Eighteenth-Century Poets Writing on Gibraltar

John Mawer, Liberty asserted: or, the siege of Gibraltar (1727)

John Mawer attended Trinity College, Cambridge before taking holy orders in 1727. An accomplished scholar and polyglot, he combined interests in poetry and bible study with a penchant for anti-Catholic pamphleteering. From the early 1730s onwards, he was involved in writing a supplement to Bishop Brian Walton’s polyglot Bible of 1657 – a lifelong project which sought to reconcile the Hebrew text with the Septuagint and which Mawer considered to be his most important scholarly work. A detailed account of the undertaking can be gleaned from his Epistle to the Earl of Oxford, published in York in 1732. He died on 18 November 1763 and was buried in Middleton Tyas. His long poem, ‘Liberty asserted: or, the siege of Gibraltar. A poem. Written as an essay in the spirit of Lucan’ (1727), was published just after the Spanish siege of 1727.

When near advanc’d, th’ pow’rs of Spain rush on,

And vain in thought, already force the town.

Wedg’d foot to foot, th’ assailing Legions close,

Man bears on man, and these urge on to those:

Pikes lean on pikes, on armour armour’s shock’d,

Crests nod o’er crests, while side by side is lock’d:

They sweep the plain; in haste the ground devour!

Their hands a tempest, un-availing, pour

Upon the foe, and rain an idle show’r;

Essay of rage! When, like the lightning’s blaze,

The British Thunder its red wrath displays:

A storm of death upon the foe is blown,

And in an instant hosts are overthrown.

So Jove, when rebels storm’d his bright abode,

But thunder’d, and his foes confess’d the God.

Thus stunn’d, the Spaniards stand aloof with fear,

And less confiding the dreaded bastion dare.

But see how heav’n, with Albion’s rams does side,

While from the walls her foes are warmly ply’d;

As fiery fates in ruddy storms are thrown,

The burning soldiers in a deluge drown:

Relieving floods work thro’ each hostile mound,

And sap and sweep the breast-works to the ground.

While fires above the face of heav’n deform,

Torrents below the drench’d encampments storm.

Alexander Pennecuik, A Manifesto from the bold Sons of Britain, to the poor proud Spaniard besieging Gibraltar (1750)

Alexander Pennecuik was a nephew of the famous Scottish physician and writer of the same name. He appears to have been involved in the murder of the Laird of Boghall’s wife in 1721, although Pennecuik vigorously denied the accusation in A Gentleman’s Letter to the Laird of Boghall, the Day before his Execution (1721). He published Streams from Helicon, or, Poems on various subjects in 1720 and a second collection of verse entitled Flowers from Parnassus in 1726. He died in 1730, apparently of a drink-related disorder, and was buried in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh. A collected edition of his poems, which included ‘A Manifesto from the bold Sons of Britain, to the poor proud Spaniard besieging Gibraltar,’ was published posthumously in 1750.

Dear bought Gibraltar, shall we part with thee,

And lose our vast Dominions of the Sea?

No, no, a British Brav’ry we display,

Like Log-wood you, or lazy Lumps of Clay.

Britons are stout as in the Days of Yore.

Ye Slaves, go sweat in Indian Mines for Ore,

To circulate through France and Britain’s Isle,

And when we see its golden Cheeks we’ll smile,

Say, here’s the rich Return of Britain’s Trade,

Which gives the proud and idle Drones their Bread.

The Annals of Eliza’s Reign do boast,

Your mad Armado danc’d upon our Coast,[1]

A deadly Dance, when th’ Elements combin’d,

Fierce angry Waves, and Hurricanes of Wind,

And God Almighty in the Battle join’d.

The conqu’ring Floods did o’er your Vessels ride,

Swallow’d up Thousands each returning Tide.

From Namure’s Siege unto Almanza’s War,[2]

The Glory of the Briton’s travell’d far.

Each Day our Heroes did fresh Laurels gain,

Climbing o’er Heaps, like Mountains, of the Slain

Which made the proud and haughty Spaniards bow:

For Heav’n was still our grand Confed’rate too.

Strength may push down all Nations to Disgrace,

Except the Angels and the British Race.

We fear no Beings, nor their Fury dread,

Save heav’nly Hosts and GOD upon their Head.

Britain, assisted by the Arms of France,

Shall to Madrid in solemn Pomp advance.

The wise, the warlike George[3] prepares to go

And finish Peace, or give the killing Blow,

Success attend his Actions ev’ry where,

‘Till British Lions shall th’ Imperial Eagle tear.

Philip Thicknesse, Gibraltar delivered (1783)

Philip Thicknesse was born at Farthingoe, Northamptonshire, on 10 August, 1719. After a short spell in London as an apothecary’s apprentice, he abandoned his native country and settled into a semi-nomadic lifestyle that would take him to Georgia, Jamaica, France, Holland, Spain and Italy, and saw him earn a living as a publisher, soldier, gambler, writer, gardener and slave driver. A proud and fiercely argumentative man who married three times, Thicknesse wrote on a variety of topics (the medicinal properties of laudanum being one of his favourite subjects) and was not averse to defending his views with his fists. James Makittrick Adair, one of his lifelong antagonists, alleged that Thicknesse once sent a letter to one of his rivals ‘smeared in copious amounts of human excrement.’ Possibly his most accomplished literary composition was A Year’s Journey through France, and Part of Spain, published in two volumes in 1777 and commended by none other than Samuel Johnson. He died of a seizure, just outside Boulogne, on 19 November, 1792.

Where fair Iberia boasts her Southmost skies,

And Lybia’s shore at shortest distance lies,

A many-headed Rock its crest uprears,

A memorable Rock for length of years.

‘Twas Hercules’ strong hand first made the breach,

And tore it piece-meal from the Lybian beach.

Encroaching on the deep, its nether hand

Surveys the sea that leaves the middle-land,

Its right the Ocean’s ever-rolling pride

Controls, and bleaches in a double tide.

The mass immense still homeward seems to bend,

And long with kindred stone its stone to blend;

But Neptune, with his waters in his train,

Scours thro’ the Straits, and makes the effort vain.

How oft yon heights have heard the battle groan!

What slaughter hath that little Isthmus known!

How oft grown mighty with an heap of slain,

Circumfluous tides have purpled all the main!

Lo! on the Rocks, whose blood-disputed right,

Contending nations long engaged in fight,

Victorious Britain sits enshrined in stone;

Herself a rock, and not to be o’erthrown.

In vain Iberia’s chosen troops abound,

In vain her congregated fleets surround,

In vain may Gaul her ready force combine,

The kindred force of Bourbon’s vaunted line:

Whate’er their faithless poets may rehearse

Their force shall suffer shipwreck with their verse.

Here Anglia’s freeborn sons attend the fight,

Beneath a Chieftain of undaunted might;

Whom neither heat, not cold, nor want, can foil:

“Unconquer’d Lord of hunger and toil.”

Hail Eliott, hail, time-ever-honour’d sage!

Second to none in history’s fair page!

Joseph Palmer, The Siege of Gibraltar (1783)

Joseph Palmer was born in 1756 under the name of Joseph Budworth. He joined the Royal Manchester Volunteers shortly after turning twenty and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant within a few years. At the Great Siege of Gibraltar he was badly wounded and subsequently repatriated back to England. Once his convalescence was over, Palmer was sent to India to take up a cadetship with the Bengal artillery. He remained in India for a period of seven to eight months, but then decided to leave the service and get married. At the age of fifty-five he changed his surname to Palmer in order to inherit his dead brother’s estate. He was a frequent contributor to the Gentlemen’s Magazine (writing poems, travel articles and pieces of political polemic under the pen-name of ‘A Rambler’) and his book A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes (1792) enjoys the distinction of being the first published account of a Lake District walking tour. He died of apoplexy at Eastbourne on 4 September, 1815, and was buried nine days later in West Moulsey, Surrey. His poem,The Siege of Gibraltar’ (1783), details Sir Roger Curtis’s exploits during the ‘Great Siege.’

Health to the Naval Chief – to whom we owe,

The final grandeur of this fatal blow;

In whom true courage and good conduct join,

In whom Humanity did nobly shine.

Who gain’d the admiration of his friends,

And Bourbon’s self[4] – the gen’rous act commends;

For while the batt’ries burnt with scorching power,

Amidst the fury of the dang’rous hour,

Careless of life – and all alive – to save

The victim’d Spaniards from th’ impending grave,

And yet, how painful to the human mind,

What must remain a stigma – on mankind;

What! – No – not all the sophistry in Spain,

Can word away the ignominious strain.

But what – the haughty Spaniard will not do

Witness, ye base – your murders at Peru;[5]

No wonder then – as the good Naval Chief

Did almost more, than man — to yield relief

Her very sons – should fire upon the crew:

Deny it, Spain? – She cannot – ‘tis true.

When wish’d for Aurora’s op’d the auspicious dawn[6]

And shewed to Calpe’s sons the happy morn;

When the explosions rent the trembling air,

And columns high in majesty appear.

When million dangers overspread the sea,

Each British heart, brave Curtis,[7] felt for thee,

Thou native son of fair Humanity

Thomas Knight, Ode on the Late Naval War and the Siege of Gibraltar (1784)

Thomas Knight was born in Dorset around 1764. As a child he received lessons from the eminent actor Charles Macklin and fell very much in love with the theatre. His first theatrical role took place at Covent Garden on 25 September, 1795. Among his most famous parts were ‘Plethora’ in Thomas Morton’s Secrets Worth Knowing and Changeable’ in Thomas Dibdin’s The Jew and the Doctor. His literary output was of varied quality and centred mainly on theatrical farces such as Thelyphthora, or, The Blessings of Two Wives at Once (1783) and The Turnpike Gate (1799), although he also wrote the popular ‘Ode on the Late Naval War and the Siege of Gibraltar’ (1784). Contemporaries praised his ‘smooth, melodious voice,’ as well as his tact and innate intelligence on stage. He died in 1820.

Now swiftly ran the vanquish’d Foe

Dreading every British blow:

Vainly firing,

Fast expiring; -

Noble Blood the Waters stain! -

Once more in pride,

The Britons ride,

Triumphant o’er the western Main![8] -

Again great Freedom rear’d her head,

And cheer’d her fav’rite Isle:

She wept for noble Children dead,

Then bade the living smile.

Commerce again reviv’d to see,

Britannia rule the Waves:

Th’o bound awhile — we must be free -

For Britons can’t be Slaves!

Robert Colvill, On the Memorable Siege of Gibraltar (1789)

Robert Colvill was a Scottish writer and preacher. He published several collections of poetry during his lifetime, including The Fate of Julia (1769), Atalanta (1777) and The Cyrnean Hero (1788). While hardly remembered today, Colvill enjoyed a solid reputation as a writer of topical verse (with poems such as ‘To the immortal memory of the renowned Captain Cooke’ and ‘The Memorable Siege of Gibraltar’) and his work is said to have influenced the writing of Thomas Gray’s famous ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1790). The Poetical Works of Mr Robert Colvill (1789), an anthology of his most famous poems, appeared in print a year after he died.

Triumphant Victors! o’er the pride of Spain,

Who like the Bands of Asia, did sustain

The war of nations, and their wrathful mood,

Quench’d in red deluges of fire and blood:

While Classic Muses deeds heroic sing,

Admit, ye brave! the humble wreaths I bring,

To hang your Tow’rs, and deck your glitt’ring Arms,

In peaceful Trophies, pil’d from war’s alarms.

Long share the treasur’d sweets your valour won,

Those Laurels which the bravest have out-done:

Unequal’d conduct, patient courage, join’d

With arts defensive to resist mankind.

The length’ning leaguer, danger, famine, death,

Brave Souls! defying with your latest breath:

The British Goddess on the heights of fame,

With blazon high inrolls her Soldier’s name:

Eliott, with blooming mural garlands crown’d,

While Calpes bulwarks grace Herculean mound.

With thunders roar thy midnight light’ning’s glare,

Devour whole hosts, and rack the groaning air.

Like dire Vesuvius hid in fiery clouds,

Thy Rocky Mortars whelm the hostile crowds,

With showers of Lava, from the mountain’s womb,

In gulphs of sire whole armies to entomb.

‘Mid bursting horrors, see what hosts expire!

What floating Castles sink in seas of fire!

Bourbon! thy glories shrink, the pride of Spain

Founders in tempest, ‘mid the burning main.

So sunk the proud in that destructive hour

When vain Cantabria hasten’d to devour

With mooned fleets, and hosts, and tyrant faith,

A dragon Monster, fierce for works of death.

Like Erebus[9] impatient for their prey,

The arm of Heaven dash’d their vast array.

Her valiant Sons, like northern tempest, came,

Their fleets to scatter, and the dragon tame:

Resistless, fierce to meet their country’s foe,

Her Sons of glory strike the mortal blow;

Arm’d with fierce flames, Armada’s pomp o’erthrew,

As Michael’s[10] might the Pandemonian crew.

So, while embattl’d nations rage in vain,

The Queen of Isles sits Sovereign of the Main:

Her Sons, the thunder in her hand, are hurl’d,

Like the loud storm which shakes a guilty world.

In fields of blood Cantabria’s hosts expire,

And vaunting navies sink in gulphs of fire.

Anna Seward, Ode on General Eliott’s Return (1807)

Known as the ‘Swan of Lichfield,’ Anna Seward spent most of her spinsterly life taking care of her aged mother in the rural village of Lichfield, Staffordshire. Largely self-taught, she achieved considerable fame as a writer of highly sentimental poems and befriended Leigh Hunt, Sir Walter Scott and other literary luminaries. Although Seward’s work was criticised by Horace Walpole (who famously compared her oeuvre to the ‘triflings of a harmonious virgin’) she still managed to win a number of admirers during her time. Samuel Johnson commended her description of the North pole in her elegy on the death of Captain Cook, while Sir Walter Scott prepared an edition of her collected works after she died in 1809.

With grateful welcome, with triumphant praise,

Thy honour’d Chief, O rescued Britain, meet!

Whose dauntless prowess, in resplendent rays,

Shone on the darkness of thy long defeat;

Gave thee, on thy silvery shores,

While Peace the civic crown restores,

Beneath her train of joys again to shine,

As loss had ne’er chastis’d, oppression ne’er been thine.

Think, Britannia, think how late,

Around thy pale unshelter’d head,

To blast thy gloomy pride, avenging fate

Unequal war’s disastrous terrors spread;

While thy torn trophies, drench’d in blood,

She scatter’d o’er the western flood,

That the provincial standard high she rais’d,

By Gallia’s lilies deck’d, by Spain’s proud crest emblaz’d.

That thy vain foes, elated to behold

The long Invincible at last subdued;

Their tide of conquest to that fortress roll’d,

By sullen Spain with dread and envy view’d.

See! in united strength and pride,

At Calpe’s base their navies ride,

Hurl up its steeps the thunders of their power,

That burst the social roof, and rend the warrior tower!

Crest-fallen Britain, where were then

The rumours of thy matchless might?

And where had been the empress of the main,

Had skill and valour risen a common height?

No common height those bulwarks rose,

When Eliott lighten’d on thy foes,

Wing’d his red bolts, that wrapp’d their fleets in flame,

Resistless as his sword, and glowing as his fame!

Mark the invading host, elate no more!

Recoiling pause between a choice so dire!

Alike they hear the British lion roar

In the o’erwhelming flood, and raging fire!

Groaning they plunge!-in wild despair,

With raiment scorched, and blazing hair!

The billows, closing o’er their struggling frames,

Are purpled by the gore, illumin’d by the flames!

Henry James Pye, Naucratia, or Naval Dominion (1798)

Regarded by scholars as ‘the worst Poet Laureate in English history,’ Henry James Pye was born in London and educated at Magdalene College, Oxford. He served as an M.P. for Berkshire and as a police magistrate before turning his hand to poetry in the mid-1780s. It was widely rumoured that Pye’s laureateship was granted as a reward for his support of William Pitt the Younger, although this has never been proved. Pye’s name has become a byword for uninspired dilettantism ever since his death at Pinner, Middlesex in 1813. His poem, ‘Naucratia, or Naval Dominion’ (1798), celebrates Gibraltar’s recent military past in a typically strident manner.

On Calpé’s rock, by land and sea assail’d,

Not naval power, but native strength prevail’d;

From the high steep the fiery torrent came,

That whelm’d the foe in cataracts of flame;

And by her coasts abash’d she wondering saw

Her circling seas a new armada awe.

The constant bosom shrinks not from defeat,—

Increasing danger stronger efforts meet,

Rising superior to each threatening blow,

Untamed by loss, and great in overthrow,

Britannia’s sons in kindling vengeance warm,

Stand with firm breasts a bulwark against the storm.

Chiefs by renown in former conflicts crown’d,

Roused by her wrongs, her sea-girt throne surround,

From Calpé’s rock the foe astonish’d flies,

And ‘neath the burning cope of tropic skies

Gallia once more laments her naval pride

Won by the foe, or sunk beneath the tide;—

Her proud allies, dismayed and humbled, mourn,

Obscur’d their glory, and their laurels torn.

Three separate leaders of each hostile race,

Indignant captives, Rodney’s triumph grace:

As many spoils as crown’d Rome’s vaunted reign

Britannia sees one gallant chief attain,

Sees by one warrior’s hand three garlands wove,

To deck the altars of Feretrian Jove.

‘Enough,’ the vanquished Gaul exclaims, ‘our prows

‘Have rashly followed our superior foes,

‘A hardy race by fortune unsubdued,

‘Whom ‘tis our proudest triumph to elude.

‘Firm as the texture of their stubborn oak,

‘Mocking the winds, and from the woodman’s stroke

‘Rising with force superior, on the main

‘To guard and vindicate their native reign.’

Thomas Dermody, Gibraltar (1807)

Thomas Dermody was born at Ennis, County Clare in 1775. At an early age, he ran away from his drunken father and joined the 108th regiment of the line. He served in Spain and the Low Countries before being wounded and repatriated. An eighteenth‑century victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, Dermody turned to drink and led the life of a vagrant until he died at Sydenham, Kent in 1802. The Harp of Erin, Dermody’s only major poetical collection, was published posthumously in 1807. It contains the poem ‘Gibraltar,’ as well as the encomiastic elegy ‘On the Death of Lord Heathfield.’

The heav’n-rais’d bulwarks of imperial Troy

Still rise in song Meonian;[11] and the muse

Of deathless Maro[12] consecrates to fame

Illustrious Latium![13]-Shall no lyre resound

A brighter subject, a sublimer lay,

And claim a fresher wreath?-Spirit of War,

First-born of Freedom, who from Calpe’s height

Hurl’d thy indignant thunders, string the chord

To British fortitude, to British fire!

For thou canst tell how dauntless Eliott fought,[14]

Immortal hero! when the labouring main

Groan’d with the huge armada, vengeance-fraught:

How from thy rocky seat the warrior pour’d

An arch of mortal lightnings on the foe.

Discreetly valiant, confidently firm,

Each treach’rous wile he saw, each Spanish mine,

And marked the tempest low’ring in repose,

Anon to burst with a redoubled force.

Though palsy’d Famine stretch’d her meagre hand

O’er all, and Death his withering glances cast,

Still rear’d Britannia’s standard o’er the fort,

Purpling the wave below with awful shade,

Wave soon to be embued with hostile gore,

Drawn from the heart of myriads! methinks, ev’n now,

The whizzing bullets stun my startled ear,

And sulphurous smoke envelopes the grim sky

With tenfold horrors! Vain attempt, to scale

Gibraltar’s giant brow, when marble mounds,

And British breasts more stern, defend the place.

So strove the haughty pow’r of hell, when fall’n

From site celestial to the burning deep,

With turms diminish’d by Messiah’s hand,

To climb the crystal battlements of heaven;

So fell he, vaunting!-The Hispanian crew

Wond’ring retire, and eye with envious look

The walls impregnable, where Glory sits,

Thron’d with her Britons! Like a dreadful row

Of gods embattled on Olympus’ top,

The warriors scowl derision. Heathfield chief,[15]

The Mars of Albion,[16] stirs the latent spark

Of honour to a blaze, invigorates

Each manly bosom; and the fainting cheers!

So Britons fight, when Liberty calls out

The martial youths, and Justice sounds the trump

Of dreadful onset. Spain’s dismounted fleet,

Spain’s gasping soldiery, and the chiefs of Spain,

Can testify with tears the Muse’s truth.

If you've enjoyed these extracts, why not check out my book Georgian and Victorian Gibraltar: Incredible Eyewitness Accounts on Amazon?


[1] Defeated off Graveslines by the English navy in August 1588, many of the escaping ships of the Spanish Armada sank in storms near the Irish and Scottish Coasts.

[2] Namure, a town in southern Belgium, was besieged several times during the eighteenth century. The Battle of Almansa was fought in 1707 between the French and an Anglo-Dutch force.

[3] George I, the first Hanoverian King of England.

[4] The House of Bourbon was, of course, headed at the time by the Spanish king, Carlos III.

[5] Presumably, Palmer is referring here to the atrocities committed in Peru by the Spanish conquistadors.

[6] In Roman myth, Aurora was the Goddess of Dawn.

[7] Captain Roger Curtis, Eliott’s second-in-command, selflessly rescued some Spaniards from drowning at sea.

[8] The Western Seas.

[9] In Greek myth, the abode of the Dead.

[10] The Archangel Michael is supposed to have cast Satan and his followers out of Heaven.

[11] Obsolete word describing someone or something from Lydia, an ancient country located in present-day Turkey.

[12] Latin name for the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid.

[13] Ancient kingdom in central Italy, located southeast of Rome.

[14] Lieutenant-General George Augustus Eliott, Governor of Gibraltar during the ‘Great Siege’ of 1779-1783.

[15] Eliott later became Lord Heathfield of Gibraltar.

[16] Roman God of War. Albion, of course, is the old poetic term for England.