The People of Gibraltar
1899 - Albert Bigelow Paine - and Michael Beñunes

Albert Bigelow Paine was an American author and biographer best known for his work with Mark Twain. Paine was a member of the Pulitzer Prize Committee and wrote in several genres, including fiction, humour, and verse.

Albert Bigelow Paine

Among many other works he wrote The Ship-Dwellers, the sub-title of which was - A Story of a Happy Cruise. The date of the publication is unknown but probably around the beginning of the twentieth century. The cruise itself probably took place during the final years of the nineteenth. One chapter of the book deals with his visit to Gibraltar and is shown below in its entirety.


I have seen the shores of Africa and Spain! The bath steward came very early, this morning- earlier than usual. He had his reasons, but I had forgotten and was sleepy, so I said "No," and tried to doze again. Then all at once from the deck there arose a swell of music—rich, triumphant music—an orchestration of "Holy, Holy, Holy"—such a strain as one might expect to hear if the eternal gates should swing ajar. I remembered, then; it was Sunday morning—but there was something more. Land! The land that lies on the other side of the ocean!

In a moment I was at my port-hole, which is on the starboard side. We had changed our course and were bearing more to the north. Directly in front of me the sun was rising. The east was a mass of glowing outlines—golden clouds and hill-tops mingled. It was the Orient—that is what it was—the Far East; the sun rising over Africa! Something got hold of me then—I hardly know what. Certainly I was not unhappy; but then it was all so sudden and spectacular, and I had waited for it so long.

I do not remember how I got dressed; only for a moment at a time could I drag myself away from that port-hole. The sun rose higher—the outlines of Morocco became more distinct, but they did not lose their wonder of colour—their glory of purple and gold. I realized now that the prospectuses had not exaggerated the splendour of the East, even on their gorgeous covers—that they could not do so if they tried.

By the time I was on deck we were running close enough to the lofty shores to make out villages here and there and hill-top towers—the habitation and the watch-towers of the Moors. How eagerly and minutely one scanned these with the glass to distinguish the first sign of Oriental life—to get a glimpse of the reality of what had so long been but a romance and a dream. It was those people who had conquered Spain and built the Alhambra.

What was going on inside those curious flat-topped houses and those towers? Marvellous matters, no doubt, that had to do with nargileh and magic and scimitars and flying carpets and scarcely imperceptible nods to the executioner who always hovered among the draperies in the background. The Reprobates appeared and declared there was no romance anywhere in sight and never had been in that direction; that Morocco was just a place of wretched government and miserable people whose chief industries were laziness and crime. There are moments when I would be willing for this ship to sink to properly punish the Reprobates.

The Diplomat was better. He said there was as much romance and magic over there as ever, and more executioners; and the Diplomat knows. We would pass Ceuta, the African Pillar of Hercules, before long, he told us. The other pillar was the Rock of Gibraltar, which lay still farther ahead.

We went over to the other side of the ship presently, for we were overlooking the Bay of Trafalgar, where a little more than a hundred years ago Horatio Nelson died, after convincing the combined navies of France and Spain that it required something besides numbers to win a victory. Nelson went into that fight with thirty-two vessels, little and big, against forty of the combined fleets. He hoisted the signal, "England expects every man to do his duty," and every man did it. One half of the combined fleets struck their colours, and the rest made off, or sank, and with them went Napoleon Bonaparte's scheme for invading England.

We looked out on the placid water, laughing in the Sunday morning sunlight, and tried to imagine those vanished fleets—stately ships of the line with their banks of guns; smart frigates and rakish cutters—all that splendid concourse of black hull and towering canvas, and then the boom and the flash of guns—the conflict and the glory of that morning so long ago. This much was real, and it was romance; not even the Reprobates could brush away the bloom.

The captain came by and pointed ahead to Tarifa, where the Barbary pirates a long time ago levied tribute on the merchants and added the word "tariff" to the dictionary. Their old castle has fallen into ruin, but the old industry still thrives, under the same name. Then we went back to starboard again for a look at Tangier, where, alas, we were not to land, because Algiers had been provided for us instead.

But now Gibraltar, the crouching lion of Trafalgar, had risen from the sea. The English call it "The Rock," and that is just what it looks like—a big boulder shaped like a sleeping lion—its head toward Spain, its tail toward Africa. I think most persons have an idea that the Rock lies lengthwise, east and west—I know I thought so. Instead it lies north and south, and is really a stone finger pointed by Spain toward the African coast. It is Great Britain's pride—it has cost enough for her to be proud of it—and is her chief stronghold.

Gibraltar, the crouching lion of Trafalgar, had risen from the sea

About it are gathered her warships of to-day—dark, low-browed fighters like our own—any one of them able to send to the bottom a whole fleet like Nelson's and the combined fleets besides. They look quiet enough, ugly enough, and drowsy enough, now.So does Gibraltar, but it is just as well, perhaps, not to twist the Lion's tail. We had no intention of doing so, and I don't see why they were so afraid of us. They wouldn't let us visit their shooting-galleries—the galleries where they keep their big guns, I mean; they wouldn't let us climb the Rock on the outside; they wouldn't even let us visit an old Moorish castle which stands about half-way up. Perhaps they thought we would spike their guns, or steal the castle, or blow up the Rock with infernal machines.

They did let us take carriages and drive along the main streets of the city, through a park or two and out to Europa Point, I think that was the place. We were interested, but not enthusiastic. After Madeira, one does not go mad over the beauties of Gibraltar. The vehicles were funny little affairs—Spanish, I suppose; the driver spoke the English of Gibraltar—an English which nobody outside of Gibraltar, and only a few people there, can understand; the road was good; the flowers—bluebells, yellow daisies, dandelions and heliotrope—all wild—were profuse and lavishly in bloom everywhere along the way. Had we come direct to Gibraltar, we should have raved over these things like enough, and we did rave a little, but it was a sort of placid ecstasy. Military hospitals and barracks and officers' quarters are not the kind of scenery to excite this crowd.

It was different, though, when we got to Europa Point. There, on one side rose the great Rock abruptly from the sea, while before us stretched the Mediterranean, all blue and emerald and iridescent, like a great fire-opal in the sun. It was our first glimpse of the water along whose shores began the history and the religions of more than half the world. "The grand object of all travel is to see the shores of the Mediterranean," said Dr. Johnson, and there were some of us who not until that moment, I think, fully grasped the fact that this object, this dream of a lifetime, was about to be accomplished.

The Patriarch forgot the Phoenicians for a little and began to talk about Athens and of Mars Hill from which St. Paul had preached, though he added presently that it was quite certain St. Paul's grandfather had been a Phoenician; the Diplomat quoted something about his soul being "far away sailing on the Vesuvian Bay"; the Porpoise began to meditate audibly how far it was in a straight line to Jerusalem; the Mill ground a quiet little grist about flannels she expected to wear in Egypt; even the Reprobates were subdued and thoughtful in the face of this watery theatre that had held the drama of the ancient world.

We drove back to the town, separated, and wandered about where fancy led us. Laura and I had a little business with the American consul, who is an example of what an American consul ought to be: a gentleman who is a consul by profession and not by party favour, being the third Sprague in line who has held the post. Through him we met a most interesting person, one who brought us in direct contact, as it were, with that old first party of Pilgrims to make the Oriental cruise.

Michael Beñunes was his name, guide and courier to Mark Twain and his party, forty-two years ago.Beñunes must have been a handsome creature in those days; he is a handsome creature still—tall, finely featured, with flowing black hair—carrying his sixty-five years as lightly as wind-flowers—gay, voluble, enthusiastic—ready for the future, glorying in the past. He took us to a coffee-house and entertained us, and held us enthralled for an hour or more with his tide of eloquence and information. He told us of the trip he had made through Spain with the "Innocents"; of many other trips in lands near and far. He told us of the things in Gibraltar we had not seen—of the galleries and the monkey-pit; also, of the wonderful monkeys themselves who inhabit the Rock and are intelligent almost beyond belief—who refrain from speaking English only because they are afraid of having red coats and caps put on them and being made into soldiers.

Gibraltar was once a part of Africa, according to tradition, and the monkeys remained on the Rock when the separation took place. But guides know that a subterranean passage from the bottomless monkey-pit connects the Rock with Africa to this day; also that the monkeys travel back and forth through it and keep posted on warfare and new inventions, in preparation for a time when they shall be ready to regain their lost empire, and that sometimes at dusk, if one lies hidden and remains very quiet, he may overhear them discuss these things, as in the failing twilight they "walk together, holding each other's tails."

We could have listened all night to Beñunes, for he made the old time and still older traditions real to us. And perhaps Beñunes would have talked all night, for he declared—and we believed him—that he could talk for five hours without a break. Naturally I expected to pay the score in the coffee-house and to make some special acknowledgment to Beñunes for his time. Not at all; he called the waiter with a flourish, threw down more than enough money and told him to keep the change, regretting volubly that we could not partake further of his hospitality. We should have the freedom of the city—of everything—he said, when we came again. Ah me! I suspect there is only one Beñunes, and that he belongs to a time which will soon vanish away.

We could have listented all night to Beñunes,

We went through the town—almost a closed town, because it was Sunday, and not an inviting town, I think, at best. Here and there were narrow streets that wound up or down, yet were only mildly seductive. But it is a cosmopolitan town—the most cosmopolitan town on earth, perhaps. Every kind of money is in use there—every language is spoken.

"Picture postals twelve for a quarter!" was the American cry that greeted us at every turn. If we had been English it would have been "twelve for a shilling," or if German "zwölf für ein Mark," no doubt. They do not mistake nationalities in Gibraltar—they have all kinds to study from. Moors we saw—black, barelegged, and gayly attired—a taste of the Orient we were about to enter—and if there were any nationalities we did not see in this motley-thronged Mediterranean gateway I do not recall them now. We bought a few postal cards, and two fans with bull-fights on them, but unlike the Quaker City "Pilgrims" we bought no gloves.

I did look at certain stylish young creatures who passed now and then, and wondered if one of them might not be the bewitching saleslady who had sold those gloves. And then I remembered: she would not be young and bewitching any more; she would be carrying the burden and the record of many years. Unlike the first "Pilgrims," too, we did not hear the story of the "Queen's Chair." That was worn out, at last, and exists to-day only in the guide-books. We drove over to Spanish Town by and by, but it was still less inviting over there, so we drove back, passed out through the great gates which close every evening[Pg 55] at sunset, and waited at the pier for the little tender, for it was near evening and we were through with Gibraltar—ready for the comfort of the ship.

It is a curious place—a place of a day's interest for the traveller—of enormous interest to the military world. For two hundred years it has been maintained with English blood and treasure, until it has become the most costly jewel of that lavish kingdom. There are those to-day—Englishmen—who say it is not worth the price—that it is no longer worth any price—and they advocate returning it to Spain. No army could take it, and no army wants to take it—nothing could be gained by taking it any more. But it is one of England's precious traditions, and it will take another two hundred years of vast maintenance before England will let that tradition go.

There were papers on the tender, London and Paris journals, but the only American news was that Congress had been advised against tinkering with the tariff. That did not interest us. Had we not been face to face with the headquarters of tariff that very morning, and heard the story of how that noble industry was born? This later item was mere detail.

Back on the ship, looking at the lion couchant while the twilight falls and the lights come out along its base. There is no harshness now. The lion's skin has become velvet—it is a veritable lion asleep among fireflies. We lift anchor and steam slowly into the Mediterranean. The lion loses its form, becomes a dark wedge, the thin edge toward Spain. Night deepens as we creep farther around; the wedge shortens, contracts to a cone, a pyramid—the level sea changes to a desert. The feeling somehow grows that Africa has reclaimed its own—the Lion of England has become a pyramid of the sands.

Paine on the left, Mark Twain on the right