Gibraltar by Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins
As long as there have been interactions between neighboring tribes and villages, there have been stories like Gibraltar. British citizens who lived in Gibraltar in the late 18th Century got along reasonably well with the Andalusian/Spanish citizens across the border. In fact, there really was no border: people moved freely back and forth, traded, shopped, visited in one another’s homes, and enjoyed the best of both countries. Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History tells how that easy relationship came to an abrupt and discordant end, as events 4,000 miles away led to governmental disputes.
John Drinkwater, an ensign in the 72nd Regiment stationed at Gibraltar, wrote that “the strictest intimacy subsisted between the military, [sic] and the Spaniards resident in the adjacent villages … and rendered Gibraltar as eligible a station as any to which a soldier could be ordered.” But the American Revolution began, and a confluence of issues caused France and Spain to ally with the Colonies against England.
“Spain desperately wanted Gibraltar,” the authors explain. Captured by the British in 1704, the isthmus had changed hands repeatedly over the course of ten centuries, dating to the Visigoth invaders in the 5th Century. When the hostilities began in 1779, it was the 14th siege of Gibraltar to take place over time. Lasting three and a half years, it came to be known as the Great Siege.
The Adkins couple, known for Jane Austen’s England and Nelson’s Trafalgar among other books, provide some basic “housekeeping” morsels that enhance the text. Maps zero in to a close-up rendering of the affected area. Two especially useful appendices should be studied next. A “Chronological Overview” outlines the major events, including the vital action in the American Colonies. The money equivalents in “Weights, Measurements and Money” are particularly enlightening, for they reveal the relative economic well-being of the people affected by the seige. Along with pence and shillings, we learn that one 1780 British pound was worth about $85 today.
Gibraltar is a detailed account based on official government records along with letters and journals that enliven the often dry histories and personalize the ways in which soldiers and citizens were affected. The soldier Donald Ross was injured so badly that the surgeon “really was almost at a loss what part of his body to pay attention to first.” His entire body was contused by the explosion of a cannon ball. His skull was trepanned first and a bone fragment removed. His leg was amputated next, then a finger, and finally an arm. In this day of no anesthetic or hygienic surgical procedures, he miraculously survived and was sent home to England with a pension.
Wives and children were not spared. “Mrs. Tourale, a handsome and agreeable lady, was blown almost to atoms! Nothing was found of her but one arm.” General Boyd, the Lieutenant-Governor, continued in his journal that “legs, arms and pieces of broken bodies (none whole) of men, women and children are gathered up and interred in their Mother Earth. A dismal catastrophe to behold.”
Two years into the siege, Britain lost the American Revolution and was finally able to turn its full resources to Gibraltar. The tide began to turn and the besieged troops began sorties against the Spanish. They were finally able to fight back and more food and supplies broke through the Spanish blockade.
Gibraltar reveals an epic story of survival told with impressive historical attention and language that conveys the trials and tribulations endured by those involved. From June 21, 1779 until February 2, 1783 the British garrison persevered, and on February 5, peace was official. “Our situation is changed from noise and confusion to calm serenity.” Two months later, a formal ceremony made it real, and the effort to rebuild the devastated town was underway.
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