300 Years of Brits on the Rock: As Gibraltar Celebrates 300 Years of British Sovereignty, Sacha Kent Examines the History of the Rock and Reveals How This One-Time Cultural Mongrel Developed Its Own Identity

By Kent, Sacha | Geographical, September 2004 | Go to article overview

300 Years of Brits on the Rock: As Gibraltar Celebrates 300 Years of British Sovereignty, Sacha Kent Examines the History of the Rock and Reveals How This One-Time Cultural Mongrel Developed Its Own Identity


Kent, Sacha, Geographical


When William Makepeace Thackeray visited Gibraltar in the 1840s, be was struck by the disparity and complexity of the people. Having strolled down Main Street, the principal artery of Gibraltar town, be commented, "It is a curious sight at evening this thronged street, with the people, in a hundred different costumes, bustling to and fro under the coarse flare of the lamps; swarthy Moors, in white or crimson robes, dark Spanish smugglers in tufted hats, with gay silk handkerchiefs round their heads, fuddled seamen from men-of-war or merchant men, porters, Galician or Genoese, and, at every few minutes' interval, little squads of soldiers tramping to relieve guard ar some of the innumerable posts in the town."

While the fashions of Thackeray's day are a far cry from those of today's Main Street, where national dress is a homogenous variation on the jeans and T-shirt theme, the heterogeneity of the people remains.

Until the British staked their claim 300 years ago this summer, Gibraltar was mainly populated by Spanish and Moroccans, having passed back and forth between the two countries for centuries. A large community of Jews from Cordoba was added to this mix when Spain once more wrested Gibraltar from the Moors' grasp in 1462. Then, in 1704, the arrival of the British saw immigrants flow in from farther afield--Genoa, Portugal and Malta.

At this point, the Genoese element in Gibraltar was the most potent. It is from these origins that the large majority of Gibraltarians are descended. Like their British counterparts, the Genoese arrived largely to service the needs of the military and, over time, to take advantage of the opportunities for trade with other parts of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa. Thus, it was the impetus of British rule that created the civilian community of Gibraltar. The question of what it means to be a Gibraltarian and, indeed, who Gibraltarians truly are, is one whose answer has been ar the eye of all the protectorate's political storms since the British first arrived.

During the summer of 1704, an Anglo-Dutch fleet under the command of Admiral Sir George Rooke fired some 15,000 shots from warships in the Bay of Gibraltar into the town. The resident Spanish were unprepared and ill-equipped to counter such an attack, and the British walked in, triumphant.

The conquest was, as ever, politically motivated. The Spanish king Charles II had proposed that his great nephew Philip inherit the throne. Philip was the grandson of Louis XIV of France, and this potential Spanish-French alliance posed a real threat to Anglo-Dutch interests, not least their trading prospects in the Middle East. So the fleet sailed to the Iberian peninsula under orders from Archduke Charles of Austria, the other claimant to the Spanish throne, in order to capture Cadiz and march on Spain, with the aim of establishing the archduke as king. Cadiz, however, resisted gamely, so the fleet turned its attention southwards, travelling down the coast to Gibraltar. This time, fortune was on its side.

The Spanish didn't go quietly, however, staging a series of sieges over subsequent years, culminating in the Great Siege of 1779, which lasted for almost four years. But, against all odds, Gibraltar emerged victorious, albeit in ruins. In the following years, it struggled to reconstruct its shattered architecture and its tortuous sanitation system and to create a legislature for its growing civilian population. In 1830, after almost S0 years of military inaction, its position as a garrison fortress was defunct, and Gibraltar was made a British Crown Colony.

The battle for Gibraltar lies at the root of its strong sense of identity. Logic would have it that, being part of the Spanish mainland, it should be Spanish. Bur the majority of Gibraltarians think very differently. For most, this is due not so much to political or economic factors, but to a deep bitterness that stems from their treatment at the hands of the Spanish during the Franco years, when the border was closed between 1969 and 1982. …

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