Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins was first published this year. The subject is the Spanish and French siege of British controlled Gibraltar that occurred between 1779 and 1783. This book is a military, social and political history. Though I think that the title is a little sensationalist, this is well written and researched. It tells a fascinating story. The writers are a husband and wife team. They are both historians and archeologists.
Such a large event involving all sorts of history that occurred in Europe during this time period is in and of itself of interest to me. However, I also wanted to know more about this siege because it was part of the world - wide conflict between Great Britain, France and Spain that The American Revolution was also part of. In fact, many sources classify this siege as being part of The American Revolution. The authors of this book even write,
"Although the Great Siege has no other name, it was in reality part of the American War of Independence. The actions and ambitions of France and Spain had caused that war to spill across the Atlantic into Europe, and the war zone would extend from Britain to Gibraltar, Spain and Minorca."
The conflict actually spanned the entire world. Personally, I think that this war needs another name. It encompassed both The American Revolution and what was known as The Second Anglo-Mysore War in India. It does not have one however.
It turns out that, to a great extent, Spain, joined France and the rebellious American Colonies in a war against Great Britain because it wanted to take Gibraltar from The British. One theme that I came across in this work as well as in Brothers at Armsby Larrie D. Ferreiro was that in a way, Great Britain sacrificed America for Gibraltar. In diplomatic wranglings before Spain went to war with Great Britain, it demanded that Great Britain cede the fortress as it had been Spanish territory in the past. Had Great Britain acquiesced, Spain would have stayed out of the war. This world have increased the chance of a British victory that would have led it to retain America.
Later, as this work illustrates, enormous resources were diverted to hold Gibraltar. These resources would have made a great difference in America. In fact, a fleet that Great Britain sent to relieve Gibraltar was diverted from intercepting a French Fleet that played a decisive part in Great Britain’s loss at Yorktown. That defeat cemented the American victory against Great Britain.
The authors cite multiple sources to illustrate this point. They write,
“In 1783 the Scottish politician and prolific writer Sir John Sinclair anonymously published a booklet in which he expressed the opinion that Spain had only supported America’s bid for independence in the expectation of gaining Gibraltar: ‘the possession of America has been sacrificed to the retention of Gibraltar. That darling object could alone have induced Spain to countenance the independence of our Colonies, and without her assistance that event could never have taken place.’ “
Once Spain declared war, both the British garrison as well as civilian population were besieged on Gibraltar. The Spanish cut off land access and tried to enforce a sea blockade. Initially the Spanish just tried to cut off supplies. Though some ships with food and provisions got through, there was hunger and depravation amongst the besieged. While there were no actual famine deaths some did die of scurvy and other diseases. Thrice, large convoys made it through the blockade providing months of food and supplies.
Later, an artillery bombardment, that lasted for years began. This caused great hardship for soldiers and civilians alike. Several large sea battles took place as well as fighting on land as the Spanish tried to dig trenches and build fortifications closer and closer to the Gibraltar garrison.
Toward the end of the siege, The Spanish, along with newly arrived French forces, went all out. Ten huge ‘Floating Batteries” were constructed. These were old merchant ships that were highly modified. One side was of each vessel was heavily reinforced with layers of protection. These ships were also filled with cannons. The goal of these unwieldy and lopsided vessels was to serve as indestructible gun platforms that would destroy Gibraltar’s considerable defenses and artillery emplacements. An army of 50,000 was also assembled for a final assault on the fortress. Over the course of a single day and night, Gibraltar’s formidable artillery, using red hot cannonballs, designed to set these ships on fire, engaged in a massive firefight with these vessels. I have read a fair amount of military history, but I never before read about a battle like this one.
The book celebrates heroism and courage but does not glorify war. The authors’ pull no punches at the horrors that occurred. The deprivation and disease that both the garrison and the besiegers is detailed. Deaths caused by battle are also described realistically. When the Spanish and French launched their large - scale assault on the garrison, people on both sides died. But the Spanish sailors suffered terribly. Thousands perished in the infernos that the floating batteries became as the searing - hot English cannon balls took their toll.
This book consists of extremely long quotations from the diaries and journals of those who participated. In fact, I do not think that I have read a history book before with so much first - hand material. I would estimate that these quotations make up approximately twenty five percent of the book. Though I found this a bit excessive, I also found that this gave a sense of authenticacy to the work.
One negative about this book is that it is almost entirely told from the British point of view. Spanish and French strategy as well as what that side experienced is presented almost as an afterthought. It seems that the authors’ intentionally set out to tell this history in this fashion. However, I think that this would have been a much stronger account had it been balanced.
This is an extremely well researched history book. It tells, what for me, is an intriguing story. It describes an important and unique event in history. However, it contains a lot of it is military history and descriptions of battles. Thus, those not interested in such might not care for this work. If that is not an issue for the reader, this is a book that will appeal strongly to those interested in this period of European and American history.
How interesting to see a husband and wife team! I only know of two other historian marriages like that...the Durants and the Gies. Does the book cover Britain's acquisition of Gilbralter? I think it was during the War of Spanish Succession..
It sounds like you enjoyed reading this history book. While I am interested in the history of Gibraltar (I have friends who traveled there recently), I must admit that usually military/battle history does not interest me that much, although the use of the red hot cannonballs mentioned in this post may alter my customary mindset. Excellent, honest commentary, Brian Joseph!
It is actually ridiculous how little of my own countries history I actually know. I really need to start including non fiction in my reading, I may well start with this. Thanks Brian xxx
I've always been fascinated by Gibraltar but don't know anything of its history! It's surprising that this isn't a well-known battle. I suppose there were so many other events during this time that it got lost. It's always interesting to find a book that fills in these gaps in our knowledge. Great review!
Hi Stephen- The husband and with team is interesting. I did not know about those others.
The book briefly talks about how Great Britain acquired Gibraltar. It emphasizes how the Spanish felt that it was rightfully theirs.
Thanks Suko - Though a fair amount of the book was a social history, a chunk was military history. I understand that is not for everyone. I would like to visit Gibraltar myself.
Hi Lainy - There is so much to British history. I suspect that a lot of people who know a bit about it do not know a lot about this Siege.
Thanks Carol. It seems that in this conflict, only the battles, and politics, that occurred on the eastern coast of North America get a lot of attention.
totally amazing! i would have thought one of the fiction authors of naval history, of which there are quite a few in addition to C.S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower), would have written something about this series of battles... at least the ones i've read haven't... great material for a fictional work, though...
Hi Mudpuddle- You raise a really good point. I agree, this would make for the basis of some great navel fiction fiction.,
Hi Brian, thank you for this history lesson involving the battle for Gibraltar and the effect it had on the American Revolution. I am a big fan of history books that quote from diaries and letters of the actual participants so if 25% of this book includes diaries and letters for me that's a real plus. I would love to find a definitive book on the French Revolution which may have started out inspired by the American Revolution but ended up going horribly wrong.
This is a great review of a moment in history that I am unfamiliar with. It is fascinating to see the extent to which the American War for Independence influenced European conflicts. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention.
This is a fantastic review. Your observation that the American Independence and this war were connected intrigues me because I know nothing about the war over Gibraltar. I will definitely have to find this book.
Thanks James. The ties between these events and the events in North America are new things for me too. I was mostly unfamiliar with these things too.
Thanks Sharon. Most of this is new to me too. As I read a few books on the fighting that occurred outside of North America I find that I am fascinated by the connections.
Hi Kathy - So much first hand information in this book seemed unusual, but as I mentioned, it added to the authenticity. I read Simon Schama‘s Citizens a few years ago. I thought that it was a good account of the French Revolution. I have also read several biographies of Lafayette. I picked up a lot about the French Revolution in those books.
I really don't know much about Gibraltar - so if I had time, I'd love to read this book.
You are reading a wide variety of books aren't you! Love it.
Thanks WP. Sometimes I think that my reading is too restricted:) I tend to read a fair amount of history. Much of it relating to the American Revolution
It's good to have interests Brian ... we should just follow our hearts/minds when it comes to reading.
That's neat that the writers are a husband and wife team, it does sound well researched and like they didn't sugar coat anything. I am glad you enjoyed it. Fantastic commentary as always.
Thanks Naida - Well written history tells about the good and the dad. The husband and wife team is different in terms of most of what I read.
OUTSTANDING post as usual, Brian!
You know, every time you review a history book you make me want to read more history! In this case, though, I must confess to mixed feelings about this book.
What I find interesting here is the fact that the fight for Gibraltar actually influenced the outcome of the American Revolution. Had the British not expended so much energy, men, and ships on defending Gibraltar, the colonies might never have achieved independence. Thus, the U.S. as we know it today would most likely not exist. This is an incredibly fascinating point I had not known about before.
This makes me wonder what would have happened in the case of Cuba, had that country not achieved independence from Spain when it did. Perhaps Fidel Castro would never have seized power, and my own personal history would have been entirely different. It would be fabulous to write an alternative history novel about either possibility!
What I don't like about this book is the inevitable descriptions of bloody battles. Even though, as you have stated, the authors don't glorify war itself, it does seem that they describe these battles very realistically. So that is a definite drawback for me. I'm just TOO squeamish! Lol. I guess this type of thing "comes with the territory", though.
It's really too bad, too, that the book is biased toward the British side. As historians, the writers should really have considered the opposite side, as well. Shouldn't historians be impartial and objective? I would think so!
Anyway....thanks for yet another great post full of wonderful insights! And HAPPY LABOR DAY!! <3 :)
Thanks Maria. Realistic accounts of war are often disturbing. There are certain realistic accounts that I will not read these days because they are so disturbing. A book like this I am OK with, but certain others, dealing with The Holocaust and other horrors are too much.
You raise an interesting point about Cuba. I hand just finished another book, Independence Lost. Though it does not deal with Cuba, it explores some supposed positives of The Colonial systems as opposed to other systems.
The pro - British bias of this book is probably its biggest weakness.
That is a hyperbolic title! It is practically begging to be refuted. :)
It’s too bad that it is biased towards the British perspective. While the victors get to tell the story, I think balanced history is far more interesting and meaningful.
Hi Jane - The authors do try and make the case that The Great Siege was the longest and involved the most momentous events. Still, British history is long and eventful.
The skewing toward the British side is unfortunate.
You don't hear much about the siege of Gibraltar in American history classes ... so I find it interesting knowing about these other global events that affected the American Revolution etc. It seems a much bigger event than I knew about -- with more casualties. Nicely reviewed.
Hi Susan - Indeed this was a big event that few people talk about. I learned nothing about this in school.
sounds like quite a heavy book to me dear Brain!
i less like reading about the wars and the pain and misery they cast to the world though i found this review very nice and interesting!
i rmember not perfectly though that i have read about mount Gibraltar in our national text book in which we were told about great Muslim hero of that time named Tariq Bin Ziyad who aught and conquered against British that time
Hi Baili- The history of wars and military history are for for everyone so this book does not hand general appeal. In an earlier time there was warfare in this area between forces that were Muslim verses forced that were Christian. I should brush up on that history myself.
I know shamefully little about the American Revolution (actually had no idea that France and Spain were involved at all), so this post was like a crash course for me - THANK YOU! I'm intrigued by all of the first-hand accounts included in this one, as those extracts and snippets are often my favourite parts of historical non-fiction (especially when accompanied by insightful well-researched analysis, akin to watching a documentary with expert voice-overs).
Hi Sharee - Many folks very interested in The American Revolution know little of Spanish involvement. The first hand accounts really add a lot of credibility to this book.
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