Gibraltar: The British Rock


The Straits of Hercules
Topography no less than geography has shaped the history of Gibraltar. Had it been a flat instead of a rocky promontory it might have had no history worth telling; or at least not one so violent, so often bizarre and so far-reaching in relation to Europe.

A ready-made geological fortress, the Rock is about 1,400 feet high, three miIes long, and three-quarters of a mile wide on average, rising sheer at the north end and tapering to a cliffed plateau at the south. The eastern side rears up like the walls of a castle, while the few weak points on the more gently sloping western side, where the city stands, have been fortified over the centuries In addition its pale porous limestone is riddled with almost thirty-five miles of manmade tunnels and chambers, some dating from the Great Siege, but the majority from the Second World War and intended to quarter a garrison under threat of the German assault that never was – Operation Felix .

In this warlike environment, refugees from various kinds of persecution, who replaced the decamped Spanish population after the British conquest, were welded within two-and-a-half centuries into a clannish community of some 20,000 souls, which today appears as a seemingly irreconcilable factor in a territorial dispute between Britain and Spain. But the war drums had to roll many times before these people crept on the scene – historically speaking, almost unnoticed.

The Straits of Gibraltar, the Herculean straits of the ancients, have often been referred to as a gateway but in fact form part of what might be described as a crossroads, for the vast flow of traffic in and out of the Mediterranean has always been matched by that between Europe and Africa. Prehistoric beasts and Neanderthalers passed this way in remote ages when a land link between the continents existed, and there is evidence that as long ago as 10,000 BC a Caucasoid people invaded the Maghreb – like the hundreds of thousands of European migratory birds that every year winter in Africa, it is likely that they too chose the Straits as a crossing point.

Although it was probably the early Greek explorers who discovered the out- let to the Atlantic, it was left to the Phoenicians and their kindred successors, the Carthaginians, to exploit the commercial prospects that opened out beyond; the copper of the Rio Tinto, the gold and silver of the Sierra Morena just round the corner, and the tin of the mysterious isles far to the north. With Gadir (Roman Gades, modern Cadiz) to handle and protect this trade, they barred rivals from their preserve by force of arms, and no doubt encouraged the contemporary ne plus ultra attitude towards the Pillars of Hercules.

There is a historical parallel between the Carthaginians and the British. Two thousand years separate their respective eras of dominance, yet both had the same blend of naval sense and mercantile drive, and have been the only powers to succeed in controlling the Straits – for, ultimately, commercial reasons. Neither might have achieved this without possession of a base in the Bay of Gibraltar. For the Carthaginians it was not the Rock itself but Algeciras, five miles across the bay, and Carteia, mid-way between the two. The British, however, arrived in the age of gunpowder, and the Rock was the obvious strongpoint.

The Romans, who finally broke the back of Carthage and colonised Iberia as no one else had done before, do not seem to have had much use for the mountain they called Calpe, but they ventured across the Straits to establish themselves firmly in North Africa. The ferocious, destructive impetus of the Vandals, too, once more carried a people across en masse – they came to dominate the Roman colonies and finally to sack Rome itself.

In 711 the direction of the traffic across the Straits changed dramatically as wave after wave of Muslim Arabs swept across from Africa. They were to leave a deep Islamic imprint on the face of Iberia, for it took the narrowly self-seeking Visigoth nobles seven centuries to rally under the banner of Castile and finally turn the tide. The vanguard of the invading Moors landed in the vicinity of the imposing mountain which they named after their leader, Tarek – the name Gibraltar is a corruption of Jebel (or mount) Tarek. They may have fortified it to protect Algeciras and Carteia, but the foundations of a city – baths and all – were not laid until the twelfth century. One of the few reminders of the Moors' long tenure is the citadel that still dominates the oldest part of the town.

The historical connection with the Maghreb persisted long after the departure of the Moors. When the British were in possession they always maintained a pragmatic policy of friendship towards whoever held sway in the area – during the active Spanish hostility of the eighteenth century, Morocco was often the only immediate source of supplies, and there is a parallel with the present-day situation in the thousands of Moroccan workers who shuttle to and fro every weekend to fill the labour shortage created by the latest Spanish blockade of the Rock. Later, the strategic position of Tangier at the Atlantic end of the Straits was to cause much anxiety, and in 1913 German expansionist activity in the area almost precipitated the Great War. Apart from the Spanish occupation during the Second World War, Tangier was an international zone from 1923 to 1956.

The Spaniards, who held the Rock for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, also left few relics – it was mostly fortifications that survived. In Spanish times, too, the traffic across the Straits continued unabated. Now it took the form of the mass expulsion of Jews by a fanatically Christian Spain, or the cruel deportation of over half a million Spanish-born Moors whose loyalty to the new state was thought suspect. Ferdinand and Isabella's reconquest did not bring an immediate end to internecine strife in the country – it took the Catholic Monarchs thirty-four years to evict from the Rock the powerful Duke of Medina Sidonia who had privately taken possession of it to protect his vast estates in the neighbourhood. But from 1501 to 1704 Spain held the Rock without interruption.

In the intervening years of constant fighting between the European powers, the British do not seem to have had any specific designs on Gibraltar, though Tangier had been in British hands for some time and proved an unsatisfactory naval base. There is some misconception about the capture of Gibraltar in 1704 by a strong Anglo-Dutch force under Admiral Rooke. It took place during the War of the Spanish Succession, in which Britain and Holland naturally sided with the Habsburg claimant, the Archduke Charles. The attacking force had originally been destined to land at Barcelona to bolster an uprising of Catalan sympathisers to the Archduke's cause. But the Catalans wavered when it came to the crunch, and Rooke's fleet found itself without a task to perform. The decision to attack Gibraltar as an alternative was taken ad hoc and not as a result of long-term planning. With the fleet was Prince George of Hesse, agent for the Claimant, on whose behalf the Rock was held until peace came in 1713. As the Archduke's cause had come to grief in the meantime, the British, now fully involved in the scramble for colonies, held on to their new possession. Though the Treaty of Utrecht by which it was formally ceded to them is in effect an unconditional transfer of property, the document nevertheless contains two clauses that, from a purely legal standpoint, have bedevilled the prospect of a solution to today's problem. The one gives Spain an excuse to isolate the Rock by land, and the other, more crucially, denies the Gibraltarians any right to their homeland, for:

…and in case it shall hereafter seem meet in the Crown of Great Britain to grant, sell, or by any means to alienate therefrom the property of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed, and concluded, that the preference of having the same shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others.

It is from 1713 onwards that events begin to have a bearing on modern Gibraltar. The depopulated Rock – most of the Spanish residents had fled to neighbouring towns – was declared a free port to attract settlers, who soon came from the Maghreb, descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain two centuries before, and from Genoa. After the Great Siege of 1779-83, this embryo population was nourished by a fresh influx of Genoese fleeing before Napoleon's armies, until a yellow fever epidemic carried off more than half their numbers. Many of today's Gibraltarians descend from the survivors.

The social history of that violent eighteenth century has to be gleaned between the lines of terse official documents and fortress orders, for the Gibraltar Chronicle , which records most of subsequent history, did not appear until 1801. And the picture that emerges is a stark one: privation and pestilence, malnutrition and scurvy, drunkenness and mutiny, public floggings and hangings, squalor, smuggling, hoarding and profiteering, all of which was often presided over by a governor whose practices were as corrupt as his power was absolute. For good measure, every means of destruction that the best Spanish and French military minds could devise was directed against the fortress, particularly during the last siege, until scarcely a house was left intact. Throughout the whole century there was never real peace, only suspended hostilities. But come truce or war, martial law ruled soldier and civilian alike with unremitting harshness. The only relieving touches of humanity, humour or culture are to be found in surviving diaries and personal papers of the era.

In this crucible diverse strains were being fused into a semblance of homogeneity: Genoese, Jews, British, Spaniards who had drifted back, Minorcans from the late British possession, refugees from the French revolution, Portuguese and others. With the turn of the century, the Rock ceased to be the focal point of enemy attack, but rather became a base for offensive operations – the Battle of Trafalgar was fought just round the corner. Then came a period of friendship with Spain after the May 2nd uprising against the French; and in the century that followed Waterloo, particularly during the materialistic Pax Victorian, an essentially trading community like Gibraltar prospered.

But the delegating of some authority to a civilian administration by a still autocratic military governor was a slow and grudging process. It is easy tO forget in these days of democracy in Gibraltar that until the end of the Second World War everything there was subordinate to military necessity, real or invented. As one mid-nineteenth century travelogue puts It:

... the words 'Officers Quarters' seem to salute us upon the door of every tolerable habitation... parties relieving guard encounter us at every corner .. if we sally up the Rock, sentinels step out and demand our permit; all sketching, except by special permission, is strictly prohibited ... the gates are inexorably closed at a certain hour... an extreme of discipline which, necessary as it may be, sometimes appears a little ridiculous to the eye of the stranger.

The nineteenth century passed without any prospect in view of local representation in the running of purely domestic affairs. The first pretence was made in 1921, with the election of four candidates to a City Council with a majority of appointed members; for their first real taste of democracy – albeit within the limitations of a colonial framework – Gibraltarians would have to await the outcome of the Second World War.

Towards the end of the century, a growing material prosperity and improved sanitation brought a population explosion. Relations with Spain were better than they had ever been or have been since. Across the sandy isthmus that separates the Rock from the mainland, a new town had mushroomed on the site of the nineteenth-century Spanish siege lines. Labour demand for a huge Admiralty project to construct graving docks and protective moles had attracted thousands of Spaniards from neighbouring towns. A commuting labour force, mainly for the dockyard, was to remain a feature of local life until recent times when the Franco regime closed the frontier, incidentally creating a massive unemployment problem in La Linea (The Lines) which is yet to be resolved. But at the turn of the century relations became friendly, with free flow of traffic, trade, and intermarriage.

Politics, however, never crossed the frontier. Though predominantly a Mediterranean people with temperamental affinities with southern Spaniards, Gibraltarians have always looked askance at Spanish politics. Which is not surprising, considering the unedifying sequence of events that punctuated every chapter of Spanish political life during the nineteenth century and what has gone of the twentieth: a struggle between liberal anticlericalism and an absolutist monarch; two lengthy civil wars provoked by Carlist succession disputes; Spain's first republic closely followed by a Bourbon restoration; the seven-year dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, followed by the second republic; and everything to the accompaniment of riots, minor rebellions in the provinces, and pronunciamientos by an army up to their epaulettes in politics; and to crown it all, a cruel and ruinous civil war that imposed a fascist dictatorship on Spain from which it has only recently emerged. Even today, Gibraltarians watch the new spectacle of feverish democratic reform with a wary eye.

In the First World War Gibraltar was never threatened directly as it would be in the Second. But there was incessant naval activity in the area, with the new dockyard facilities – a far cry from those available in Nelson's day – proving their worth, as did the fortress's role as a transit centre for troop movements. Meanwhile young men enlisted in the local volunteer corps or the regular fighting services, some to forfeit their lives in the cause of an empire they evidently believed in. Twenty-five years later – before local conscription was introduced – the gesture would be repeated if, in keeping with the fashion of the time, the patriotic noises were more subdued.

The shock waves of the Wall Street crash that ushered in the Devil's Decade reached Gibraltar, but the local economy was largely Navy orientated, and the large fleet that operated in the Mediterranean kept the dockyard in business. Then in 1936, the powder-keg across the border exploded. Once again the Moors crossed the Straits to invade the peninsula, landing as before in the Bay of Gibraltar, but this time they were under the command of a Spanish general, the then little-known Franco. The immediate effect of the army coup on Gibraltar was a flood of refugees. Soon the Rock found itself in the middle of the action, with the opposing sides fighting many of their naval battles in its vicinity. But as the Nationalists gained control of the area and the front moved northwards, a semblance of normality returned.

In the autumn of 1938, most Gibraltarians accepted Chamberlain's Peace in our Time at face value, until gasmask drill, wailing sirens, blackouts and the construction of deep shelters dispelled their illusion. The Second World War proved a traumatic experience for the civilian population. When the fighting in Europe flared up in earnest after the phoney war period, some 13,000 women, children and non-essentials were bundled off in troopships to French Morocco. But within months France had capitulated and Morocco came under Vichy control. It was pure chance that at this time French troops off Dunkirk were being repatriated via Casablanca by British ships, which served to bring the evacuees home. But a civilian population was an embarrassment to the military, particularly with a German assault expected any day, and they were shipped out again, the majority ironically to the heart of London at the height of the blitz. In the meantime the Vichy French retaliated with heavy air raids on the Rock for Allied action against them at Oran and Dakar.

The military history of Gibraltar is full of bizarre episodes, often involving unconventional weapons, and the Second World War brought a fresh crop, like the contingency plan to leave behind two naval spies entombed in the Rock in the event of capitulation, the operations of Italian Navy frogmen from clandestine bases on the Spanish shore which harassed Allied shipping anchored in the bay, or the well-known impersonation of Montgomery by a junior officer.

In 1942, as the danger of German assault receded, Gibraltar became the HQ for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, and was once more associated with the movement of armies into Africa, and for the first time with the mass movement of aircraft across the Straits.

With the end of hostilities in Europe and the return of the evacuees, local politics began to develop. For the first time there was a City Council with majority of elected members. The party that has dominated Gibraltarian politics since that time, the AACR (Association for the Advancement of Civil Rights) was born during the war out of the disgruntlement felt by civilians - some 4,000 men had remained behind in essential jobs - at their utter lack of rights in a city that was run like a barracks. When this situation passed, the movement directed its energies towards promoting representative local government, associating itself with the interests of the local branch of the TGWU. In today's new legislature it is called the Gibraltar Labour Party/AACR, though the Union has long since broken off and gone its own way. The only serious opposition they have met with to date came from the now defunct IWBP (Integration with Britain Party). As a result of Spanish pressure at the United Nations and a hostile campaign against Gibraltar, followed by a referendum in which Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly in favour of continued association with Britain, passions ran so high that in the 1969 elections the IWBP in alliance with a sympathetic independent group won a majority that kept them in power for the full four-year term. Later Britain came out unequivocally against the principle of integration; so with the end of that adventure the AACR, with its more flexible 'Free Association' policy, found itself once more attracting support. Apart from this difference of approach in retaining the link with Britain, both parties had in common an ingrained Gibraltarian reluctance to consider any sort of accommodation with Spain as an alternative.

Democracy has come a long way in Gibraltar since the very tentative experiment of 1921. Today's legislature, the House of Assembly, consists of fifteen elected members and two ex-officio members who have no vote in matters of confidence. There is a Chief Minister and, Westminster style, a Leader of the Opposition. Excepting such matters as defence and foreign affairs, the executive power is vested in a cabinet-like Council of Ministers. There is one flaw in the democratic texture; the House makes its laws in the shadow of the military governor's power of veto. And, under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, until a formula for decolonisation acceptable to all parties concerned is found, this reserve power will have to remain. The ultimate authority in Gibraltar rests with the constitution of 1969, which only the British monarch has the power to amend or revoke.

One of the many peculiarities of modern Gibraltar is that though it is only a small town that in normal circumstances would be solely concerned with municipal affairs, its political isolation – in that neither do its citizens have UK status nor will they countenance any form of integration with Spain – has given it all the trappings of a fully-fledged state. And the fact is that Gibraltar tends to think of itself as a state – albeit a mini one – rather than a municipality. This may be partly due to the external pressures of the past decade, but mainly to the total integration achieved by the several ethnic and religious groups that make up the community, and to the evolution of a peculiar way of life which, like its bilingualism, borrows from both the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon.

Ever since the recent re-birth of democracy in Spain, there has been a shift from the former regime's heavy-handed approach to the dispute, and it is being recognised in many quarters that the policy of all stick and no carrot was a blunder – that the Gibraltarians ought never to have been antagonised but wooed. And indeed telephone communication with the Rock was recently restored as a gesture of good faith. In April of this year, at a meeting in Lisbon Spanish foreign minister Senor Oreja agreed with Lord Carrington to suspend all restrictions against the Rock as a preliminary to further talks. At the time of writing this has not yet materialised. In Spain there have been adverse reactions from hardliners in the Cortes; in Gibraltar widespread fears of being swamped by Spanish labour and big business. Nevertheless the signs are there that the wooing is beginning in earnest. But they may have left it too late.

Over the past forty years or so there has taken place an anglicisation of the mass of Gibraltarians that formerly was exclusive to the well-to-do who traditionally sent their sons to English public schools. The process began with the wartime evacuees' four-year exile in Britain, and was consolidated by the new educational blueprint of 1944, a replica of the British act, which opened the doors of British universities and training colleges to an ever-growing stream of scholarship winners from all social classes. Another factor, too, was the Spanish blockade and campaign of abuse which fostered anti-Spanish sentiment. And finally, though the policy of integration with Britain proved a dead letter, many of its expected consequences have crept in as it were by the back door, like parity of wages with the UK – achieved by pressure from the TGWU – and a tax structure comparable to Britain's.

From the beginning, Britain's policy towards the Gibraltarians has been one of unqualified support, which takes the form of recognition of their right to self-determination and of patching up with Overseas Development funds the economic damage caused by the Spanish blockade. There is every sign that her national interest in the base remains, if now closely linked with overall NATO strategy, but the hoary dispute is a running sore in Anglo-Spanish relations, and clearly the British would welcome any move towards compromise on the Gibraltarian side. There is a local tendency to look forward to Spain's expected entry into the EEC as an answer to the problem, but this could well turn out to be no more than a pious hope.

Some two decades after the war, with the anticipated running down of service establishments, it was reckoned that Gibraltar would have to resort to tourism to fill the economic gap. The potential had always been there – the impressive topography, the right climate and a wealth of history – waiting for an age that could exploit it. But then Spain's traditional hurt pride over her loss of the Rock swelled to alarming proportions, and a sequence of hostile measures against Gibraltar left the touristic planners with a bleak prospect. Today, though tourism does contribute towards the local economy despite the obstacles, the trade is not developed anywhere near the level that might have enabled Gibraltar to become self-sufficient economically. To what extent the Lisbon agreement will remedy the situation still remains to be seen.

After standing for so many centuries at a busy junction of history, Gibraltar is arriving at a crossroads in its own private history. Sooner or later external pressures will force its people to take one road or another, and the wrong choice may well entail the loss of their painfully acquired identity. There are only some 20,000 of them, and history offers many examples of far more numerous peoples who have faded into anonymity.

By E.G. Chipulina

Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole
Further Reading
Gibraltar: Conquered by No Enemy
by Marc Alexander

A History of the Late Siege of Gibraltar: With a Description and Account of that Garrison, from the Earliest Periods (Cambridge Library Collection - Naval and Military History)
by John Drinkwater

Gibraltar under Moor, Spaniard, and Briton. With plates and maps
by Edward Ranulph Kenyon

Historia de Gibraltar
By Ignacio López De Aya

The History of the Herculean Straits, Now Called the Straits of Gibraltar: Including Those Ports of Spain and Barbary That Lie Contiguous Thereto: In
by Thomas James

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