On the descent from the Great Siege Tunnels, the Gibraltar tours arrive at the City Under Siege Exhibition. This is one of the most interesting things to do in Gibraltar as the Great Siege was one of the longest in history. Connected to the siege tunnel experience, it shows how people in the fortress survived the most traumatic effects of having their food supply cut off by Spanish troops sieging the Rock for four long years.
When Gibraltar was a garrison two and a half centuries ago most residents were from the military. When the Spanish decided to siege the Rock from 1779 to 1783 they were forced to adapt. The few civilians that lived here back then also played their part in keeping the garrison well-served.
This exhibition is a touching tribute to all their efforts, located in one of the first buildings to be constructed, dating back to the 18th Century. Known as Willis’s magazine, it is thought to have been used to prepare and hold ammunition for transportation to the cannons around Gibraltar.
Living through a siege meant that there was very little to do but wait, leading to more destructive habits like drinking to overcome the tension, frustration and boredom. This led to extra discipline being enforced among the ranks. Punishment by whipping was commonplace, with one particular drummer receiving 30,000 lashes in 14 years! That must have hurt!
Food was in short supply too, with flour rationed and many of the civilians forced to eat seaweed, wild onions and even grass! A single cabbage would cost more than two days’ wages and the head and feet of a sheep three weeks of army pay. The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables led to the breakout of diseases like smallpox, influenza, dysentery and scurvy. Everyone planted crops where they could and even moved to the southern side of the colony in tents and huts to escape the constant bombardment.
Relief convoys were the only way to bring in much needed supplies but during the whole Great Siege only one got through each year. Despite these hardships, the 5,000 troops stationed in Gibraltar resisted the Grand Assault on 18 September 1782. A total of 60,000 troops, 49 ships and ten specially created floating batteries were unable to retake the fortress, making true the simile, ‘Strong as the Rock of Gibraltar’.