In prehistoric times its caverns sheltered Neolithic men and women, just as its natural defences sheltered its people from assault by their enemies in more modern times. For the last three centuries it has remained British despite siege, famine and fever. Thanks to the fortitude of its garrison and civil population in facing hardship and repelling attack it became a patriotic symbol, in latter days being dubbed ‘the Last Rock of Empire’. It is no longer part of an empire but links with Britain remain and what was once the world’s most famous fortress has evolved into a democratic community.
Officially designated a British Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, Gibraltar is situated at the southern tip of Spain, overlooking the Strait named after it, which is the strategic gateway to the Mediterranean. Its area of 2½ square miles is inhabited by nearly 30,000 people. The population is truly multi-racial, its forebears coming from Britain, Genoa, India, Italy, Malta, Minorca, Morocco, Portugal, Sardinia and Spain. Yet if a person living on the Rock is asked about his or her nationality, the answer is most likely to be ‘I am Gibraltarian.’
While English is Gibraltar’s official language, most Gibraltarians speak Spanish as well. There is also a local patois known as Llanito, a blend of English and Spanish Andalusian together with words that echo from the Rock’s cosmopolitan past. The majority of Gibraltarians are Roman Catholics but a wide variety of other Christian and non-Christian faiths flourish. Apart from his local Church of England duties, the Bishop of Gibraltar is in charge of the Anglican Diocese of Europe.
One of the misconceptions about Gibraltar is that the British seized the Rock in 1704 in the name of Queen Anne for their own advantage. Anglo-Dutch troops did capture the Rock but it was during the War of the Spanish Succession and the action was carried out on behalf of the Austrian Archduke Charles, the Habsburg claimant to the throne. When the war ended with the Treaty of Utrecht and various European territories were reallocated, it was agreed that Britain should take over Gibraltar ‘with all manner of right for ever …’. What is not generally known is that there were times when the British government was eager to relinquish it.
Spain’s attempts to secure the return of the Rock to Spain have been an enduring matter of contention, at one point provoking the most famous siege in history after that of Troy. Sympathisers with the Spanish objective ask how would the people of Britain feel if three centuries ago a Spanish force invaded Portland Bill and the flag of Spain flew over it ever since. In reality the ‘Gibraltar question’ is far more complex as the following pages will show.
Gibraltar’s head of state is Queen Elizabeth II who is represented on the Rock by the Governor. Since Gibraltar won internal independence and has it own parliament, he no longer controls the administration of the city but remains responsible for defence, foreign relations and security. The Gibraltar Parliament, which convenes at the House of Assembly, has fifteen elected members and the equivalent of prime minister is referred to as the Chief Minister.
To explore Gibraltar is to take a walk through history, from the museum housed in Europe’s best preserved Moorish Baths to the Rock’s tunnels, which were one of the most notable feats of engineering in the Second World War. In the Trafalgar Cemetery lie men who died in the battle of that name and mounted at the Napier Battery is preserved the famous 100-ton gun, which had a range of 8 miles for its 2,000lb shells. Sites with more peaceful connotations include the Rock’s natural caverns, the most famous being St Michael’s Cave where ballet and musical events are produced in awesome surroundings. No reference to the traditional side of the Rock would be complete without mention of the famous apes, although they are not apes at all but tail-less monkeys known as Barbary Macaques, which are unique in Europe. According to legend the British will no longer hold the Rock if the apes die out but the fable is unlikely to be put to the test as there are between 200 and 300 of these mischievous creatures on the Upper Rock.
Among the attractions that help Gibraltar’s tourism industry is its wildlife, especially the mass migrations of various bird species from the Rock to Africa, which entice bird-watchers from near and far. For the visitor Gibraltar retains its reputation of being a free port. Although it became a member of the European Union by virtue of the British Treaty of Accession in 1973, Gibraltar remains outside the Customs Union. This means that visitors from EU countries still have the advantage of purchasing duty-free goods, which is not permitted in the rest of the European Union.
Gibraltar has found its own voice and prospered yet the question of sovereignty remains unresolved. Spain wishes to regain this tiny but highly significant scrap of land against the wishes of the Gibraltarians whose ‘democratically expressed wishes’ are guaranteed by the British government. It remains an on-going stalemate.
Extracted from Gibraltar by Marc Alexander