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The Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779-1783) was the outstanding event which
helped to make Gibraltar known throughout the world as a symbol of courage,
tenacity and invulnerability.
There are several eye-witness accounts of the Siege. The best-known is the History of the Late Siege of Gibraltar by John Drinkwater, first published in 1785. It went through several editions in the next few years, including an Irish edition and even one pirated in the newly formed United States.
The book was immensely popular, and was reprinted several times throughout the 19th century.
Another officer who wrote of his experiences during the siege was John Spilsbury. His account, however, remained unpublished until 1908, when it was published by the Garrison Library, which owns the manuscript. It is illustrated with the author’s own sketches.
Samuel Ancell, who was clerk to one of the regiments, left an interesting account in the form of letters to his brother. He gives a view of the Siege from the eyes of the rank and file.
Two officers’ wives left a record of their experiences. Mrs Miriam Green was the wife of the Chief Engineer, Sir William Green, who was responsible for the construction of many of our defences, notably King’s Bastion. Her diary, like Spilsbury’s, was not published until early in the 20th century. It gives a vivid picture of life in Gibraltar in siege conditions, from the point of view of a woman. Catharine Upton also published her experiences during the few months before she was repatriated to England. She was an author and poet and includes an ode to Sir Robert Boyd.
There are several other accounts, some of them anonymous.
Modern writers have often seized on the Siege as a subject to rehash. The best of these is Gibraltar Besieged, by Jack Russell (Heinemann, 1965). A heroic episode such as the Great Siege could not escape the attention of writers of fiction. The first was, of course, the prolific Victorian purveyor of British derring-do, GA Henty, whose boys’ novel, Held Fast for England, went through many editions from its first publication in the 1870s until the present day. This book so typified the author’s work that his biography was given the same title.
E Everett Green, who was well-known in her time as the author of books for young ladies, produced her The Defence of the Rock, with a girl heroine, at about the same time, and the American Molly Elliot Seawell followed in 1897 with The Rock of the Lion.
Recent years have seen a rash of books about Gibraltar, and novels about the Siege have not been lacking, such as A Lady of the Line by Philip McCutchan, a bodice-ripper by the author of the contemporary spy thriller Gibraltar Road, Siege, by White, and Fire on the Rock, by Norman Partington.
A fresh slant on the subject is provided by the recently published Fall of a Sparrow, by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe (HKB Press, 2010). In this work, the Siege and the Rock are backdrops for a mystery story in which the authors’ detective, the Gibraltarian Giovanni Bresciano, is a raw recruit to the British forces who tries to solve the murders of two of his fellow-soldiers.
The siege is fascinatingly interwoven with Bresciano’s efforts as a detective, the plight of a starving and sick population, a touch of romance, and the coming-of-age of a na´ve 18-year-old.