country where everyone is disposed to be pleased and sociable with all around him — where distinctions in rank never interfere with the claims of courtesy - where the highest and lowest can meet without the risk of degrading the one or unduly exalting the other - where the poor are not constantly reminded of their inferiority by the rich, but where the "Go with God, friend!" of the peasant is answered by the noble with a similar salutation, - the contrast in the state of society at Gibraltar is calculated to make the English traveller (if not deeply imbued with home prejudices) ashamed of, or disgusted with, his countrymen.

Here is seen, under its most glaring aspect, that narrow pride, whether of rank or wealth, which is perhaps the worst feature in the English Character, and certainly the most disgusting to foreigners.

The officers of the garrison look upon the civilians, with a very few exceptions among the British, as immeasurably inferior to themselves ; they despise the natives of the Rock, many of whom are of great respectability and wealth, as mere " Scorpions ;" and regard foreigners as quite unworthy
of their notice.

This naturally begets in the civilians a hostile spirit, the long-smouldering sparks of which, a short time before my arrival at Gibraltar, had burst into a flame on the citizens proposing to give a ball to the lady of the Governor, Sir Alexander Woodford. An exclusive feeling is to a certain extent unavoidable, inasmuch as a universal social equality is a chimera.

Sir Alexander Woodford

The educated cannot be expected to associate with the illiterate, the polished with the unrefined ; but should any carry their exclusiveness, even towards the lower orders, to such lengths as to interfere with the common courtesies of life, they become objects of pity or disgust ; how much more so, when those they despise are their equals, perhaps their superiors, in intellect, acquirements, manners, and honourable feeling,- in everything but the adventitious circumstance of rank or wealth?

The 'contrabandista', who conducts business on a large scale, receives his orders in the country, proceeds to Gibraltar, well provided with funds, buys the goods, freights a bark, and sails for the coast where he wishes to land. Here the vessel arrives generally at night; should she, if discovered not respond satisfactorily to the hailing of the soldiers, a fire is lighted outside the nearest 'torron', and one tower after another repeats the signal, till, in a short time, all are on the alert, and a strong force of soldiery is ready at any point where a landing may be attempted"

Old Moorish tower near Algeciras ( Unknown )

This is the legitimate course of events ; but more generally the matter turns out otherwise. A 'composition' is made. The vessel stands off during the day, but at night runs in towards the land, and the 'contrabandista' rows ashore as a simple cavalier, and proceeds to the nearest tower.

He answers the sharp challenge of the sentinel, '' Quien viva ?" by requesting to speak to the commanding officer on the station. When closeted with him, he confesses at once that he has a cargo of contraband goods to run ashore, and offers the soldier a good share in the spoil as the price of forbearance.

It cannot be expected, in a country where most public servants, from the prime minister to the lowest 'aduanero', either peculate, or are open to bribery, and where it is hardly considered dishonourable, but almost one of the duties of an official station so to do - that an ill-paid military officer would make a display of public honesty, which would neither be understood nor appreciated.

This argument to the pocket then rarely fails of success. The bargain is soon struck; the contrabandist is to land his cargo at a certain hour the next night the captain is to withdraw his soldiers to another part of the coasts under pretence of having received intelligence of a meditated descent of a band of smugglers, and in recompense thereof, when the goods are safe inland, he is to receive a present of a handsome sum - several hundred dollars, it maybe, more or less according to the value of the cargo.

As there is honour among rogues, he does, not refuse to trust to the honesty of the smuggler for the fulfillment of his part of the agreement In due time, the peasantry in league with the 'contrabandista', who have been looking out from the cliffs, and learned, from signals, the proposed hour of landing, come down to the beach, sometimes to the number of a hundred or more, all well mounted and armed.

The goods being stowed away on the beasts, they set off for the mountains ; and while a dozen men or so lead the laden animals, the rest march on either hand muskets over their shoulders, and beat the country for fear of ambuscades.

Smugglers on their way to Gaucin with Gibraltar in the distance ( 1830 - J.F.Lewis )

Should they fall in with a body of soldiers, a skirmish generally ensues ; the troops aiming at the horses rather than at the men, well knowing that should any animals fall, as great delay would be occasioned in transferring their burdens to others, there they would most probably be left; in which case two-thirds of the booty would revert to the crown, And the remainder become the property of the conquerors.

Most frequently, however, the 'contrabandistas' reach the recesses of the mountain in safety, the beasts are unburdened, and the goods sent off the next morning to their respective destinations.. . .

. . . .The Spanish 'contrabandistas' of the better class are a noble set of men, hardy and daring, generous and strictly honourable. I have heard Englishmen who have travelled with and been entertained by them, speak in the highest terms of their courtesy and hospitality. Smugglers of the inferior class will rarely scruple to turn robbers when opportunities offer, but the 'contrabandista' par excellence, disdains to plunder anything less than the royal treasury.

Their course of lie is not so hazardous as it would appear, for the 'aduaneros' are either too much afraid of them openly to attack them, or are rendered compliant by bribes. The alcaldes of the villages where the contrabandists reside are also bribed and seldom attempt to disturb them.

Now and then when they know that a smuggler has nothing contraband in his house, the alcaide and 'aduaneros, either to satisfy their consciences, or, more likely, to make a report, pay him an official visit. The contrabandist receives them courteously, assures them their suspicions are entirely unfounded, but tells them to please themselves, to search everywhere. This they do, and when they have pried into every comer without success, he offers them some choice Habanos, and dismisses them  . . .

The poorer smugglers, however, the mere foot-pads of the exchequer, from whom these officials have nothing to fear or to hope in the way of bribes, are sometimes seized as examples, and condemned to the 'presidios' for a term of years.

View of the 'Lines' from Gibraltar. That double row of sentry boxes - or guerritas -  were there to deter the 'poorer' land smugglers  ( Unknown )

Never was the absurdity of prohibitions against the introduction of articles of foreign produce and manufacture more clearly evidenced than in Spain. As there is neither capital nor enterprise for manufacturing at home, the people must have made-goods from abroad ; and the laws prohibiting their importation, or the extravagantly high duties which amount to prohibitions, have, in consequence, induced smuggling to an extent which has probably never been equalled elsewhere.

According to recent calculations, nearly 300,000 Spaniards are engaged, one way or other, in this illegal traffic. Moreover, these fiscal regulations ruin the fair trader, or compel him, in self-defence, to turn smuggler with the rest — ruin the public exchequer, for the revenue received is scarcely worth the expense of its collection — and, worse than all, ruin the public morals.

The Government is obliged to maintain a large force for the suppression of the smuggling it has itself caused ; and, on account of the smallness of the revenues, these officers are so inadequately paid, that they are induced either to embezzle part of the revenue they collect, or to make up the deficiency in their salaries by receiving presents from the 'contrabandistas' as the price of their connivance.

The higher officials are not less venal than the lower, and corruption becomes sanctioned by example. When we consider the wide extent of this bribery - the immense number of those engaged in smuggling - the contagious influence of their example on others, begetting contempt for the Government, and a general readiness to evade the laws - we shall be convinced that the extent of public demoralization occasioned by these prohibitory laws is incalculable.

Had the legislators of Spain expressly sought to frame a system which should ruin at once the national revenues and morals they could not have devised one more effectual than that which actually exists.

A moderate duty would remedy these evils — would greatly enrich the exchequer, — the officials, with better pay, would be less venal and more efficient, — smuggling would necessarily diminish in a great degree, for, with his risk then increased, the contrabandist could scarcely afford to undersell the fair trader, - and the public morality would acquire a more healthy tone.

Gibraltar     ( 1830s - J.M.W.Turner )

The conclusions that one can draw from this long discussion on smuggling is one that was almost universally accepted as gospel truth by just about every British historian or commentator of the 18th and 19th century. To the uninitiated it appears both logical and relatively even-handed. The smuggler is more or less exonerated and the blame is laid squarely on the Spanish government. High Spanish tariffs levied on imported goods are the real culprits.

Unfortunately this kind of reasoning glibly omits two fundamental points. The first is that the Spanish authorities found themselves between a rock - no pun intended - and a hard place; if they reduced their tariffs the country would be flooded with imports destroying their already fragile economy. Their adoption of high protective tariffs  undoubtedly led to both smuggling and corruption - but it was by far the lesser of the two evils.

The second omission is less pardonable; there is no mention of the fact that that the main suppliers of smuggled goods were from Britain, the middlemen Gibraltar merchants, the majority British born. The British government were privy to this state of affairs but chose to turn a blind eye. 

Economically dominant countries - and Britain certainly was one at the time - have always been keen exponents of free trade and have tended to use Adam Smith's philosophy - as rather selectively interpreted by them from his Wealth of Nations - as some sort of moral justification for the otherwise unjustifiable. Smuggling from Gibraltar was a case in point.