Gibraltar is Taken


The combined English and Dutch fleets line up at the start of the attack on Gibraltar.

Attack on Gibraltar 1-3 August 1704. Prince George of Hesse entered the town on 6 August in the name of ‘Charles III’ but effective control remained with the English.

In 1624, the Spanish king, Philip IV, visited Gibraltar and ordered the construction of even more extensive fortifications, including walls and ditches, and these defenses, together with the cannons that had already been installed, made Gibraltar nearly impregnable as a fortress.

Unfortunately, the strength of Gibraltar depended not just on the maintenance of its defenses but also on its stores of food and water, because almost all supplies had to be brought in, especially in times of siege. Bringing in supplies by land or sea was not the only difficulty faced by those in possession of “the Rock.” The Spanish Crown had an exceedingly difficult time convincing individuals to live on Gibraltar. A charter issued by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1310 foreshadows later patterns of settlement. It grants a pardon to any criminals willing to live on Gibraltar, except those who committed a crime against the king or the state. The Spanish king was determined to attract a Christian population, but the morality of the inhabitants was not of any particular interest. Whenever troops were stationed on Gibraltar, their presence attracted traders and others willing to live and work in the settlement at the base of the fortress. Smugglers, more legitimate traders, criminals, and the poorer inhabitants of Spain gravitated to Gibraltar.

By 1704, after the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession, the series of wars and sieges that had been fought to secure Gibraltar for the Spanish Crown were long forgotten. Extensive construction and fortifications had been carried out by this time, under the various forces that occupied Gibraltar. The last major assault against “the Rock” had occurred more than 200 years earlier, and the population had increased. The town was more prosperous, trade had increased, and farmers grew additional agricultural produce on the fertile plain that lay between “the Rock” itself and Spain. There was no border between Gibraltar and the Iberian Peninsula, as long as Gibraltar was a Spanish possession.

Capture of Gibraltar 1704

By 1704, the long period of peace and the relative security of Spain resulted in the deterioration of the fortress and defenses on Gibraltar. The governor of Gibraltar, General Diego de Salinas, had complained about the inadequacies of the small number of troops in his garrison and the shortage of cannons and ammunition to his superiors, but to no avail.

The conquest of Gibraltar by the British in 1704 has been characterized as an “accident” rather than a premeditated action based on the perceived value of “the Rock.” Although the latter part of the statement is definitely true, it was not an accident so much as a consequence of coalition warfare and the combined impact of unforeseen events. Sir George Rooke, commander of the grand fleet in the Mediterranean, was one of the first British career naval officers and a Tory (a member of Britain’s Conservative Party). Rooke was ordered to support Charles III, the Austrian claimant to the throne, and had participated in a landing at Barcelona, where the population was supposed to rise up and support Charles III. That did not happen, and because the landing party was not large enough to undertake a real siege, Rooke and Prince Hesse, who was Charles III’s commander in chief, were forced to withdraw.

The incident lowered the morale of all parties involved, and following this debacle, Rooke pursued a French fleet for some distance before withdrawing without contact, because of the condition of his own ships and the absence of favorable winds. Rooke was then advised to attack Cadiz, just to the northwest of Gibraltar, but he was convinced it would be a disaster. At this juncture, Rooke desperately needed to take some kind of decisive action so that his career would not be ruined. The weaknesses of Gibraltar were well known, and before sailing from Portugal, Rooke had obtained a letter from Charles III demanding that Gibraltar surrender. Rooke called a council of war, where it was agreed that the attack on Cadiz was unfeasible. Rooke, and the other members of the council, also agreed that the seizure of Gibraltar would enable the Allies to monitor and control the entrance to the Mediterranean and might cause the Spanish to enter into negotiations to end the war.

The Spanish governor, General Diego de Salinas, did not have adequate forces, provisions, or cannons but was determined to resist the British, or at least to delay the seizure of Gibraltar, because it could be used to launch an attack into Spain. Rooke sent the letter from Charles III demanding the surrender of the fortress to his allies and requested a response. Salinas and the Gibraltarians responded that, having sworn an oath to Philip V, they were not in any way under the authority of Charles III. General Salinas upheld his duty by trying to defend Gibraltar despite his lack of resources, but defeat was rapid and inevitable.

Rooke delayed his attack slightly because of unfavorable winds, but as soon as he was able to get his ships into position, he fired shells into the town of Gibraltar as well as at the fortress. Salinas and his meager forces could not prevent the landing of British forces on “the Rock.” The Spanish, however, did set off an explosion in one of the forts from which they had retreated after the guns were shattered. Forty British troops were killed in the explosion, 60 others were wounded, and 7 of the landing boats were capsized. Since the landings had made the Spanish position untenable, negotiations for the surrender of the fortress commenced. General Salinas and his soldiers were allowed to march out of the fort with their possessions and return to Spain.

Most of the Spanish population of Gibraltar fled to Spain, as well. The miserable and unhealthy conditions on naval vessels, as well as the unsavory character of most men pressed into military service in the eighteenth century, were well known. Nevertheless, the actions of the drunken British forces, who raped women, pillaged the town for anything of value, and took delight in defiling and destroying eighteen of the nineteen Roman Catholic churches, were characterized as excessive even by the standards of the day and left lingering resentments.

Some accounts suggest that Rooke participated in the ceremony that proclaimed Gibraltar had been ceded to Charles III but immediately after the ceremony claimed possession of Gibraltar for Queen Anne of England and replaced Charles III’s flag with the British Union Jack flag. This story, considered by most scholars who have written about Gibraltar to be a myth, has been traced back as far as Lopez de Ayala, who wrote about Gibraltar in 1782. Ayala, however, does not indicate where he obtained his information. Considerable evidence suggests that, when Gibraltar was occupied, the individuals involved acted not to secure “the Rock” for Queen Anne of England but only “to reduce Gibraltar to the King of Spain’s obedience.” Nevertheless, England had provided the bulk of the ships and the men that captured Gibraltar, and unless they allotted forces to defend it against the inevitable counterattack, it could not have been held.

The unexpected acquisition of Gibraltar led to a debate in England over whether Gibraltar should be returned to Spain. The Spanish began to assemble forces to divest the “key to Spain” of the occupying forces. By September, they had 4,000 troops, and by October, they had 7,000 assembled and camped out just beyond range of the cannons on Gibraltar. Rooke improved the defenses of Gibraltar and secured enough supplies and reinforcements to hold out against the French and Spanish. Queen Anne authorized the reinforcement of Gibraltar, and the French and Spanish were unable to effectively coordinate their efforts against the fortress.

If Gibraltar had fallen before negotiations to end the War of the Spanish Succession, the British would have in all likelihood not have demanded that it be ceded to Britain. After all, although British opinion on the value of Gibraltar was divided, Spain considered Gibraltar to be of the utmost importance and would have been in a much stronger position if it had control of Gibraltar when the war ended. The Spanish, however, failed to take back Gibraltar between 1704 and 1711, when negotiations to end the War of the Spanish Succession began in earnest. This failure would become more significant as the decades passed, and over time, it appeared less and less likely that Gibraltar would be returned to Spain, even if another valuable territory were offered in exchange.