The Ceuta papers

This series of articles is rather different from our others. We need your help with a little mystery. We have some papers from around 1810 which we have attempted to transcribe. We do not know who wrote them or why. Nor do we know how they turned up in Falmouth. They relate to the town of Ceuta in North Africa (still part of Spain) and the siege of Cadiz. If you can add anything to what follows then please let us know.

The story so far …

In 1987, a local yachtsman, John ‘Paddy’ Bottomley, discovered a batch of papers bundled up with some old pictures, being sold at a car boot sale held in Penryn, Cornwall. The pages were in poor state and the writing very difficult to read, so he entrusted them into the care of an ex-teacher from Helston Grammar School, Philip Howells. Although not a historian, Mr. Howells painstakingly took the time to transcribe as much as he could and realised that he had something of interest in his hands. He recognised that the letters would warrant further research and in 2008 accordingly sent the originals to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and photocopies to the Bartlett Library at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth. And there they lay filed in order of urgency. Until in 2017 there was a cupboard clear-out and they emerged, only to hover between examination and the bin.

Like Mr. Howells, the volunteers in the Library thought the papers might be of interest and checked their current status with the curators at Greenwich. Sadly, by this time, Philip Howells had passed away. After contacting his daughter, there was a clear desire to see her father’s legacy taken forward. Paddy Bottomley had set sail and could not be contacted to give or withhold consent.1 So, the job of checking the transcriptions and filling in the many gaps was again shelved. Then came the 2021 lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. With the Museum closed and time available, Denise Davey took on the job of going through the photocopied papers and transcripts, filling in the gaps and putting them into historical context. The letters are assumed to be genuine, rather than an elaborate hoax, but this would need to be verified by the National Maritime Museum Greenwich which holds the originals.

What follows is the result of the most recent work done in 2021.  The papers have no signatures or dates but clues in their content make it possible to fix the time and place of their writing. Philip Howells thought them to be naval memoirs, but this may not be so. They all appear to be in the same hand but it is never clear as to whom they are addressed. They are not formal, but neither are they familiar. The hand is extremely irregular and the punctuation erratic but many references suggest the writer to have had a formal education, as one might associate with a hurried, non-academic, active young man, keen to give a picture of his observations, possibly to a superior. Some of these observations are callow in the extreme, bordering on the distasteful. Not all of the text is legible. Those with more knowledge of the context may be able to fill in gaps and any suggestions will be considered. Words marked in […?] indicate illegibility in the original unresolved by the transcriber. Capital letters have been inserted at the beginning of sentences to make the text more readable. Otherwise the spelling and grammar is the author’s own. 

The documents …

There are three documents, the first two of which are likely to have been written in 1809. The third is not so much a letter as a log of events taking place during the period that the author spent in Cadiz between Sunday 25th February and Tuesday 13th March 1810 while the city was under siege. The author had sailed from North Africa to Cadiz, so it would be likely that the time spent in Ceuta immediately pre-dated that in Cadiz.

Documents A and B, which were both written from Ceuta and are quite short, and are presented as a single page. The first part (Document A) gives information about the feasibility of using the harbour at Ceuta as a military base. The second (Document B) gives some insight into the people and life of the city. The author tells of his trips out of the town and the people with whom he is boarding. 

The strategic position of Ceuta, like that of Gibraltar, lies in its proximity to the entrance to the Mediterranean. Just 14 miles from Gibraltar, the enclave had been in Spanish hands since 1688. Our author paints a picture of a well-fortified, if somewhat dilapidated port of significant military importance but little commercial value.

We know that in 1809/10, General Sir John Fraser was sent from Gibraltar to negotiate the admission of British troops into the Spanish fortress. This he gained and commanded the British garrison there until 1813. It is possible that the author had been sent to reconnoitre the possibilities of using Ceuta as a surveillance point. As the first 3 pages are missing, the purpose of the letter may only be conjectured. 

Document C reports on his time in Cadiz and is much more of a journal.

  1. He has now …