The People of Gibraltar

1909 – The Huge Rock Pile  - Teddy's Three Hour visit

Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest President of the USA in 1901 following the assassination of President McKinley. Almost immediately after leaving the Presidency in 1909, the now ex-president decided to go on a big-game hunting African safari – an activity viewed as politically incorrect nowadays but which fitted in well in the early 20th century with Roosevelt’s very masculine philosophy of life.  Men – he insisted - should always be men 

On this occasion he proved his virility by killing – with some help from his son Kermit – well over 500 animals among them large numbers of lions, elephants and rhinos. He was there for a year. When he finally left for home those animals he failed to shoot must have been happy to see him go.

Teddy and friend

However, when on his way to Mombasa and the Congo on the German Hamburg-Amerika liner SS Hamburg, the ship made a stop in Gibraltar harbour during which time the ex-president made a point of disembarking – a decision which had at least one important consequence – it has allowed me to write this article - something that I would not have done had he given Gibraltar a miss.

Mr. Roosevelt was travelling at his own request as a private citizen and he therefore did not expect or receive any official reception. But of course, he was still an ex-president and a man of considerable clout and influence.

The American consul Richard L. Sprague,(see LINK)  who also happened to be an aide de camp of the Governor of Gibraltar General Sir Frederick Forestier-Walker went out to welcome him – and his son Kermit - on the Hamburg. Formalities done Sprague, Roosevelt and his entourage stepped on to the tender sent out by the Captain of the Port.

Roosevelt and his entourage leaving the SS Hamburg on a tender to the Rock

Roosevelt apparently writing a letter – contents unknown - which he intended to post in Gibraltar

They arrived at the quay in Gibraltar a few minutes before 9 o’clock and were then taken to the American consulate where Roosevelt was introduced to most of the American community in Gibraltar. While he was there he was congratulated on his recent lucky escape from an assailant on board the Hamburg. Roosevelt seems to have denied the report in no uncertain manner and added that when he had heard of the rumour he had made a point of visiting steerage and shaking hands with the passengers.

An hour and a half later, Roosevelt was driven to the Convent to meet General Forestier-Walker. Both the Governor and the American consul had invited Teddy for lunch but both offers had been refused. His schedule was too tight. 

Roosevelt was nevertheless given a guided tour by the Governor himself of the delights of the Convent and its gardens. He was then served tea by Forestier-Walker’s niece over which he made the usual complimentary noises – he was delighted both by the Governor’s residence and by Gibraltar. 

He must have laid it on thick as it earned him a carriage trip to the North Front right up to the Spanish frontier. There, no doubt, he was made to look south in order to appreciate the North Face of the Rock and its Galleries (see LINK) which would have been described and explained to him by the Governor in excruciating detail. Sometime later - and well away from Gibraltar - Roosevelt described the Governor “as if he had walked out of Kipling” and his underlings as “nice Kipling-like aides”.

Leaving the Convent for a trip to North Front - Sir Frederick Forestier-Walker and Roosevelt sit on the left, Teddy being the fellow with specs - the American consul Mr. Sprague sits on the right in front of the Governor with another unknown aide by his side

Gibraltar Postcard sent by Teddy from Italy to his youngest daughter Ethel

A quick read through the various available press cuttings of the event suggest that the ex- president appeared to be in the best of health and in a good spirits. Nevertheless throughout the visit he refused to be photographed – although he must have made an exception for the ones I have posted here. He also declined all requests for an interview. 

Clippings also suggest that he visited the Mediterranean Club where he signed the visitors’ book and expressed his thanks for the way that the club had always welcomed visiting American Naval Officers. The memory of the Roosevelt inspired cruise of the Great White Fleet (see LINK) that had visited the Rock during the early months of 1909 must have been on everybody’s mind.

A moot point however - no such entity as the Mediterranean Club has ever existed on the Rock although the Mediterranean Rowing Club has since the 19th century. My instinct tells me that this is a mistake and that the “Club” in question was the Garrison Library (see LINK) an elite institution if ever there was one and much more likely to have been chosen to honour Teddy. 

Roosevelt and Consul Sprague outside the Garrison Library

Books signed and best wishes expressed, the ex-president was taken back to the consulate where he was presented with a beautiful basket of violets. It was now eleven o’clock - time to return to the Hamburg. But before that he had a quick look at the brand new Naval Dockyard with its massive dry docks and nearby workshops. It must have been a very short inspection as the Gibraltar harbour works were one of the largest in the world and he didn’t want to miss his boat. As it was, the starting time of the Hamburg had to be delayed for 20 minutes 

Roosevelt in the center of the photo about to shake hands with somebody – Kermit is on the right with a light grey suit. Hard to tell where they are exactly but presumably it’s somewhere in the Dockyard

Kermit hands over some souvenirs he had purchased in Gibraltar to be taken to the Hamburg – it would seem that Kermit was able to do his own sightseeing while his father was being entertained elsewhere

The short visit to the docks allowed the locals to give Roosevelt an enthusiastic farewell. As with most other visitors of his day, he had been quite taken by the variety of races and creeds of the people he had seen on the streets of the Rock and was suitably impressed by the tolerance each had for the other. While driving through the old market on his way to the tender he was amused to see a turkey vendor haggling with a “Moor”

After the hunt which lasted for more than a year the man who gave the “Teddy” Bear its name went to England to attend the funeral of King Edward VII and then on to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the Russo-Japanese War. He was back home in the U.S. in June, 1910.

Gibraltar Postcard sent from Italy to his eldest daughter Alice