Siege of Gibraltar Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the American Revolutionary War, Spain and France declared war on Great Britain, and for three and one-half years they laid siege to the British fortress at Gibraltar. However, three convoys loaded with supplies managed to run the blockade, enabling the British on Gibraltar to hold firm, and the “Great Siege” failed.

Summary of Event

Positioned as it was at the western entrance of the Mediterranean, the Rock of Gibraltar was one of the major fortresses in Great Britain’s ever-increasing empire. Historically, however, the peninsula had been attached to Spain. It had been captured by the British in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, and ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht Utrecht, Treaty of (1713) in 1713. The Spanish wanted Gibraltar back. Moreover, they agreed with the French in viewing Great Britain as the most dangerous threat to their colonial endeavors. Word of successes by the rebelling American colonists persuaded France and Spain in 1779 that the British were now vulnerable, and the two countries decided to join forces against Great Britain. After an abortive attempt to invade the British Isles, they turned their attention to Gibraltar. The only way to win it, they decided, was to starve its inhabitants into submission. [kw]Siege of Gibraltar (June 21, 1779-Feb. 7, 1783) [kw]Gibraltar, Siege of (June 21, 1779-Feb. 7, 1783) Gibraltar, Siege of (1779-1783) French-British conflicts[French British conflicts] British-French conflicts[British French conflicts] Spanish-British conflicts[Spanish British conflicts] British-Spanish conflicts[British Spanish conflicts] [g]Spain;June 21, 1779-Feb. 7, 1783: Siege of Gibraltar[2390] [g]Morocco;June 21, 1779-Feb. 7, 1783: Siege of Gibraltar[2390] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 21, 1779-Feb. 7, 1783: Siege of Gibraltar[2390] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 21, 1779-Feb. 7, 1783: Siege of Gibraltar[2390] Elliott, George Augustus Boyd, Sir Robert Green, Sir William Rodney, George Darby, George Howe, Richard Crillon, Louis des Balbes de Berton de

The siege began on June 21, 1779. During the summer, the Spanish rearmed their batteries on the isthmus and stationed ships and gunboats in Algeciras, Spain, and in Ceuta, their base in North Africa. In August, Gibraltar’s tough, battle-hardened governor, Lieutenant General George Augustus Elliott, and his highly respected second in command, Major General Sir Robert Boyd, began preparing for a long siege. Civilians were urged to leave, and rationing was instituted. On September 12, when Elliot gave the order “Britons strike home,” an officer’s wife fired the first shot of the siege, targeting Spanish working parties that were erecting new batteries on the isthmus side of Gibraltar.

The Rock of Gibraltar.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Two major factors contributed to the ultimate triumph of the British. One was the fact that in 1769 Gibraltar’s chief engineer, Sir William Green, had obtained permission from a governmental commission to rework the long-neglected defenses of the fortress. By the time the siege began, Green had the defenses in superb condition. Second, as the siege went on, the British gunners kept improving their techniques. They learned how to adjust their fuses so that they would burst high in the air, scattering shrapnel on the workers in the Spanish lines; they invented illuminating shells for use at night; and they produced new mixtures for the filling of firebombs, which were effective against both wooden fortifications and the floating batteries that were later introduced by their enemies. The British also developed better ways of heating shot red-hot and launching it against floating targets. Their engineers blew out apertures in the face of the rock and installed guns there, placing them on carriages that a junior artillery officer had devised to stand the shock of being fired downward.

Clearly, the British had the technical capability to hold off the enemy. However, they soon ran short of food and supplies. In January, 1780, a relief convoy was dispatched to Gibraltar, escorted by twenty-one ships of the line under the command of Admiral George Rodney. A Spanish fleet of twenty-six ships was waiting for the British off Cape St. Vincent, but Rodney defeated it soundly, capturing the Spanish admiral, and arrived in Gibraltar with his convoy augmented by a Spanish convoy that he had captured along the way.

Although Gibraltar was now restocked, its defenders had to remain vigilant. Early in 1780, British sailors managed to keep Spanish fire ships from reaching the harbor. That summer, however, Spanish gunboats began making nightly attacks on the city. Meanwhile, there was a smallpox epidemic, and scurvy broke out. In 1781, bribed by the Spanish, the sultan of Morocco expelled the British, making it more difficult for the forces on Gibraltar to obtain intelligence about Spanish movements and also putting a stop to the fortress’s best hope of obtaining fresh food.

On April 12, 1781, the second relief convoy arrived, under the command of Vice-Admiral George Darby. Despite constant bombardment by the Spanish, the ships managed to unload. However, the cannonballs and shells destroyed many homes and sent the inhabitants fleeing, leaving their stores of wine undefended. For three days, soldiers indulged in a drunken orgy; it ended only after Elliott imposed the death penalty on looters.

The summer of 1781 was relatively quiet, because Spanish troops had been sent to join the Louis des Balbes de Berton de Crillon in his attack on the British at Minorca. The hiatus enabled the defenders of Gibraltar to make repairs and to plan a sortie against the Spanish on the isthmus. On a dark night in November, the British silently stole out of the Land Port and blew up the Spanish land batteries.

In February, Minorca fell to Crillon, freeing him to focus on taking Gibraltar. A French engineer named Jean-Claude-Éléonore Le Michaud d’Arçon Arçon, Jean-Claude-Éléonore Le Michaud d’ came up with a design for floating batteries that he insisted could be made incombustible. By April, 1782, ten of them had been completed. However, it was September before Crillon was ready to attack. Early on September 13, the bombardment of Gibraltar began. Within a matter of hours, however, the floating batteries were on fire and British gunboats were rescuing their Spanish crews.

The combined French-Spanish fleet now lay in wait for Richard Howe, who they knew was on the way with a relief convoy. Lord Howe was outnumbered, for he had only thirty-four line ships, compared to the forty-five French and Spanish battleships in the bay. However, when Howe arrived in October, 1782, the winds were on his side. He was able to drop off his convoy at Gibraltar, evade the other fleet, and sail safely for home. Recognizing that the siege would not succeed, an agreement to end it was drawn up in January of 1783. The siege officially ended on February 7.

Significance

In a sense, Crillon’s failure to take Gibraltar leveled the playing field. Britain, France, and Spain had all had their losses. Britain had lost its North American colonies, as well as Minorca, while France and Spain had invested so heavily in the various struggles that they were both in serious economic trouble. With no one emerging victorious from the struggle, the three countries could enter negotiations for peace on equal terms. When the preliminary agreements were signed on January 30, 1783, Britain ceded East and West Florida to Spain. However, because of the heroic efforts of Elliott and his men, as well as of the three fleets of ships that brought them supplies, Great Britain did not have to relinquish Gibraltar.

Ironically, the Spanish later become Britain’s ally in the war against Republican France and in the later conflict with Napoleon I. During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) Gibraltar was both a convenient supply depot and an observation post from which the British could track the movements of enemy ships. The Britons who were on Gibraltar during what came to be known as the Great Siege have been credited by history with a highly significant achievement: by keeping the Rock for their country, they made possible the British victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar and the eventual defeat of Napoleon.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. A detailed study. Appendices, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardiner, Robert, ed. Navies and the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996. Chatham Pictorial Histories Series. Maps, charts, and paintings of ships in action are accompanied by explanatory text. Invaluable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hills, George. Rock of Contention: A History of Gibraltar. London: Robert Hale, 1974. Three chapters are devoted to the Great Siege. A useful chart shows the disposition of forces. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, William G. F., Sir. The Rock of the Gibraltarians: A History of Gibraltar. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987. A former governor discusses the siege in detail. Includes maps, charts, and numerous illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. A standard text, first published in 1890. Sums up the reasons the Great Siege failed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Discusses the first relief of Gibraltar, though the author focuses primarily on the inadequacies of the British navy.

War of the Spanish Succession

Treaty of Utrecht

Spanish-Algerine War

American Revolutionary War

France Supports the American Revolution

Franco-American Treaties

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Richard Howe; George Rodney. Gibraltar, Siege of (1779-1783) French-British conflicts[French British conflicts] British-French conflicts[British French conflicts] Spanish-British conflicts[Spanish British conflicts] British-Spanish conflicts[British Spanish conflicts]

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