What about the civilians in the Garrison during the Siege?


Fig.28. View of the pass leading to Europa from the North, late 18th Century. Courtesy Gibraltar Museum.
Fig.29. Entrance to the Spanish Church, Gibraltar, 1801. Cooper Willyams.

In 1777, two years before the start of hostilities, the register of civilians was recorded as follows:

British (Protestants) 519
Roman Catholics 1.819
Jews 863
Total 3.201

When the siege began, conditions for both soldiers and civilians became exceedingly hard. The best eye-witness account of civilian suffering was recorded by Colonel John Drinkwater Bethune who published his famous book ‘A History of the Siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783’ just two years after the end of the siege. The Spaniards were hoping to conquer the fortress by starvation and providing food for so many civilians became very difficult. Eliott therefore allowed all those civilians who could get away to do so and later encouraged all those who remained behind to do likewise. Drinkwater describes the scene during August, 1779.

“Indeed, about this time scarcely a boat or vessel left the port without being crowded with Jews
or Genoese, who preferred a residence in
Barbary, or Portugal, to remaining in Gibraltar, where the necessaries of life became every day more scarce”.

Fig.30. Detail from a print of ‘The brave and gallant defence of Gibraltar, 1782’ showing the destruction of the town of Gibraltar. Courtesy Anne. S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

However, a number of civilians remained behind either because they were too poor or had property and other investments in thegarrison which forced them to stay and weather out the siege. For the most part, the civilian population fled the city and built crude wooden huts and shelters above what is now the old Naval Hospital, out of range of the enemy bombardment, leaving the town clear for defence purposes. This new shanty town was first called New Jerusalem and then Black Town because of the awful conditions. It later became known as Hardy Town after the Quartermaster in charge of the area.

But even here they were in danger. The Roman Catholic Priest, Padre Francisco Messa, who was responsible for the Parish Church of St. Mary the Crowned, kept a diary of his struggles with trying to protect the church and its relics from both the bombardment and pillagers.

“We remained…suffering almost everyday at dawn from the destruction caused by the gunboats which caused the families to abandon their tents and huts and flee up the Rock to Windmill Hill. I myself stayed in the area of my tent and hut, so as not to abandon the Blessed Sacrament and other valuables….As I was dressing rapidly, a bullet hit just below my tent, and without finishing dressing, I also fled with the rest up to Windmill Hill.”

Fig.32. Spanish gunboats of Europa Point by Spilsbury, 1783. Courtesy Gibraltar Garrison Library.

To make matters worse, scurvy and smallpox raged and Eliott’s doctors did everything possible to contain it through strict quarantine measures. Luckily, a Danish ship carrying a cargo of lemons was captured off Gibraltar which helped cure scurvy. Soon after, the smallpox epidemic died away but had killed many men, women and particularly children. More people died of disease than from enemy fire.
Meanwhile the civilian men who remained behind, formed themselves into guards and helped out the garrison in defence of the fortress.

The Genoese Guard
The earliest verifiable historical document which provides testimony to local civilians being enrolled to defend their homeland dates to 24th June 1720. By 1755, armed organised bodies of local men were mounting the picket line from Bayside toDevil’s Tower Guard in order to prevent soldiers from the garrison deserting across to the enemy. These men where known as the Genoese Guard. During the Great Siege, some 160 local volunteers took part in the Great Sortie of the night of 26th/27th November 1781. They followed the advancing troops and assisted in the dismantling and demolition of the Spanish batteries, magazines and trenches.

Firg.33. Detail from one of the Marshman murals in the Convent depicting activities on the night of the Great Sortie, 1781.

The Jewish Guard
Repairing damage to the curtain walls and batteries required much labour and every able-bodied civilian left in the garrison was pressed by the engineers for work. The Jews, in particular, formed themselves into a unit called the Jewish Guard and were mainly used in the dangerous but essential task of repairing the sea and land defences damaged by enemy bombardment. One Jew, Abraham Hassan, in particular, was particularly outstanding in his contribution. He enlisted in the army and fought so well that Governor Eliott granted him a small property near South Port after the siege.

Fig. 34: An illustrationof ‘The Sortie from Gibraltar, 27 November 1781’ . David Rowland.

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