“At the extreme southern tip, the most beautiful place on the Rock, where one may look back at the great mountains or forward across the sea at Mont Abyla, the Hesperides and the mighty Atlas…”
Gibraltar: the Keystone. Stewart, JD, 1967.
Apart from its favoured location, the Europa Point lighthouse has many claims to being unique. It is the only lighthouse outside the British Isles to be administered by Trinity House, and it was one of the first lighthouses to be set up in the area. A book of sailing directions published in 1832 does not mention any lighthouses in the area (although there was one at Tarifa). The lighthouses we know today came much later – Cape Spartel in 1865, Punta Carnero in 1874, and Malabata not until the beginning of the 20th century.
Before the lighthouse was built, the only guide that mariners had in the treacherous waters at the entrance to the bay was the light from the Shrine of Our Lady of Europa, while this was no doubt of some help, many ships must have been wrecked in mediaeval times for the want of a lighthouse. The great Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria, presented the shrine with a silver lamp, but this was in gratitude for success in battle rather than for navigational assistance.
In 1838 building started. The foundation stone was laid by the Governor, Sir Alexander Woodford, with the assistance of the Masonic Order of Gibraltar. aOver 10,000 people were there to witness the event, coming not only from Gibraltar but from Spain.
“The evening was fine, the sea enlivened by lateen boats decked in colours and the whole living mass which thronged the rocky promontory apparently enjoying the novelty and splendour of the scene. It was a day likely to be remembered by the inhabitants of Gibraltar and others who were present…” Gibraltar Chronicle, 28th April 1838.
Dowager Queen Adelaide visited the site in the same year, and had a plaque affixed to the wall which is still there today.
Building had begun one year after Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, and the lighthouse had the official name, now long-forgotten, of “The Victoria Lighthouse.” An Act of Parliament in that year vested responsibility for the lighthouse in Trinity House.
The 1841 edition of the same book of sailing directions records:
“The VICTORIA TOWER, a lighthouse in Europa Point, was building in the year 1840, the foundation stone having been laid, with great solemnity, on the 26th day of April 1838. The tower stands on a platform 38 feet square, the diameter of the column at the base is 27 feet, and its height 60 feet. The building is of hewn stone, crowned with a lantern ten feet high, which is to contain a very powerful light.” Sailing Directions for the Strait of Gibraltar… Purdy, J. 1841 edition.
The lighthouse was first lit in 1841 and initially a fixed light was exhibited by a single wick oil lamp augmented by a dioptric fixed lens and catoptric mirrors. The light was 150 feet above sea level, and by the 1880s it could be seen for twenty miles.
“At Europa point is seen the newly erected lighthouse, an excellent beacon for mariners coming from the east. It is soon descried on the other side, after leaving Tarifa, and well distinguished as far up on the coast as Marbella. The light is fixed, and the reflectors are constructed on the newest principle.” Handbook to Gibraltar.[Bell, J] 1844.
Improvements were made in 1864 and the light now covered Pearl Rock on the opposite side of the Bay, which had been the site of several shipwrecks. In spite of this, HMS Agincourt went aground there in 1871 (Fig. 3).
A succession of improvements to the light followed in the 20th century, and the height of the tower was raised by six feet. In 1994 the light was fully automated. Until then there had been three lighthouse keepers, but now there is only one attendant on call, who is alerted by the lighthouse computer on the rare occasions that there is a problem.
Gibraltarians have always been rightly proud of their remarkable lighthouse, known to them as “La Farola” for nearly a century and three-quarters.
“Lighthouses everywhere are dramatic sights, but few are so inspiringly placed as the Europa Point Lighthouse, on the southern tip of Gibraltar….Operational since 1841, the lighthouse is a bit of history itself. Because of the economic importance of the Strait, the beacon, even in these days of radar and satellite navigation, is far from a relic.” (Lighthouse Digest, 2004).