The People of Gibraltar
1819 - Rock Scorpions and Rock Lizards of Gibraltar

Nobody ever called me a Rock Scorpion when I lived in Gibraltar during the late 1940s to the early 1960s - at least not within my hearing.  As for Rock Lizards I had certainly never come across the phrase until I started researching the social history of my town - decades after I had left the Rock. Nor can I remember anybody that I knew ever using either phrase to describe anybody in particular - we just knew that at least the first one was supposed to refer to somebody from Gibraltar.

Would any or all of these have qualified as “somebody from Gibraltar”?      ( 1832 - Commissioned by Commander M.C. Perry )

To make matters worse, despite considerable digging through quite a few turgid texts I have still not been able to discover the origins of either phrase nor what “somebody from Gibraltar” actually means.  

From Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy  (1819 )

The oldest reference I have come across appears in an 1819 edition of the Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy – a Poem in four Cantos attributed to John Mitford - and it’s not a particularly clear one either.
. . . For fagged he was in every limb, / And the Rock Scorpion laughed at him / If he had hunted to this day / His Hunting had been thrown away . . . 
The book’s footnote reference to Rock Scorpion is as follows:
Rock-scorpion – a nickname for the inhabitants of, and the small privateers belonging to Gibraltar
The first bit is as expected but the second less so.  Not all small privateers during their heyday in the late 18th and early 19th century were manned - or owned - by people from Gibraltar. Curiously our very own local historian Tito Benady in his article “Los Corsarios de Gibraltar 1803 - 1814  - ”refers to a privateer ship which was actually named the “Rock Scorpion” - but takes it no further. Could it be that the sheer effectiveness of these local sailors led them to be described as Rock Scorpions and that this epithet was then transferred to the people who lived in the place from whence their ships came from?

Unknown privateer off Gibraltar - she was probably either Spanish or Algerian as she is being chased off - but the local craft would probably have been little different    ( 1880 - Unknown )

In 1821 the American traveller and author Theodore Dwight in his Journal of a tour in Italy with Description of Gibraltar had this to say on the topic:
The natives of this place are all known by the same general appellation, which bears no reference at all to the country of their parents: every one born in Gibraltar is of course called a “Rock Scorpion.” And truly their residences are often better calculated for the nature and habits of reptiles than to those of men.

The Rock  ( 1820s - unknown )

I am not at all sure what Dwight meant by that “of course”. Was he suggesting that it was common knowledge that somebody who had been born in Gibraltar was known as a “Rock Scorpion”? Or was it because of their disgusting habitats - as described in his next sentence. 

Rock scorpions?   ( Unknown )

In 1827 the peripatetic American minister Andrew Bigelow - published his Travels in Malta and Sicily and wrote: 
. . . the mountain, near the base of which the town is built, seems originally to have been nothing but bare rock. Hence the epithet of rock-scorpions familiarly applied, not in jest, but sober earnest to all born within these crowded walls. Ask of any one if he be a Scot, an Englishman, or Spaniard - If his nativity were cast on this spot, the reply will be, ‘he is a scorpion; rock being sometimes dropped as an expletive.
Not sure what he meant either. Was it that being called a “rock scorpion” was more of an insult than just “scorpion”?

John Hennen the unfortunate doctor who was in Gibraltar during one of its worse yellow fever epidemics of the early 19th century took time out from his discussion on medical matters in his Sketches of Medical Topography of the Mediterranean and offered a different approach: 
Persons of English parentage, who have been born at Gibraltar, are called colloquially, but not contemptuously, “Rock scorpions!” yet they are not shunned nor despised; they eat, they drink, they dance with you; nay, they marry you, and the race of scorpions is continued ad infinitum! 
I very much suspect that the good doctor forgot to mention that the term was often used with contempt when it referred to people born in Gibraltar whose parents were not originally from the UK. 

Are all three Rock Scorpions - or none of them? ( 1882 - Kate E Bough )

The British baronet Sir Arthur de Capell Brooke - who must have a known a thing or two about people and their station in life - gives the reader the benefit of his opinions on Scorpions in his 1830 Sketches in Spain and Morocco:
The heat is such as almost to suffocate any but a native, who might well deserve the appellation of Salamander, instead of that of Rock Scorpion, by which latter term he is sometimes vulgarly designated. . .
 . . with the emphasis very much on the “native” and the “vulgar”.  It must be as hard for an outsider as it is for me to appreciate the finely tuned nuances of class consciousness in Gibraltar - and almost certainly elsewhere in the British Empire - that existed throughout the 19th century and beyond. It wasn’t just the Brits verses the Dagos - there was much more to it than that.

A series of coloured sketches which were supposed to reveal the kind of costumes worn by people from Gibraltar in the mid 19th century  ( Unknown - D.F. Molel ) 

The top one shows several men wearing peasant Spanish clothes - the second three Moorish gentlemen and a Spaniard lounging against the corner of a building. The last a couple of Moorish traders and a Spaniard carriage driver - the “Moors” are probably day traders from Barbary - but are the Spaniards, Spaniards? Or are they locals of Spanish descent?  

George Dennis in A Summer in Andalucía - also published in the 1830s - is quite clear on the Brits versus Dagoes bit:
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’
A decade later in the 1840s George Henry Borrow visited the Rock. An author and a travelogue writer he was unusual in his relative lack of prejudice when commenting on the local people of the countries he visited. In his book - The Bible in Spain - he had this to say - among other things - about the locals in Gibraltar. 
The person I addressed was a tall young man . . . There was a grin on his countenance which seemed permanent, and had it not been for his bronzed complexion, I should have declared him to be a cockney, and nothing else. He was, however, no such thing, but what is called a rock lizard, that is, a person born at Gibraltar of English parents. Upon hearing my question, which was in Spanish, he grinned more than ever, and enquired, in a strange accent, whether I was a son of Gibraltar.
And elsewhere:
Close beside me stood my excellent friend Griffiths, the jolly hostler, of whom I take the present opportunity of saying a few words . . . he carries a whip beneath his arm, which adds wonderfully to the knowingness of his appearance, which is rather more that of a gentleman who keeps an inn on the New-market road, “ purely for the love of travellers, and the money which they carry about them," than of a native of the rock . Nevertheless, he will tell you himself that he is a rock lizard; and you will scarcely doubt it when, beside his English, which is broad and vernacular, you hear him speak Spanish, ay, and Genoese too, when necessary . . . . . 

Griffith's Hotel - Commercial Square corner with Main Street 

Borrow’s two mentions of the phrase “Rock Lizard” are the only ones I have ever come across anywhere. He never mentions the phrase “Rock Scorpion” - which is odd. Perhaps he thought of it as a contemptuous put-down and preferred not to use it in his book.

Borrow was an exception to the general rule. When the Irish historian Martin Haverty visited the Rock more or less at the same time as Borrow it was back to square one. Despite his generous and extensive section on the locals in his - Wanderings in Spain - which was published in 1844 - he rather spoilt things with the following paragraph:
Everyone has heard of the "rock-scorpions." There are two species of them; one, to be found in the rocks on the side of the hill, or "up stairs," as they technically say there; but this I am told, is only rarely met with, and its sting at most produces a painful inflammation. The other is a mongrel kind, very numerous, and much more troublesome, its sting being aimed at the "purse," in which it causes a profuse haemorrhage that requires very cautious treatment; and what is worse, no one having any dealing with the people of Gibraltar can escape the insidious attacks of this latter species of scorpion. 
A fictional story in the 1847 edition of the United Services Magazine written by an anonymous author contains the following dialogue:
“How the h- - - should I know?  . . . Some d- - - d outlandish lingo: French or Portuguese or half and half, sich as these here rock scorpions speak.”
That damned “outlandish lingo” make me believe that the author had been to Gibraltar and knew what he was talking about - and he certainly wasn’t suggesting that the term Rock Scorpions was restricted to people born on the Rock of British parents.

John Esaias Warren, one time American attaché to the US Embassy in Madrid more or less confirms the “outlandish lingo” claim in the following which appears in his book Vagamundo published in 1851.
Being a “rock-scorpion,” his knowledge of the English language was extremely imperfect, as well as ungrammatical, though we had no difficulty in understanding him, in spite of the rapidity with which he mangled the innocent words of the noble Anglo-Saxon tongue. . .  there was something about the clown that pleased us, so we took him forthwith upon his own recommendation.
In 1856 Emmeline Stuart Wortley in her book The Sweet South confuses the issue even further by using the term “Anglo-Spanish” Natives.
. . . .water-melons and Rock-scorpions (as the Anglo-Spanish natives of Gibraltar are called), and turbans and bagpipes, Moors in white robes, and dapper English waiters in white chokers, and beards,

A lady from Gibraltar - more often than not described as a working class local woman of Genoese origin wearing a typically Gibraltarian red cloak - definitely a female rock scorpion

A few years later 1860 - Walter Thornbury - Quail to Roast Beef:
By-the-by, if you want any Moorish curiosities of the scorpions don’t go to Ben-Azed’s in Waterport Street. He is the most awful rogue in all Gib.” [Nota.Bene .-Scorpion is a military term of contempt for Gibraltar tradesmen.]
So we have now extended the range from local privateers, to locals born of British parents. From ambiguously defined Anglo-Spanish inhabitants to local tradesman - or conversely to just about anybody body who happens to have been born on the Rock. Mind you Thornbury died at the ripe old age of 48 . . . . in a ”lunatic asylum, so perhaps the “tradesman” definition should be taken with a pinch of salt”

This is a well known 19th century “tableau vivant” - Despite the variety of costumes on display the various titles attributed to the photograph suggest that these fellows are all from Gibraltar - In other words they are all rock scorpions    ( 1860s - Robert Peters Napper )

Then in 1861 William Tallack, a Quaker social activist who spent much of his life campaigning for penal reform, came up with this in his book about Malta.
The Maltese have a bad name for the same, but I found the Rock men far worse: indeed, they are familiarly called, in the Mediterranean, “Rock-scorpions.” They will ask nearly ten times as much money for wares in some cases as they will afterwards accept for the same
. . . which gets us nowhere as he fails to tell us who those Rock men are.

In the late 1860s - a semi-anonymous C.P.T. writing about his “Sporting Recollections” in The New Sporting Magazine came up wit this:
There is the tall, stout, swarthy Moor; the little, bending, obsequious Jew; the intelligent and aristocratic-looking Greek; the sallow, miserable “rock scorpion". . . . 
leaving the reader nonplussed as to who that miserable person might be.

I doubt whether any of these market sellers could be classified as Rock Scorpions   ( 1876 - Illustrated London News )

Another decade and George Makepiece Towle - an American lawyer and Politician - takes us back to one of the very first definitions:
A  race  of  acclimated English,  bronzed  and  semi-Spanish  in  feature,  the  natives  of  Gibraltar,  upon  whom the  Spanish  have  bestowed  the  rather  uncomplimentary  epithet  of " Rock  Scorpions." 
By the late 19th century the question is not so much “who” but “why” - as asked by a certain Mr Jas Curtis in an 1881 edition of Notes and Queries
Why is a native of Gibraltar called a “rock scorpion”?
Nobody answered his question but elsewhere Henry M Field - an American Presbyterian visiting Gibraltar - was in no doubt about the “who”. There were he wrote:
. . . a choice variety of natives of Gibraltar called Rock scorpions” . . .
Also hard to tell if any of these are Rock Scorpions   ( 1876 - Illustrated London News )

Another decade later and C. A. Stoddard  - another American visitor - muddied the waters yet again in his Spanish Cities with Glimpses of Gibraltar and Tangier which was published in 1892 by 
There are twenty thousand Spaniards and natives of Gibraltar, who are called by the obnoxious name of “rock scorpions” . . . . 
A Scamper through Spain and Tangier by Margaret Thomas which was also published in the 1892 contains the following:
Stalking grandly beside the vivacious Spaniard or Rock Scorpion, and the terribly trim British soldier . . . 
Hard to interpret this - does she mean that Spaniards can also be called rock scorpions - or is it that both that are vivacious?

People milling around in Main Street on a Calpe Hunt Day  - there must surely be a few Rock Scorpions in there - but which ones?   ( 1877 - The Graphic )

Moving onward to the early part of the 20th century I find it more and more difficult to find any literary reference to either Rock Scorpions or Lizards. The following passage which appeared in a Regimental Magazine was written in 1913 by an unknown Bombardier stationed in Gibraltar. He was supporting locally unpopular measures which were being proposed by the governor - Archibald Hunter. It’s worth quoting in full.
That conglomeration of ill natured humanity known as “Rock scorpions” do not seem to have or to have had the slightest idea or notion of the subject and purposes for which this fortress is maintained. After 200 years of British occupation and rule, the installation of institutions, laws, sanitation, &c., which allows no comparison to that of existing neighbouring towns, these people are and presumably always will be the most ungrateful and ignorant gang that exists in any Crown Colony. The English language is seldom or never heard. The military are looked upon as their lawful prey and treated accordingly. 
He does not explain what a rock scorpion is but we can guess it refers to everybody on the Rock who is not British - no need for guesswork as regards what he thinks of them.

A “Moorish” visitor perhaps haggling with a Barbary trader - almost certainly neither would have been rock scorpions

G. T. Garratt in his 1939 Gibraltar and the Mediterranean simply quotes Borrow’s on Rock Lizards but take us no further. But perhaps I can end with the following from John Stewart taken from his 1967 - Gibraltar the Keystone:
Chapter 9 - Rock Scorpions
Rock scorpions, the soldiers called the denizens of Gibraltar, whether in contempt or in grudging admiration I cannot tell.  The scorpion is tough and thrifty, and defends himself with courage until he dies. On the other hand he is treacherous and venomous. The expression is no longer used.
I suspect that the various alternative interpretations over the years as to who exactly was a “Rock Scorpion” are symptomatic of the kind of relationship that existed between the local inhabitants and their colonial masters. Whoever came up with the term he or she must have been British. It certainly wasn’t the kind of phrase that the Spanish, the Genoese or whatever other nationality the original inhabitants of the rock were descendants of - would come up with. 

My own guess is that John Stewart got it right. The British soldiers stationed on the Rock were the most likely culprits - although I would guess that most of them would certainly have viewed the locals with contempt rather than admiration - and right up to the middle of the 20th century.

The continual confusion as to who exactly qualified for the epithet is a reflection of similar historical ambiguities faced by the British administration in their attempts to identify who exactly was entitled to be called a local inhabitant.

As for the majority of those visiting the Rock as tourists - which includes many more than those quoted above - they were almost invariably unable to distinguish between true local residents and transient visitors such as the large number of Spaniards who came in to sell their wares or work every day in Gibraltar. In fact many of them will have mistaken the many daily Moorish traders from Barbary as well as illegal immigrants from all over the place as part of the civilian population of Gibraltar.

Rock scorpions having fun in the Alameda   ( 1917 - The Graphic )