In Defense of the Rock: Roy and Lesley Adkins’s Gibraltar

Adkins, Roy & Lesley. Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History. New York: Viking, 2017.

We Americans have a habit of paying closer attention to our own history than what goes on in the outside world. Perhaps we can be forgiven for doing so concerning our own war for independence, but even here there is a global story to be told that does not regularly appear in American narratives of the conflict. France and, later, Spain’s entry into the conflict on the side of the fledgling United States made the American Revolution a successor of the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in America, with fighting taking place wherever the map bore British red. Roy and Lesley Adkins bring one of these disparate theaters to light after years of neglect. The American Revolution occasioned one of the longest, fiercest battles in British history as the Empire fought to maintain control over one of its tiniest outposts: the Rock of Gibraltar.

France’s entry into the Revolutionary War is well known for the legitimacy and vital support it lent to the Patriots’ cause. Less celebrated is the entrance of Spain, which occurred at France’s urging and promise that Spain could regain territory lost after the Seven Years’ War as well as the strategic outpost of Gibraltar, ceded to Britain in 1713 in the Treaty of Utrecht that concluded the War of Spanish Succession. Vital for extending British sea power into the Mediterranean, and essential for any who wished to control Mediterranean and North African trade, Gibraltar occupied (and continues to occupy) a slender strip of land at the southernmost tip of Spain. Upon Spain’s declaration of war in 1779, ‘the Rock’(so named for the forbidding heights that loomed above the town and fortifications) was invested by Spanish forces in a siege that would last for a grueling four years. Subjected to illness, lack of supply, grand artillery bombardments, and assaults by enemy gunboats and floating batteries, the British garrison and townspeople valiantly endured and defended their post, employing ingenious innovations which would change the face of warfare.

The Adkinses tell this story with laudable detail and context, liberally employing primary sources from all strata of society to relate events as they would have been experienced at the time. Just enough historical context, both immediate and general, is provided to make sense of the course of the siege without falling into the alluring trap of becoming unmoored from the siege itself. Even so, some fascinating arguments are implicitly advanced as Gibraltar emphasizes the importance of its titular siege. Three great convoys were organized for the relief of the garrison throughout the siege, and the resources and men expended in these endeavors might otherwise have been used to good effect against Britain’s rebellious colonies. Even more intriguing, the second of these convoys was escorted by the British Channel Fleet, which, until it departed for the Rock, was blockading the Comte de Grasse within the French port of Brest. With the Channel Fleet gone, de Grasse and his ships escaped to the Caribbean and North America, where their blockade forced Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Though counterfactuals abound, one might say that if it weren’t for Gibraltar, the American colonies would not have gained their independence.

While Gibraltar is certainly more accessible than many traditional volumes of military history, it does still retain many of its trappings, relating the blow-by-blow of the four year siege in minute detail. These details cover much of the experience of the siege by both soldiers and civilians as well, yet its attempts to bring its subjects off the page fell somewhat flat. The names of the Adkins’s many sources do eventually begin to sound familiar, but the succession of similar white soldiers and similar white soldiers’ wives begin to run together very quickly. The epilogue, in which the fate of all these individuals is related, only emphasizes their sameness.

Though its historical subjects might not enthrall in their own right, their combined story surely does, and Gibraltar is one of the few works of popular history that can truly claim to bring an untold story to the attention of modern audiences. For fans of eighteenth century warfare or the American Revolution, I cannot recommend it highly enough. For others, Gibraltar provides a fascinating introduction to the diplomacy, warfare, and world that existed at the time of America’s war for independence, and may even have led directly to its success.

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