Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Rock of Gibraltar

The great Mediterranean Sea has its gate-way, nine miles wide, opening into the Atlantic, the gate-posts being the headland of Ceuta, on the African coast, and the famous rock of Gibraltar, in southwestern Spain, two natural fortresses facing each other across the sea. It is a singular fact that the African headland is held by Spain, and the Spanish headland by Great Britain, this being a result of the wars of the eighteenth century. Gibraltar, in fact, has had a striking history, one worth the telling.

This towering mass of rock rises in solitary grandeur at the extremity of a sandy level, reaching upward to a height of fourteen hundred and eight feet, while it is three miles long and three-fourths of a mile in average width. It forms a stronghold of nature which attracted attention at an early date. To the Greeks it was one of the Pillars of Hercules,—Abyla (now Ceuta) being the other,—and formed the supposed western boundary of the world. Tarik, the Arab, landed here in 711, fortified the rock, and made it his base of operations against Gothic Spain. From him it received its name, Gebel el Tarik (Hill of Tarik), now corrupted into Gibraltar. For seven centuries it remained in Moorish hands, except for a short interval after 1302, when it was taken by Ferdinand II. of Castile. The king of Granada soon recaptured it; from him it was taken by treachery by the king of Fez in 1333; Alfonso XI. of Castile vigorously besieged it, but in vain; the king of Granada mastered it again in 1410; and it finally fell into the hands of Spain in 1462.

A formidable attempt was made by the Moors for its recovery in 1540, it being vigorously attacked by the pirates of Algiers, who fought fiercely to win the rock, but were finally repulsed.

For the next event in the history of this much-coveted rock we must go on to the year 1704, when the celebrated war of the Succession was in full play. Louis XIV. of France supported his grandson Philip V. as the successor to the throne of Spain. The Archduke Charles of Austria was supported by England, Portugal, and Holland, and was conveyed to the Peninsula and landed at Lisbon by an English fleet under Admiral Rorke. The admiral, having disposed of the would-be king, sailed for Barcelona, which he was told was a ripe plum, ready to fall into his mouth. He was disappointed; Barcelona was by no means ripe for his purposes, and he sailed back, ready for any enterprise that might offer itself.

Soon before him towered the rock of Gibraltar, a handsome prize if it could be captured, and poorly defended, as he knew. The Spaniards, trusting, as it seems, in the natural strength of the place, which they deemed impregnable, had left it with a very small supply of artillery and ammunition, and with almost no garrison. Here was a promising opportunity for the disappointed admiral and his associate, the prince of Hesse Darmstadt, who headed the foreign troops. A landing was made, siege lines were opened, batteries were erected, and a hot bombardment began, to which the feeble garrison could make but a weak reply. But the most effective work was done by a body of soldiers, who scrambled up a part of the rock that no one dreamed could be ascended, and appeared above the works, filling with terror the hearts of the garrison.

Two days answered for the enterprise. At the end of that time the governor, Don Diego de Salmas, capitulated, and Gibraltar was taken possession of in the name of Queen Anne of England, the prince being left there with a garrison of two thousand men. From that time to this Gibraltar has remained an outpost of Great Britain, with whose outlying strongholds the whole world bristles.

The loss of this strong place proved a bitter draught to the pride of Spain, and strenuous efforts to recapture it were made. In the succeeding year (1705) it was besieged by a strong force of French and Spanish troops, but their efforts were wasted, for the feeble court of Madrid left the army destitute of necessary supplies. By the peace of Utrecht, 1713, Gibraltar was formally made over to Great Britain, a country famous for clinging with a death-grip to any place of which she has once taken hold.

Later efforts were made to win the Rock of Tarik for Spain, one in 1756, but the last and greatest in 1779-82. It is this vigorous effort with which we are here concerned, the siege being one of the most famous of recent times.

The Revolutionary War in the United States stirred up all Europe, and finally brought Great Britian two new foes, the allied kingdoms of France and Spain. The latter country had never lost its irritation at seeing a foreign power in possession of a part of its home territory. Efforts were made to obtain Gibraltar by negotiation, Spain offering her friendly aid to Great Britain in her wars if she would give up Gibraltar. This the British government positively refused to do, and war was declared. A siege of Gibraltar began which lasted for more than three years.

Spain began the work in 1779 with a blockade by sea and an investment by land. Supplies were cut off from the garrison, which was soon in a state of serious distress for food, and strong hopes were entertained that it would be forced to yield. But the British government was alert. Admiral Rodney was sent with a strong fleet to the Mediterranean, the Spanish blockading fleet was defeated, the garrison relieved, provisioned, and reinforced, and Rodney sailed in triumph for the West Indies.

For three years the blockade was continued with varying fortunes, the garrison being now on the verge of starvation, now relieved by British fleets. At the close of the third year it was far stronger than at the beginning. The effort to subdue it by famine was abandoned, and preparations for a vigorous siege were made. France had joined her forces with those of Spain. The island of Minorca, held by the British, had been taken by the allied fleet, and it was thought impossible for Gibraltar to resist the projected assault.

The land force that had so long besieged the rock was greatly strengthened, new batteries were raised, new trenches opened, and a severe fire was begun upon the works. Yet so commanding was the situation and so strong were the defences of the garrison that success from the land side seemed impossible, and it was determined to make the main attack from the sea.

A promising method of attack was devised by a French engineer of the highest reputation for skill in his profession, the Chevalier D'Arçon. The plan offered by him was so original and ingenious as to fill the besiegers with hopes of sure success, and the necessary preparations were diligently made. Ten powerful floating batteries were constructed, which were thought fully adapted to resist fire, throw off shells, and quench red-hot balls. Every effort was made to render them incombustible and incapable of being sunk. These formidable batteries were towed to the bay of Gibraltar and anchored at a suitable distance from the works, D'Arçon himself being in command. Ten ships of the line were sent to co-operate with them, the arrival of reinforcements from France increased the land army to forty thousand men, and Crillon, the conqueror of Minorca, was placed in supreme command. The allied fleets were ordered to cruise in the straits, so as to prevent interference by a British fleet.

These great and scientific preparations filled all hearts with hope. No doubt was entertained that Gibraltar now must fall and Great Britain receive the chastisement she deserved. The nobility of Spain sought in numbers the scene of action, eager to be present at the triumph of her arms. From Versailles came the French princes, full of expectation of witnessing the humbling of British pride. So confident of success was Charles III., king of Spain, that his first question every morning on waking was, "Is Gibraltar taken?" All Spain and all France were instinct with hope of seeing the pride of the islanders go down.

Gibraltar was garrisoned by seven thousand troops under General Elliot. These lay behind fortifications on which had been exhausted all the resources of the engineering skill of that day, and in their hearts was the fixed resolve never to surrender. The question had become one of national pride rather than of utility. Gibraltar was not likely to prove of any very important advantage to Great Britain, but the instinct to hold on has always been with that country a national trait, and, however she might have been induced to yield Gibraltar as an act of policy, she was determined not to do so as an act of war.

Early on the 13th of September, 1782, the long-threatened bombardment began from so powerful a park of artillery that its roar is said to have exceeded anything ever before heard. There were defects in the plan. The trenches on land proved to be too far away. The water was rough and the gunboats could not assist. But the work of the batteries came up to the highest expectations. The fire poured by them upon the works was tremendous, while for many hours the shells and red-hot balls of the garrison, fired with the greatest precision, proved of no avail. The batteries seemed invulnerable to fire and shell, and the hopes of the besiegers rose to the highest point, while those of the besieged correspondingly fell.

In the end this powerful assault was defeated by one of those events to which armed bodies of men are always liable,—a sudden and uncalled-for spasm of fear that flew like wildfire through fleet and camp. The day had nearly passed, evening was approaching, the hopes of the allies were at their height, when a red-hot ball from the works lodged in the nearest battery and started a fire, which the crew sought in vain to quench.

In a sudden panic, for which there seems to have been no sufficient cause, the terrified crew wet their powder and ceased to fire on the British works. The panic spread to the other batteries, and from them to the forces on shore, even the commander-in-chief being affected by the causeless fear. At one moment the assailants were enthusiastic with expectation of success. Not many minutes afterwards they were so overcome with unreasoning terror that an insane order was given to burn the batteries, and these were fired with such precipitate haste that the crews were allowed no time to escape. More of the men were saved by their enemies, who came with generous intrepidity to their aid, than by their own terror-stricken friends.

This unfortunate event put a sudden end to the costly and promising effort. The nobles of Spain and the princes of France left the camp in disgust. Charles III. received word that Gibraltar was not captured, and not likely to be, and the idea of taking the stronghold by force was abandoned, the blockade being resumed.

To keep away British aid the allied fleet was increased until it numbered forty-seven ships of the line, with a considerable number of smaller vessels. Furnaces were prepared to heat shot for the destruction of any transports and store-ships that might enter the harbor. Against this great fleet Lord Howe appeared in October with only thirty sail, and encumbered with a large convoy. The allied leaders seeing this small force, felt sure of victory, and of Gibraltar as their prize.

But again they were doomed to disappointment. The elements came to the British aid. A violent storm drove the allied fleet from its anchorage, dispersed the vessels, injured many of the large ships, and drove the small craft ashore. Lord Howe, whose ships were far better handled, sailed in good order through the straits, and for five days of rough weather offered battle to the disabled enemy, keeping them at a distance while his transports and store-ships entered the harbor and supplied the garrison abundantly with provisions, ammunition, and men. The effort to take Gibraltar was hopelessly defeated. The blockade was still kept up, but merely as a satisfaction to Spanish pride. All hope of taking the fortress was at an end. Gibraltar remains to-day in British hands, and no later attempt to take it has been made.