Tribute to the Catalan volunteers who saw action at the taking of Gibraltar...

By Marti Crespo

One of the most long-lived and well-known territorial disputes in Europe began three hundred and twenty years ago in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. In the War of the Spanish Succession, an Anglo-Dutch squadron commanded by Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt, former viceroy of Catalonia during the last years of Charles II of Spain and known supporter of the Austrian cause at the beginning of the conflict, took up position in the summer of 1704 in the Bay of Gibraltar with the aim of harassing the garrison, loyal to Philip V, which was very poorly prepared for an unexpected attack of that magnitude.

Most of the troops which laid the siege, which was an unequal contest, consisted of about two thousand English and Dutch marines. However, it is reported that there were also a few hundred Catalan soldiers and volunteers, supporters of the Austrian side, who were also on board the large allied fleet under the orders of the English admiral George Rooke. Their involvement in the first notable victory of the anti-Bourbon forces on the Iberian mainland in that great international conflict is quite well documented, although English and Spanish authors often brush over it or simply ignore it.

To a certain extent it is understandable that, in an episode that gives rise to so much passion and that, diplomatically, three centuries later still stirs emotions, this detail should not go beyond being seen as merely that: a detail. However, fortunately we have a whole series of sources that help the dogged researcher to bring that group of willing Catalan volunteers out of oblivion and to demonstrate clearly the far from negligible role they played in a chapter of a war that transformed a small town nestled under the shadow of a remote Rock at the southern tip of Europe in a world-famous impregnable bastion.

It is fortunate that the Barcelona lawyer and historian Narcís Feliu de la Peña i Farell (1642-1712), in his now famous list on page 529 of the Annales de Cataluña (1709), left a written record of one hundred names of Austracists (supporters of the Austrian cause) directly involved both in the siege and capture of Gibraltar in August 1704 and in the defence of the fortress from the first Franco-Spanish attacks until the summer of 1705. He mentions, in particular, fifty-eight Catalans among military personnel, volunteers and masters of vessels (some of whom died), as well as three Valencians, a Mallorcan and a Menorcan. But all the available data points to there having been many more.

Fortunately, the British historian George Hills (1918-2002) in his book The Rock of Contention (1974) made a notable effort to try to discover the exact number. After specially dedicating a number of pages to the matter, checking all manner of documentary and bibliographical sources and doing calculations with data found here and there, he finally deduced that the number of men involved must range between at least 250 and, at most, 400.

By luck, also, the Catalan historian Antoni Porta i Bergadà (1919-1988) wanted to know who those idealistic and warlike Catalans were and that is why he tried to trace them as they appeared during and long after the capture of Gibraltar. His intense research, based in part on rarely consulted Dutch archives, resulted in a leading reference work, La victòria catalana de 1705 (1984), which provides many clues about the origins – in plural – of the at least three hundred men who descended on the Rock and stayed for a year: some had already been following Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt since the time of the imperial armies at the end of the 17th Century, including the Valencian Joan Baptista Basset i Ramos; others – around sixty to ninety of them – had joined the troops in Lisbon, where the allies’ confederate expedition was raised and based; and still others, as a result of the failed invasion by sea of Barcelona in May 1704, fled from the subsequent repression unleashed by the Bourbon viceroy in the city by sailing with Prince George, as is the case of the clerics Miquel Ruaix and Andreu Foix and some soldiers: Jaume Birolà, Jaume Borguny, Jaume Carreras, Francesc de Casamitjana.

Once again, as luck would have it, along with the British, Dutch, Spanish and French war chronicles and diaries of the siege and occupation of the Rock, another work that has come down to us is a diary precisely from the aforementioned Infantry Captain Francesc de Casamitjana in which he records all the events during the war between 1704 and 1707, by a Catalan and from a Catalan point of view. Thanks to the manuscript Empresas y sucesos gloriosos… (1713), kept in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, we are able to learn with complete precision not only about the history of the allied forces in Gibraltar in 1704, but also many details of the active and, at times, decisive participation of the Catalan riflemen and artillerymen who, integrated into two companies, came under the orders of Prince George both on the Rock and in his final assignment: the second, and finally successful, attack on Barcelona in 1705. In the attempted assault on Montjuïc Castle on 14 September of that year, Prince George, that intrepid German soldier, lost his life. His body was buried in the Josepets de Gràcia church, in his beloved Catalonia, and his heart was embalmed and sent to Darmstadt to be buried in the family vault.

Fortunately, in addition to all these linked stories that remind us of those exploits, we are also lucky to have tireless and willing campaigners of the stature of Enric Garriga i Trullols (1926-2011) who, as head of the Institut de Projecció Exterior de la Cultura Catalana (Institute for the Promotion of Catalan Culture abroad – IPECC), knew how to properly honour all those who were involved. As far back as 1998, he was the driving force behind the inscription that commemorates Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt on the side of the altar in the church of Josepets in Barcelona. And, in 2004, on the occasion of the tercentenary of the capture of Gibraltar, he organised a few days on the Rock during which a plaque was presented to the Ministry of Culture in memory of the participation of the Catalan volunteers, with Prince George foremost among them.

That plaque delivered twenty years ago was not, in the end, installed in a prominent place as planned and, unfortunately, it was lost over time and several office moves. But, very fortunately, the drive and determination of a true Gibraltarian, Joe Brugada, son of Pepe el Catalán, made it possible last year to order a reproduction from local designer Anselmo Torres, which has finally been produced. This morning, in the presence of a delegation from IPECC and Mr Brugada himself, it will be handed over again to the authorities of Gibraltar with the shared desire that, this time, it will be installed as soon as possible in a visitable place to become a visible reminder of our historical relationship.

Martí Crespo is a journalist based in Barcelona who has written extensively about Gibraltar’s links to Menorca and Catalonia. This article was translated by Brian Porro.