Shadows on the Rock
Smithsonian, September 1997

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2) see also

A battered HMS Victory, Nelson't flagship at Trafalgar, is towed back to Gibraltar after the battle in 1805, carrying the admiral's body in a brandy-filled cask.


GEOGRAPHY IS DESTINY.  In Gibraltar's case, so is geology.  The place is an amazing excrescence of rock, three miles long and a fifth of a mile high. It heaves up out of the Mediterranean like some petrified, Jurassic-age sea monster umbilically attached to the tip of Spain by a sliver of isthmus.

The very top is an outpost of the upper air. Each fall half of the birds of Europe sweep close over it on their way to winter in Africa. From gunports cut through the rock high on its northern face, you can get a quick and spectacular fix on a couple of Gibraltar's crucial problems. From that looming promontory made familiar by Prudential Life, which keeps pressing us to "get a piece of the Rock," you could practically toss a stone across the border into Spain and (at least on windless days) spit to Gibraltar's notoriously inconvenient airstrip, built out into the sea, and attached crosswise to the nose of the Rock, more or less like a cat's whisker or half of a mustache. Off and on for years now, every car or moped or pedestrian entering or leaving the Rock has had to cross the runway, often after a wait of hours because Spain still keeps Gibraltar under quasi siege.

The high, jagged ridge of the Rock provides a long view into history. Southward lies Africa, a pastel rim of sand only 20 miles away, barely defining the blue of the sea. It was from there that the forces of Islam came in A.D. 711 to take the Rock, fortify it and move on, conquering Spain and half of France. To the west, just around the corner off Cape Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson was killed in 1805 while destroying a Franco-Spanish fleet. The Battle of Trafalgar changed the course of history, forcing Napoleon to give up hope of invading England. Just down Gibraltar's western slope is the tiny curved bay into which HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's crippled flagship, was towed after the battle, with the great seaman's body aboard, preserved in a brandy-filled cask.

Farther still to the right lie the quays and breakwaters and the three once­bustling dry docks of Gibraltar's harbor. In the late 1930s, I remember, photographs in the Illustrated London News showed the harbor packed with famous ships of war, among them the doomed battle cruiser Hood and Ark Royal, the aircraft carrier whose planes would slow Germany's great battleship Bismarck enough so others could sink her. After France fell in June 1940, it was from Gibraltar that British ships sailed down the Mediterranean to fire on the French fleet at the Algerian port of Oran.  That heartrending action, done so that French ships could never fall into German hands, convinced Franklin Roosevelt that the British would fight Germany alone and to the end, and thus were a good bet for American aid.

During World War II some 16,000 soldiers were billeted in the bowels of the Rock, amid mountains of food and millions of rounds of ammunition, as well as water and gasoline holding tanks, some of them three football fields long, carved out of solid rock; the whole complex was linked together by 25 miles of tunnels. From those depths Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, his presence a total secret, directed America's surprise 1942 invasion of North Africa. (Modern military experts who play what-if war games have found that when Gibraltar is awarded to Hitler - he was poised to come down through Spain and take it, but turned away - the German side wins World War II.)

These days Gibraltar's famous harbor is mostly empty. All that remains of the Royal Navy's Gibraltar squadron are two small gray boats, about the size of sportfishermen. But in British hands for the past three centuries, Gibraltar became a world-famous bastion of empire, a naval base and fortress now haunted by historic memories; for most people, it is the very symbol of trade and sea power, the perfect icon of unshakable reliability.

During that time, mainly reckoned by the events and tactics of war, the fortress also gradually became a colony and a duty-free port with a population of 31,000. Its people play cricket, speak English, hope for the colony's success as an offshore investment center, would mightily like independence - and once voted overwhelmingly never to belong to Spain. Yet today Spain's demand to have Gibraltar back, along with Britain's objections and the shouts and cries of the Gibraltarians themselves, considerably preoccupy the councils of the United Nations and the new European Union, where Gibraltar's future may finally be decided.

Spain's initial logic was clear. After World War II the U.N. decreed that colonial powers should divest themselves of their colonial possessions. Gibraltar is a colony as well as a fortress. Once England gives it up, the Spanish argued, Spain's 284-year-old right of first refusal, established by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, automatically applies, and Gibraltar must be returned to Spain. It seemed as simple to them as Q.E.D., but it soon became very complicated indeed.

In 1964 the United Nations told Britain and Spain to settle things between them. With that as an excuse, in 1969 Generalissimo Francisco Franco abruptly closed Spain's border with Gibraltar. It stayed shut for 16 years. Phone service with Spain was cut off.  Nothing could cross the border, either way. No cars, no trucks, no tourists, not even 6,000 Spanish citizens who worked in Gibraltar and lost their jobs as a result of the closing. Airplane flights to and from Gibraltar were not allowed to touch down in Spain before or after. 

World attention has lately been drawn to the fate of another British colony, the one - rich as Croesus - that has just fallen into the Big Brotherly arms of China. But compared with Gibraltar, the matter of Hong Kong was simple, being clearly a case of a 19th-century colonial grab at profit from tea and opium. China had the strength to take it back. Britain hadn't the means to hold it. Gibraltar's situation, by contrast, has roots that reach way into the past. The two countries involved have played a considerable role in the bloody and convoluted history of Europe - its wars of religion, its wars of turf - in the time when nations fought so frequently that politics in fact was war carried on by other means. And they are part of a new Europe dedicated to the hope that Europeans have given up such things for good.

Whatever the long-term rights and wrongs of the matter, the short-term fuss owes a good deal to long-simmering Spanish outrage, stemming from an event that took place in 1704. In that year warships commanded by Adm. Sir George Rooke sailed in and opened fire on the Spanish fortress of Gibraltar. In the thousand years since Moorish forces landed there, the place had been besieged ten times but rarely conquered, so it was a surprise when the great rock surrendered after six hours of bombardment by Rooke's guns.

When the victors moved in, the vanquished Spanish, whose presence there amounted to a small garrison and a few thousand civilians, moved out, carefully carrying with them a special Gibraltar flag with a gold key and a red castle on a white field. Spain's famous queen Isabella had designed it some 200 years before, just at the time when she had retaken the fortress and driven the Moors back to Africa. The centuries of savage fighting required to do that pitted Islamic jihad against declared crusade. Participants tended to cut off the heads of enemies and stick them on posts or, in a celebrated case, to skin an enemy commander, stuff the skin with straw and leave it hanging over the battlements for years.

Not unnaturally, Isabella regarded the Rock of Gibraltar as the key to the future defense of Spain and Christianity; she adjured her countrymen to hold it at all costs. Accordingly, though the Spaniards displaced by Admiral Rooke moved out, they moved just a few miles north to the tiny town of San Roque, declared themselves temporarily "Gibraltar in Spain" and confidently waited to return.

Spain has been waiting ever since.  By the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Gibraltar was formally ceded to England "in perpetuity." There were some stipulations, however. In addition to Spain's right of first refusal if England ever decided to get out, it was specified that the English were to permit no smuggling of goods, such as tobacco, from Gibraltar into Spain, nor allow Moors or Jews on the Rock.

For the proud Spanish, the original loss was galling enough. Just then the energy inherent in Spain's vast overseas empire was starting to drain away. No one is quite sure why, though Spain clearly had bad luck with royal bloodlines, including several monarchs who - even by monarchical standards - were far from the sharpest knives in the drawer. Gibraltar fell to England during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), a multinational fracas in which foreign armies fought on Spanish soil to decide, ignominiously for Spain, who was going to sit on the Spanish throne.

The loss to upstart England made it bitterer still. The English had prospered steadily from the time when a handful of cheeky ship captains pillaged King Philip II's treasure fleets for Queen Elizabeth. To Spaniards, as early as the late 1500s, Britons were damnable heretics and piratical Protestants. To Englishmen, Spain was a hotbed of bloody-minded Papists, much given to religious conversion by means of auto-da-fé. A piece of British Naval bluster, celebrated by Lord Tennyson, summed up this extreme view: "Sink me the ship, Master Gunner - sink her, split her in twain! / Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!"

By force of arms and diplomacy, all through the 1700s Spain tried to get Gibraltar back. Between times it complained a good deal about tobacco smuggling, which became a Gibraltar specialty. In 1727, the Spanish government also berated Great Britain for its failure "to protect our Holy Religion" by allowing Moors and Jews in the fortress.

Britain, however, did not quickly warm to its craggy new possession. Once it was almost swapped to Spain for East Florida. But that was before 1779 and the "Great Siege of Gibraltar." A crucial moment in Anglo-Spanish relations that became the 18th-century equivalent of a media event, the siege was part of a global war, Britain against France and Spain - and its own unruly American colonies - fought in Spain, in India, in the West Indies and, as the American Revolution, in places like Bunker Hill and Yorktown.

The siege began in July 1779 and ran for three years, ten months and 17 days. France and Spain invested 45,000 men, 400 artillery pieces and a combined fleet of 40 ships. The British garrison consisted of about 6,000 men, plus some 3,000 civilians, and everybody had to eat. To the French and the Spanish it looked like a sure thing.

Appropriately enough, Gibraltar's governor at the time, George Augustus Elliott, was a vegetarian. He slept only four hours a night. "Not a man whom it would be easy to surprise or starve out," a contemporary noted. When people had to scrounge the rocky slopes above the town for roots and reeds and thistles and wild onions, the governor set an example by going for eight days in a row with nothing to eat but four ounces of rice per day.

Smallpox broke out. Then scurvy. There was enough derring-do to fuel the "Hold Fast for England" daydreams of generations of British schoolboys. Royal engineers on the Rock were the first to use "hot shot" - cannonballs fired red-hot at the enemy. It was touchy work just handling them. There was also a risk of explosion whenever a ball was rammed home against the powder charge.

Over in America, General Cornwallis eventually surrendered for Britain at Yorktown. But the besiegers were determined to take Gibraltar before peace negotiations could interfere. And they had a secret weapon - a bright young French engineer named Michaud D'Arcon who claimed he could transform regular wooden ships of the line into vessels that would be both "incombustible et insubmergible."

What he did was reinforce one side of each ship's hull with layers of green oak, in all more than six feet thick. (Think of those railroad ties stacked up on our Civil War ironclad Merrimack.) The hulls were roofed on a sharp slant so shells would carom off. More ingeniously, D'Arcon installed a water tank on each vessel, with pipes leading all around the ship, and pumps, to keep the wood soaked.

D'Arcon's mystery flotilla, referred to as the "battering ships," got to be big news in Europe. The duc de Crillon, who commanded the siege forces, grew impatient. Like Groucho Marx in Duck Soup who had to have a war because he'd rented the battlefield, the duke had already invited the wealth and beauty and power of Spain, and even France, to come down and see Gibraltar fall. At last he gave D'Arcon an inflexible deadline. On the 13th of September, after a barrage of fire from hundreds of guns ashore and afloat, and while picnickers watched from across the bay, D'Arcon's ten battering ships, with 172 guns between them, were towed to within 900 yards of the fortress, dropped anchor and began firing.

At first, consternation reigned among the English. The battering ships took hit after hit, with no sign of damage. Then, at about 2 o'clock, a whisp of smoke, not from its own cannon, rose from the 21-gun Talla Piedra on which D'Arcon served. More smoke, and flames, followed. Soon, with the battering ships sinking, and in danger of exploding, desperate crews swarmed overside. By the next morning most of the ships were sunk or were charred to the waterlines. That day a westerly wind blew ashore corpses and ammunition boxes and, one account tells us, "large candles such as are usually burned by Romish priests before their altars."

That was the end of the real siege.  During its course the French and Spanish fired off 258,387 rounds of shot and shell, and used up more than 8,000 barrels of gunpowder. Most of the houses on the Rock lay in ruins.

Spanish schoolchildren would eventually be taught to recite the words "Gibraltar es Español." It took a couple of hundred years, however, before their country had any realistic hope of making good on that assertion. Back home in England the Rock had become a prized British possession.

For today's visitor, the Rock that Spain has so long wanted more than a piece of is a spectacular place, part Prospero's island - with 143 caves, those miles and miles of tunnels and the spectacular Alameda Gardens - part history-museum-on-the-hoof with battlements and gunports both refurbished and not, as well as some 400 cannon, ancient and modem, a few still lying around in the grass like old hubcaps in vacant lots in America. "Back home," Gibraltar-based American businessman Matthew Coffey said to me, "whenever we find a cannon we polish it up and build a park around it. Here they're used as curb guards." There is also the Gibraltar Museum, one of the best of its kind I've ever encountered. There is a fancy new waterfront, built out into the sea from the old city walls, complete with condos and office buildings, cafes and marinas and a labyrinth of slips for "megayachts," as hungry ads hopefully put it.

From the center of town a cable car now takes visitors 1,200 feet up to a kind of snack bar with tables, balconies and a great view, but elsewhere the heights are reached only by a few scrubby, switchback roads. Up there live the famous Barbary apes, which drew Winston Churchill's attention during the beleaguered days of 1943. (He did, in fact, order more apes from North Africa because the colony was thinning out and superstition says that if the apes ever leave the Rock, the British will, too.) The ape colony numbers about 250 and is cared for not by British soldiers, as in Scruffy, Paul Gallico's book about a hellion ape of that name, but by Gibraltarians.

"Don't take much with you, Sir," my driver said when I proposed to check them out. "The monkeys have a game of snatching cameras and throwing them off the cliff. They also fancy long earrings on the women."

Down inside the oldest part of town, it is easy to understand that the place can be a bit claustrophobic. This is partly a matter of size. One generally thinks of a colony as including at least some land, if only for purposes of colonial exploitation. Gibraltar encompasses only 2.25 square miles, with 31,000 people, mostly crowded along the water's edge.

The Governor's Palace in the old part of town is called the Convent, because that's what it was in the 1400s. It has a baronial dining hall, a soaring chapel and a walled garden, which the likes of Benjamin Disraeli and Ulysses S. Grant visited. Kaiser Wilhelm II and a flock of British royals even planted trees there to mark their passage. The governor (there is a different one now) provided an Olympian but candid briefing. Yes, the British government had been a bit too slow about naming the financial committee that would be able to guarantee, in terms that Europe would accept, the propriety of the off­shore trading and banking business Gibraltar must have if it is to survive without British help.

But that would soon be fixed. (It was.) Yes, the long-term smuggling of tobacco into Spain, most flagrantly at that time by what were known as "Winston Boys" (teenagers in black jackets who every evening zoomed off into the Mediterranean night in small speedboats), caused Spanish ire, and was bad for negotiations. Yes, one trouble in Britain's talks with Spain about Gibraltar has been a Spanish disinclination to recognize the Gibraltar government at all.

Outside, on Main Street (the name itself a surprise in a place where one keeps bumping up against abandoned cannon and signs reading "The King's Bastion" and "The Prince of Wales Gate, 1790"), the scene is a cheerful mix of a Mediterranean port and provincial England in the 1950s. There are policemen in bobby hats, just like in London, as well as pretty girls in shorts, grandmothers in head scarves, young bloods in leather jackets, and mopeds zipping by each other at close quarters. Pubs, like the Angry Friar, serve steak and kidney pie (£4.75) and a plough­man's lunch, including a half-pint of bitter (£3-74). Stores are stacked with some 14 brands of cigarettes. Street awnings and men's billed caps advertise (yes) Winstons, Marlboros, Rothmans and others. Cartons cost around £8 - about half what they bring in Spain. Gibraltar is a very bad place to give up smoking.

Gibraltarians seem extraordinarily easy and polite in dealing with the world and each other. Perhaps because the place is so small, or because people born here rarely leave (and try to come back even when they've studied abroad), it's a little bit like being in a small town, the kind of genial melting­pot community that America used to be all about. They all study in schools with an English curriculum, and they all speak English - and Spanish - as well as tossing in words from a local patois, which is neither English nor Spanish, called Llanito.

They carry British passports and admire the English considerably, especially as a result of the past 30 years, during which they have negotiated more and more self-government. The British have "run down" their expenditure on a dwindling fortress base from some £8 million a year to almost nothing, but have stood by Gibraltar in the face of Franco's siege and its aftermath. Gibraltarians are not English, however. A notable local cricket player told me, "The English believe that if you play cricket you'll think the way they do. But we don't."

Nothing more sharply defines the difference between the Gibraltarians and the British than their attitudes toward the Rock's contribution to World War II. For the British, and all Allied powers, it was a triumph. But many Gibraltarians think of it as a disaster. Why? Because, with Hitler expected to attack through Spain any minute, the British in 1940 not only canceled many hard-won political rights for the duration but shipped 13,000 Gibraltarians (all women, children, boys under 17, men who did not have essential jobs - "all useless mouths" as they put it) to safety in places like Jamaica, Madeira, South London and Northern Ireland.

In the struggle between the rights of colonists and the military needs of the fortress, the fortress always had to dominate, as Gibraltar historian Tom Finlayson makes clear in his book The Fortress Came First. Within living memory Gibraltarians have always had a relatively high standard of living, employment and education, but they did not get to vote until 1921. As one told me, "We used to say to the British, 'You've given the vote to people still wearing loincloths, why don't you give it to us?'" It was during their wartime diaspora, though, that Gibraltarians learned how to lobby British civilian authority and launched their first civil rights party.

Their diaspora also helped them to become what they are - neither Spanish nor English but a unified and independent-feeling group, its bloodlines derived from the many Genoese families who have been in the fortress for more than 300 years, and a large community of Sephardic Jews, some descended from those expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella in 1492, plus a heavy sprinkling of English, Maltese and Portuguese, and some Moroccans. The Jewish burying ground has gravestones that go back four centuries. All this seems to have resulted in an equable society, with a close, Mediterranean style of life, underpinned by English Common Law, and here and there with Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Interested anthropologists who study Gibraltarian culture - and the Gibraltarians themselves - claim that the people of the Rock have evolved into a separate culture, partly because they have so long been conditioned by being closed in, resulting in a defensive "fortress mentality." Lawrence Sawchuk, a professor at the University of Toronto, has been studying local customs for 20 years and regards the place as a unique godsend to social anthropology. Many Gibraltarians live, Genoese style - crowded but convivial - in extended families with houses facing each other around a patio. In an age much given to dislocation and mobility, many families have lived for nearly 300 years in the same houses.

Even the Gibraltarians who, like Finlayson, win scholarships to universities in the United Kingdom, tend to come back, though the place is so small that there aren't many top-level jobs. Albert Brooks, a retired administrator from the Ministry of Trade, explains: "Everybody knows everybody. You went to school with them or knew their aunt or mother." But the main pull is Mediterranean and familial. When I asked a man who regretted not having seen more of the world why he hadn't joined the British Navy, he explained, "My mother said, 'That would mean you'll be gone forever.'"

Gibraltarians like the Spanish people, and often marry them, though this does not much change the family names on the Rock. It is mostly the men who marry Spanish women - known to make good wives. Still, it is not too strong to say that right now Gibraltarians pretty well hate the Spanish government and cannot imagine how it could create the hardships it did by closing the border. They naturally see the matter close-up and personal, not as an ill-advised policy that failed to force the British off the Rock, even at a time when Britain had a weak, pre-Margaret Thatcher government. (To imagine the political appeal the border closing must have had for General Franco in the mid-1960s - an aging dictator in a nationalist country whose popularity was fading - think of how Fidel Castro might feel about a bold move that had a real chance of reclaiming Guantanamo Bay.)

For Gibraltarians, the countless pinpricks and pettinesses that resulted are as real as a sore tooth. Everyone remembers that the Spanish even refused to let across the ambulance that carries oxygen to the Gibraltar hospital. One man mentioned his mother's deep sorrow at not being able to go to her own mother's funeral, just a few miles away. Albert Brooks remembers that when his sister, over in Spain, was expecting a baby, she arranged a two­blanket signal (boy or girl) that Albert could see with his telescope.

The border closing was a bad idea that should have been abandoned when it failed, and certainly after Franco's death in 1975. It put Spain in a bad light in an age much given to asserting "rights of self-determination" for what U.N. committees call "non-self-governing territories." Initially Spanish diplomats were forced to insist that the return of Gibraltar to restore Spain's "territorial integrity" mainly involved turf, and the governments of two ex­colonial powers, but not the rights of the people of the Rock. This allowed Britain to take the moral high ground with a referendum in which thousands of Gibraltarians voted and all but 44 opposed joining their lot with Spain's. Britain was also able to expand Gibraltar's self-government considerably with a new constitution that promises never to abandon Gibraltar to any political fate that is against the will of the colony's people.

Recently, Spain has held out the possibility that Gibraltar could have some sort of special status under Spanish rule. But Gibraltarians insist, that if they become part of Spain, they would have to live like strangers in their own land. A series of eloquent chief ministers from the duly elected domestic government of Gibraltar, Sir Joshua Hassan, ex-labor leader Joe Bossano and, more lately, Peter Caruana, have repeatedly argued the case for Gibraltar's right to "self-determination" before various U.N. committees. They have also questioned the common sense of using a clause from a 284-year-old treaty - whose other clauses no longer apply to the world today - as a basis for Spain's claim in 1997.

The Gibraltar clause in the Treaty of Utrecht was, in fact, part of a voluminous document, much like a modern GATT agreement, in which half a dozen countries settled all sorts of issues including trading rights. Is it still valid? the Gibraltarians ask. Are the other clauses valid, like the one in which France signed over to England her permanent right to sell slaves in the West Indies? And what about Spain's other claim, the need to restore Spain's territorial integrity? The Spanish held Gibraltar for 251 years. The British have held it for nearly 300. The Arab world, which fortunately is not laying claim to it at present, owned Gibraltar - as well as a good deal of Spain - for 700 years.

If the United Nations should declare that Gibraltar has an absolute right to self-determination like other larger "non-self-governing territories," neither the Gibraltarians nor anyone else is sure what options its people may realistically hope for.

For the colony, as for the fortress, geography remains destiny. Europe has some tiny countries, most of them with bizarre but long-established traditions. Andorra, a 179-square-mile mountain valley between France and Spain, lives on tourism and international banking, and mostly runs itself under the joint supervision of the president of France and a Spanish bishop. San Marino, at 24 square miles, is, next to Vatican City and Monaco, the smallest independent state in Europe and lives by ancient treaty in the heart of Italy, mostly by selling its own postage stamps. Monaco, at .73 square miles, is smaller than Gibraltar but is a rich playland and tax haven, and has been a sovereign independent principality since 1297. As one long associated with a museum complex, my vote would be for Brussels to declare the whole of Gibraltar the first international museum of the new Europe, run by Gibraltarians but with a multinational board to help it develop as a financial and tourist center in conjunction with southern Spain, where unemployment currently runs at 23 percent.

Failing that pipe dream, it is not clear what Gibraltar's government leaders can aim at, beyond (first priority) not falling into the hands of Spain. Whatever rights get proclaimed, or not, Gibraltar will have a hard time of prospering, or turning the fortress into a thriving tourist and financial center, without continued British support and eventual Spanish approval. Spain, relatively new to parliamentary democracy, has some domestic political problems. But it will take a bold politician in Madrid to give up at last on the Rock. England's new Labor government may not prove as inclined as Conservatives were to live up to the guarantee. But not long ago the British fought a war over the Falklands on principle, and it will take a bold prime minister to be the one who finally breaks the word of Her Majesty's government to the people of the Rock.


Additional reading:

  • Stories from the rock by T.J. Finlayson, Aquila Services, (Gibraltar) 1996
  • The Rock of Gibraltarians: A History of Gibraltar by Sir William G.F. Jackson,Gibraltar Books,1990
  • GibraltarWebsite: www.gibraltar.gi/