Gibraltar - Comprehensive History

Comprehensive History of Gibraltar

Whether by geological accident, or the deliberate design of some flamboyant Universal sculptor, an impressive, but absurdly incongruous 1400-foot high chunk of limestone rock has lain at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, within sight of the coast of Africa, since time began. For the first few billion years of its existence it was ignored, except by monkeys, insects, migrating birds, nameless creatures long vanished, and at least one remarkable proto-human, to which we shall return. Beyond their chattering there was only the rushing of the sea, the alternate whispering and howling of the wind, and a phenomenon a thousand generations yet unborn would come to know without affection as the Levant.

The Phoenicians, who could hardly have missed seeing such an imposing landmark, jotted it down on their list of places not worth setting up trading posts in, and passed on. Perhaps the people were too poor or disinterested to trade. More likely, the spit of land to the south of the great rock was, around 3,000 years ago, still uninhabited by humans, or had a population so small that it simply wasn't worth their while to stop and offer their goods for sale or barter. And they saw nothing to induce them to set up home there themselves.

The Greeks and Romans had little use for it either, though the Greeks did incorporate it into their mythology as one of the so-called Pillars of Hercules; the other being Morocco's Mount Abyla, now Mount Acho. In ancient Greece, the professions of Tall Tale Teller and Serious Historian often overlapped, their functions frequently being concentrated in a single man - a tradition which persists around the world to this day. Greek know-it-alls insisted, on no credible evidence whatsoever, that the two mountains had been pushed apart by the legendary fore-runner of Superman, and that they marked the limits of the known world, or at least of as much of the world as they wanted to know. Anyone passing out of the Mediterranean, beyond Hercules' comforting markers, did so at his peril, and would undoubtedly fall off the end of the Earth and/or be eaten by dragons.



They did, however, give the Rock its first enduring name: Calpe, which is said to mean "ship". If so, it is perhaps a contraction of "ship ahoy". This, of course, was long before the invention of spectacles for the correction of myopia. Visual impairment was clearly no bar to a successful naval career in ancient times, and it cannot be doubted that the same man was on watch when the same name was given to other patently non-shiplike rocks at Ledesma Miranda, in the Mediterranean, and Ilfach, on the Costa Blanca. It is believed that he died in a shipwreck.

Gibraltar's present name owes its existence in equal measure to bad spelling and appalling diction. In 711AD, for reasons which have been a source of rumour and conjecture ever since, the redoubtable Berber general and former slave, Tariq ibn Ziyad, led 7000 troops across the Straits from Morocco, captured the Rock, defeated the Visigothic army of King Roderick on the banks of the rio Barbate, and swept majestically northward to Córdoba and Toledo. It was the beginning of eight centuries of Muslim rule for the peninsula, and in honour of that first decisive coup, either he or some sycophantic lackey decided that henceforth, Calpe should be known as "Jabal Tariq" - Tariq's Mountain. Sadly, few locals could spell the new name, and less than one in a thousand could pronounce it. A billion brave attempts later, the compromise "Gibraltar" was the best that could be done.

Some have lately argued that Muslims would have considered naming a mountain after one of his human creations to have been an insult to Allah, and that "Jabal Tariq" actually means "Mountain of the Path", i.e. the pathway to the Iberian Peninsula for Islam. This convoluted concept surely requires too great a leap of faith. It would have been far simpler for the invaders to call the place, "Mount Islam".

Tariq half-heartedly threw up a few rudimentary fortifications around his mountain, but clearly thought as little of it as his Phoenician and Roman predecessors. It was to be another 449 years before the Caliph of Morocco, Abdul Mamen, decided in 1160 that it should have a town.

A rock is a rock is a rock, but a rock with a town is a place to be captured. And captured it duly was, by the Castilians, in 1309. They held it, in historical terms, for the blinking of an eye. Twenty-four years later the Moors took it back, and they stayed until 1462 - only thirty years before the Moorish era officially ended with the surrender of Granada on January 1st 1492.

If the Moors had one outstanding fault, it was fighting too much among themselves, but it must be said that the Spanish Christians were little better. The troops who took Gibraltar in 1462 did so on behalf of the King of Castile, but only four years later it was grabbed in his own name by the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

Queen Isabella annexed it once more for the crown in 1501, and it was she who granted Gibraltar its familiar Coat of Arms: the Castle and Key. Isabella, who lived until 1540, held Gibraltar very dear, but suspected that others did not share her commitment. The talk at court must have been almost universally negative, for in her will she went out of her way to forbid her successors to relinquish it. She was not to be heeded.

The big trouble began in 1699, when the King of Spain, Charles II, had the lamentable lack of foresight to die childless. He willed the throne to the Bourbon Duc d'Anjou, great grandson of Philip IV of Spain, but more pertinently grandson of Louis XIV of France. This delighted the French, but so far as the other great European powers were concerned, (notably Austria, Britain and Holland), setting a cat among pigeons would, by comparison, have been the act of a supreme diplomat.

The resulting "War of the Spanish Succession" was an unseemly squabble, during which the combined forces of the British and the Dutch invaded Spain in an attempt to sway waverers to their side of the argument with persuasive words and a cannon or two. In 1704, on a day and a whim which appear to have been equally idle, an Anglo-Dutch fleet under the command of a certain Admiral Rooke, sailed into Gibraltar and took it without a fight on behalf of their preferred pretender to the throne, Archduke Charles of Austria.

For seven years, Charles remained a front-runner. Although his only major success in inflicting himself on the Spanish came in Catalonia, he had the powerful backing not only of the British and the Dutch, but of most of Germany, and all of Portugal. Everything went pear-shaped in 1711, when his brother, Emperor Joseph 1st died, leaving Charles heir to all of his Austrian territories. The pro-Charles alliance of Britain, Holland, Germany and Portugal was matched in its strength only by its profound stupidity. Not until Joseph died did they belatedly realise, as if waking bleary-eyed from an afternoon doze beneath a shady tree, that his acquisition of the Austrian lands (which were always likely to come to him someday), combined with his incumbency on the Spanish throne, for which they were fiercely fighting, would go a long way to re-establishing the former empire of his forbear, Charles V. They were helping to create a monster none of them could control. It was time for a re-think. Deftly switching sides with the impressive speed of a Music Hall quick-change artist, the allies abandoned Charles and recognised instead the dead Spanish king's original choice, the Bourbon Philip, now Philip V. It was all committed to paper in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713.

Back in Gibraltar, things had moved on. After seizing the Rock for Charles in 1704, it hadn't taken the British long to have seconds thoughts. Mere days after their arrival, they decided to forget about the Habsburg archduke, and claim Gibraltar for themselves. Initially, they had given the 1500 or so Spanish inhabitants the choice of swearing allegiance to Charles of Austria, or walking into exile across the isthmus. A handful, less than twenty, stayed, either because they were genuine supporters of Charles or, more likely, because they couldn't see what difference it would make to their humble lives whoever was sitting on the throne in far off Madrid.

The abrupt switch of support from Charles to Philip was not unconditional. There was much that the allies wanted in return, including the right to make unmolested use of the traditional Spanish slave routes in order to increase their market share of Africa's most valuable and lucrative raw commodity. Philip also had to give up The Spanish Netherlands and the Italian possessions of the Spanish Habsburgs.

And then there was Gibraltar. In famous words which probably sounded sensible enough to the diplomats of the day, but which continue to echo across a bitterly confused and divided Europe three centuries later, the Rock, or at least the town and fortifications built upon it, was ceded for all eternity to the British, with the proviso that should they decide, on some inconceivable day in a distant, impossible future, that they didn't want it any more, they would have to give it back to the Spanish. There were other clauses in the treaty which strike us today as outrageous. No Jews or Moors were to be permitted to live there, the land border with Spain was to be sealed, and so on. Ten, twenty, thirty times the drafters of the treaty read it through, and none could spot a flaw. And even as they did so, the dispossessed Spanish inhabitants of Gibraltar were settling down unhappily in their new town of San Roque, and the first ships were arriving at Gibraltar bringing their replacements from Malta and Genoa. Time bombs were unknown in 1713, so no-one heard the ticking.

Although the treaty was signed with all due pomp and solemnity, it was clear from the start that neither side was happy with it, or intended to honour it. The British turned a blind eye to the "no Jews, no Moors" provision as well as much else. Simultaneously, the Spanish stuck out their tongues and declared that when they had signed the document they had had the fingers of their free hands crossed tightly behind their backs, so it was all invalid. They began their 300-year long campaign of sieges, blockades and other methods designed to recover the lost territory. In the early part of 2002, the governments of Britain and Spain announced their intention to settle the matter once and for all. This led to much alarm among the Gibraltarians, who adamantly oppose any form of accommodation with Spain, and at the time of writing the situation remains volatile and unresolved.

The so-called "great" sieges occurred in the 18th Century, but there can be no other description for the 13 years from 1969 during which the border with Spain was sealed on the orders of General Franco. Even now, when relations are tense, Spain flexes its muscles at the border by creating unnecessarily long delays for traffic, though these are currently rarer and of shorter duration than they were a few years ago. Nevertheless, the wise visitor parks his car on the Spanish side of the border and makes the actual crossing on foot.

Gibraltar's history is rich. One of Britain's greatest sea battles, the Battle of Trafalgar, was fought at cape Trafalgar by the interesting village of Los Caños de Meca 50km up the Spanish Atlantic coast, on October 21st 1805, and the body of Lord Nelson was carried ashore preserved in a barrel of brandy in preparation for the long journey back to England. The sailors who lost their lives were buried at sea. Those who survived the battle but who later died of their wounds, were buried in the Trafalgar Cemetery in Gibraltar.

In 1848, in Forbes' Quay at the foot of the Rock's towering north face, the skull of a woman was discovered. Nobody thought much of it until a male skull, clearly of the same species, was uncovered eight years later in the Neander Valley at Dusseldorf in Germany. The obvious question is, what on Earth had they quarrelled about that led to them sulking in solitary silence so far apart? The species, which should in all fairness have been dubbed Gibraltar Woman, is now known as Neanderthal Man. The skull might have become the star exhibit in the Gibraltar Museum, but was removed to the grander surroundings of the British Museum in London. In spite of this, Gibraltar's museum, to be found in the curiously named Bomb House Lane, is well worth a visit.