Introduction: In late August 1844, with hardly any preparation, Thackeray accepted the chance of an extended trip via the Mediterranean to the Middle East. He was impressed by the first sight of Gibraltar, but various discomforts there — such as the mosquitoes, and the constant calling of "All's Well" from the watch at night — made him glad to leave. Clearly, he was impelled less by a spirit of adventure than by the simple curiosity of a travel-writer, and one, moreover, as interested in his own responses to the new scenes that he encounters, as in the scenes themselves. He does, in fact, make pertinent comments on Gibraltar's cultural diversity and its anomalous situation as a British territory on the Iberian peninsula; and he concludes with the hope that such a fortified "blunderbuss" would not be needed one day: "For once establish railroads and abolish preventive duties through Europe, and what is there left to fight for?"

Introduction, formatting and image scans by Jacqueline Banerjee. See the bibliography for full details of the illustration sources: note that G. F. Stephens uses some of W. H. Bartlett's drawings in his book, although the artist's name is not given. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source of the scans or the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Excerpt from the end of Chapter II ("Lisbon and Cadiz")

decorated initial 'T'

he next stage was Gibraltar, where we were to change horses. Before sunset we skirted along the dark savage mountains of the African coast, and came to the Rock just before gun-fire. It is the very image of an enormous lion, crouched between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and set there to guard the passage for its British mistress. The next British lion is Malta, four days further on in the midland sea, and ready to spring upon Egypt or pounce upon Syria, or roar so as to be heard at Marseilles in case of need.

"Spanish fishermen on the Neutral Ground" — i.e. between Spain and Gibraltar, with the Rock rising up on the right (Bartlett, title page).

To the eyes of the civilian, the first-named of these famous fortifications is by far the most imposing. The Rock looks so tremendous, that to ascend it, even without the complement of shells or shot, seems a dreadful task — what would it be when all those mysterious lines of batteries were vomiting fire and brimstone; when all those dark guns that [28/29] you see poking their grim heads out of every imaginable cleft and zigzag should salute you with shot, both hot and cold; and when, after tugging up the hideous perpendicular place, you were to find regiments of British grenadiers ready to plunge bayonets into your poor panting stomach, and let out artificially the little breath left there? It is a marvel to think that soldiers will mount such places for a shilling — ensigns for five and ninepence — a day: a cabman would ask double the money to go halfway! One meekly reflects upon the above strange truths, leaning over the ship's side, and looking up the huge mountain, from the tower nestled at the foot of it to the thin flag-staff at the summit, up to which have been piled the most ingenious edifices for murder Christian science ever adopted. My hobby-horse is a quiet beast, suited for Park riding, or a gentle trot to Putney and back to a snug stable, and plenty of feeds of corn:— it can't abide climbing hills, and is not at all used to gunpowder. Some men's animals are so spirited that the very appearance of a stone wall sets them jumping at it; regular chargers of hobbies, which snort and say — "Ha, ha!" at the mere notion of a battle.... [29]

Excerpt from Chapter IV ("Gibraltar")

decorated initial 'S'UPPOSE all the nations of the earth to send fitting ambassadors to represent them at Wapping or Portsmouth Point, with each, under its own national sign-board and language, its appropriate house of call, and your imagination may figure the main street of Gibraltar; almost the only part of the town, I beheve, which boasts of the name of street at all, the remaining house-rows being modestly called lanes, such as Bomb-lane, Battery-lane, Fusee-lane, and so on. In Main-street the Jews predominate, the Moors abound; and from the Jolly Sailor, or the Brave Horse Marine, where the people of our own nation are drinking British beer and gin, your hear choruses of "Garry Owen" or "The Lass I left behind me;" while through the flaring lattices of the Spanish ventas come the clatter of castanets [42/43] and the jingle and moan of Spanish guitars and ditties. It is a curious sight at evening this thronged street, with the people, in a hundred different costumes, bustling to and fro under the coarse flare of the lamps; swarthy Moors, in white or crimson robes; dark Spanish smugglers in tufted hats, with gay silk handkerchiefe round their heads; fiiddled seamen from men-of-war, or merchantmen; porters, GaUician and Genoese; and at every few minutes' interval, little squads of soldiers tramping to relieve guard at some one of the innumerable posts in the town.

Left: "The Landing-Place" — with the remains of Moorish Castle in the background (Bartlett, facing p.162). Right: "A Motley Group in the Main Street" (Stephens 125).

Some of our party went to a Spanish venta, as a more convenient or romantic place of residence than an English house; others made choice of the club-house in Commercial-square, of which I formed an agreeable picture in my imagination; rather, perhaps, resembling the Junior United Service Club in Charles-street, by which every Londoner has passed ^re this with respectful pleasure, catching glimpses of magnificent blazing candelabras, under which sit neat half-pay officers, drinking half-pints of port. The club-house of Gibraltar is not, however, of the Charles-street sort; it may have been cheerful once, and there are yet relics of splendour about it. When officers wore pig-tails, and in the time, of Governor O'Hara, it may have been a handsome place; but [43/44] it is mouldy and decrepit now; and though his Excellency Mr. Bulwer, was living there, and made no complaints that I heard of, other less distinguished persons thought they had reason to grumble. Indeed, what is travelling made of? At least half its pleasures and incidents come out of inns; and of them the tourist can speak with much more truth and vivacity than of historical recollections compiled out of histories, or filched out of hand-books. But to speak of the best inn in a place needs no apology; that, at least, is useful information; as every person intending to visit Gibraltar cannot have seen the flea-bitten countenances of our companions, who fled from their Spanish venta to take refuge at the club the morning after our arrival! they may surely be thankful for being directed to the best house of accommodation in one of the most unromantic, uncomfortable, and prosaic of towns.

"The Market" (Bartlett, facing p.164).

If one had a right to break the sacred confidence of the mahogany, I could entertain you with many queer stories of Gibraltar life, gathered from the lips of the gentlemen who enjoyed themselves round the dingy table cloth of the club-house coffee-room, richly decorated with cold gravy and spilt boor. I heard there the very names of the gentleman who wrote the famous letters from the Warspite [44/45] regarding the French proceedings at Mogador; and met several refugee Jews from that place, who said that they were much more afraid of the Kabyles without the city, than of the guns of the French squadron, of which they seemed to make rather light. I heard the last odds on the ensuing match between Captain Smith's b. g. Bolter, and Captain Brown's ch. c. Roarer: how the gun room of her Majesty's ship Purgatory had "cobbed" a tradesman of the town, and of the row in consequence: I heard capital stories of the way in which Wilkins had escaped the guard, and Thompson had been locked up among the mosquitoes for being out after ten without a lantern. I heard how the governor was an old ------, but to say what, would be breaking a confidence; only this may be divulged, that the epithet was exceedingly complimentary to Sir Robert Wilson. All the while these conversations were going on, a strange scene of noise and bustle was passing in the market-place, in front of the window, where Moors, Jews, Spaniards, soldiers were thronging in the sun; and a ragged fat fellow, mounted on a tobacco barrel, with his hat cocked on his ear, was holding an auction, and roaring with an energy and impudence that would have done credit to Covent Garden.

"The King's Bastion" — with the old Moorish Castle towards the right (Bartlett, facing p.156).

The Moorish castle is the only building about [45/46] the Rock which has an air at all picturesque or romantic; there is a plain Roman Catholic cathedral, a hideous new Protestant church of the cigar-divan architecture, and a Court-house with a portico which is said to be an imitation of the Parthenon: the ancient rehgious houses of the Spanish town are gone, or turned into military residences, and marked so that you would never know their former pious destination. You walk through narrow white-washed lanes, bearing such martial names as are before-mentioned, and by-streets with barracks on either side; small Newgate-like looking buildings, at the doors of which you may see the Serjeants' ladies conversing, or at the open windows of the officers' quarters. Ensign Fipps lying on his sofa and smoking his cigar, or Lieutenant Simson practising the flute to while away the weary hours of garrison dulness. I was surprised not to find more persons in the garrison library, where is a magnificent reading-room, and an admirable collection of books.

The Alameda Gardens (Stephens 122).

In spite of the scanty herbage and the dust on the trees, the Alameda is a beautiful walk; of which the vegetation has been as laboriously cared for as the tremendous fortifications which flank it on either side. The vast rock rises on one side with its interminable works of defence, and Gibraltar Bay is [46/47] shining on the other, out on which from the terraces immense cannon are perpetually looking, surrounded by plantations of cannon balls and beds of bomb shells, sufficient, one would think, to blow away the whole Peninsula. The horticultural and military mixture is indeed very queer: here and there temples, rustic summer seats, &c., have been erected in the garden, but you are sure to see a great squat mortar looking up from among the flower-pots; and amidst the aloes and geraniums sprouts the green petticoat and scarlet coat of a Highlander; fatigue parties are seen winding up the hill, and busy about the endless cannon-ball plantations; awkward squads are drilling in the open spaces; sentries marching everywhere, and (this is a caution to artists) I am told have orders to run any man through who is discovered making a sketch of the place. It is always beautiful, especially at evening, when the people are sauntering along the walks, and the moon is shining on the waters of the bay and the hills and twinkling white houses of the opposite shore. Then the place becomes quite romantic: it is too dark to see the dust on the dried leaves; the cannon-balls do not intrude too much, but have subsided into the shade; the awkward squads are in bed; even the loungers are gone, the fan-flirting Spanish ladies, the sallow black-eyed children, and the trim [47/48] white-jacketted dandies. A fife is heard from some craft at roost ou the quiet waters somewhere; or a faint cheer from yonder black steamer at the Mole, which is about to set out on some night expedition. You forget that the town is at all like Wapping, and deliver yourself up entirely to romance; the sentries look noble pacing there, silent in the moon-light, and Sandy's voice is quite musical, as he challenges with a "Who goes there?"

"All's Well" is very pleasant when sung decently in tune; and inspires noble and poetic ideas of duty, courage, and danger : but when you hear it shouted all the night through, accompanied by a clapping of muskets in a time of profound peace, the sentinel's cry becomes no more romantic to the hearer than it is to the sandy Connaught-man or the bare-legged Highlander who delivers it. It is best to read about wars comfortably in Harry Lorrequer or Scott's novels, in which knights shout their war cries, and jovial Irish bayoneteers hurrah, without depriving you of any blessed rest. Men of a different way of thinking, however, can suit themselves perfectly at Gibraltar; where there is marching and counter-marching, challenging and relieving guard all the night through. And not here in Commercial-square alone, but all over the huge rock in the darkness — all through the mysterious [48/49] zig-zags, and round the dark cannon-ball pyramids, and along the vast rock-galleries, and up to the topmast flagstaff where the sentry can look out over two seas, poor fellows are marching and clapping muskets, and crying "All's well," dressed in cap and feather, in place of honest nightcaps best befitting the decent hours of sleep.

All these martial noises three of us heard to the utmost advantage, lying on iron bedsteads at the time in a cracked old room on the ground-floor, the open windows of which looked into the square. No spot could be more favourably selected for watching the humours of a garrison-town by night. About midnight, the door hard by us was visited by a party of young officers, who having had quite as much drink as was good for them, were naturally inclined for more; and when we remonstrated through the windows, one of them in a young tipsy voice asked after our mothers, and finally reeled away. How charming is the conversation of high spirited youth! I don't know whether the guard got hold of them: but certainly if a civihan had been hiccuping through the street at that hour he would have been carried off to the guard-house, and left to the mercy of the mosquitoes there, and had up before the governor in the morning. The young men in the coffee-room tell me he goes to sleep [49/50] every night with the keys of Gibraltar under his pillow. It is an awful image, and somehow completes the notion of the slumbering fortress. Fancy Sir Robert Wilson, his nose just visible over the sheets, his night-cap and the huge key (you see the very identical one in Reynold's portrait of Lord Heathfield) peeping out from under the bolster!

"Catalan Bay [on the east side of Gibraltar] from the Mediterranean Battery" (Bartlett, facing p.175).

If I entertain you with accounts of inns and nightcaps it is because I am more familiar with these subjects than with history and fortifications: as far as I can imderstand the former, Gibraltar is the great British depôt for smuggling goods into the Peninsula. You see vessels lying in the harbour, and are told in so many words they are smugglers; all those smart Spaniards with cigar and mantles are smugglers, and run tobaccos and cotton into Catalonia; all the respected merchants of the place are smugglers. The other day a Spanish revenue vessel was shot to death under the thundering great guns of the fort, for neglecting to bring to, but it so happened that it was in chase of a smuggler; in this little corner of her dominions Britain proclaims war to custom-houses, and protection to free-trade. Perhaps ere a very long day, England may be acting that part towards the world, which Gibraltar performs towards Spain now; and the last [50/51] war in which we shall ever engage may be a custom-house war. For once establish railroads and abolish preventive duties through Europe, and what is there left to fight for? It will matter very little then under what flag people live, and foreign ministers and ambassadors may enjoy a dignified sinecure; the army will rise to the rank of peaceful constables, not having any more use for their bayonets than those worthy people have for their weapons now who accompany the law at assizes under the name of javelin-men. The apparatus of bombs and eighty-four pounders may disappear from the Alameda, and the crops of cannon-balls which now grow there, may give place to other plants more pleasant to the eye; and the great key of Gibraltar may be left in the gate for anybody to turn at will, and Sir Robert Wilson may sleep in quiet.

I am afraid I thought it was rather a release, when, having made up our minds to examine the rock in detail and view the magnificent excavations and galleries, the admiration of all military men, and the terror of any enemies who may attack the fortress, we received orders to embark forthwith in the "Tagus," which was to carry us to Malta and Constantinople. So we took leave of this famous rock — this great blunderbuss — which we seized out of the hands of the natural owners a [61/62] hundred and forty years ago, and which we have kept ever since tremendously loaded and cleaned and ready for use. To seize and have it is doubtless a gallant thing; it is like one of those tests of courage which one reads of in the chivalrous romances, when, for instance, Sir Huon, of Bordeaux, is called on to prove his knighthood by going to Babylon and pulling out the Sultan's beard and front teeth in the midst of his court there.

But, after all, justice must confess it was rather hard on the poor Sultan. If we had the Spaniards estabhshed at Land's-End, with impregnable Spanish fortifications on St. Michael's Mount, we should perhaps come to the same conclusion. Meanwhile, let us hope dmring this long period of deprivation, the Sultan of Spain is reconciled to the loss of his front teeth and bristling whiskers — let us even try to think that he is better without them. At all events, right or wrong, whatever may be our title to the property, there is no Englishmain but must think with pride of the manner in which his countrymen have kept it and of the courage, endurance, and sense of duty with which stout old Eliot and his companions resisted Crillon and thie Spanish battering ships and his fifty thousand men. There seems to be something more noble in the success of a gallant resistance than of an attack, [52/53] however brave. After felling in his attack on the fort, the French General visited the English Commander who had foiled him, and parted from him and his garrison in perfect politeness and good humour. The English troops, Drinkwater says, gave him thundering cheers as he went away, and the French in return complimented us on our gallantry, and lauded the humanity of our people. If we are to go on murdering each other in the old-fashioned way, what a pity it is that our battles cannot end in the old-fashioned way too.

Related Material


Bartlett, William Henry. Gleanings, Pictorial and Antiquarian, On the Overland Route. 2nd ed. London: Hall, Virtue & Co., 1851. Google Books. Free ebook. Web. 22 January 2019.

Harden, Edgar F. A William Makepeace Thackeray Chronology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Stephens, George Frederick. Gibraltar and Its Sieges, with a description of its natural features. London: Thomas Nelson, 1879. Project Gutenberg. Web. 22 January 2019.

Titmarsh, M. A. (W. M. Thackeray). Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo. London: Chapman and Hall, 1846. 28-29; 42-53. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Oxford. Web. 22 January 2019.

Last modified 28 January 2019