Gibraltar Museum



The Fishermen of Gibraltar


The following article has been extracted from the 1999 book ‘Gibraltar at the end of the Millennium: A Portrait of a Changing Land’ by Clive and Geraldine Finlayson.


There is no mention of Catalan Bay in Alonso Hernandez del Portillo’s detailed description of Gibraltar in the period 1610-1622 nor does Catalan Bay appear in Anton van den Wyngaerde’s plans of Gibraltar of 1567 nor indeed of those of Luis Bravo of 1627. The settlement Catalan Bay is proposed by H. W. Howes (1950) to date to the late 16th and the 17th centuries when:

“...some Genoese settled fishing huts at Catalan Bay on the east side.”

Howes, however, does not cite his original reference and it would be surprising that Portillo should not have mentioned them.


The census of the inhabitants of Gibraltar in 1759 reveals that there is already, by then, an important Genoese component but there are no obviously Catalan surnames at this juncture. James, however, in his History of the Herculean Straits talks of his time in Gibraltar in the 1740s and mentions the Catalans living in Gibraltar at the time who had been a part of Hesse’s (Prince George Hesse of Darmstadt) landing force in 1704. He does not specify that they lived in Catalan Bay and his detailed plans of the Rock clearly show the bay, named as Catalan Bay, but without any buildings. The name Catalan Bay must have therefore originated some time between Portillo’s and James’ accounts, between 1622 and 1740. In 1748 Robert Poole visited Gibraltar and described the fishermen casting their nets off the eastern side of Gibraltar as Genoese; he said that they lived in holes in the rocks further confirming the absence of a settlement at this time. The Reverend John White, who lived in Gibraltar between 1756 and 1772, is more informative. He tells us that:

“ active rambler may get round on the east side as far as a place called Sandy Bay, beyond Catalan Bay, to each of which a small colony of Catalans generally resorts in the summer for the convenience of fishing.”

A French map in the Gibraltar Museum dated 1761 shows a beach but no settlement or name. A detailed British lithograph dated 1775 shows the bay, called Catalans Bay, but there are no signs of dwellings. The name of the bay clearly pre-dates the settlement and must have been derived from the seasonal fishing activities of the Catalans as described by John White.


The 1814 Register of Inhabitants gives a breakdown of the population of Catalan Bay where there were 36 males aged between 17 and 24 and their nationalities were: Natives 8, Portuguese 5, Genoese 9, Spaniards 12, Italian 1 and British 1. These results clearly demonstrate that the inhabitants of Catalan Bay were not exclusively Genoese as has been repeatedly speculated. On the other hand of the surnames which we have for Catalan Bay inhabitants in 1814 the names are largely Genoese: Bajetti, Denani*, Furrello, Garseno*, Houst*, Parodi, Pole*. Those marked with an asterisk were names already present in 1783 at the end of the Great Siege and they may have been living in Catalan Bay by then.


Shortly after the great yellow fever epidemic of 1804, there was a report (dated 25th January 1805) into an enquiry into the possibility of establishing a lazaretto or place of isolation for the sick to deal with those who might suffer from yellow fever in future epidemics. This report has been kindly provided to us by Professor Larry Sawchuk of Toronto University. Remarks by S. Wright reporting back to the Governor provide insight into the nature of the community in 1805. Wright states:

"I have the honor to inform your excellency that agreeable to your orders, I have examined the different buildings in Catalan Bay, which are as follows,

  • 1st a wooden shed belonging to Romarione (sp?) an inhabitant capable of containing 6 people

  • 2nd a stone house belonging to a fisherman capable of containing eight people

  • 3rd a stone house belonging to Maria Parodi would hold eight more

  • 4th two very small outhouses might contain 4 more. They are all in tolerable repair."


From these few lines, Professor Sawchuk deduces the following:

“First, it appears then that the housing capacity of the village at this time was say no more than 30 individuals and that the corresponding permanent year-around community size was no more than 30 and more likely no more than 5 families or residential units. This fits in quite well with the census numbers for 1814.

Second, there are only 4 buildings in 1805 in the entire village. Two of which were of stone suggestive of year round permanent occupation.

Third, ownership is cited for at least two of these buildings (Romarione and Maria Parodi); indicating that the inhabitants viewed their occupation as permanent and an investment for the future.

Fourth, it is also noteworthy that Wright acknowledges Romarione as an inhabitant suggestive of some degree of long-term residence or standing rather than a newly arrived immigrant. This may in turn suggest that the settlement may predate the 1800s. 

Fifth, at least one of the buildings is occupied by an inhabitant who is described as a fisherman.

Sixth, whatever the origins of the name of Catalan Bay, Gibraltar's early administrators regarded Catalan Bay not as a quaint fishing village inhabited by several hundred inhabitants but one (at least in 1805) as isolated and remote a place that might serve as a place to isolate the sick from those who had passed through the fever.”


The last point is reinforced by Wright's further comments:

"...the distance from the Convent to Catalan Bay fully exceeds 2 miles, and some part of the road is very bad, which I am afraid would prove a great obstacle to employing it as a lazaretto, if any sickness should appear here again. As I do not conceive from what I have already seen, that it would be possible to compel the inhabitants to carry their sick so far and there would be certainly great objection to employing the troops on such a duty."


We are therefore able to narrow down the date of the origin of the name of the bay. It would be towards the end of the Spanish period or early in the British period. If the bay were named during the Spanish period then it would most probably refer to a settlement of some sort for which we have no evidence. Furthermore, with minor exceptions, most place names of Gibraltar from the British period bear no relation to the former Spanish name. This might indicate that the origin of the name is from the very early British period. We know that Hesse had a Catalan contingent when he landed his marines on the isthmus. Catalan Bay is not far and he may have posted the Catalan detachment there. In any case the Catalans who stayed on in Gibraltar seasonally fished on the eastern side and it is this practice that must have given the bay its name. It is clear that the settlement and the name are unrelated and that the settlement was indeed composed of a mixture of nationalities though probably established by Genoese fishermen, who may have followed the Catalan fishing practices, some time between 1775 and 1805 (possibly between 1775 and 1783) although they may have been living there, in caves which may have been originally used by the Catalans, from at least 1748 and probably earlier. This narrow time frame for the establishment of the Catalan Bay settlement, so close to the dates of the Great Siege (1779-83) suggests that it may have been established by persons seeking refuge from the horrors of the siege in the town or by those (largely Genoese who had escaped at the start of hostilities) who returned to the Rock at the end of the Great Siege and found the town in ruins. This would explain why there is no Catalan tradition in this village – the settlement came significantly after the name.


It is not at all surprising that traditionally people of the sea, such as the Catalans or the Genoese, should have set up fishing areas on the east side of Gibraltar. The sea here is, as we saw in Chapter 1, shallow so that fishing with nets would have been profitable. This coast is also in the migratory path of fish such as the tuna and an almadraba or fishing fleet had been set up to the north of the Rock in Portillo’s day and continued operating until 1998! For a long time a tuna fishery was rented to the city of Gibraltar and the industry afforded a great source of revenue to Spain. The Strait had been a source of fresh fish and garum (the fish sauce of the Romans) for the Roman Empire from such towns as Baelo Claudia on the very shores of the Strait. Many authors between the 17th and 20th centuries have highlighted the huge diversity of fish in the waters around Gibraltar. Portillo (1610-22) tells us that:

“Fish is above all else extremely abundant…The fish that is collected here is so much and so varied and of so many species and so good, that one has to thank God with admiration. From here much of Andalucía is supplied by muleteers who are obliged to bring in quantities of bread and oil to leave with fish, and another very large quantity which is taken by sea to Seville, Málaga, Almería and Cartagena, even reaching Denia and Valencia.”


The richness of the sea had not been exhausted in the mid-19th century when Kelaart wrote:

“The abundance of fish in the market of Gibraltar is almost proverbial, and their variety is still more remarkable.”


The tradition stretches much further back though, in fact to the period when climatic conditions in Europe improved and stabilised after 10 thousand years ago! It is in the Neolithic caves of Gibraltar that we find a great amount of evidence of this fishing tradition. These caves include Gorham’s where there is a level, above the Palaeolithic ones described in Pleistocene Gibraltar, which corresponds to the Neolithic and which is the only one that has been excavated scientifically on the Rock. The Museum commenced this work with Paco Giles and his team in August of 1997 and our knowledge of this period has been significantly clarified as a result of two excavation campaigns. In the Museum we also have much material from Neolithic, Copper- and Bronze-Age caves around Gibraltar but, because they were not rigorously excavated in the past, we have little stratigraphical context for the finds. They do, nevertheless, support the information from Gorham’s. These caves include Signal Station Cave (later erroneously misnamed “Mammoth” for no mammoths ever reached Gibraltar), Holy Boy’s, Sewell’s, Goat’s Hair and Collins’. 


It is clear that the climatic improvement around 10 thousand years ago led to a significant rise in sea level as polar ice melted. The present sea levels were attained in a brief period and, indeed around six thousand years ago were even slightly higher as conditions were even warmer than today. The climatic improvement caused significant social impacts on the human populations of the planet and it is from this time on that people begin to move away from a purely hunting and gathering existence towards a more sedentary life. In the Middle East wheat is “domesticated” and marks the beginning of agriculture. The division of labour among social groups and the increased carrying capacity of the environment generated by production allowed for significant population increases. It is shortly after that the first cities are born, in places such as Ur in Mesopotamia. These were Neolithic cities. Other novelties followed. Animals were domesticated and pottery appears for the first time. Slowly these innovations spread westwards from the Middle East and reached the Iberian Peninsula. It is one of the characteristics of the arrival of the Neolithic that it is accompanied by crop production and animal domestication and this happened widely in the hinterland of the Rock.


Yet the evidence from the Neolithic caves of Gibraltar, the Gibraltar at the time of Abraham, tells a very different story. The sea level rise clearly reduced the sandy plain which had been the treasured hunting ground of people for tens of thousands of years. The inhabitants of the Rock had to adapt to the new conditions but the nature of the Rock made it unsuitable for large-scale agriculture. These inhabitants did not have the pressure to change that many other populations had, however, because the rise in sea level substituted one set of resources (land mammals) by another (fish and other products of the sea). These people were perfectly placed to live off the sea in a maritime paradise situated between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. So the cursorial collection activities of marine resources which, were practised as far back as 40 thousand years ago by the Neanderthals were intensified and new skills were developed.


These people were not totally dependent on the sea. On the cliffs there were still Ibexes and we find that they were still hunted. The vegetation of the Rock also appears as very rich and Mediterranean and includes species which are not typical today. Thus the Round-leaved Oak, a species at home in the limestone, is typical alongside the Olive and the Carob and we are left wondering whether this tree was eliminated from the Rock by human action or instead by a climatic change towards more humid conditions which did not suit this tree. The range of Mediterranean shrubs is also very high and also includes species which are no longer on the Rock, for example the Strawberry Tree. The Upper Rock would have still held a few mammals within this woodland and we find Red Deer among the animal remains in Neolithic sites. This is not surprising either as these animals were present at least in medieval times if not later still. Yet, nowhere have we found domestic animals, not even goats, or traces of agriculture. We may discover evidence for this as we excavate in future years but the pattern which is emerging is of a community of people who did not depend on such novel practices. So what did they do instead?  They fished…


Even some of the caves which are high on the Rock abound in the remains of fish, some bones even being charred after having been in the fire. The predominant fish is the tuna but there are also sea breams and other typical fish of the Mediterranean coastline. To catch these animals, especially the large and highly mobile tuna, would have required vessels that permitted at least coastal navigation, suitable tools and an intimate knowledge of the sea and its seasonal cycles. The dependence on the sea went much further. The collection or marine molluscs from the rocky shoreline was a major feature and included whelks, limpets, mussels and probably species of invertebrates which do not have hard parts that are preserved in cave deposits.


More strikingly, they caught marine mammals. The Monk Seal, native to the Mediterranean, appears in the Neolithic levels at Gorham’s. This, now endangered, Mediterranean marine mammal must have been abundant along the coast by Gorham’s Cave which would have provided ideal habitat for them. Towards the coast of Málaga, there is also evidence of Monk Seal hunting and this animal is even depicted in the rock art of the cave at Nerja! There is also evidence that these Mediterranean people may have hunted cetaceans, dolphins and the smaller whales, though we have not found this in Gibraltar’s caves yet. Once again this is not surprising. The waters around Gibraltar abound in dolphins today and whales were common until relatively recently when whaling activities practically eliminated them in their totality.


Francis Carter who lived in Gibraltar in 1771 and 1772, describes these animals (“grampus”) in the Bay as he and his party saw them from the Upper Rock:

“ When we had regained sight of the sea, the ladies were alarmed with a phenomenon they never observed before; several fountains appeared playing in the middle of the bay, and throwing up jets d'eau to a considerable height. I smiled at their surprise, and informed them they were grampuses, who frequently amuse themselves in that manner in fine weather.”


Even as recently as 1918-23 the Governor of Gibraltar Sir Horace Smith Dorrien wrote thus:

“There was one sport to be had from the Rock, which I believe is little known, and that is ‘whaling’. A company just after the war established a station close to Algeciras and opposite the Rock. Their success was remarkable – four and five whales a day very often, and that close by in the Straits. The company were good enough to take me out twice, and I can thoroughly recommend it as an exciting sport, especially being towed by the whale until he is played out. The skill of the man who fired the harpoon was marvellous. He never missed.”


Well, the skeleton of the whaling station can still be seen between Algeciras and Getares but it is not so easy to see whales any more! Such has been the environmental deterioration of the sea during the 20th century. 


A cave in the hills north of Jimena has a very unusual form of rock art. In this Bronze Age site images of ships with sails are depicted. The cave dominates the Strait of Gibraltar and the type of vessel depicted has led some authors to suggest that they are pre-Phoenician, possibly even Mycenaean. They represent the arrival of the eastern Mediterranean cultures as observed by the native Iberians. In Gibraltar the Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE venerated their gods in Gorham’s Cave, no doubt seeking safe passage of the Strait. It is from this time that the classical legends of the Pillars of Hercules originated. They did little to the environments of the Rock, nor did the Romans who came after. It is the Muslims who many centuries later began to transform the environments that had existed since the Neolithic.