The People of Gibraltar
1462 - Gibraltar - The Spanish Fortress - Part 18
Moats and Moles

The topography of the Rock is its principle defensive resource hence wall, towers, and bastions simply reinforce what it has been gifted by nature. While the medieval fortress remained notably higher with respect to the sea, there were no better obstacles to any aggressor than the massive blocks that surrounded it. However, when the narrow flats that surround Gibraltar on the side of the Bay are reached, the advantage becomes a weakness. . . . . In this respect in so far as the modern era is concerned, moats  form an important part of the scheme - in Gibraltar and as mentioned previously  two were excavated.

A waterless Landport Ditch from North Bastion  (1910)

A waterless Southport ditch used as a vegetable garden in the mid 19th century  (1866 - Charles Lygon Sommers Cocks)

The Old Mole

The moles of Gibraltar must be mentioned as among the most important improvements that occurred in Gibraltar from the end of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th. The Medieval fortress could only count on an anchorage along the bay of the isthmus in the waters of the Bay of Algeciras as a protected place near the land to keep its boats. Nevertheless it was a very insecure place when faced with the terrible storms of the Straits and the reefs of Punta Mala somewhat further north. 

Punta Mala (1727 - Renaud - detail)

The beaches of la Barcina allowed the light medieval galleys to be able to navigate up to and into the shipyards via the canal built for that purpose from la Puerta de Atarazana. These waters lost their depth due to the sandy deposits brought by litoral currents which travel from the south to the north along the western shores of the Rock. This was disturbed by the defensive works being carried out along the coast in order to encircle the land front of Gibraltar. When the Baluarte of San Pablo was built the sediment filled up today’s Casemates Square. 

It was therefore necessary to establish alternative places to anchor the ships which in essence justified the existence of the place and the huge investments of capital made for its defences by powerful politicians - as has occurred from time immemorial. At first this simple meant a simple breakwater to the north of the land front as is shown on Wyngaerde’s sketches of 1567. 

(1567 - Anton Wyngaerde - detail)

Wyngaerde actually sketched the breakwater three times - top is from his final sketch of the entire Bay - middle is from the drawing of the northern defences and the last is from a preliminary drawing - Accepting the third drawing as incorrect, the other two suggest that the breakwater was further north of Waterport than where the old Mole would eventually be built.

But the need for a safe haven for anchoring for the anchorage of ships such as those of the squadrons that patrolled the Straits made it a necessity to construct a proper mole. In 1578 there was a voluminous correspondence between the Pardo (the Royal Palace) and Gibraltar with the beginning of the construction of the Old Mole in accordance wwith the project initiated by the Chief Magistrate Juan de Ozaeta and the gentlemen, Gil de Andrade and Francisco de Vargas. The work was supervised by the engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli and the Captain General of the Spanish Galleys, the Marquis of Santa Cruz. 

The Old Mole was constructed in front of la Puerta de Mar where later the Plataforma de San Andres would be built. It was projected to be 400 “varas” in length and able to berth thirty two galleys. At the start of the 17th century it was:
 . . . one of the best in Spain in such a way that there were few that were better and many that were worse. It is very big and capable of dealing with larger fleets than are there at present. 
By the time the Mole was fully operational the northern section of the breakwater was already suffering from clogging. The map produced by Cristóbal de Rojas is very explicit in this respect. Inwards from the mole these are scarcely three “brazas” of water.

Rojas himself offers an explanation:

The text on the isthmus reads “Esta arena la mete  el levanter in el Puerto”  (1608 - Cristóbal Rojas  - detail)

For this reason there was already a breakwater at the foot of la Torre del Tuerto in the south of the Rock. It would later be known as el Muelle Nuevo.

Plan showing the fortifications of the town(1587 - Unknown) 

The plan on the illustration above shows among other things, the Old Mole after its refurbishment during the previous years. The problem of clogging with sand and waste must have been a serious one as in 1588 the local authorities had already appointed a certain Fabbiano Borsoto to clean the place up. However, reading between the lines he seems to have had little success, although it is hard to understand why not as Borsoto - or Bursotto - was no run-of-the-mill rubbish collector. He was the man responsible for designing the harbours at Malaga and at Palermo, the later considered by many to be the first modern port ever built not just in Sicily but in the world. 

Perhaps there is something else that ought to be kept in mind when considering the success or otherwise of the very many projects submitted throughout the 16th century and later on improvements and repairs to Gibraltar's defences and moles as discussed in Sáez’s book - plans were invariably drawn up by licensed and - in the case of Gibraltar - much celebrated engineers. However the actual work was carried out by local people under the supervision of somebody who was known as a Maestro Mayor. 

In Gibraltar the fellow doing this work during the mid to late 16th century was Bartolomé  Quemado . He had started off in 1558 and had kept going until 1591. It was a job for life.  Whether Bartolomé had the usual stereotypical tradesmen's traits is unknown - but reading between the lines, he probably did.

Nor could deficiencies be attributed to medieval Union trouble or the lack of a suitable work force. By the end of the century all workers were required to be at least eighteen years old and in good health. Their timetable was usually from dawn to dusk during the months of April right through to August. Breakfast was at seven, lunch at eleven and there was half an hour off in the evening for supper. During the rest of the year everything was pushed back an hour. 

But neither the filth of its main harbour nor the possible inefficiency of its Maestro Major did anything to stop Gibraltar being considered by the powers that be as:
The right eye of Spain . . . . .the most important town in the entire Spanish coast line.
By 1604, the Old Mole found itself not just hardly useable but also badly damaged by a winter storm. The job of coming up with a plan for its repair was given to the already mentioned Tibúrcio Spannochi’

Among other things he suggested that it might be a good idea to increase the length of the mole by a couple of hundred feet. Then, somewhat casually, the project was passed on to the also already mentioned Cristóbal de Rojas, who had recently come to prominence as a pupil of the very same Spannochi.  Conveniently Rojas happened to be in Gibraltar collaborating with his master since 1586.

A serious lack of cash - repairing the Old Mole was estimated at 5 000 Ducat and its increase in length a more than trifling 12 000 - meant that hardly any work was done. The fact that Rosas essentially became an absentee overseer during this period did not make things any easier either. 

Two years later in 1607, with the Old Mole still in a state of disrepair, we come round full circle -  Spanish galleys under Juan Álvarez Davila's were heavily defeated by a Dutch fleet commanded by Jacob van Heemskerk in the Battle of Gibraltar. 

Allegorical painting of the Battle of Gibraltar     (Early 17th century - Adam Willaerts)

The New Mole

In 1617 work began on a new mole distant from the old one which would not be subject to the problems suffered by the old anchorage. Lengthy discussions took place about the fiscal inconveniences of constructing a mole where merchandise might be imported or exported without any vigilance or control given its remoteness relative to the town and accessibility from the Caletas of San Juan and Laudero among others (for smuggling). The merchants who used the Old Mole were also wary on the effects on their businesses with the addition of a second mole. 

Favourable arguments prevailed and the opinions of Cristóbal Rojas, a reputed expert on marine fortifications and constructions proved persuasive. The Engineer maintained that the Old Mole had been constructed to be used by galleys rather than ships. In his view this mole could not be extended in order to cope with ships of more than 400 tons.

It was also inconvenient both for warships trying to intercept traffic in the Straits as well as for ships that were obliged to declare goods. These arguments were later repeated by Pedro Texeira who described the Old Mole as:
. . . a place for galleys and small craft because it is not deep enough for larger ships that are need deeper waters and are therefore have to anchor half a league away in the waters of the Bay.

Gibraltar    (1658 - Pedro Teixeira Albernas

It is worth noting  that during the reign of Philip III when the closure of navigation through the Straits from Gibraltar to Ceuta was discussed it was considered as a fact rather than metaphorically.  In other words the ships anchored in both these ports were required to stop the traffic through the Straits of any enemy ships by either capturing or sinking them.

Similarly these same ships had to control the activities of friends and neutrals that happened to be in port. It meant that the Old Mole was too far up the Bay to allow these responsibilities to be carried out as quickly as might be desired. 

The budget made available to Cristóbal Rojas for the entire works which included a defensive fortifications at the foot of la Torre del Tuerto and at the extreme end of the mole was 90 000 ducats. The authorities looked after every aspect of the construction including a religious service for the workers which was taken care of by Sebastián Daza Bocanegra, the administrator of la ermita de San Juan.

La Ermita de San Juan el Verde and its proximity to the New Mole   (1607 - Cristóbal Rojas)

All the elements mentioned here would suffer a process of modernisation by the English which led to the state in which they can be seen today. Its transformation was not strait forward as it was subject to the highs and lows of the foreign policy of the British during the first decades of the 18th century, although by the middle of this century, Gibraltar had already become famous as an impregnable fortress.

The New Mole in the early 19th century largely similar to the old Spanish version     (1831 - W.H. Smyth detail)

New Mole being extended in the late 19th Century   (1890s - J.H. Mann)