Drunkenness and Temperance


1. In no part of the world exists such scenes of intoxication (1800)

In 1800 Thomas Walsh, a young captain in the 93rd Regiment, was on his way to joining General Sir Eyre Coote’s troops in Egypt. After a few days at sea, his ship stopped at Gibraltar to pick up supplies and troops. Tired of being closeted aboard, Walsh decided to go ashore, hoping, as he put it, ‘to partake in some of the sights.’ What he saw over the next few days sickened him to the core.

If water be scarce, wine, on the other hand, is in such abundance, and so cheap, that in no part of the world exist such repeated scenes of intoxication. It is indeed distressing to see whole bands of soldiers and sailors literally lying in the streets in the most degrading state of inebriety. Drunkenness is no crime in the garrison, except in those who are on duty; and every man coming off a working party is ordered to be paid eight pence on the spot, which he immediately proceeds to spend on a kind of bad wine, called blackstrap. Houses for the sale of this pernicious liquor are found at every step, and furnish no small part of the revenue.

Thomas Walsh, A Journal of the late Campaign in Egypt (1803).

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2. The Drunkards’ Rebellion (1802)

By 1798 it was computed that there were over 90 taverns serving the Rock’s population, a figure that becomes all the more startling when we consider that most of the Spanish, Genoese and Jewish natives were, as one contemporary commentator put it, ‘notoriously abstemious.’ This dramatic rise in drinking culture can in some ways be attributed to Governor Charles O’ Hara, otherwise known as the ‘Cock of the Rock.’ A notorious bon vivant and womaniser, O’Hara had a vested interest in keeping the drink flowing, drawing over £9000 a year in the form of licences and other assorted taxes. In 1802, O’Hara was replaced by Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of the future Queen Victoria. Wary at first of changing things, the disciplinarian Duke of Kent soon decided to implant a full-scale programme of reform after news reached him that two Spanish lady tourists had been raped by drunken soldiers during a day trip to the Rock. On his orders the number of taverns was progressively cut down from 90 to 60 to 40. Not content with this, he then prohibited the troops from visiting all but three of the remaining taverns. If that wasn’t galling enough for the embittered soldiery, these three taverns were strictly forbidden to sell traditional favourites like rum and gin, but only allowed to serve Bristol beer and a particularly insipid and tasteless local ale which appears to have been brewed near the area nowadays known as Nun’s Well. Faced with such restrictive measures, the soldiers, not surprisingly, did not take long in expressing their discontent. On Christmas Eve 1803 a detachment of Royal Fusiliers broke out of their barracks and headed angrily for the taverns that had been previously declared military-free. Two days later a contingent of Scottish borderers marched around town, wielding muskets and cracking open bottles of brandy and gin. Although the mutiny was put down by the start of the new year — with ten Scottish borderers executed on makeshift gallows erected on the area known as the Red Sands — the Duke of Kent’s reputation had been dented and before long he was recalled back to the British mainland, where he continued acting as Gibraltar’s Governor in absentia.

The Duke was appointed to the government on the 27th of March, 1802, and reached his destination on the 10th of May. From the statements previously made to him, he was prepared to find the troops in a most irregular and licentious state, and the garrison thronged with abuses in every department. But the representations made to him in England fell infinitely short of the actual immorality, insubordination, and open laxity of all military rule which he found prevailing. On the very day he landed, he had an immediate opportunity of forming a judgment of the terrible task he had undertaken, from the exterior appearance of the troops, as they assembled in ‘review order’ on the Grand Parade, and afterward formed a line from thence to the lieutenant-governor’s quarters, where the Duke at first took up his residence. ‘To describe the slovenliness of their appearance,’ says Mr. Neale, ‘the total want of uniformity in their dress and appointments, the inaccuracy of their movements, and the unsteadiness of both officers and men, is beyond the power of language.’ Moreover, the grossest irregularities characterized the bearing of the men in the public streets, and in their personal intercourse with the inhabitants. They might be seen roving about in scores, in a state of the most riotous intoxication. Discipline was a thing of mere tradition; and every man did that which was ‘right in his own eyes’ — which was usually the grossest wrong that his drunken head could think of.

The Duke looked on for several days, a silent, inactive, and disgusted spectator. He ponders a variety of plans for cleansing this Augean stable, and thinks at last, with Hercules, that he can do it best by turning a little water through it. Water, to be sure, is a scarce element in Gibraltar, but of wine there is an evident superabundance. He may not be able greatly to increase the supply of water; but he fancies something may be done to diminish the supply of wine. When less wine shall be obtainable, it is a reasonable inference that, in a hot climate, there will be a larger use of water; a beverage well known to be considerably more conducive to sobriety. There were in Gibraltar about ninety licensed wine-houses, all mainly supported by the soldiery. At the risk of some of his revenue, the Duke determines to suppress as many of these as possible. He therefore issues an order to shut up thirty; selecting such as were in the immediate vicinity of the barracks, and in by-lanes and obscure places favourable for drinking on the sly, and allowing those to remain which stood prominently in the public streets. In cancelling the licenses, he was, however, careful to distinguish between parties who could support themselves without the wine trade, and those who depended upon it solely for subsistence — avoiding a too rigid interference with the latter.

This arrangement being made, he took steps for providing the soldiers with more regular occupation. He established a roll-call at sun-rise; a dress parade morning and evening; insisted that the men should regularly attend meals; and that after firing the second evening gun, a report should be made that they were in their barracks. He also instituted regular periods for drill and exercise; provided for the regiments being off duty in succession, so that the commanding officers might see their men together once a-week; and enforced a system of operations to effect a general uniformity throughout the garrison.

These checks upon drunkenness and idleness were of some avail, but other and more stringent measures were found necessary. The Duke eventually considered it expedient to prohibit the soldiers from buying liquor of the retail vendors, and to restrict them to the use of the regimental canteens established in the barracks for their convenience — a regulation which soon issued in a violent catastrophe. The soldiers rose in mutiny; instigated, it is said, by many of the officers. There was, however, a want of unanimity, and the conspiracy therefore failed. According to the evidence of an old soldier — probably a mutineer — whom Mr. Neale encountered in his researches, the affair was a ‘sad blunder.’ ‘You see, sir,’ said he, ‘the men weren’t quite unanimous. On Christmas Eve the Royals broke out in mutiny, and went to the quarters of the 25th regiment, and expected the men would join them. But they didn’t. On the 26th o’ December, the 25th broke out and went to the Royals, and expected the Royals to join ‘em, and then they wouldn’t — and so the mutiny was crushed. But if, on the first outbreak, on Christmas Eve, both regiments had been unanimous, the Duke would never have seen England again.’ This communicative veteran declared that the officers were at the head of the conspiracy. ‘You say, sir, that it was the men as mutinied. You say very wrongly. It wor not. It wor the officers. They mutinied fust. I say they did fust; for I wor a mess waiter, and heerd much of their talk; and bitter agen the Duke it sartinly wor. It soon reached the ranks. It set all wrong there: for it poisoned the minds of the men; and the head mutineer was _____ himself. That’s gospel truth; and I’ll maintain it to the death.’ But who is Blank? Why should the supreme offender in the business continue shrouded in impenetrable anonymity? Had he been a private soldier, nobody would have scrupled to publish forth his name; his feelings, if he were living, nobody would have cared to spare; consideration for his friends would not have been for a moment entertained: why should a mutinous villain, in commission, be so tenderly concealed? If Blank were really the ‘head mutineer,’ he ought in all justice to have been hanged with the three convicted ‘ringleaders,’ who were but subordinate mutineers. It is true, your ‘supreme villain’ is often difficult to be detected; and in this instance, as in others, appears to have escaped. But if his name be really known, it ought, in all fairness and honesty, to be divulged. As the charge stands, all the other officers who were then at Gibraltar are liable to the suspicion of being implicated; any one of them may be regarded as the very Blank referred to as the grand anonymous miscreant. With all his desire to clear up this affair of mutiny, Mr. Neale has not cleared it up, and cannot clear it up, while he is satisfied to tell us upon hearsay that the principal offender was an officer named ____.

The declaration of Henry Salisbury (a transported mutineer), made in 1804, very distinctly charges the origin of the mutiny upon the officers. They are also described as being of the first rank. He says, they formed a committee for directing the proceedings, and for the payment of the men who were most active in disorder. A plan was likewise made for seizing his Royal Highness, and forcibly placing him on board one of the ships of war, with orders not to return on pain of death. The signal for this outrage was to have been given by an officer. The scheme was not executed, because the committee were informed that the Duke had become acquainted with it. The names of the officers stated to have been most prominently mutinous are (apparently) given in Salisbury’s confession; but they are printed here as, ‘Captain _____ and _____ of the Royals, and two officers of the name of ____ and _____.’ Some of these Blanks are probably still living in respectable society: while the three subordinate ‘ringleaders’ that acted under their instructions were hanged at Gibraltar! Justice, in this world, is often done imperfectly; it is so extremely difficult to have tried a ‘supreme scoundrel!’, particularly when, as often happens, he is clothed in the regimentals of respectability.

From what has been related of this mutiny, it is very evident that, however excellent may have been the Duke of Kent’s regulations and intentions, his administration rendered him exceedingly unpopular with both officers and men. The officers were as much provoked by the strictness of his discipline as the common soldiers, since it involved an unusual demand upon their time, and unpleasant limitations of their amusements, to carry it out in actual exercises of military duty. They had long been accustomed to freer ways, and desired a continuance of the old courses. So much parade, so much drilling, was not agreeable to their sensations, nor adapted to their notions of convenience. They were interrupted in their billiards, and could not sit so long or so delightfully over their wine. As to the men, they naturally hate ‘parade,’ especially in warm climates; and to be debarred from drinking, when they had money in their pockets, seemed to be the height of practicable severity. ‘The Duke of Kent!’ said an old Chelsea pensioner. ‘I recollect him well, he was a very bud man. He WOULDN’T LET us DRINK. He was wus than any teetotaller going. Much wus. He said a soldier might do without drink! An unpossibility! A rank, sheer, downright unpossibility. And then his hours — he was up before the sun! And the parades — he never missed one. There was one word always foremost in his Prayerbook — the word DUTY — and by that he swore.’ And yet it seems the Duke commanded some respect. ‘He was noble-looking,’ said the pensioner,’— noble-looking was the Duke, sir — noble, noble, — but had rather too much iron in him. Few of his officers stood by him — very, very few — about the wine-houses particularly. In that matter he stood alone, almost, if not altogether alone.... To be sure, ‘twas surprising how the deaths in the garrison diminished after many of them wine-shops were shut up. The sick-list was wonderfully shortened. Perhaps the Duke meant us well. But about parades and wine-shops, his notions were most cussedly unaccountable.’ The probable mutineer, before quoted, bears a somewhat similar testimony to the Duke’s excellent intentions, and more particularly to his kindness, though he has the self-same reservation respecting his restraints on drinking. ‘There wor a deal o’ kindness about the Duke, too. He never forgot the sick soldier; went to the hospital, saw that justice was done to the poor fellows there; and would listen patiently to any request a poor devil had to make. But for a soldier, mark you — for a soldier — he wor — he certainly wor — too temperate. That’s gospel truth.’

As far as we can see into this affair, as far as we have the means of estimating the Duke’s conduct in it, we think, with Mr. Neale, that there is nothing in the matter which the ‘most ardent admirer of the Duke need shrink from contemplating.’ His administration was marked by no features of cruelty, partiality, vindictiveness, or cupidity. Much exaggeration has been circulated respecting the ‘strings of executions’ that succeeded to the mutiny, and about the general severity of his discipline: but, on examination, it is found that the only string of executions was the small string of three — the three convicted ringleaders of the conspiracy, who, in like circumstances, under any governor, must have suffered the same fate. His severity, again, was simply that which the state of the garrison at Gibraltar needed, to bring it under appropriate regulation. He found it abandoned to intemperance — licentious, insubordinate, every way disorderly; and it was his special mission, deputed him from England, to reduce it into order. In reference to the ‘pretty pass’ to which things had come before the Duke arrived, let us once more quote our before mentioned ‘probable mutineer’:

“The men were part slovens and part rebels. And as for the women creatures, they could neither stir in the streets, nor rest quiet at their homes, especially at night, on account of the soldiers being all about on the stroll — wicked, — drunk, and audacious lively. The quiet ones — the civilians, and such like — what complaints they did make, surely, of what they called ‘military license!’ However, the Duke soon put all that down.”

A state of things evidently requiring to be put down. And the Duke seems to have put it down wisely, temperately, and effectually. If by his efforts to this end he indirectly produced a mutiny, he was nowise chargeable with the consequences. Neither were his punishments inflicted on the mutineers any way excessive. They were the common penalties for such offences, and were apparently awarded with a conscientious reference to the amount of delinquency proved against the offenders. He was personally convinced of the infidelity and culpability of many of the officers, though he had no means of tracing the crime of mutiny home to them; but in spite of their apathy and opposition, he effected a considerable reformation; and, for three months prior to his recall, the troops were in regular and real subordination, and perfect tranquillity was established in the garrison.

Anonymous, The Eclectic Magazine (1850).

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3. Dead Drunk Sailors (1827)

Following the Duke of Kent’s departure, things quickly returned to normal again: the taverns re-opened and the soldiers could once more drink to their hearts’ content. In 1806, for example, only three years after Kent’s recall, a fortress order stated that ‘the lieutenant governor is much shocked at the shameful drunkenness that has prevailed in the Garrison for these last two days.... He cannot allow himself to suppose that British soldiers can be so absurd and unlike men that they cannot have money in their pockets without making a bad use of it.’ To curb such licentious behaviour, a series of barbarous punishments were devised, including ‘Running the gantlope,’ ‘Riding the horse’ and being locked up in the ‘whirligig.’ Floggings and hard labour were also commonly employed. Blackstrap Cove, one of the original sites of forced labour situated just south of Catalan Bay, has the distinction of being named after the potent mixture of wine and gin which led soldiers to be sent there in the first place! Still, none of these forms of chastisement appear to have turned the soldiers against their intemperate ways!

Going on shore one day at Gibraltar, I saw three men on the road, lying apparently dead — they were, in the technical term, dead drunk — and two of the men who belonged to the ship in which I then served, and who were looked upon as the most effective seamen for nerve and muscle, were standing over them. I stopped to listen to their remarks; and one of them was, ‘Now these men are happy; that is what I came on shore for — in two hours I shall be like one of them.’ The sequel is still more awful. One of these men, soon afterwards, in a fit of intoxication, fell overboard; the other fell over the forecastle, and did not survive one week.

Anonymous, ‘Prayer Book and Homily Society,’ The Christian Guardian (1827).

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4. Ready Reservoirs of Intemperance (1831)

The officers of the garrison, amid all this bustle, seemed the only men of leisure. They sat on horseback, dressed in their neat red Moorish jackets, with foraging caps covering their faces often equally red; their horses drawn up in the middle of the street to the obstruction of the drays, or planted at the only crossing place for foot-men. Others monopolized the side walk, driving the trader into the street; whilst elsewhere a couple, as if mutually unwilling to sacrifice dignity by coming towards each other, carried on their conversation for the public benefit from either side of the street, saying very flat things, with arms folded or akimbo, and in a very upon-honourish tone, as though each were talking through a quire of paper. Here was music too, and marching, and ladies, and everything that can be seen in the whole world, reduced into a narrow compass. There was much in all this to please, and yet there was much that was unpleasing. I now saw again, in the appearance of many of the moving multitude, those indications of intemperance to which I had been long a stranger — swollen and unwieldy bodies, surmounted by fiery faces, mottled with blotches and carbuncles. Everywhere along the main street stood open tap-rooms — the ready reservoirs of all this intemperance. The well-rubbed bottles glistened upon the shelves, with each its silver label, while the alternate glasses were surmounted by lemons, to make the poison palatable to beginners. It was long since I had seen anything like this; and it pained me to remember that had I been transported as suddenly into my own country, I might have met with objects equally hateful and disgusting. The contrast brought into strong relief the frugal, temperate habits, the sinewy conformation, and manly bearing of the Spanish peasantry. Nor could I help reflecting, that if their case called upon us for commiseration, there was also some room for admiration and for envy.

Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, A Year in Spain (1831).

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5. Too much brandy in their faces (1841)

A lawyer by profession, the American Severn Teackle Wallis visited Spain in 1849. Two years later he published Glimpses of Spain, an account of his experiences which contains this rather damning portrait of military life on the Rock.

The men ... did not impress me as particularly martial in their bearing; excepting always the fine Highland regiments, whose manly, gallant style could pass unnoticed nowhere. The Spanish peasant makes a prouder-looking soldier than the Englishman. He has more lightness and elasticity of muscle; more spirit in his step; more fire in his eye. The English troops, however, that I saw, must have been raw recruits, for they were, many of them, very young, and had not yet been caned, as usual, into a proper carriage. Brandy was in too many of their faces. Occasionally, as you passed their barracks, you might see them, when off duty, reading quietly — a thing the Spanish soldier rarely meddles with: but then you met them, oftener, reeling through the streets, an accident so rare among the Spaniards that it may be said never to happen. The strange contrast in this matter, was indeed one of the things that struck me, first, on my arrival. During three months in Spain, I had not seen more than three persons, I imagine, who had shown signs of intemperance in drinking. During the first day at Gibraltar, I certainly met scores, whose eyes and noses bore unquestionable evidence against them. There was a dramshop within two doors of the office of the ‘Religious Tract Society,” and one of its customers was leaning drunk against the latter building, on the first day that I passed it! Perhaps it is with reference to these habits, that the British soldiers are so carefully protected from the sun. By every sentry-box, where there is anything like exposure, you see a large, thick mat, or screen, raised on a staff, and placed so that the soldier can, at all times, arrange himself a comfortable shelter. The Spanish soldier, at the Lines, has no such trouble taken for his health. He lights his cigarrito, notwithstanding, shoulders his musket, and says “bien.” Well for him is it that his rations are so frugal. The sunshine bronzes him — the Briton dies of fever.

Of course, I had no opportunity of judging of the garrison, except by what I saw in public. I was struck, however, by an article I read, while at the Club House [hotel], which gave me new ideas with reference to the army of Great Britain. It appeared editorially in the “Naval and Military Gazette” of May 22. 1847, and proceeded after this wise:

“Morals are low in the army. There are few officers, and fewer of those under them, who consider it disreputable to overindulge in drinking, the coarse vices, &c. Two-thirds, at least, of the officers in every corps, may be said to be men without much education, whose minds are uncultivated — who seldom read and never study — to whom, even the very few books required for learning their military parade-duties, are sealed volumes.”

Severn Teackle Wallis, Glimpses of Spain; Or, Notes of an Unfinished Tour in 1847 (1849).