Brief History
'The English have gone - but left their weather behind', a Menorcan remarked ruefully, surveying a bleak, treeless promontory from the ramparts of fort Isabel II. A howling gale brought heavy rain cascading down on the celebrations on May 11th that marked the Bicentenary of the Treaty of Amiens, under the terms of which Britain returned the island of Menorca to the Spanish crown. Situated on grim cliffs some five miles from the capital Mahon, Isabel is austerely functional, built in 1860 and used until 1968 as a prison, consisting essentially of a central parade ground enclosed in stone walls. But in British tradition, the moment the ceremony ended, the sun came out in splendour.

It is not fair to judge Menorca from La Mola, the island's easternmost tip on which the fort is built. It is an island with an astonishing variety of landscapes in a minuscule compass, 30km wide and 50km long. But it has seen more than its fair share of the Mediterranean's history. Prehistoric settlers probably drifted here by accident, blown from the coast of France by the north wind, their descendants creating a rich Bronze Age culture. Others came deliberately, for the tiny island was a perfect springboard for southern France, northern Italy, the Spanish mainland or the North African Coast. Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Normans, Arabs, Turks, Spanish and French all laid their mark on the island.

Then, the British. In the endless wars of the second half of the Eighteenth Century, the island exerted a powerful attraction to Europe's foremost maritime nation.

The original capital had been Ciutedella at the western end, a site favoured by the Arabs: the town is still run from the handsome palace they built for their governor. But the harbour was not good enough for the Royal Navy with their mighty ships of the line. At the eastern end was a another town, Mahon, probably founded by the Phoenicians and known as Portus Magonis by the Romans. It stood on high cliffs above an immensely long, naturally deep harbour protected by hills on each side and with a narrow entrance which could easily be defended. The Spanish king Charles I (later the emperor Charles V) built a massive fortress on the southern shore and named it San Felipe after his son. The Royal Navy moved to Mahon in 1721, took over the fort for their governor and began to make themselves at home.

In the Eighteenth Century the British were twice expelled, first by the French in 1763, then by the Spanish in 1781, who promptly demolished the massive fort of San Felipe. The British returned in 1798 and stayed until 1802, when under the Treaty of Amiens they relinquished most of the Mediterranean colonies - with the exceptions of Malta and Gibraltar.

In the context of Menorca's long history the British presence is barely a flicker in time. But it left curiously strong impressions on the island's architecture, topography, even its language. A Menorcan scholar, Pere Melis Pons, has compiled a fascinating glossary of anglicismes menorquins. Some are decidedly odd. 'berguin' is derived from the English 'bargain'. Did the Menorcans really not have such a word before? The same applies to 'moc', from 'mug'. 'Berious' is from 'barrack's house'; 'clin' comes from 'clean'. 'Boinder' is 'bow window', an architectural feature introduced by the English, of which there are excellent examples in 'Hannover Street' - which still bears that name long after we in Britain happily consigned the Hanoverians to history. Meandering the length of the island is a thoroughfare called Kane Street. It was once the principal link between Mahon and Ciutedella and is named after Richard Kane, the energetic governor in 1736 who also served as governor of Gibraltar.

On the hillside above Mahon is a house which stands out from the other the villas that punctuate the landscape. It was the home, during his brief periods ashore, of Admiral Collingwood, commander of the British Mediterranean squadron and Nelson's vice admiral at Trafalgar. It is now a hotel which its owner, Francisco Pons Montanari, a Menorcan of Italian descent, has virtually turned into a shrine to the Royal Navy in the Eighteenth Century. Maps, paintings, drawings, portraits and a holograph letter of Collingwood's cover the walls: much of the furniture was made by Menorcan craftsmen almost -but not quite succeeding in - copying English taste of the time. Among the pictures is a cartoon entitled 'The British Lion Dismember'd'. It shows the unfortunate Admiral John Byng, first on his trial for failing to prevent a French takeover of the island in 1756, and then as a heap of bloody debris after his execution the following year.

There was one, not wholly unexpected backlash of the celebrations of the Treaty of Amiens from a group of nationalists which could be summed up in the words 'Right, the English have gone - now what about the Spanish?'. Or, as a spokesman for the group was quoted in the local paper '200 years later Menorca continues to be dominated by the Spanish state which denies us the right of self-determination'. On the face of it, it seems absurd that a tiny island with a population of around 70,000 should claim sovereignty but if Antigua (pop 77,000) can claim a seat at the UN, why not Menorca? Treaties sometimes develop in odd directions.

Imperial Flag
map of Minorca
Europe, 1740
Minorca, 1780
Colonial Minorca Images
1708 - 1802
Types of Naval Officer by A T Mahan - includes an account of Admiral Byng's defeat at Minorca.

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by Stephen Luscombe