Captain Frederick Brome excavated Genista I Cave in the 1860’s. Brome’s investigations were so thorough that they prompted scientists of the calibre of Hugh Falconer and George Busk, secretaries of the Royal Society and the Linnean Society respectively, to visit Gibraltar in search of the breccias. Brome took up the appointment of Governor of the Military Prison on Windmill Hill, an ancient wave-cut platform at the southern end of Gibraltar where a system of fissure caves, known as the Genista Caves, is situated. The largest and most important is Genista I which was discovered by Brome. He used convict labour to excavate this deep fissure which yielded large quantities of bone some of which are thought to be the oldest so far found in Gibraltar. The fauna included Brown Bear, Wild Cat, Lynx, Leopard, Spotted Hyaena, Horse, Narrow-nosed Rhinoceros, Wild Boar, Red Deer, Aurochs and Ibex.
The exploration of the caves commenced as a result of a decision taken in 1862 to enlarge the boundaries of the military prison and to construct for its use a large water tank. According to George Busk (1868):
“Within the enclosed space (for the water tank), and close to the south-east angle, an excavation was made for the proposed tank. This excavation led to the discovery of the first and most important of the series of caves on the Windmill Hill Plateau, which it is to be hoped will be known to all time by the name which has been given to them, in allusion and in honour of their discoverer and explorer.”
Busk was humorously referring to Genista as the Latin name of the Broom, a Mediterranean shrub, clearly a play of words with Brome!
Brome obtained the Secretary of State’s approval, at his suggestion, to employ prisoners on the new works and their construction and he kept a close supervision over what was going on. He clearly had great vision and intuition when it came to caves. He described the first time he found the fissure which was to lead to the discovery of Genista I like this:
“On removing the earth from this space, which varied from two to four feet in depth, an irregular surface of compact limestone presented itself; in which the only fissure visible was an open vertical one about six feet long and five inches wide, between two large blocks of limestone; the disturbed state and the peculiar position of these masses appeared to me, with the fissure, to be remarkable, and I drew the attention of Lieutenant Buckle, RE, in charge of the works, to them, who observed that ‘it was merely one of those fissures in which the Rock of Gibraltar abounded.’ Labour was directed to quarry out the limestone to the required depth for the tank, and, about the end of February, after blasting out a proportion of solid rock at a depth of nine feet from the original surface, a few bones were found in the bottom of a small fissure, under some dark mould; they were lying without order in all directions, and mostly fractured. Having been led to suspect, at a very early stage of the operations, that the open vertical fissure already mentioned was connected either with a larger one below, or a cavern, I watched the excavations as they progressed near this spot with considerable interest, and on April 23 (St. George’s Day), while excavating for the foundation of the south wall, the prisoners came upon a rock, which had evidently once formed part of a cave; it was covered with stalactites and conglomerate; near this spot a boar’s tusk was found, and a few fragments of pottery, land and marine shells, etc. The prisoners were provided with baskets, and I directed them to collect carefully every specimen, however small, for my inspection, and this was most diligently attended to under the superintendence of the prison officers.”
He was a thorough researcher and gained the respect of the scientists of the day with whom he corresponded. Busk, for example, wrote thus:
“Fortunately when the excavations on Windmill Hill were commenced, an accomplished and distinguished officer, fully alive to the importance of science, was in command of the fortress; and it was equally fortunate that the subsequent explorations were carried out by an observer so able, energetic and vigilant as Captain Frederick Brome, at that time Governor of the Prison…These operations, which were unremittingly continued from April 1863 to December 1868, have of necessity required an amount of labour, and involved sometimes a degree of responsibility which it is not very easy to over-estimate. But this labour and responsibility have been ungrudgingly and most disinterestedly given and incurred by Captain Brome, who, with the aid of prisoners and their warders under his command, has in those five years conducted with surprising success an amount of difficult exploration never before equalled, and made collections in the public interest of unrivalled value.”
Brome sent most of the material collected to scientists in England, a typical procedure at that time so that very little of the material recovered by him is in the Gibraltar Museum. The main collections are in the Natural History Museum in London. Brome eventually lost his commission, ironically for using convict labour in his excavations, and returned to England where the scientists who respected him and his work created a fund to support him in his hour of need. No doubt Brome had upset someone in the military hierarchy by having become popular among the scientific community. As with many examples right through to today, the poor Brome was marginalised. It is, however, his name and not those of the small-minded people around him that we remember and honour.
The fate of Genista I Cave is as tragic as Brome’s dismissal. In 1895-96 a large magazine was built directly over the cave. Major E. R. Collins, another cave explorer, was probably the last person to enter a relatively intact Genista I between 1893 and 1895 as the works for this magazine commenced. True to tradition, he collected numerous bones which he retained in his personal collection. By the time the Abbé Henri Breuil the famous French palaeontologist visited the site in 1919, it was completely inaccessible. A record of the Museum Committee of 18 October, 1961, states the view of that body that Genista I was of great historical importance and that there was a need to arrange for its exploration when the Detention Barracks at Windmill Hill were demolished. A Gibraltar Cave Research Group report of November 1961 stated that:
“...the walls of the magazine were completely lined, thus making it impossible to find a way down and that it was probable that spoil had been tipped down the rest of the cave.”
The Detention Barracks were demolished in 1962 and work started to construct a military motor transport yard which was completed in 1965. A stone tablet placed close to the entrance of Genista I in 1896 remains but the entrance to the cave is long gone. The lack of foresight which led to Brome’s dismissal persisted one hundred years later!
Courtesy Gibraltar Museum Caving Unit
Link to Neville Chipulina 2019 - The 200 Caves of Gibraltar - Part 6