The People of Gibraltar
1720 - Isaac Aboab - 'King of the Jews’

Aaron Azulay and Samuel Bensusan - Mr Holroide and George Finn
Isaac Netto,  Simha and Hanna Aboab

A contemporary engraving of the Rock

Isaac Aboab is mentioned - if not actually named - by the Spanish Historian Ignacio Lopez de Ayala (see LINK) in his Historia de Gibraltar.
Los Judíos son por la mayor parte tenderos o corredores, tan puntuales allí como en todas partes en engañas, i prestarse a las logrerías mas enormes. Tienen su sinagoga, profesan su religión y observan públicamente sus ritos, aunque reclama abiertamente el tratado de Utrecht. Los gobierna o maneja el judío de más consideración que llaman 'Rei'.  
Este se entiende con el gobernador quien  por su medio intima las ordenes i recoge los tributos, que todos ceden en su beneficio, pues es arbitro y soberano despótico del pueblo, i mas rei en Gibraltar que el mismo rei en Inglaterra . . . . 
Ayala's  'Rei' or 'King of the Jews' was a misnomer for the Chief Rabbi of Gibraltar who was at the time Isaac Aboab. He was a man of considerable character, born in Tetuan in 1712 and was brought over to Gibraltar by his father in 1720 when he was just 8 years old. 

Aboab senior must have been one of those very few Jewish merchants rich enough to be able to risk the move to Gibraltar where the cost of living was so very much higher than in Tetuan. The risk paid off and the family became one of the largest if not the largest property-owners on the Rock.

In 1749 the new Governor Humphrey Bland set up a Court of Enquiry to investigate the legality or otherwise of land titles on the Rock in which Aboab made two claims. The first was for part ownership of a house in Irish town near an unidentified Barracks. The property had been built - with Governor William Hargrave’s permission by Aaron Azulay and Samuel Bensusan

Azulay was also originally from Tetuan and had probably arrived in Gibraltar more or less art the same time as Aboab. Bensusan was the owner of the town boat or lighter no 23. Aboab successfully claimed that he had bought Bensusan’s share. 

Aboab’s second claim was a more interesting one as it referred to his purchase of a “house in a Back Lane between the house of Mr Holroide and that of George Finn and adjoining backwards to the Chief Engineers Garden” - who happened to be James Montressor at the time.

The Isaac Netto (or Nieto) mentioned in the minutes of the Court of Enquiry is an interesting character. He arrived from London during the early 18th century and became the community’s first Chief Rabbi. He also established a synagogue – which would eventually become the Sha’ar HaShamayin - built on a plot of land granted to the Jews by Governor Richard Kane. The original entrance was in a street suitable called Synagogue Lane - the Back Lane on the minutes.  It is now known as Serfaty's Passage. It is the oldest one in Gibraltar as well as the first on the Iberian Peninsula since the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. 

By 1729 the 13th Siege was over and Richard Kane had been replaced by Lieutenant-Governor Jasper Clayton who had adopted a far more sanguine approach to the 'Jewish' problem - or the fact that there were still Jews living on the Rock despite the Treaty of Utrecht which insisted that none of them should ever be allowed to live on the Rock. 

The new Governor appointed Isaac Netto as sole contractor for importing food from Morocco. Shortly afterwards Netto left Gibraltar for good - although not before selling his synagogue to Isaac Aboab. On the death of his father, Haham David Nieto, Isaac went to London and became Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue at Bevis Marks.

In 1755 Isaac Aboab’s wealth allowed him to discount a draft of nearly £1000 to the British Consul General in Morocco, William Pettigrew. The money was to be used to release some British captives held in Morocco. Pettigrew died before he was able to honour the draft and thirteen years later Aboab was still petitioning the Governor of the day - Edward Cornwallis - to recover his money. As he pointed out he had only agreed to the transaction because the then Governor, General Fowke had asked him to do so.  When Cornwallis forwarded Aboab's petition to England, he described him as: 
. . . a principle Jew Merchant of this place he has resided here many years with a fair character and I dare say what he sets forth is true and as such I recommend it to Your Lordship's Consideration. 

Edward Cornwallis   ( 1756 - Joshua Retnolds) 

Not only did the Court of Enquiry confirm Aboab’s claim for the synagogue, they allowed him to have it free of charge.

Ayala’s casual anti-Semitism - as mentioned previously - was by no means unique. 18th century British Protestants, for example, would have been horrified to learn that quite a few Jews living in Gibraltar at the time had retained many of their old Jewish customs. Some of them, such as bigamy, were illegal in Britain at the time. Isaac Aboab obviously believed in keeping alive the traditions of his faith. 

In 1762 he married an illiterate thirteen year old girl called Simha ben Esquera. He took her as his second wife because his first, Hannah, had been unable to bear him any children. Simha was reputed to have been ‘a notorious beauty’ - although I am not quite sure what the adjective “notorious” means in this context. Ayala, for example, was quick to let his readers know that she was bald and that she always wore a wig. He might have added that the reason she did so was because Jewish law required married women to cover their real hair. Ayala was also dismayed by the fact that the Catholic community in Gibraltar had no great problem in socialising with her and her Jewish friends. 

By 1777 Isaac owned 15 properties and had an interest in another one. Unfortunately a few years later in 1779 the Great Siege began (See LINK). In 1781 by which time the conflict was taking its toll Isaac and his wives were one of the many Jewish families that decided to leave the war zone and go Bishopsgate in London.  Neither he nor his family ever returned to Gibraltar. 

Main Street in ruins after the Great Siege   ( 1793 - Captain Thomas Davis )

According to a contemporary edition of the Scots Magazine, Isaac Aboab died in 1786 'upwards of aged 90' - which seems rather unlikely. He was probably around 76 when he died. More believably he left:
. . . two widows one aged 70 the other about 40. He was an eminent Jew merchant, born in Barbary, where a plurality of wives is allowed and was resident in Gibraltar for upwards of 60 years, and suffered greatly in his property by the Siege. 
The younger widow must have been Simha the older one Hannah. Isaac also left money for the rebuilding the Synagogue in Gibraltar which had been burnt down during the siege. He was buried in the Beth Haim Novo in Mile End Road. There are two empty plots next to his grave which he had reserved for his two widows. Neither was taken up. Nor did either of them ever give him the children he wanted.

In Vicente Blasco Ibáñez well researched novel - the eponymous heroine turns out to be the granddaughter of a very rich local Jew called Aboab. The following quote from the book is obviously fiction, but it does give the reader a flavour of how the real Aboab would have been perceived by non-Jews at the time - and of course by writers such as Blasco Ibáñez. 
The tabernacle Aguirre saw was that of old Aboab and his son, brokers who kept their establishment on the selfsame Royal Street, just a few doors below. And the servant pronounced the name Aboab (father and son) with that mingling of superstitious awe and hatred which is inspired in the poor by wealth that is considered unjustly held.  
All Gibraltar knew them; it was the same in Tangier, and the same in Rabat and Casablanca. Hadn't the gentleman heard of them? The son directed the business of the house, but the father still took part, presiding over all with his venerable presence and that authority of old age which is so infallible and sacred among Hebrew families. 
"If you could only see the old man!" added the attendant, with his Andalusian accent. "A white beard that reaches down to his waist, and if you'd put it into hot water it would yield more than a pitcherful of grease. He's almost as greasy as the grand Rabbi, who's the bishop among them.... But he has lots of money. Gold ounces by the fistful, pounds sterling by the shovel; and if you'd see the hole he has in the street for his business you'd be amazed. A mere poor man's kitchen. It seems impossible that he can store so much there! 

Aboab with Gibraltar in the background ( Unknown )