The People of Gibraltar
1794 - A Motley Population

Rainsford, Clinton and O'Hara - Berry, St Vincent and Godoy

During the building of the Line Wall fortifications known as the King’s Bastion, Boyd had insisted on the construction of a special burial vault. When he died he was buried there in accordance with his wishes although no records exist of the exact location of the tomb.

Mid nineteenth century engraving of Boyd's King's Bastion with Aaron Cardoso's house and the Moorish Castle prominent in the middle distance (Bartlett )   LINK

Boyd was succeeded by Sir Henry Clinton who actually died before he could take up his post. He was nevertheless a throwback of the kind of people who tended to be chosen as Governors of the Rock prior to people like Eliott.

Clinton had spent much of his military life either as somebody or other’s aide de camp or trying to ingratiate himself with his superiors. He spent enormous amounts of energy battling with the Board of Trade over his father’s debts. During the American War of Independence he was Governor of New York. His short stay there is mostly remembered for his relationship with his housekeeper, Mrs Mary Baddeley. He had already served in Gibraltar under Cornwallis who detested him. One of his colleagues described him as ‘fool enough to command an army when he is incapable of commanding a troop of horse.’ In other words he was the kind of man whom the authorities considered as excellent material to govern Gibraltar.

Sir Henry Clinton (Andreas Soldi)

Clinton’s position was eventually taken by General Charles Rainsford who had been Boyd’s second-in-command for quite a while as well as being the Earl Tyrawley's private secretary during his time as Governor of Gibraltar. he was therefore well aware of what one can euphemistically describe as the 'economic intricacies' of governing the Rock.

As a Rosicrucian, a freemason and a dabbler in alchemy he was undoubtedly something of an odd-ball. Apparently he was known for always keeping a chair empty in the Convent for his dead wife. He believed that she visited him periodically coming into his bedroom through the window. The young daughter of one of the Garrison’s senior officers thought that he was ‘a most eccentric man and a firm believer in animal magnetism.’ He didn’t last long and was soon replaced by a far more dynamic character.

The population of Gibraltar which had grown enormously since the end of the Siege - from about 3000 to just over 8000 - were on the whole busily engaged in making money hand over fist or simply making ends meet by servicing the Garrison.

Between 1793 and the beginning of the new century imports and exports had risen by well over a third. According to the Historian George Hill in his book ‘Rock of Contention’, Gibraltar was now regarded as the one port in Europe where 'fewer questions were asked about the provenance or destination of goods. It was undoubtedly the best place for privateers and others to bring in their prizes.

In 1795 General Charles O’Hara became Governor of Gibraltar. He was famous - perhaps notorious would be a better word - for having personally surrendered to both Washington and Napoleon during his military career and for his huge gambling debts in his private life. On hearing the news of his appointment his ex-boss Lord Cornwallis is reputed to have said that poor old O’Hara was ‘once more driven abroad by his relentless creditors.’

Surprisingly for such a flamboyant character, there are few extant portraits of Charles O’Hara. The above picture, ‘The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ records the event that marked the end of the American War of Independence. In reality it was O’Hara, who was second-in-command to Cornwallis who surrendered his sword to Washington’s second-in-command, Major-General Benjamin Lincoln. O'Hara stands to the left of Lincoln on his horse.  (John Turnbull)

By 1798 O’Hara had probably paid off all his debts as he was soon making over £9000 a year in sundry taxes and licences paid to him by nearly one hundred taverns and inns serving the Garrison and civilians of Gibraltar. This was an extraordinarily high number of drinking houses for a place as small as the Rock especially as the locals were reputed to be – as a contemporary observer put it - ‘notoriously abstemious.’ According to one British historian, the liquor trade in Gibraltar provided a living for ‘a thousand civilians, or perhaps more’.

He does not make clear whether he is referring exclusively to Gibraltar locals but there can be little doubt that the wine and spirit business was an important source of income for the non-British inhabitants. The owners, who were mostly British, were of course making a fortune. George Terry, the owner of a couple of taverns, was reputed to be connected with the very rich family of the same name in Jerez.

Bodegas Terry, Jerez de la Frontera

O’Hara’s father was Lord Tyrawley who had also been Governor of Gibraltar a few decades earlier. His mother was Tyrawley’s Portuguese mistress who was reputed to have had ‘long black hair, plaited down to the bottom of her back.’

Like his father he was a womaniser of the first water, never married and kept two mistresses in Gibraltar. One was an English girl who lived openly with him in the Convent and the other was his housekeeper. It was O’Hara who built a pied- à-terre on the South side of the rock in order to keep his two families apart from each other. Today the place is known as Governor’s Cottage.

Mid nineteenth century engraving of the Governor's pied- à-terre on the South side of the rock today known as Governor's Cottage   (Unknown)  LINK

Little wonder then that his nickname was ‘Cock of the Rock’. His true love had been a well known writer called Mary Berry. He had met her in Italy but she had refused to accompany him to Gibraltar. She must have admired him, however, as she wrote of him as ‘the most perfect specimen of a soldier and a courtier of the past age.’According to a writer in the New Monthly Magazine of 1866; 
She loved him, with that warm and generous enthusiasm that invests its object with every human quality deemed necessary to perfection, and to the latest years of her life she firmly believed that her union with him would have given increased elevation to her own character, would have called forth the best feelings of her heart, and, in this world, have secured her happiness.

A collection of notes and personal memoranda written by Mary Berry. She became engaged to General Charles O’Hara in in October 1795 and separated the very next year. However 'perfect a specimen' O'Hara might have been he was obviously not perfect enough to marry

O’Hara entertained on a lavish scale and was understandably extremely popular with his officers – as he was with a number of ladies form Britain who visited Gibraltar either to marry local officers or on the way to likewise elsewhere. There were suspicions that he exercised his droit de seigneur on more than one occasion.

According to Thomas Hamilton, a veteran of the Peninsular War who in his own words ‘had spent a few years of his early life in the army’, O’Hara, was a bon vivant and an excellent raconteur. It was said that he could entertain anybody for hours with his scandalous tittle-tattle about the British court and elsewhere.

He never dined alone if he could avoid it ‘and his hospitality was extended to even the lowest ranked officers of the Garrison. In fact he seems to have delighted in casting off all distinctions of rank and was prepared to associate with even the ‘humblest of his guests’ – as long as they were British.

O’Hara’s ‘humblest of guests’ were in fact those few British residents who could be guaranteed to know how to behave in his presence. He may have been willing to hobnob with the hoi polloi but the Governor was someone who had spent the greater part of his life in the most distinguished of circles. In fact the only reason he had agreed to become Governor of what he considered to be a dump, was because he needed the money.

The reason that the author thought it unusual for O’Hara’s to associate with these people was because the relationship between the officers of the Garrison and the British civilians was dreadful. British civilians did not take kindly to the rules and regulations of the Fortress and would make their feeling felt when officers took them to task if they contravened any of them. The result was that here was ‘little intercourse and no little dislike’ between the two.

The non-British locals were just as disenchanted with having to live under military rule but were less likely to make a fuss when brought to account for one reason or another. Many of them knew from personal experience that however bad things were in Gibraltar, there was many a garrison elsewhere that was far worse. As Stephen Constantine so nicely put it in his book Community and Identity most of the non-British merchants came from places where ‘business, bribes and brutality were common bedfellows'. It meant that the officers - despite their underlying contempt for anybody who was not British - actually got on better with them than with the British merchants.

Perhaps it would not be too unkind to label O'Hara as one of the most eccentric Governors Gibraltar has had to put up with. Stories abound about some of his less rational activities the majority of which are undoubtedly apocryphal. One such story insists that he was much given to exploring - on his own - the labyrinth of nooks and crannies that make up St Michael's Cave and that he was given to leaving behind either a valuable sword or a watch at the 'extreme point of his wanderings as a reward' to anybody daft enough to go in as far as he had.

An engraving of a picture drawn during O'Hara's tenure as Governor of St. Michael's Cave. The artist has included himself in the picture bottom right ( Rev. C. Willyams )   LINK

Another is a report of one of his instructions on the General Order Book which read 'His Excellency commands that in future no officer will cut capers on the Line Wall'. It was a purposely ambiguous order which referred not to 'jumping eccentricities' - as the Metropolitan Magazine of 1847 put it - but to a ban on cutting branches from trees in the area.

The magazine also carries a story which shows that O'Hara was not the only individual on the Rock at the time given to eccentricities. There were, apparently, two Jewish ladies living in a pretty cottage just below the brow of Windmill Hill. One of them was short and rather fat and was reputed to be 130 years old. In contrast her daughter was tall and straight backed and a 'giddy young thing' of 90. The story goes that they received an allowance of a dollar a day from their Jewish compatriots but only on the condition that they walked into town every day to receive it - an imposition which they never failed to comply much to the cruel amusement of the young officers with lodgings nearby. 

Late nineteenth century view of the area just below Wind Mill Hill. The Jewish Ladies could have lived in one of these house. (Henry Field)

Admiral John Jervis Earl St. Vincent (Lemuel Francis Abbott)

A far more important individual - Admiral John Jervis, commander of the Mediterranean fleet was also in town at the time preening himself after his triumph at the battle of Cape St. Vincent. A grateful government had recently given him the titles of Baron Jervis of Meaford and Earl St. Vincent. British historians describe him as a hard but generous man. Reading between the lines his generosity tended to be directed towards his officers and his hardness towards the lesser ranks on board his ships.

The 1797 Battle of Cape St. Vincent (British School)     LINK

Jason Musteen in his dissertation The Ascendancy of Gibraltar during the Age of Napoleon tells us that the Jervis was the kind of man who only slept a few hours each night, was constantly inspecting anything that moved and had even requested and received permission from O’Hara that he would not be saluted by the sentries so that he might be able to come upon other military personnel unawares. His demands on his subordinates were such that one unfortunate artilleryman commemorated his strenuous service in Gibraltar with a poem:

Hard is the Soldier’s lot
That is transported to that barren Rock,
To be tormented by bugs and fleas
And do hard duty on pork and peas.

St. Vincent’s thoughts on the civilian population can best be understood by his views on the status of Gibraltar itself. Its only use, he wrote, was ‘to furnish the navy of Great Britain with supplies, and thereby enable it to maintain the empire of the adjacent seas.’

He was also one of the many in Gibraltar who had been bowled over by Betsey Wynne. He was irritated by the fact that many of his officers took their wives with them on board ship. He begrudged the fact that ‘the women who still infest His Majesties ships in great numbers used precious water supplies to wash themselves. Betsey, one can be almost certain was one of the worst offenders. It must have preyed on his mind for quite a while as he eventually issued an order in which he threatened that it would become his ‘indispensible duty to land all women in women in the squadron in Gibraltar unless this alarming evil was immediately corrected.’

On one occasion when the sailors on one of his ships had threatened to mutiny he blamed Gibraltar. They had been infected by ‘the abominable licentiousness and total dereliction’ of all his principle while they had been on shore leave on the Rock. He also ordered that his officers should always go ashore in uniform. He was upset to have learned that some of his younger staff had been mistaken for shopkeepers.

His correspondence with London also show a touching main concern about the effects that the exorbitant cost of food were having on the certain shore based naval personnel. He wasn’t alone in this respect. O’Hara was equally apprehensive and kept on requesting for increases in pay for the troops. He was well aware that if they left the service they would be able to double their pay by working for the local inhabitants. 

General Charles O’Hara (Christopher Bryant)

As usual most historians parrot the Governor’s and the Admiral’s concerns and blame the non-British residents for this state of affairs. Their complaint was that many were getting rich through privateering and smuggling. Little mention is made of the corruption in higher British places which were the real source of Gibraltar’s inflationary economy.

Rich pickings by the Royal Navy from captured Spanish galleons travelling to Spain from the South America cannot have helped either. In 1803 a West Indiaman was captured by one of the Navy’s ships lying off Cadiz and taken to Gibraltar. She was carrying eleven thousand ounces of pure gold a veritable billionaire’s ransom in those days.

In fact the delightful descriptions of Gibraltar and its society as seen through the eyes of the young and very pretty Mrs Fremantle give us very little insights into the lives of the ordinary people who lived in Gibraltar at the time. The following tragedy which almost certainly occurred during her stay on the Rock never warrants a mention. According to a contemporary newspaper account the English merchant ship Elkridge Planter sailed to Gibraltar from Portsmouth with a cargo of goods of considerable value. Captain Moore, the sole owner of the boat, intended to sail to Oran on the coast of Barbary in order to purchase some corn from whatever he got from the sale of his goods and return with them to England.

On arrival at Gibraltar his English crew were immediately press ganged – almost certainly to fulfil the requirements of people like St. Vincent – and the captain was obliged to employ a new crew made up of Portuguese, Greeks and other nationalities. They were not local residents but foreign seamen who had missed the sailing – most probably because they had been drunk - of whatever boat had brought them to Gibraltar in the first place.

On the night Moore set sail for Oran the crew promptly threw him overboard and murdered his eight year old son. They scuttled the ship and escaped in a boat to Almeria where they shared out the stolen goods. Eventually one of them was caught in Malaga and confessed to what had happened.

On a lighter note, O’Hara’s flamboyant personality is nicely portrayed by his response to Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile; he ordered all the guns of Gibraltar to fire at once in a grand salute. Realising that such an extraordinary act might be interpreted by the Spanish as the start of an attack on the Spanish lines he managed to curb his enthusiasm and forewarned his counterparts in Spain.

The Battle of the Nile (Phillip James de Loutherbourg)  LINK

The next day he turned out the entire Garrison and had all the Regimental bands wandering about Gibraltar playing ‘Rule Britannia’ in honour of the Royal Navy. He followed this up by hosting an enormous ball and the ordered his various commanders to keep their naval brothers happy with never-ending diner parties. Part of the euphoria, of course, can be attributed to the fact that the prizes for the six ships brought into Gibraltar as a result of the battle fetched more than £130 000 pounds sterling.

O’Hara is also well remembered for what became one of his most memorable initiatives. This inconsequential project has proved an irresistible topic for comment by many a historian. For the locals it may have been a form of comic relief - it must have been pleasant to watch their rulers making fools of themselves as a change from having to comply with their arbitrary rules and regulations.

In 1798 the British recaptured of Minorca and Gibraltar lost some of its importance as a naval supply depot. It became as someone put it, simply ‘a post office’ and an ‘observation post for enemy naval movements.’

The 'Post Office' - The Rock at the turn of the century. Gibraltar regained much of its naval importance when the British lost Minorca once more in 1802 (Italian School)

O’Hara seems to have been taken by this somewhat romantic idea of Gibraltar as a sort of huge spying station and ordered a 200 foot tower to be built on top of the Rock. His idea was it would enable an observer to keep a watch on shipping movements in Cadiz which was about 6o miles away. It was, theoretically a nice idea had it not been for several tallish intervening mountains that were blocking the view. The author of a book on the military campaigns in Egypt who visited at the time wrote with unconscious irony that O’Hara’s ‘new signal post’ at the south afforded ‘a better view of the straits.’

The tower eventually came to known as ‘O’Hara’s Folly’ and was a popular landmark for many years afterwards. During the late 19th century, however, a gunship, HMS Wasp was in Gibraltar on its way to China. The commander was told by a local Royal Artillery officer that the tower had been earmarked for demolition and – no doubt after a few friendly drinks – an argument developed as to whether or not the tower could be brought down by the Wasp’s guns.

Contemporary picture of the Rock showing O’Hara’s Folly teetering on the top of the Rock

The next day the Gunboat, moved across the bay and to the absolute shock of the watching Spaniards in Algeciras began to bombard the Rock. The first salvo fell short. The next four all went right over the Rock but the sixth, this time to the amazement of the local inhabitants, obliterated the tower.

The Wasp getting ready to destroy O'Hara's Folly (George Pala0)

The crew of HMS Wasp. Perhaps they were commemorating the demolition of O’Hara’s folly.

It was around this period that O’Hara became infatuated with the Sappers of the Company of Artificers who were involved in building it. It meant that he spent more time wandering about the fortifications watching them work than looking after his many responsibilities as Governor. He knew most of the privates by name and came to enjoy their company to such an extent that he refused to allow any of them to be punished for being drunk while off duty. In his account of O’Hara’s various quirky interventions Connolly diplomatically side-steps the issue; ‘To justify or condemn the act’ he writes, ‘is obviously out of place here’. Later he was forced to admit that ‘it helped create the kind of laxity of discipline which ‘was nothing short of disgraceful.’

In 1787 the Sappers tackled some work on the Spanish lines and did such a good job of it that O’Hara rewarded them accordingly. He issued orders allowing them to go to Spain on any Sunday or holidays without the need for a written pass. He also conceded that they were at liberty to appear on such occasions – as well as along the streets of Gibraltar - in whatever manner they wished as long as it wasn’t their normal uniform.

As Connolly tells us in his ‘History of the Sappers’, ‘it was not uncommon therefore, for non-commissioned officers and the respectable portion of the privates, to stroll about the Garrison or ramble into Spain dressed in black silk or satin breeches, white silk stockings, and silver knee or shoe-buckles, drab beaver hats, and scarlet jackets, tastefully trimmed with kerseymere.’ It must have created rancour and jealousy among the rest of the troops and done nothing to improve the discipline of the Garrison.

At the very start of O’Hara’s period in office the United States persuaded the British Government that the Governor was acting illegally. He was refusing to accept the landing of tobacco that was in excess of what might be used for local consumption. O’Hara, who had been following Bland’s original regulations to the letter and was also personally of the opinion that they should be adhered to if Gibraltar was to maintain good relations with Spain, made his opinions known to London. Their response was worthy of the best kind of diplomacy. They allowed American tobacco to be stored in hulks anchored in the bay of Gibraltar over which the Governor had no jurisdiction. One can almost hear the sound of local hands being rubbed vigorously in glee.

But not even this important boost to the earnings of merchants keen to return to the pre-Bland days of care-free smuggling was enough to paper over the growing discontent felt by the local population towards their British rulers.

The garrison itself had been weakened by the withdrawal of troops used in the retaking of Minorca and those that remained continued in a state of indiscipline fuelled by locally brewed and almost undrinkable alcohol. In other words O’Hara had inherited from Rainsford the same obnoxious garrison that Boyd had inherited from Eliott.

As a local observer wrote at the time; ‘the grossest irregularities characterized the bearing of the men in the public streets, and in their personal intercourse with the inhabitants. They might be seen roving about in scores, in a state of the most riotous intoxication. Discipline was a thing of mere tradition; and every man did that which was ‘right in his own eyes’- which was usually the grossest wrong that his drunken head could think of.’

O’Hara himself on arrival had complained bitterly to London. The soldiers under his command were extremely young, of ‘low stature and decrepit.’ When his superiors send him reinforcements they were still not up to scratch. According to the Governor they were ‘cripples, lame, blind, everything but what a soldier ought to be.’

Several residents therefore decided to try to bribe some of the guards in order to open the gates and allow Spain to retake the place. The unpleasant conditions in town brought about by the persistently obnoxious drunken behaviour of the soldiers were outweighing all other considerations. By now the Genoese, Spanish and Jewish locals were predominantly made up of families rather than just individual adventurers. They wanted some sort of security for their wives and children and the authorities seemed incapable of controlling the behaviour of their troops. It was time for a change.

The modern historian Maurice Harvey suggests that the plot was hatched by Manuel Godoy, Spain’s incompetent Chief Minister with the help of some Parisian Jews who had convinced their friends on the Rock that such a move was feasible. Several Irish officers of the Garrison were also implicated.

Manuel de Godoy, Prince of the Peace (Francisco Goya)

Other correspondence suggests that the Garrison was undermanned at the time and that a number of ‘foreign messengers’ from Piedmont, Portugal and from Spain had managed to convince a large number of the population that it was time to move on from British rule. Business was slack. Besides, it would be easy to bribe the majority of the officers of the Garrison, who happened to be Irish at the time. They were sure to join them.

The consensus seems to be that the plot leaked out because several of the soldiers concerned were overheard talking about it - appropriately enough - in one of O’Hara’s taverns, but there is another rather more interesting explanation which will be dealt with in the next chapter.

For all his many faults, the Governor was both generous and compassionate – qualities not to be sneezed at in any Governor of Gibraltar. A few years into his term of office the British Consul in Tangier approached him with an unusual request. Mulay Absulem, favourite son of the Emperor of Morocco was in poor health and required the services of a medical man to attend to his needs. O’Hara immediately agreed to the request and sent him the best he had available; William Lempriere the chief military surgeon in Gibraltar at the time.

Lempriere eventually wrote an account of his adventures through Barbary. The list of subscribers was long and included the usual suspects from Gibraltar such as Sweatland, Carvallo, Anderson and Deze. Thomas Gavino and Henry Lynch, the Dutch and Danish consuls respectively both appeared on the list as did a new name – Mr. F Porral. Perhaps it is only fair to mention that the popularity of the book probably had little to do with its main theme – A Tour from Gibraltar to Tangier – but rather to the small print on a the sub-title which promised A Particular Account of the Royal Harem etc.

Although the account must have proved something of a disappointment to many a reader it does offer a curious insight into a rather unusual method of carrying out business in Morocco. According to Lempriere a Jewish trader – probably from Gibraltar - who was in need of some permit or permission from the Emperor solved his problem by ‘making presents of pearls’ to ‘all the principle ladies of the Harem’. The trader got his permit.

It is interesting to speculate on whether other prominent Gibraltar merchants dealing with Barbary resorted to similar tactics. Of course being Jewish and having inside knowledge of Moorish culture would have been a great advantage.

On the morning of a dull winter’s day in 1802 the Gibraltar Chronicle came out with a wide black border and by midday the guns of Gibraltar – and Algeciras – boomed out across the Bay; O’Hara, the ‘Old Cock of the Rock’ had died. He left all his property to his mistresses and his four illegitimate children but rather surprisingly left all his valuable commemorative plate silver to his black valet.