Background notes – Ceuta

The threat from a joint enemy
Napoleon and his French armies dominated Europe. Then, in 1807, France and Spain jointly attacked Portugal, Britain’s ally. The threat increased concern about the fate of Gibraltar.

Notwithstanding the secrecy observed by Government respecting the object of the Expedition which has sailed under the orders of Sir Charles Cotton, some of the Papers affect to have found out that it is destined to act against some place not remote from Gibraltar. – Ceuta has been mentioned as a point towards which, as the French have directed their attention, it may be wise to anticipate them; in support of this supposition, a policy done at Lloyd’s is quoted , in which the words “with liberty to call at Ceuta,” are introduced. – Another report represents Cadiz and the Spanish fleet as the grand objects of attack.

Public Ledger, Wednesday, December 30th, 1807

Wherever their actual destination, it is apparent that a British occupation, or reinforcement, of Ceuta was in the public mind. Much speculation followed with suspicion of a French intent to take Ceuta, or ‘Algesiras.’

Jan. 22. – This day a Flag of Truce came in from Algesiras with Mr. Harris and some seamen belonging to the Hibernia, retaken in a Portuguese vessel. From these people we learn that for some time past the Spaniards have been every night sending troops over to Ceuta. It is also reported among the Spaniards, that a great part, if not the whole, of the French force now on march to this neighbourhood, is destined for the African side, But by other accounts we learn that a considerable French army is to be collected at Algesiras for the attack on this place, who, it is believed will begin their operations in March.
Jan. 23. – This morning 26 transports arrived here, with about 3000 men, part of General Spencer’s force. The report here is that they are destined for an attack on Ceuta.
Jan. 26. – By accounts from Ceuta we learn that the number of Spanish troops which have gone from Algesiras to that place within the last ten days, is about 3000. Two large polacres have also arrived there from Cadiz. About 40 pieces of cannon and eight mortars have been mounted in addition to those on the sea line wall, on this side of the garrison.
Feb. 4. – Other accounts have this day been received from Ceuta. Their reinforcements amount now to about 3500 men. Their whole force is from nine to 10,000. The inhabitants are likewise armed. Even the convicts are, it is said, to be armed in case of attack, with a promise of liberty if they behave well. The whole number of all descriptions, capable of bearing arms at Ceuta, is estimated at 20,000.
Feb 10. – General Spencer has not yet arrived. It was certainly intended that he should attack Ceuta, but the danger with which Sicily is threatened, from the junction of the Rochfort, Carthagena, and Toulon squadrons, may perhaps induce him, when he arrives, to push on to that island, in preference to attacking Ceuta.

Public Ledger, Thursday, March 10th, 1808

Within a few months of this, the political situation was changed by the displacement of the Spanish Royal Family, by ‘King’ Joseph Bonaparte. Previously the majority of the garrison of Ceuta had crossed the straits to reinforce French & Spanish forces in an attack on Gibraltar. But following the usurpation of the crown by Bonaparte, the Spanish troops turned on their aggressors.

This turn of events in Spain, led to Britain and Spain becoming de-facto allies, and the need of the British forces to invest Ceuta was removed.

Amidst the various revolutions in alliances in the course of the present year, there is none more extraordinary that that of General Spencer becoming, on his arrival off Ceuta, the protector of that place on behalf of the Spaniards, from whose possession he was sent out with an adequate force to wrest it.

Saint James’s Chronicle, Tuesday, July 5th, 1808

The French invade Andalusia for the first time
Chaos then ensued. Southern Spain rebelled against Spain while the British attempted to take on the Spanish fleet in Cadiz.

LONDON, July 1.
Received in Town this Afternoon at Three o’Clock.
LIEUTENANT Talbot, of the Encounter gun-brig, is just arrived at the Admiralty with dispatches from Admiral Purvis, dated the 7th ult. At that time the Admiral and the Commandant of Cadiz had arranged a most friendly intercourse, and our fleet was expected to be admitted into Cadiz the next day, and to have the Spanish fleet placed in our hands in trust. Marquis Solano was literally cut to pieces by the Insurgents.Three hundred thousand men had risen against the French in Andalusia, even before the events in Asturias and Galicia were known.

Extract of a letter from Cadiz, June 7. The Spanish Admiral has been on board Sir John Gore, to solicit the aid of the squadron to secure the French ships, who were moored above them in the harbour.Four of our ships were going in, and Pilots were sent for the rest. The batteries had opened on the French when the Officer left.

The following important letter was also transmitted to the Lord-Mayor by Lord Castlereagh:
Downing-street, July 1, 1808.“My Lord, – I have the honour to acquaint your Lordship, that dispatches have been received from Major-General Spencer, dated off Cadiz, the 6th ult., by which it appears that negotiations had been entered into between his Majesty’s Naval and Military Commanders off that port, with Deputies appointed on the part of the Provisional Government of the province of Andalusia, assembled at Seville, the result of which has been forwarded for the approbation of the said Government. “Every arrangement has been taken for the reduction of the French ships, and Admiral Purvis had been invited by the Spanish Commanders to anchor his fleet at the mouth of the harbour, with a view to co-operate in compelling the common enemy to surrender.“

It appears that the Southern Provinces of Spain had declared war against France; and dispatches of the 4th ult., received, from Lieutenant-General St. H. Dalrymple, at Gibraltar, mention that the Spanish army before that fortress, reinforced by the greater part of the garrison of Ceuta, had mutinied against the France.                           

“I am, &c. CASTLEREAGH. “Right Hon, Lord-Mayor.”

Northampton Mercury, Saturday, July 2nd, 1808

Dupont’s army

In Andalusia they collect from 15,000 to 20,000 regular troops, and have put arms into the hands of upwards of 60,000 peasants. General Castanos is appointed Commander in Chief; and I understand they propose, out of the first levies, to augment the establishments of the old regiments to double their present numbers. Provincial Assemblies are also forming in most towns, and different depots fixed upon for raising volunteers. They have a proportion of near 4000 cavalry, and a large quantity of artillery, as Seville is a foundry, and one of the largest depots in Spain. All accounts agree, that in every part of Spain the insurrections have commenced almost at the same period; many small detachments of the enemy, and many officers, have been cut off. General Dupont was on his march to Seville, and had already passed the Morena Mountains when the insurrection took place. He has pushed on to Cordova, and by the intercepted dispatches, we learn he is strengthening himself there, and proposes to wait for reinforcements, In the mean time the Morena passes in his rear have been occupied by 5000 Spaniards, the road has been broken up; and I trust, all communication cut off. …  By the Bittern sloop, which touched at Vigo on her passage from the Mediterranean, accounts have been received of the operations in Andalusia subsequent to the events above related.

On the 2nd inst., it was confidently stated at Vigo, that Dupont’s division, amounting in all to 14,000, at Cordova, was attacked by the Patriots, who were at first not more than 10.000 men. These after a severe action, were defeated by the French, and 1000 of them killed or wounded: some time after, however, the Spaniards returning in a body of more than 30,000, again attacked the enemy: the contest was now more sanguinary, Dupont having employed the interval between the two engagements in fortifying himself; his entrenchments were, however, ultimately forced, himself defeated, and his whole army, as the account states, entirely annihilated; but with the loss of 9000 on the part of the Patriots. This intelligence needs corroboration.

A letter from Gibraltar of the 18th states the arrival of a gentleman from Cadiz, which he left on the 16th. He brought intelligence that French prisoners were daily arriving at Cadiz, not only from Dupont’s army, but even from Portugal. Among those prisoners are several officers from Dupont’s army, the total defeat of which was hourly expected, as it was understood to be completely surrounded by the Spanish force under the command of Generals Castanos and Reding.

Bury & Norwich Post, Wednesday, July 20th, 1808

The threat to Gibraltar
Despite the (short-lived) Spanish success, the persistent fears in England that Napoleon’s forces might lay siege to Gibraltar rumbled on throughout 1808/1809.

We think little doubt can exist, should NAPOLEON ultimately triumph in Spain, that his next object will be to attempt the reduction of the Rock of Gibraltar, by a regular siege. We are under no apprehensions, even should he direct his whole force against the garrison, of his ever gaining possession of it. It will be recollected, however, that in the last formidable attempt against Gibraltar, not even the skilful measures of General ELLIOT, the zeal of the troops under him, nor the precautions of the inhabitants, could save the stores and provisions from destruction, and nothing but the timely arrival of a large fleet from England, amply laden with these necessities, could have prevented the people from being starved into submission. To obviate the possibility of the recurrence of such a remote chance, we feel ourselves justified in calling the attention of Government to the great advantages which might be derived to British commerce, and to the garrison of Gibraltar, by the possession of Ceuta, a possession at all times valuable, but more so now than at any former period. The bay of Tetuan is uniformly resorted to by our fleets when in want of either water or fresh provisions, neither of which can at any time be obtained in sufficient quantities at Gibraltar; and should our communication again cease with the interior of Spain, and France obtain the possession of Ceuta, the garrison at Gibraltar might ultimately be reduced to the necessity of relying solely on England for succour, always precarious from the length of the voyage and the dangers of the seas, whilst the occupation of Ceuta would afford the means of procuring the garrison ample supplies in the short space of a few hours, and the convenience of watering and provisioning our fleets in the Mediterranean. This is not all; a depot of stores, provision, ammunition, &c. &c. might be established there, which could not fail of being at all times highly useful. The possession of Ceuta would also command a free and uninterrupted navigation through the Gut of Gibraltar, and enable merchant vessels to pursue a course which would save them from the destructive attacks of the gun boats from Algesiras, so fatally directed against our commerce during the alliance of France and Spain.

We shall close these few remarks by inserting the copy of a letter from a Gentleman of considerable importance in Gibraltar, which although written six weeks ago, has never yet been inserted in a London newspaper. It is dated Gibraltar, Dec. 3, 1808: “We have heard of the defeat of the Patriots in the neighbourhood of Biscay. It is supposed to be the army under BLAKE. Should CASTANOS also be defeated, the enemy will, no doubt, soon become troublesome to us in this quarter, and will endeavour to revenge on us, on the Rock, the assistance the British have rendered the Spaniards in their glorious cause. He will meet with a warm reception, although, I am sorry to say, the garrison is at present weak. It consists of the first battalions of the 48th, 57th, and 61st regiments and one garrison battalion, and some artillery will, if there is the least possibility of an attack, Government; but no doubt, send out large reinforcements. We continue abundantly supplied with every thing this part of Spain produces. What a pity the English do not garrison Ceuta, on the opposite coast. One regiment would be sufficient; and we might, with as much propriety, take possession of it, to hold for FERDINAND, as we did some time back, of the island of Madeira. If the French should get it, they would soon throw a force into the EMPEROR’S dominions, and Tetuan and Tangiers would be shut against us.”

The Day, Monday, January 16th, 1809

These sentiments were echoed in many other London and provincial papers. There was also much speculation about removing French prisoners of war from being held in their ships in Cadiz to Ceuta, but it is uncertain whether this ever happened. Certainly there were many French prisoners of war were still held in the French ships when the French forces laid siege to Cadiz in 1810.

The second invasion of Andalusia
The French then launched a second, more successful, invasion of Andalusia which encouraged the British to garrison Ceuta.

We have in two Papers this day, hostile to his Majesty’s Ministers, a curious instance of the different value attached to an object, according to the belief or disbelief entertained by the two Papers of Ministers having accomplished it. The object is Ceuta, and the Times, which seems to incline to the belief that Lord WELLESLEY1 has prevailed upon the Supreme Junta to allow Ceuta to be garrisoned by a British force, says: “We really cannot discover the importance of this acquisition under the existing circumstances. It will, we fear, tend to excite jealousy.” The Morning Chronicle, on the contrary, denies that Ceuta has been placed in our hands, but conceived that it would be an acquisition of the highest importance: “This magnificent and impregnable fortress,” we quote the words of the Chronicle, “would be a most valuable acquisition, both in a commercial and military point of view, and would give us the entire command of the entrance to the Mediterranean. On the land side it is a strong as the rock of Gibraltar, and the air is more salubrious. In Gibraltar, the town, by an invading enemy, might be levelled with the ground, and the merchandize it contains be destroyed; but at Ceuta the property would be in perfect security, and, whatever should become of Spain, this grand depot would be distant from the scene of danger, and those engaged in the tranquil pursuits of trade, would be enabled to follow their useful occupations without molestation. The security of the sea side of Ceuta depends on badness of the harbour, which cannot be approached by any ship of considerable burthen.”

From this difference between the two Papers, one benefit will accrue to Ministers, that if it should be placed in their hands, they may be sure of the approbation and support of the Morning Chronicle, for having prevailed upon the Junta to put them in possession of it; and that if it should not be the Times, while it applauds them for not having demanded it, must censure the Chronicle for having attached any importance to it.

London Courier, Wednesday, November 22nd, 1809

This report expresses sentiments quite close to those of our author in his report. However this event remained uncorroborated in Britain for several weeks.

A REPORT is in circulation of the Junta having consigned the fortress of Ceuta to our protection; but this fact requires confirmation. The extremity of the Mediterranean is bounded on the side of Africa by the point of Almina, which corresponds with Europa point on the opposite side. On the promontory of Almina stands Mount Abila, a rival although inferior, to Calpe (Gibraltar.) The town and fortress at Ceuta, so celebrated by the Arabian poets, is situated at the base. Ceuta is fortified on all sides, and might be made impregnable on the land side. The port is bad, but by the possession of Ceuta & Gibraltar, the Straits would be commanded.

Statesman (London), Wednesday, November 22nd, 1809

We understand that the question respecting the future garrisoning of Ceuta by British troops has, at length, been finally adjusted. Recent dispatched received by the Spanish Admiral Apodaca, from his Government, informed him, that the Supreme Junta had consented that the fortress of Ceuta was to be thus occupied; and that on the arrival of British troops, those of Spain were to be withdrawn. 

Saint James’s Chronicle, Thursday, December 14th, 1809

The British occupation of Ceuta

Truro, Friday Evening, Feb. 10.
The Expedition that sailed from Portsmouth, on the 15th ult. under the command of General Sherbrooke, and which was supposed to have been destined to occupy wither Ceuta or Cadiz, has been unfortunately dispersed.2 One transport has arrived at Portsmouth, and two at Cork; the first of these, the Lord Hood, parted from the rest of the fleet on the 30th ult., in lat. 48.50. long. 10.50. in a dreadful gale, at which time only thirteen transports, out of upwards of forty, were in company. The Expedition consisted of the first battalion of the Coldstream Guards, Colonel Hulse; the 1st battalion of the 3rd Guards, Non. Colonel Stopford; the 87th regiment. (2nd battalion) Major Grose; and the 88th regiment, Colonel Duff: – making in the whole, about 4500 men. They sailed under convoy of the Niobe and Iris frigates.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, Saturday, February 11th, 1810

However, it appears that it was not until the end of January, 1810, that British troops were embarking for Ceuta. 

Letters from Gibraltar of the 25th ult., state, that troops were then embarking, to take possession of Ceuta. The possession of this place will give us the entire command of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Morning Post, Saturday, February 17th, 1810

A letter of the 22nd ult. from Gibraltar, states that the Exchange having risen to 40 per cent. no business was doing but for money, and that the stock of Manchester goods on hand is immense. The subjoined letters of the 23rd and 24th are extremely important, as they shew that the impediments, whatever they were which prevented the admission of British troops into Ceuta, have been removed.

GIBRALTAR, Feb. 23. – English troops are now leaving this port for Ceuta. The Commander of that fortress had applied to our Governor for provisions, and 500 barrels of flour have been sent to him.

Feb. 24. – We can discern from hence the British troops landing under the batteries of Ceuta.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, Saturday, March 17th, 1810

We are fortunate in having the letters of the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bevan, 1804-1811. (There is a full run of correspondence at He had arrived with 2nd Bn 4th Foot to which Regiment he had transferred on promotion to Lieut Col. En route some part of the Regiment were shipwrecked in Biscay and captured. He had evidently been promised that in the summer the CO 1st/4th would be promoted and that he would then take command of 1st/4th in Portugal.

To Mrs C Bevan, Money Hill, Rickmansworth, Herts

My dearest Mary, I am at length fortunate enough to receive letters from you, they have been a good while feeling their way here but have now made their appearance in large numbers – I was most truly sorry to hear of your Mother’s ?? – I most sincerely hope she is now quite recovered – Equally as do I hope for the happiness of Eleanor. Paterson is an excellent Hearted young man – With regard to myself I literally have not one moment to myself – My Quartermaster prisoner, my Adjutant sick in bed, my Paymaster at Gibraltar & a very young Regiment to command – you must at present therefore excuse me, and I know you will, if my letters are not quite so full of all sorts of news as I intended they should be: but I am putting all my shoulders (sic) to the wheel and I hope to get the better of all difficulties. It will take some time however to do this – I am very glad to hear you are so well and that our dear Boys are equally so. You have not told me a word about the Fisherman’s cottage I therefore fear some ?? amiss has arisen to your entering your plans in execution twice ?? at least. I wish to God my Mother had a home to accommodate you & the Children. I never regretted Bedington till now.3 Oh! What a charming cottage would that have been for us – But I have seen – ? – of better times at least for those most dear to me – My lot is cast and the rest of my life must be full of anxiety for you and for our children. –  We are situated here in the citadel which is on the Top of a mountain and intercourse with the inhabitants is therefore little or none. I have been nowhere since the first landing. We were at the Governor’s party & afterwards I gave you a description in a former letter – No -? of the officers have been more gallant than Major (word obliterated). The castle is not very tempted to take them down the hill after dinner as it is quite dark at seven o’clock – As an opportunity of conveying letters are not much to be depended on or – one is obliged to trust to Gun Boats & etc & etc to take them to Gibraltar from whence they are conveyed to England as chance offers. This is a far preferable place in point of climate to Gibraltar and when it has been in the hands of the English I hope it will have some comforts at present the Officers of the 4th are living Three to a Room – I have a Quarter but am on sufferance in the Summer house of a Which Man here & when I entered to stay whilst they got — — sort of habitation. These are very scarce as people are continually coming when f== racing Cadiz we hear is likely to hold out for some time – if not altogether, against the French. – We hear many reports of Generals coming from England both to Gibraltar and to Cadiz – But for reasons are particularly interested (?). We did also daily expectation of another packet from England – I have had very kind letters from brother James with news4 — for which North looking – and can only opportunity offer my very best thanks  Pray give my best love to your family & believe me my dearest Mary, always your  C.B.  Ceuta March 16th 1810

Letter Number 29 dated 16 March 1810 from CB in Ceuta

Click here to follow the development of the story to Cadiz.

  1. This is the eldest of the three brothers, then Foreign Secretary, not Arthur the General, or Henry the ambassador who we will meet later
  2. This is probably the same storm which forced the Antelope with Henry Wellesley on board, back into Portsmouth harbour
  3. A house his mother took one summer
  4. Capt James Dacres RN – Mary’s brother who had been waiting for a ship was given the Frigate Gueriere about this time – in 1812 she was taken by USS Constitution