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Hospital Island, Menorca

Rabbit Island, King’s Island, Bloody Island, Hospital Island ….. the island which lies near the port of Mahón, the capital of Menorca, has been known by many names over the centuries, reflecting different points in its history.

Today, the island is a national historical, archaeological and artistic monument.

Photo - https://blog.portalmenorca.com/

It became known as Isla del Rey after Alfonso III of Aragón disembarked there on January 5, 1287, and established his base on the island for his reconquest of Menorca from the Moorish occupiers. He accomplished his task twelve days later and, to commemorate that event in Baleares history, January 17 is now celebrated as the national day of Menorca.

The years passed until in the early 18th Century Menorca came under British rule, in the first of three periods of British domination, after it was captured in 1708 by Anglo-Dutch forces during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Royal Navy Admiral Sir John Jennings ordered that a naval hospital be built on Isla del Rey. It opened in 1711, becoming Britain’s first ever overseas military hospital.

The British occupation of Menorca was confirmed by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which also ceded Gibraltar, and the British moved their seat of government to Mahón. This 41,177 square metre piece of land situated in one of the largest natural harbours in the world then became known by the British as ‘Bloody Island’ for its hospital.

The half century of British occupation of Menorca ended when the French invaded in 1756 and laid siege with a force of 15,000 soldiers to the garrison which had been established in Mahón. The British commander, Admiral John Byng, found himself vastly outnumbered and withdrew to defend Gibraltar. He was later executed for dereliction of duty. The French period lasted until 1763, when Menorca returned to Britain again under the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven Years’ War.

The original hospital on Bloody Island was substituted for a newer building during the second British occupation. The Acting Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet, Baron Sir Peter Dennis, laid the first stone in October 1771 and construction was completed in 1776: a two-floor building laid out in a ‘U’ shape with 40 wards for the sick. The hospital was partially destroyed during a six-month siege of Menorca by a Franco-Spanish force which finally took the island for Spain in 1782. The Spanish governor ordered that the hospital be repaired and extended, and a chapel was added which was dedicated to San Carlos.

The final four years of British occupation from 1798 ended in 1802 with the Treaty of Amiens which returned Menorca definitively to the Spanish Crown. The medical centre on Isla del Rey fell into disuse in the years that followed and the island was rented out for grazing to farmers, who used the buildings to shelter their livestock. It returned to its former use as a military hospital in 1830, when Spain gave permission to France, in return for restoring the buildings, to use the centre to treat its soldiers who had been injured in the invasion of Algiers. After that, the island was briefly used as an American naval store depot and workshop for their Mediterranean fleet and then by the French as a coal depot for their steamships. From 1843 onwards and for more than a century Isla del Rey once again became a hospital island. The remains of a 6th Century paleochristian basilica were unearthed on the island in 1888, a 32-square metre mosaic which is now housed at the Museum of Menorca.

In 1906, the original copper plaque commemorating the hospital’s completion in 1776 was discovered during restoration work on one of the buildings.

The hospital remained in use until its closure in 1964 and the buildings fell into disrepair. The restoration work which has now been carried out is thanks to the work of volunteers from the Foundation of Friends of Hospital Island, led by Luis Alejandre, a former Chief of General Staff of the Spanish Army. The body was formed as an association in 2004 with the aim of restoring the island to its former condition.

A bust which was commissioned by the foundation of the man who founded the hospital, Sir Admiral John Jennings, was unveiled last year during celebrations which marked the 300th anniversary of the foundation of the first Royal Navy Hospital to be established overseas, on Isla del Rey.