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Forging a Civilian Community: 1704-1749 book review

by Sam Benady

This is the first of a series of three books dealing, in hitherto unprecedented detail, with the history of our city in the eighteenth century.

There are many gaps unfilled in our history: Gibraltar in the Muslim period awaits some Arabic-speaking historian who can search the documents of the period, and Spanish Gibraltar before 1704 is only now being brought to life, mainly by Spanish researchers into primary sources which are still to be found in Spanish archives.
But, closer to home, for most of us, the century following the capture of Gibraltar could be baldly summed up as “Capture, Siege, Utrecht, Siege, Great Siege, Trafalgar”, with perhaps a couple of anecdotes featuring despotic and corrupt Governors thrown in. But we can learn nothing at all about the life of the civilian population from whom we are descended.

Richard Garcia has done his best to remedy this situation, if we regard our history as an unsolved jigsaw puzzle, he has sought out the missing pieces, and put them together expertly to form a beguiling picture of the travails of a fledgling civilian community under military rule. As well as British archives, he has scoured neglected church records and court documents, and, very importantly, Governor Bland’s enquiry into housing, and added his findings to the existing records, to form a coherent picture of 18th century life on the Rock which is far more than the “politics and cannon-fire” story that we are used to.

For the first time, three-dimensional characters begin to appear among the civilian population. No longer is it just a matter of statistics: so many Genoese, Spaniards, British, Jews and so on. We learn the names of the civilians, how and where they lived, their lives and deaths, and the disputes which they had with each other.
Just a few examples: We are introduced to Pedro de Salas, for many years the Spanish Sergeant; Juan Baptista Sturla, the rather rascally Genoese and French Consul; Benjamin Holroide, a British businessman who lived in Gibraltar for 50 years, and died here aged 96. Oh, and Joseph Benady, whom I had never known of before, and who may even be an ancestor! In fact, you are quite likely to find names which you recognise as belonging to your family.

In addition, there are two important chapters added: the first deals with Mediterranean Passes, which were issued to ships from Gibraltar to protect them against attacks by Algerian corsairs, and the second with the currency used in Gibraltar at the time.
To be sure, there are still pieces missing from that jigsaw puzzle; but if they still exist, we can be sure that Richard will find them. If you are at all interested in Gibraltar and its history, this is not a book to be missed.
I await the next two volumes (1749 to the Great Siege, and 1783 to Trafalgar) with impatience.

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