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A Place Apart
(Gibraltar History) for tricentenary celebrations


Gibraltar is one of the two pillars of Hercules that guard the western entrance of the Mediterranean. It has always been a place apart, a rock wrapped up in a mythological identity, draped in a long, curious and often violent history. A place of secrets that is also a secure and intimate refuge but yet was chosen by nature to be a fortress mountain.

The rock changes shape and identity from where it is viewed; whether it is seen gleaming like a vision of gold from a boats deck heading out into the Straits at sunset, wrapped up beneath the sticky moist heat of the levanter hanging like a silver banner from the summits or the north cliff-face lit-up by dancing illuminations at night, Coming from Africa the Rock’s silhouette is a crouching lion, from the Algeciras shore it is the draped corpse of a giant while from the east it floats up out of the sea like ‘an isolated plug of limestone reluctantly attached to the Spanish shore by a sandy spit’.

It was first known as Alube by the black ships of the Phoenician traders on their secretive way south to trade for African gold or north for Cornish tin. As a sacred symbol of their hero-god Melkarth they left the peninsular alone though they established the little colony of Carteia on the shores of Algeciras Bay. Under the long dominion of Rome there is not so much as a whisper of a settlement on the Rock which they knew as Calpe, though from the pages of the ancient geographers we know that there was a trickle of pilgrims visiting the cavern that is now known as St Michaels. These pilgrims knew that the great hero god Hercules-Melkarth had ripped Africa and Europe apart and the twin pillars were the monuments to this labour. It was also whispered that the sand banks to the west of Gibraltar – that Pliny reports on – were all that remained of lost Atlantis. Beneath a hill behind neighbouring Tangier lay the giant Anteus, one of Hercules old adversaries, buried where his body had been broken in a wrestling match. The pillars of Hercules would later appear as one of the proud devices engraved on the silver dollars of the Spanish Empire from where they would migrate to another world currency - the greenback dollar bill.

As a child on the Rock I heard many tales both mythological and historical; about the subterranean tunnel that connected the two Pillars of Hercules and of a fresh water well that yet raised and lowered itself with the tides. Like any day-tripping visitor of the cruise boats I knew that the Barbary Apes of Gibraltar were a unique presence on the European land mass – and that like the ravens of the tower of London – they had become an iconic symbol of British resilience. I learned that the Rock was geologically from Africa not Spain, that it had defied the combined might of Spain and France in the 18th-century and that General Grant had later been feasted within its cliff-hewn defences. There were other stories floating around the bars: of post-war cigarette smugglers, connections with spy-filled Tangiers, political refugees, assassinations and illegal currency traders. A navy diver told me of the underwater motorway to the west where generations upon generations of unwanted cars disposed off the Europa point have been carried off in neat chronological order by the ocean drift. On another occasion an airman spoke of the seven currents that simultaneously flow through the Gibraltar Straits and that could allow a skilfully piloted submarine to drift noiselessly along in any direction and so frustrate their sonar.

There was no reason to doubt these tales – in part because the proven history was just as surprising. I saw for myself a US submarine conning tower stuck in the hull of a merchant ship in the dry dock, the vast caverns carved within the Rock to store munitions for the Royal Navy and the secret tunnel which would allow the Governor-General to escape the Rock if it fell to the Axis powers in the Second World War. I heard the sad tale of the sudden evacuation of the civilian population during the middle of the U-boat war but how this predominately Catholic and Spanish-speaking population remained absolutely loyal to Britain in the postwar period. Seated on a summit I watched Gibraltar’s empty naval harbour suddenly filled with an entire fleet whose élan entitled them to manoeuvre their battleships to their berths as if they were ballet stars. In those days the Spanish border had been closed by order of general Franco but from being claustrophobic the rocky peninsular grew in depth and complexity as you discovered its history, its neglected monuments and component communities.

Gibraltar is a veritable city state, fiercely proud and nationalistic on the outside, but riven by numerous social, ethnic and professional factions within. The dominant old merchant families were divided between those of Minorcan, Genoese, Maltese and Moroccan Jewish descent. There was friction between the so-called UK based citizens and the indigenous Gibraltarian workers, between the right wing and the left wing, between the RAF, the Fortress, the Garrison, the Royal Navy, the Governor, the Chief Minister, between the Hawks and the Doves and of course most famously between Spain and Britain. But that never interfered with life. With an abundant Mediterranean hospitality fused with British manners, of raffish boat picnics after Sunday church, an endless round of formal cocktail parties for visiting ships and departing regiments, of Sunday drinks in the yacht club, of weekend trips to Tangier on the gaily painted Mons Calpe ferryboat, meeting visitors at the Rock hotel, late nights at the Casino and in the clubs and bars of Irish Town.

I still have in my possession a vast coloured map in which I attempted to trace all the historic monuments of Gibraltar – though two years was not long enough. The churches, the synagogues, the half-forgotten monuments, the caves, coves and beaches as well as the vast inter-linking defence system with which the British Empire defended “its Rock’ with all the wealth and artifice at its disposal. This process continued for three centuries and has left Gibraltar with a unique heritage of defensive architecture – so much so that Gibraltar has become an expression for ‘supremely well defended’. Alderney – for instance – was consciously turned into the Gibraltar of the English Channel in the mid 19th-century, Monemavasia is often described as the Gibraltar of Byzantine Greece while Singapore was to become the failed Gibraltar of the Far East. In a London theatre a girl could be praised with, “As sturdy as Gibraltar, not a second did she falter..” and the whole audience would warm to her strength. Gibraltar even stands in the heart of the City of London, for the state rooms of the medieval Guildhall are dominated by vast canvasses of the successful defence of The Rock during the Great Siege.

However the very name ‘Gibraltar’ looks back to an older history that dwarfs these proud 300 years of British rule. The Moors ruled here for well nigh 600 years followed by 200 years of Spanish rule. Gibraltar is actually an Arabic word, a corruption of Jebel Tariq – Tariq’s mountain. It is named after a young Moroccan Berber general, Tariq ibn Ziyad, who had been placed in command of the garrison at Tangier – a new military outpost of the vast Empire of the Muslim Caliphs that then stretched from the Atlantic shore to the banks of the Indus. Tariq’s boss was Musa ben Nasser, a brilliant Arab general who had extended Muslim rule over all of North Africa in 704. Tariq had been left with the task of besieging the last military outpost of the Byzantine Empire – the fortress of Ceuta below the African Pillar of Hercules but instead Tariq skillfully made a friend out of his adversary, the Byzantine Count Julian. Together they planned a raid on the Spanish kingdom of the Visigoths – which was looking vulnerable as it was caught up in a civil war. Using a fleet provided by Count Julian, Tariq crossed the straits and landed near – or on Gibraltar – with his small army of 7,000 soldiers supported by just 500 horseman. Outside Jerez on the banks of the river Barbate Tariq met the hastily assembled Visigothic army – which he destroyed that fateful day of the 27th April 711. As he advanced to occupy the capital of Toldeo, it became clear that he had seized control of the whole of Spain for Islam. When Musa ben Nasser arrived to take over the command he was furious at being overshadowed by his subordinate and so his first action was not to praise Tariq but to publicly lash him to the ground with his whip. This notorious confrontation would lead to them both being recalled to Arabia for judgement by the Caliph. The destruction of these two heroes became a new layer of mythology for the straits. The southern pillar of Hercules became known as Jebel Musa while the northern pillar was known as Jebel Tariq.

The Rock was still uninhabited, though it is claimed that the celebrated poet-king of Seville, El Mutamid (the man who declared that “he would rather drive camels in Fez then tend pigs in Castile”) built a watch tower on the summit in 1068. The decisive foundation date in the history of Gibraltar is 1159 - the period when the Almohad Empire extended over all of Spain and North Africa. The Almohad ruler, Abdel Moumen, ordered the construction of a new ‘City of Faith’ - Medinat al-fath – on the Rock. It was laid out and designed by the same team of architects who would build such world-class monuments as the Giralda tower in Seville and the Hassan mosque in Rabat. By all accounts it was magnificent settlement supplied with plentiful water from aqueducts powered by windmills. To this glittering new show piece were summoned all the petty Muslim and Christian princes of Spain to give their allegiance to Abdel Moumen in Gibraltar’s tower of Homage.

The long crusading war between the Spanish Catholics and Muslims of Spain would gradually wreck this fine city but the town of Gibraltar was to reborn in 1333. In that year Sultan Abou Hassan of Morocco recaptured the Rock. Abou Hassan was a great warrior but was also a great builder and is responsible for many of the Islamic teaching colleges - the Medersa - that still remain the architectural glory of Morocco. Abou Hassan lavished attention on Gibraltar which was laid out in four parts. The uppermost section, the Moorish castle, is still as he left it though the Kasbah quarter below it (the government offices) no longer survives. From his 14th century civil town – there is still a surprising amount to be seen; such as the Moorish Baths, the formal land gate (on upper castle road) and the Nuns well and shrine of Our Lady of Europa – all of which our Moorish. Excavations have also revealed that the Casements square – the formal heart of Gibraltar and the scene of many a stirring parade – began life as an inner harbour for the galleys of the Merenid navy. While it has always been known that the Cathedral Church of St Mary was built over Sultan Hassan’s great mosque which in its heyday was ornamented with a courtyard of sweet smelling orange trees. This last flowering of the Moorish-Andalucian civilization was silenced on August 20th 1462 when the Count of Arcos captured the city just ahead of his principal rivals, the Duke of Medina Sidonia and the Knights of Jerez. These factions would soon war with each other over the ‘reconquered’ town though August 20th would always be celebrated and St Bernard of Clairvaux (whose feast day it is) would be chosen as the patron of Gibraltar.

The Kings of Castile would eventually impose order on their over-mighty subjects and Gibraltar became a royal town in 1501. Despite the devestation of a raid by Barbarossa in 1540 it was clearly a prosperous period for the town’s population expanded to 6,000. The old look out towers had to be manned against corsairs but they also earned their keep as observation points for the lucrative – and highly organized – hunts for the great shoals of tuna fish. Later sieges would all but obliterate the buildings from this Spanish period though we know of the presence of a dozen distinct churches and four charitable monastic foundations that cared for the poor, the sick, travellers and old seamen. Only the Cathedral of St Mary would survive as a working church - though the old Spanish convent of the Franciscans would have a celebrated afterlife as the palatial residence of Gibraltar’s governors. The Franciscans had been invited to settle in Gibraltar by King Henry IV who gave them a plot of land though the existing building with its famous garden (and its adjacent Kings Chapel) rose up in 1560.

After the Anglo-Dutch conquest of Gibraltar in 1704 it was taken over the British governor who seems to have co-existed with the five remaining friars until they were driven out by the heartless treatment of Brigadier Stanwix. They joined the other Spanish exiles in the nearby villages of San Roque and Los Barrios. By 1713 their fine chapel had become a place of Anglican worship. Although much damaged, like all the old town, by the bombardments of the Great Siege it grew in grandeur over the 19th century with the addition of a ballroom, a creakingly Gothic banqueting room, royal guest suites (as used by King Edward VII and Queen Elizabeth II) though the original old cloisters and gardens still arguably remain the most charming part of the house.

Britain seized whole of Gibraltar almost by chance. A failed attempt to intervene in Cadiz and Barcelona left a large fleet twiddling its thumbs in the shelter of the bay of Tetouan. On the spur of the moment they decided to capture the Rock which was then badly defended by a small garrison of sixty Spanish soldiers. However once in control there was nothing half hearted about Britains attachment to this strategic harbour which benefited from a succession of visionary governors – who when not planning the construction of new bastions would indulge in a little town planning – building an elegant high street, setting up clubs and subscription libraries as well as laying out the famous Almeida gardens and building a very handsome Anglican Cathedral –inspired by the arches of a Moorish mosque. This was especially true during the Great Siege (1779-1783) when General Elliot proved himself an inspiring and decisive commander. He ordered the demolition of all church steeples and towers that could be used for range-finding by enemy gunners as well as ordering the ploughing up of the streets – to absorb shell fragments and diminish the power of cannonballs to ricochet. When the French and Spanish lines inched dangerously close to the defences he outflanked them by opening new galleries cut into the rock face, and when they took to attacking the town from armoured barges he replied in kind. In truth the Rock was never in imminent danger while the Royal Navy remained in command of the sea though during this period this was very far from being assured. All the three great maritime powers were ranged against Britain which had to fight a war on all fronts, protect her trade routes as well as try and subdue the rebellion amongst the American colonies. In this critical time the example set by the heroic garrison of Gibraltar went straight to the nations heart.

It was the period immediately after the siege that established the existing defence systems of Gibraltar with all its great bastions, casements and massive lines of artillery-proof walls built from clean dressed limestone. Six regiments (around 3,000 men) were required to man these lines that at their peak held over 300 cannon. It was in the 18th century that Gibraltar also acquired its permanent civilian population. A census in 1721 records 169 Genoese, 96 Spanish and 45 English capable of bearing arms in the militia while by 1753 this had risen in size and diversity to 597 Genoese, 575 Jews, 351 Britons, 185 Spanish and 25 Portugese. The predominance of Italian traders and seamen from the great medieval maritime power of Genoa (remembered in such surnames as Laverello, Gageiro, Russo and Stagnetto) was checked by constant inter-marriage with local Spanish girls to keep the lingua franca in either English or Spanish. In the 19th century there would be a further influx from Minorca and Malta. Surnames from the former migrants might include Abrines, Neto, Pau and Serra, while Azzopardi, Caruana, Mifsud and Zammit are characteristic of the latter. Into this stream were added traders drawn from the ancient Jewish families of Moroccan Tetouan many of whom could trace their origins back to medieval Andalucia while Gibraltar also developed enduring links with the British wine-trade, that well-healed cousinage that shipped Port, Sherry, Marsala and Madeira around the world.

For the first century the Royal Navy used the quays around Rosia Bay as their victualling yard. The massive naval harbour that bites into Algeciras Bay was a Victorian achievement, that started in 1851 and was only properly completed in the 1900’s after which the dry docks were laid down. It was this Edwardian period which proved to be the halcyon days of Gibraltar as a social centre when the site of the present airport was laid out as a race track and the King of Spain and the King of England were both honorary joint masters of the Calpe Hunt. This was the great period of the ‘fishing fleet’ when unattached young ladies would ‘season’ in Gibraltar in order to meet the smart young officers of the Royal Navy with a view to matrimony. The greatest such gathering was in March 1939 when the Home Fleet and the Mediterranean Fleet met at Gibraltar at the end of their spring manoeuvres to fill the whole bay with battleships. At such occasions the terraces of the Rock Hotel and the Garrison Library became one of the epicentres of the Empire. It was not all frivolity. In the First Word War Gibraltar became one vast advance hospital as the thousands of casualties from the Gallipoli campaign were brought back to be nursed in the elegant wards of the Royal Naval Hospital. In the Convents drawing room there hangs C Stanfields celebrated picture of HMS Victory Being Towed into Gibraltar – another eloquent memorial to sacrifice. For Trafalgar was fought just to the west of Gibraltar and it was into the Rock’s safe harbour that the victorious but battle scarred fleet sailed for refuge. The little Trafalgar cemetery, hard by the Southport gate, is filled with those who died from their wounds whilst being nursed on Gibraltar.

Perhaps no single building summons up this era, of the Pax Britannica, so succinctly as the Garrison Library. Close to both the Convent, the Governor's Palace, the Almeda gardens and the bars of Irish Town, it yet stands secure within its own grounds. It is an endearing and an enduring institution, with its slate roof, white harled upper walls, its well-cut grey masonry, solid lintels and its two storeys punctuated by 18th-century sash windows. It is handsome, it is harmonious but it does not dance before your eyes. The glory is all within. There is no need for a restoration program, for it is all here, complete in all its original solid Georgian joinery, with its fine doors and angled reading desks, its sturdy library chairs and green leather armchairs, elegant free-standing book cabinets and splendid cast iron fire buckets. The floors are paved either with stone or Spanish terracotta with cork for the silent reading rooms. Over the years portraits have been given, or commissioned, prints and lithographs have been collected, journals amassed, books given and it has also provided a safe home for relics from the now defunct Calpe Hunt and the Gibraltar Jockey Club. In the evenings it was the favoured location for receptions: a cocktail party for the officers from a visiting fleet or a resident foreign consul hosting a national day or an admiral saying farewell to his staff. The Library can celebrate 200 years of continuous use, having first opened its doors in 1804 when it was officially opened by the Duke of Kent (the Duke then serving as Governor of Gibraltar revealed himself as an obsessive disciplinarian and soon had to be recalled). Even before the library was habitable a printing press had been shipped out from England to produce the first issue of the Gibraltar Chronicle on 4th May 1801. The headline of the day was 'Continuation of the Intelligence from Egypt' and four years later it recorded a worldwide scoop in being the first paper to report the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson on 24th October 1805. Since then it has settled down to generally more parochial concerns.

Gibraltar will always have this dichotomy. On one hand thrust onto one of the worlds most strategic arteries, a cockpit of war that was shaped by nature to be a millennial fortress, yet on the other it is a small, almost parochial community. This population, only to be numbered in its tens of thousands, is yet drawn from many of the worlds most far-flung trading nations. To be true to itself Gibraltar and all who assist in developing it (like the current Ocean Village scheme) must continue to honour many cultures and many architectural traditions; both Spanish tiles and British slates, Moorish arches and ornamental ironwork, dressed limestone and Georgian sash windows, painted shutters and gothic tracery. Gibraltar has to face out upon its vital element, the sea and look proudly back over its history of pragmatic tolerance; a place of synagogues and ancient mosques, of Protestant churches and Catholic shrines. One of the Pillars of Hercules.

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