The Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783 - interview with Roy and Lesley Adkins


08 September 2017
roy-62022.jpg Roy and Lesley Adkins
Family Tree talks to authors Roy and Lesley Adkins about the Great Siege of Gibraltar, and its effects on the local population.

Family Tree talks to authors Roy and Lesley Adkins about the Great Siege of Gibraltar, and its effects on the local population.

For over three and a half years, from 1779 to 1783, the tiny territory of Gibraltar was besieged and blockaded, on land and at sea, by the overwhelming forces of Spain and France. It became the longest siege in British history, and the obsession with saving Gibraltar was blamed for the loss of the American colonies in the War of Independence.

Here, Roy and Lesley talk about the siege and what life would have been like for ordinary people caught up in the siege and its aftermath.

How did you first become interested in the siege and its history?

We learned about the Great Siege when looking round the incredible tunnels during our first visits to Gibraltar in 2001 and 2003. We were there to research the Battle of Trafalgar, but became captivated by the story of the siege. Today there are 30 miles of tunnels, but the first ones were cut during the Great Siege by skilled miners using hand tools and gunpowder. We thought the siege would make a terrific book, but we had other books lined up. Two of them were on 18th- and 19th-century naval history – The War for All the Oceans and Jack Tar – during which we inevitably encountered Gibraltar along the way.

What would life have been like for ordinary people at the height of the siege?

In short, grim. The poorest civilians and soldiers’ families were perhaps the luckiest, as they had to leave Gibraltar if they did not have enough provisions. The civilians were not entitled to rations, so with the Spanish blockade, they had to struggle with rising prices, shortages and starvation. The bakers had so little fuel that they could not bake enough bread. Once the town was destroyed, the civilians fled to the south of Gibraltar, beyond the reach of Spanish artillery, where they camped in makeshift huts and tents. Worse was to come, because at night Spanish gunboats crept in close and fired on the camps, causing terrible injuries and fatalities. Many more families chose to leave when offered free passage on ships heading to England and Minorca.

How did the attempted invasion of Britain come about?

The siege was part of the American War of Independence. France sided with the rebel American colonies and persuaded Spain to join in by promising to help get Gibraltar back. The war therefore spread to Europe. In the summer of 1779, Spain started besieging Gibraltar, and the French and Spanish navies decided to attack the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth’s naval base and transport an invasion army from France across the Channel. Britain would be forced to negotiate, during which France expected to regain territory lost a few years earlier and Spain expected to regain Gibraltar. The plan should have worked, but it failed after many of their crews fell ill and died.

And what was the role of the priests who are mentioned?

The Spanish and French soldiers and most of Gibraltar’s inhabitants were Roman Catholic. There was also a sizeable Jewish population on the Rock. The Spaniards were especially devout, so that each floating battery had its own priest. On Gibraltar, Father Messa was the sole Catholic priest, helped by an assistant priest. Messa was devoted to his church and large congregation, trying to maintain the rites of the religious calendar, conduct burials, christenings and marriages and salvage items from his church before it was destroyed. Some inhabitants and virtually all of the soldiers were Protestant. Most of the regiments had their own chaplain, but no clear picture of their duties has emerged. They were responsible for funerals and other divine services, while the chaplain of the Protestant King’s Chapel conducted marriages and christenings.

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Were conditions for the prisoners different than for the ordinary people caught up in the siege?

With insufficient food, water and accommodation, the main aim was to get rid of prisoners, either by exchange (for which there were accepted procedures) or by sending them to Britain. Most prisoners were seamen, such as those captured in Rodney’s famous Moonlight Battle. Another huge influx was after the destruction of the floating batteries. The prisoners were looked after reasonably well, and some even chose to stay on Gibraltar. Sick or injured prisoners were returned to Spain straightaway, unless they were too ill, in which case they were given the same medical treatment as the British soldiers and sailors. The impression from diaries is that everyone was proud of the way they treated prisoners and hoped that would influence their view of the British.

How did the siege finally end?

After the failed attack by the floating batteries, a huge relief convoy under Admiral Howe resupplied the garrison. And yet the siege was maintained, the Spanish fortifications were extended, more gunboat attacks occurred, more lives were lost and terrible injuries suffered. Behind the scenes, there were negotiations in Paris to resolve the war in America and Gibraltar, and in early February news arrived that preliminary articles of peace would soon be signed. Both sides stopped firing. A few days later, they learned that the signing had taken place a fortnight earlier and that Britain was to keep Gibraltar. Confirmation from London arrived a month later. Finally, the border was opened and friendship with Spain was resumed.

Roy and Lesley Adkins are husband-and-wife historians and authors of widely acclaimed books on naval and social history, including Jack Tar, Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans and Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England, which have been translated into seventeen languages. 

Their most recent book is Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History, published by Little, Brown at £20.