It’s the 230th anniversary of the Mediterranean Steps this year. Did you know that, you jogger, stroller, tourist, huh? Did you notice the small 1790 oval date stamp that marks the date?
Perhaps you didn’t, because it is engraved in stone way higher than eye level, and it might have escaped you, while your gaze carefully minds your step. It is worth looking for it next time, though.
Indeed, it escaped amateur historian and opposition parliamentarian Roy Clinton, until it was pointed out to him. This confirmed his previous research on the origins and development of Mediterranean Steps, and his work is now being published as an article in the annual Heritage Journal.
Their red-hot cannonballs caused huge distress.
The history of Med Steps carries a mix of military and leisure usage. The original goat herders’ path was restructured and carved under O’Hara’s orders at the end of the eighteenth century, as a military installation leading to the battery overlooking Sandy Bay and a lookout atop Windmill Hill called St. George’s Tower, which was later struck by lightning and ruined.
“With the military technology available in those days, Windmill Hill had little strategic value as it was, because it would only allow cannons pointing down southwards to defend Europa Point, which was already properly defended from elsewhere, so it soon became a Georgian promenade for army officers and their wives to go on picnics on mule-back,” Mr Clinton says. “It was a mini-tour of the Rock, including St. Michael’s Cave, and O’Hara’s Tower (As St George’s Tower was later renamed) and they would ‘park’ their mules at O’Hara’s Tower and stroll down to Jews’ Gate, and pick them up again there for the ride home.”
The route was slightly different than today’s, as it led through Mediterranean Road to the area currently known as Governor’s Lodge on the Upper Rock. “There is a tunnel linking up to Med Steps called the Levant Gallery, but this is nowadays blocked by a stone building and gated, so it cannot be visited.”
It must have been a sight to behold,” Roy muses.
Roy’s interest in history is varied, and usually connected to his economic and commercial background, although he likes to go for any topic that raises more questions than answers, and inspires him to ‘connect the dots’, for personal interest, and to add a chapter to Gibraltar’s complex history.
Sometimes his research is set in motion serendipitously, as it happened with his first standalone book, Eliott’s Gold. While browsing eBay, Roy stumbled upon an original 1783 Act of Parliament authorising the Treasurer of the Navy to pay bounty money to the Garrison, as petitioned by then-Governor of Gibraltar, General Eliott, following his glamorous victory over the attack of the Floating Batteries.
Curiosity piqued again, Roy furthered his research to discover how Eliott had shrewdly petitioned Parliament for statutory relief, in order to extend to army officers the law that entitled naval prize claims only to navy officers.
Until it’s finished, one doesn’t really know where it is going.
In fact, under previous law, despite being victorious in quite a spectacular battle, his ‘fleet’ wouldn’t have been allowed to claim the naval prize after destroying enemy ships, because of a sheer technicality: their ‘naval’ battle had actually happened from land, and it was in fact the army’s doing!
With a strategy worthy of a romantic novel, ten Spanish warships, purposely refitted as floating batteries, were disabled by the Army from the comfort of terra firma. Their red-hot cannonballs caused huge distress amongst the enemy attacking from these ‘floating fortresses’.
“The ships had been modified and fortified in Cadiz, but hadn’t factored in diminished manoeuvrability in the constraints of the Bay. British projectiles set them ablaze and they exploded; my book features a contemporary painting depicting pieces of ships shooting skywards with plumes of dark smoke.”
‘It must have been a sight to behold,” Roy muses, adding how the French and Spanish nobility had flocked to the opposite hills, to idly and safely watch the battle, as one would nowadays attend a fireworks display. If they expected the Garrison to be captured, though, they were sorely disappointed and instead they witnessed the destruction of their precious fleet.
Gibraltar was extraordinarily prosperous in those times.
Sunken ships were no value for warfare, but captured ships were indeed, for their material contents were shared as prize; in this instance, the warships were equipped with expensive cannons, whose brass was handsomely sold as scrap.
However, the participants in the battle not being sailors but infantry, they found themselves not eligible for prize money in the sum of five pounds per head of crew on the attacking – and captured – floating batteries! And here, Eliott steps in, and petitions parliament in their (and his own) favour, landing his Garrison a total of £30,000, equivalent to over four million pounds of today.
According to documentation, Roy was able to break down how this was distributed to the army Garrison proportionally according to their rank, so that privates landed the equivalent of £150-200 in today’s money – which Roy reckons was swiftly spent in the Garrison’s numerous drinking houses.
“The title should be Eliott’s Prize, more accurately, but I felt that ‘gold’ is catchier,” says Roy, who extensively researched navy prize practices and laws in place until the Great War one century ago, and a chunk of history of parliament petitions.
He hopped about the UK National Archives, National Maritime Museum and the Gibraltar National archives, scouring documents, and he performed a lot of ‘secondary reading’. The appeal of this type of research, he explains, is that until it’s finished, one doesn’t really know where it is going, as if he was following a path of crumbs leading to unexpected conclusions, as if piecing a jigsaw with no guideline picture on the box.
And there is a practical challenge as well, in accessing archives, especially during pandemic times: “There is a lot of footwork involved, a lot of paperwork to apply for access to archives, and delays expected in travelling to London, where I need to source my documents. Thankfully, I can order most literature online.”
Restrictions are not deterring Roy from his next project, like a mere technicality didn’t stop parliament from granting Eliott and his ‘crew’ – army – their well deserved and just reward for having valiantly defended England’s gateway to the Mediterranean and Africa, just a few years after their loss of New World colonies and their trade.
On the subject of commerce in the nineteenth century, in the Napoleonic era, Roy is planning his PhD to touch upon Gibraltar’s micro-economy. “Gibraltar was extraordinarily prosperous in those times and I wondered what made it so,” he describes the question that sparked his quest. Contemporary sources report active markets of luxury goods imported by the shipload. “Auctions of wine and tobacco were held in the square outside what is now Parliament House.”
There is an abundance of unpublished material on the subject, and Roy expects his mammoth task to take some five years to complete, again scouring archives and studying existing bibliographies. “I will apply academic rigour to my work, abiding to the science of historiography, but like Eliott’s Gold, this project will be reader-friendly.”
Scientific but not boringly scholarly is what the general public likes when it comes to get educated on another snippet of the Gibraltar mosaic, and to prove this, Roy’s book sold like hotcakes at its Heritage Trust launch last September.