The People of Gibraltar
1618 - The Spanish Theatre - Gibraltar

A few years ago the local Spanish historian Jose María Lázaro Bruña sent me a copy of an article which he wrote for a local history magazine. The title - "Las Carnicerias de Gibraltar" - proved irresistible to somebody like myself who is always more than willing to read anything that will throw light on everyday life of local non-military Gibraltarians of whatever epoch. (See LINK)

Lázaro Bruña has followed up this marvellous article with another one with an equally esoteric topic - Noticias sobre el teatro en la ciudad de Gibraltar en el siglo XVII - the presence of a 17th century theatre in Gibraltar. It is - as was the first one - a beautifully written and superbly research. So much so, that just as happened with the first I have been unable to resist writing an English version of it. My translation skills however are not good enough for a proper direct translation.  My command of both English and Spanish are simply not up to it.  I therefore decided to use his material, his insights and, his hard work to write my own version with a few additions and omissions but keeping to the spirit of his article. 


The Rock of Gibraltar    ( 17th century - Adam Willaerts )

In 1690 almost a decade and a half before Anglo-Dutch forces had captured the Rock during the War of the Spanish Succession, (see LINK) Moulay Ismail, Sultan of Morocco and the man who is supposed to have held the record for having fathered more children than any other man in history, sent two of his ambassadors to the court of Spain. 


Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif

The following is how Moulay’s ambassadors described the town of Gibraltar after having passed through it on their way to Madrid. 
Gibraltar is a city of medium size and rather small. It is inhabited only by soldiers and people attached to the military administration. Its location at one end of the Iberian Peninsula and lies opposite the countries of Islam and there are no great traders or inhabitants, as one finds in civilized cities.
Gibraltar was no doubt something of a backwater in those days - a relatively barren place in comparison with its hinterland. But it was probably not quite as bad as these two ambassadors suggest. For a start during the 17th century “Gibraltar” actually referred not just to the town on the Rock  but to the entire Campo de Gibraltar.

It meant that the town of Gibraltar was in many ways a dormitory town. The majority of the inhabitants living in the old part of town - either Villa Vieja or la Barcina - were probably either military or civilian administrators or absent noblemen of one sort or the other. Those that lived in the poorer area known as La Barcina left the Rock daily to tend large plots of land - huertas, vineyards, garden and so forth all - of which formed part of the hinterland. Alonso Hernández del Portillo in his Historia de Gibraltar, made a passing reference to this when describing events that took place during the Turkish raid on Gibraltar in 1540. (See LINK)
The Turks arrived on the evening of the 9th of September. At the time most of the people of the city were working in the vineyards. . . .  It meant that there was hardly anybody left inside the town of Gibraltar." Apparently the wine produced in “Gibraltar” was so good that there was a sort of DOC system in place.

Plan in which vineyards appear all over the place throughout the surrounding Campo area near the Rock - the number of vines that are shown on the Rock itself can certainly be dismissed as an exaggeration    (Early 18th century - Gerard Van Keulen depicting the taking of Gibraltar in 1704 ) (See LINK

Probably the only fertile areas on the Rock itself were found in the two southern Tarfes - known as los Tarfes Altos - today Windmill Hill and los Tarfes Bajos - Europa Flats. But neither of these relatively hard to get places nor those in the nearby Campo, were likely to have been visited by the two Moorish Ambassadors.

In other words, the Gibraltar of the 17th century was by no means as grim and uncultured as these two would have us believe and it would be fair to say that as in other Spanish towns of similar size, fairs, festivals, and other forms of popular entertainment were part of everyday life. To quote Portillo once again, this is how he describes the annual celebrations of the feast of St Bernard’s - Gibraltar’s patron saint:
The feast was celebrated with processions in which the city banner and the statue of St Bernard were carried to churches where solemn masses were held in the presence of all the town hall officials as well as by noblemen, judges, aldermen, jurors and other officials and ministers. Secular celebrations included bull fights, the playing of games and other novelties and rejoicings which were usually attended by other people from neighbouring towns.

St Bernard of Clairvaux

I have my doubts about those bull fights as I have never heard of these mentioned as having taken place in Gibraltar, but I am certain that perhaps even more than nowadays the year was punctuated with all sorts of religious festivities - from Advent to Easter and from Easter to the Resurrection - the municipal authorities would make sure that these religious were accompanied by political and civil celebrations. And then of course there was the theatre.

It is somewhat ironic that during the first century of British rule Gibraltar was also often depicted by British visitors as a culture-free civilian society - which is hardly surprising as the town was in effect a fortress inhabited almost entirely by a huge garrison and a smallish immigrant civilian population made up mostly of working or peasant class people who could hardy speak English and whose main role in life was supplying the Garrison with whatever services or supplies it needed. But they did have a theatre. It was owned by Henry Cowper, was already well known by the middle of the 18th century and was immortalised by the still used local name for Castle Street - Calle Comedia - which translates back into English as Theatre Street. (See LINK)


Castle Street - or Calle Comedia - from a barracks window in Bell Lane - Henry Cowper’s theatre was probably on the right hand side close to the steps    ( 1833 - Frederick Leeds Edridge )  (See LINK)

As far as I can make out there two types of theatres existed in 17th century Spanish Gibraltar - Religious dramas which were performed in churches and secular plays held in open air courtyards known throughout Spain as Corrales de Comedia.
As regards the first it is probably worth describing one of the very few mentions of a religious play held in Gibraltar. In 1605 a colloquium and play was organised by the local clerics to celebrate la Octava del Santíssimo Sacramento during Corpus Christi. It was to be performed in the main church in town - Santa Maria la Coronada (see LINK) - which is today the Catholic cathedral of Gibraltar.  From three o’clock onward Nicholás Daza, steward of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament, oversaw the rehearsals. No doubt the altar boys who were going to take part in the play required considerable prompting and supervision.

At nine o’clock the clergymen called it a day. Unfortunately as they walked out into Calle Real they were met by the local Governor. An almighty brawl is recorded as having taken place with the clergymen all ending up in goal. The reason for such drastic response is unknown but the reference suggests that while no particularly encouraged by the local authorities, religious plays of some sort were part of the theatrical scene in Gibraltar.

As regards Corrales de Comedia there are several references to them here and there although the first productions were probably held in the Plaza Mayor - today John Mackintosh Square.(See LINK) However as early as 1578 a playwright from Malaga is known to have left some of his works in the hands of María Ruiz and that he in turn rented these out to Juan de Santa Maria.


Plan of the town - (1627 - adapted from Luis Bravo de Acuña ) (See LINK)

To cut a long story short Juan took the works to Gibraltar and had them played in his inn somewhere in town. In 1618, however, the first proper corral was built in Gibraltar on the orders of Juan Melchor de Sarria, who was the governor at the time. Sarria was an infantry  captain with considerable military experience.  Apart from being Governor he was also the main supplier of arms to the military establishment in Gibraltar. In other words he had more than enough money to build whatever he fancied and he obviously fancied the theatre. When he died - possibly in 1620 - his son Fernando de Sarria Escobar inherited his father's inn. A nice inheritance as he seems to have made quite a bit of money from it. 

For example when his brother Captain Juan Melchor de Sarria Escobar - who had been appointed Governor of Gibraltar - organised on Fernando’s behalf a series of yearly masses for various members of his family, he was asked for guarantees to cover the costs. Possibly because the masses were held in the Chapel of San Juan de Letrán (see LINK) - perhaps the richest and most opulent of all the many chapels in Gibraltar - the costs proved quite high.  No problem for Fernando - his guarantee was his income from the Corral.

Perhaps of much more interest is that the documents concerning these arrangements which can be found in the archives of the town of San Roque, identify the location of the theatre. The address was on the corner of Calle de Santa Ana and Calle del Caño de Machín - with houses owned by Diego Martin Gonzales and Martin Garcia Manchego on the Santa Ana side and by the house of Garci Sanches Chamiso and the heirs to Ana de Salas on the Calle del Caño.

Calle de Santa Ana  was the Spanish name for Irish Town while Calle del Caño de Machín - or Machina as it is referred to in another document - was the site of a sewer which ran at a south west angle at the northern end of Calle de Santa Ana ending up by the Line Wall. It probably corresponds with today’s Cooperage Lane. It collected surplus rain water together with excrement and other waste from the town and got rid of it through an iron gate in Luis Bravo’s newly built Line Wall fortifications. Part of the channel leading to the gate must have been a street of some sort as there were houses on the southern side as seen on Bravo’s plan. The drain also gave its name to one of the Line Wall’s nearby defensive towers which was known as La Torre de Machín.



Plan of the town - (1627 - adapted from Luis Bravo de Acuña )

By the end of the 17th century the Corral had been sold to another local family - the Méndez de Sotomayor. None of the known records of the City Council or those of major property owners in the form of the principal local churches such as La Misericordia or the hospital of San Juan de Dios (see LINK) make any reference to the theatre which leads one to the conclusion that unlike those found in other towns and cities in Spain the one in Gibraltar remained a privately owned institution right up to 1704.

But what did the Corral look like? As far as I can make out the only available record describing is that of Dr Tomás Portillo in his unpublished Historia de Gibraltar. 
I do not remember any council buildings, public or market houses, jails or slaughter houses that were in any way memorable or worthy of consideration, although I should perhaps mention the famous building of the house of the comedies in Gibraltar.
Dr Portillo’s taste in architecture probably was probably influenced by the old renaissance style that was then still much in vogue - the slaughterhouse building, for example, comes to mind. However, Portillo’s short description of the Corral actually suggests the Baroque more than anything else - this despite the fact that it would have been rather to have reached Gibraltar until the very late 17th century at the very earliest.
. . . a curious and artful new work, and one of the grandest in this bishopric and seems to reflect the generous and honest spirit of the person who built it - Captain Juan Melchior de Sarria, Governor of the city in 1618.

An example of renaissance architecture in 17th century Spain   (See LINK)

The Corral building was two or three stories high - as were most of the buildings in Gibraltar at the time - with a large patio-like space in the middle surrounded by tall, strong pillars. It was from rooms and balconies on the second floor that audiences were able to view the plays that were acted out in the space below. In total it had thirty rooms with corresponding lattice style windows. One of these rooms was reserved for the use of the local authorities, the suggestion being that it had been donated in order to encourage the city council to approve the necessary licences to build the place.

The theatre was also a hostel with an extra 30 rooms for guests. In fact the place was actually known as “Casa Mesón de las Comedias” clearly indicating that it was not just a theatre but an inn as well.


Plan of the town - (1627 - adapted from Luis Bravo de Acuña )

With the arrival of the 18th century, the invasion of Anglo Dutch forces and the general exodus of the local population, theatrical activities of any sort must have come to an abrupt end in Gibraltar. The subsequent attempts by Franco-Spanish forces to retake the Rock - and in particular the so called Gunner’s War or 13th Sieges of 1727 (see LINK) probably destroyed the actual Corral de Comedia building as it destroyed most of Villa Vieja and the older parts of town. If it didn’t then the bombardments that took place during the Great Siege of the late 19th century certainly did - a sad and violent end to an esoteric but interesting piece of the Gibraltar’s endlessly fluctuating and fascinating social history.


Plan of the town possibly as it was just after the Anglo-Dutch take-over and before the destruction of its older northern section - the position of the corral is shown on the bottom right in light blue - it was probably still there in 1704     ( 1704 - Colonel D'Harcourt - Detail )

With acknowledgements and very many thanks to Jose María Lázaro Bruña - Thank you.