Pedro de Vargas, Alcayde of Gibraltar, Attacks Muley Abul Hassan, King of Granada

October 8, 2012

Copper engraving of Gibraltar

Muley Abul Hassan sallied out of Malaga with fifteen hundred horse and six thousand foot, and took the way by the sea-coast, marching through Estiponia, and entering the Christian country between Gibraltar and Castellar. The only person that was likely to molest him on this route was one Pedro de Vargas, a shrewd, hardy, and vigilant soldier, Alcayde of Gibraltar, and who lay ensconced in his old warrior rock as in a citadel. Muley Abul Hassan knew the watchful and daring character of the man, but had ascertained that his garrison was too small to enable him to make a sally, or at least to insure him any success. Still he pursued his march with great silence and caution; sent parties in advance, to explore every pass where a foe might lie in ambush; cast many an anxious eye towards the old rock of Gibraltar, as its cloud-capped summit was seen towering in the distance on his left; nor did he feel entirely at ease until he had passed through the broken and mountainous country of Castellar, and descended into the plains. Here he encamped on the banks of the Celemin, and sent four hundred corredors, or fleet horsemen, armed with lances, to station themselves near Algeziras, and keep a strict watch across the bay upon the opposite fortress of Gibraltar. If the alcayde attempted to sally forth, they were to waylay and attack him, being almost four times his supposed force; and were to send swift tidings to the camp. In the meantime, two hundred corredors were sent to scour that vast plain called the Campiña de Tarifa, abounding with flocks and herds; and two hundred more were to ravage the lands about Medina Sidonia. Muley Abul Hassan remained with the main body of the army, as a rallying point, on the banks of the Celemin.

Rock of Gibraltar, looking towards Spain

The foraging parties scoured the country to such effect, that they came driving vast flocks and herds before them, enough to supply the place of all that had been swept from the Vega of Granada. The troops which had kept watch upon the rock of Gibraltar, returned with word that they had not seen a Christian helmet stirring. The old king congratulated himself upon the secrecy and promptness with which he had conducted his foray, and upon having baffled the vigilance of Pedro de Vargas.

He had not been so secret, however, as he imagined; the watchful alcayde of Gibraltar had received notice of his movements; but his garrison was barely sufficient for the defense of his post. Luckily there arrived at this juncture a squadron of the armed galleys under Carlos de Valera, recently stationed in the Straits. Pedro de Vargas prevailed upon him to take charge of Gibraltar during his temporary absence, and forthwith sallied out at midnight, at the head of seventy chosen horsemen. By his command alarm-fires were lighted on the mountains, signals that the Moors were on the ravage, at sight of which the peasants were accustomed to drive their flocks and herds to places of refuge. He sent couriers, also, spurring in every direction, summoning all capable of bearing arms to meet him at Castellar. This was a town strongly posted on a steep height, by which the Moorish king would have to return.

Abu l-Hasan Ali, also called Muley Hacén, father of Boabdil.

Muley Abul Hassan saw by the fires blazing on the mountains that the country was rising. He struck his tents and pushed forward as rapidly as possible for the border; but he was encumbered with booty, and with the vast cavalgada swept from the pastures of the Campiña de Tarifa. His scouts brought him word that there were troops in the field, but that they could only be those of the alcayde of Gibraltar, and that he had not more than a hundred horsemen in his garrison. He threw in advance two hundred and fifty of his bravest troops, and with them the alcaydes of Marabella and Casares. Behind this vanguard followed a great cavalgada of cattle; and in the rear marched the King, with the main force of his little army.

The Moorish Castle, is the name given to a Medieval fortification in Gibraltar.

It was near the middle of a sultry summer day, when they approached Castellar. De Vargas was on the watch, and beheld, by an immense cloud of dust, that they were descending one of the heights of that wild and broken country. The vanguard and rear-guard were above half a league asunder, with the cavalgada between them; and a long and close forest hid them from each other. De Vargas saw that they could render but little assistance to each other in case of a sudden attack, and might be easily thrown into confusion. He chose fifty of his bravest horsemen, and, making a circuit, took his post secretly in a narrow glen opening into a defile between two rocky heights, through which the Moors had to pass. It was his intention to suffer the vanguard and the cavalgada to pass, and to fall upon the rear.

Painting of Arab Horse Soldiers, also known as Spahis, by Guillaume Régamey.

While thus lying perdue, six Moorish scouts well mounted and well armed, entered the glen, examining every place that might conceal an enemy. Some of the Christians advised that they should slay these six men, and retreat to Gibraltar. “No,” said de Vargas, “I have come out for higher game than these; and I hope, by the aid of God and Santiago, to do good work this day. I know these Moors well, and doubt not but that they may readily be thrown into confusion.”

By this time the six horsemen approached so near that they were on the point of discovering the Christian ambush. De Vargas gave the word, and ten horsemen rushed upon them. In an instant, four of the Moors rolled in the dust; the other two put spurs to their steeds, and fled towards their army, pursued by the ten Christians. About eighty of the Moorish vanguard came galloping to the relief of their companions; the Christians turned and fled towards their ambush. De Vargas kept his men concealed until the fugitives and their pursuers came clattering pell-mell into the glen. At a signal trumpet his men sallied forth with great heat and in close array. The Moors almost rushed upon their weapons before they perceived them. Forty of the infidels were overthrown; the rest turned their backs. “Forward!” cried de Vargas; “let us give the vanguard a brush, before it can be joined by the rear.” So saying, he pursued the flying Moors down hill, and came with such force and fury upon the advance guard as to overturn many of them at the first encounter. As he wheeled off with his men the Moors discharged their lances, upon which he turned to the charge, and made great slaughter. The Moors fought valiantly for a short time, until the alcaydes of Marabella and Casares were slain, when they gave way and fled for the rear-guard. In their flight they passed through the cavalgada of cattle, threw the whole in confusion, and raised such a cloud of dust that the Christians could no longer distinguish objects. Fearing that the King and the main body might be at hand, and finding that de Vargas was badly wounded, they contented themselves with despoiling the slain and taking about twenty-eight horses, and then retreated to Castellar.

Painting by Théodore Chassériau

When the routed Moors came flying back upon the rear-guard, Muley Abul Hassan feared that the people of Xeres were in arms. Several of his followers advised him to abandon the cavalgada, and to retreat by another road. “No,” said the old king, “he is no true soldier who gives up his booty without fighting.” Putting spurs to his horse, he galloped forward through the center of the cavalgada, driving cattle to the right and left. When he reached the field of battle, he found it strewed with the bodies of upwards of one hundred Moors, among which were those of the two alcaydes. Enraged at this sight, he summoned all his cross-bowmen and cavalry, pushed on to the very gates of Castellar, and set fire to the two houses close to the walls. Pedro de Vargas was too severely wounded to sally forth in person; but he ordered out his troops, and there was brisk skirmishing under the walls, until the King drew off and returned to the scene of the recent encounter. Here he had the bodies of the principal warriors laid across mules, to be interred honorably at Malaga; the rest of the slain were buried on the field of battle. Then, gathering together the scattered cavalgada, he paraded it slowly in an immense line, past the walls of Castellar, by way of taunting his foe.

With all his fierceness, old Muley Abul Hassan had a gleam of warlike courtesy, and admired the hardy and soldierlike character of Pedro de Vargas. He summoned two Christian captives, and demanded what were the revenues of the alcayde of Gibraltar. They told him that, among other things, he was entitled to one out of every drove of cattle that passed his boundaries. “Allah forbid,” cried the old monarch, “that so brave a cavalier should ever be defrauded of his dues.”

View of Gibraltar from the South

He immediately chose twelve of the finest cattle, from the twelve droves which formed the cavalgada. These he gave in charge to an alfaqui, to deliver to Pedro de Vargas. “Tell him,” said he, “that I crave his pardon for not having sent these cattle sooner; but I have this moment learnt the nature of his rights, and I hasten to satisfy them, with the punctuality due to so worthy a cavalier. Tell him, at the same time, that I had no idea that the alcayde of Gibraltar was so active and vigilant in collecting his tolls.”

The brave alcayde relished the stern soldierlike pleasantry of the old Moorish monarch. He ordered a rich silken vest and a scarlet mantle, to be given to the alfaqui, and dismissed him with great courtesy. “Tell his majesty,” said he, “that I kiss his hands for the honor he has done me, and regret that my scanty force has not permitted me to give him a more signal reception, on his coming into these parts. Had three hundred horsemen, whom I have been promised from Xeres, arrived in time, I might have served up an entertainment more befitting such a monarch. I trust, however, they will arrive in the course of the night, in which case his majesty may be sure of a royal regale in the dawning.”

Copper engraving of Gibraltar

Muley Abul Hassan shook his head, when he received the reply of de Vargas. “Allah preserve us,” said he, “from any visitation of these hard riders of Xeres! A handful of troops, acquainted with the wild passes of these mountains, may destroy an army encumbered as ours is with booty.”

It was some relief to the King, however, to learn that the hardy alcayde of Gibraltar was too severely wounded to take the field in person. He immediately beat a retreat, with all speed, before the close of the day, hurrying with such precipitation, that the cavalgada was frequently broken, and scattered among the rugged defiles of the mountains; and above five thousand of the cattle turned back, and were regained by the Christians.

 

Washington Irving, The Conquest of Granada (Agapida edition), (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), pp. 90-99.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 219

 

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