Foreigners who changed the image of Malaga

Foreigners who changed the image of Malaga
  • Malaga is hospitable and charitable, and always ready to fight for freedom - and the proof lies buried in the English Cemetery

When Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, swept into Malaga in 1487 they immediately set about turning the city into a Catholic fortress, converting the main mosque into a cathedral and smaller ones into churches. They allocated the housing to their followers and sent the previous inhabitants, if they couldn't buy their freedom, into servitude or worse.

When the first 'concejo' or town council was set up they granted the city its own coat of arms featuring the Gibralfaro castle and the sea, the crown, and the Malaga martyrs, St Ciriaco and St Paula. It also bore the words “muy noble Ciudad de Málaga”, and “Tanto monta” (King Ferdinand's motto). “Muy leal” was added by Felipe IV in 1640. The other texts round the shield, establishing Malaga as hospitable, charitable, dauntless, and full of freedom-fighters, came much later.

About three and a half centuries after Malaga became a bastion of Roman Catholicism, it had turned into a major port and industrial centre, and non-Catholics were playing a vital part in its life. They also needed somewhere to be buried, and in 1831 the city became the site of the first Protestant cemetery in the Spanish peninsula. The texts added to the original coat of arms reflect this change in Malaga's character and status, and they have close connections with the English Cemetery and the (despite its name) international origins of those whose last resting place it is.


When did Malaga first become so renowned for its hospitality that the words “muy hospitalaria” were incorporated into its coat of arms? The answer can be found in a maritime disaster of December 1900. The 'Gneisenau' was a training ship belonging to the Imperial German Navy which was sent with a crew of 470 men to pick up a diplomat. Battered by a storm, she went aground just outside the port of Malaga and sank. Forty-two German lives were lost, including the captain and chief engineer, all of whom lie buried in the English Cemetery. The death toll would have been much higher without the valiant assistance of the local population who threw themselves into boats and into the water to try and help, with the loss also of twelve 'malagueños'. As a result of this tragedy the city earned the motto “Muy hospitalaria” to add to its coat of arms.

Malaga's hospitality did not end there. Those survivors who were uninjured were taken in by local families, and some of them stayed on and married into Spanish families, their surnames becoming part of the cosmopolitan identity of Malaga.

Dr Noble

The Gneisenau sailors in need of medical assistance were taken to the hospital situated very close to the port, the “Hospital Noble”. This hospital's name came not from the city's motto, or as some have thought from its dedication to the health of the nobility - nothing further from the truth! - but from the British physician Dr Joseph Noble, who died in Malaga during a cholera epidemic in 1859.

He must have grown to love the city in the short time he lived here, and true to his calling as a doctor he requested that part of the inheritance be used to build a charity hospital in the city to care not only for the people of Malaga but for the many foreigners and seamen who came to the port. His heirs complied with his wishes and sailors from the Gneisenau were among those who had cause to be grateful for his charity.

So too, were the victims of the Rif War who were brought to Malaga for medical assistance. The city opened its arms to the wounded, and the Hospital Noble continued to fulfil its mission. In 1922 a royal decree rewarded the city with the addition to its coat of arms the words “Muy benéfica”.

The “most charitable” Dr Noble who gave the city its hospital also lies buried in the English Cemetery.

“Always dauntless” and “The first in the fight for freedom” are mottoes added together, as far back as 1843, just twelve years into the existence of the English Cemetery. “Siempre donodada” and “La primera en en peligro de la libertad” were granted by royal decree in recognition of the political struggles which brought about the downfall of the Regent, General Espartero, a general uprising in Spain having started in Malaga.

Liberal rebels

Freedom fighters though had left their mark on the city several years earlier, in 1831, during the reign of the absolutist and repressive Fernando VII. A group of Spanish liberals had got together in London and planned to sail round the peninsula and issue a “pronouncement” which would trigger a general rebellion all over the country. Led by General José María Torrijos and in a ship financed by their British sympathiser and companion Robert Boyd, they got as far as the Malaga coast but were betrayed, and shot without any semblance of trial.

The Spanish participants in the venture now lie under a monument in the Plaza de la Merced, but Boyd, the 26-year-old from Londonderry (Northern Ireland) was buried in the English Cemetery, where another monument says he fell “in the sacred cause of liberty”. In the hours before his execution, he wrote a letter to his family which showed him to be dauntless in the face of death, prepared to “fall in defence of what I hold dear”.