Last weekend I visited Gibraltar for the fifth time and attended some of the events organised by the Gibraltar Literary Festival. The main event that I wanted to attend was a talk given by Nick Rankin on his new book Defending the Rock– How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler, more of that later. I also went to a thought-provoking session on mind maps by Ray Keene and a very interesting talk on Brexit, Spain, Catalonia and Gibraltar by, William Chislett, a Hispanist who I hadn’t heard of before but will be keeping tabs on from now on.
Anyway, since this latest trip I have felt compelled to write this blog, as I feel there is much ignorance out there with regards to the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. I know this blog is mainly dedicated to football and there won’t be any football in this article, although Gibraltar did appear in my book Homage to Murcia so there is a tentative link there.
Other past visits to Gibraltar have been with Spanish friends from Caravaca and to their surprise they loved it. Another visit was in 2015 to the yearly music festival, to see one of my favourite bands, Madness. However, the first time that I visited Gibraltar was about fifteen years ago, when my children were very young. We didn’t live in Spain then; we were on a family holiday in Marbella which is about an hours drive to The Rock. We made the day trip with my brother in law and his family and I remember the day well ….. we arrived at the border showed our passports and did all the touristy stuff like the taxi tour to see the apes, ate fish and chips in a local British pub and of course, washed that down with the obligatory pint of British beer. We walked along Main Street smiling at the quirkiness of the red phone boxes, mail boxes, Marks & Spencers and obviously the British Bobbies. As I left, I never thought I would return and so ticked off another item on the bucket list. I would suggest that the experience that I have just described is more or less one that many other tourists have experienced, especially nowadays as many cruise ships have made Gibraltar part of their itinerary.
But I have grown to discover that there is a lot more to the place than that, and little was I to know then, on that scorching hot August day, that I would return several more times and become fond of the place. The second time I visited was for the wedding of my sister in law, I included this trip in the book Homage to Murcia as it fell within the football season I was covering and I even managed to drag some of the wedding guests along to watch a local team, Lincoln Red Imps, play. Writing that chapter meant I had to do the normal research regarding the history of Gibraltar and as I started digging, I became hooked. From prehistoric times onwards there is an incredible history but it really starts getting interesting around the time of the Moors right through to the Napoleonic Wars and more modern times, for instance World War 2 and the Spanish Civil War. Of course the politics of the area and the tug of war between Britain and Spain for sovereignty is, in itself, an intriguing story. Nevertheless, I am not intending to cover all of that in this blog but what I would like to do is, highlight a few of the things that people get so wrong about Gibraltar and some of the historical things that I love about the place.
Firstly, the name Gibraltar is the Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal Ṭāriq, after an Umayyad general Tariq ibn-Ziyad. He led the initial invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and before these times The Rock was known by the Phoenician name of Mons Calpe. In Greek mythology it is said to be one of the Pillars of Hercules, the other being Monte Hacho in Ceuta (Spanish territory in North Africa) or Jebel Musa in Morocco.
In 1160, the Almohad Sultan Abd al-Mu’min named the city Medinat al-Fath (City of the Victory) and decreed that a permanent settlement should be built on The Rock. He ordered that the settlement should include a castle, the remains of which still stands to this day. In fact, this castle is a prominent feature on the Gibraltar flag. Speaking of the flag, it was granted by Royal Warrant from Queen Isabella I of Castile on 10 July 1502 and the key on the flag is said to symbolise the fortress significance of Gibraltar as it was seen to be the key to Spain by the Moors and the Spanish. Fittingly, the British would later take the key as a symbol of the key to the Mediterranean seaway and therefore reinforcing the strategic importance of the city.
Without doubt, the history of modern Gibraltar begins in 1704 when during the War of the Spanish Succession a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet, representing the Grand Alliance, captured the town of Gibraltar on behalf of the Archduke Charles of Austria in his campaign to become King of Spain. These events subsequently led to the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which negotiated and ceded control of Gibraltar, in perpetuity, to the British Crown in return for Britain’s withdrawal from the war. Over the years there were unsuccessful attempts by Spanish monarchs to regain Gibraltar, the most famous of which was Great Siege of Gibraltar between the years 1779 and 1783, it lasted three years, seven months and two weeks.
In more recent times the people of The Rock have been subjected to border closures and delays, none more so than during the 20th century, and in particular during the dictatorship of General Franco between the years of 1936 – 1975.
Whilst the earlier history went a long way to shape the city it has to be said that these more recent events are the ones that play a significant role in modern Gibraltar and from my point of view the ones that are least understood by outsiders. These are the aspects that I would like people to think about before passing judgement on the place.
As I have stated, I was recently in Gibraltar for the Literary Festival and in particular to listen to a talk given by Nick Rankin. Rankin visited Gibraltar many times over a four-year period to write the book Defending the Rock – How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler and although at the time of writing this blog I haven’t finished reading it, I can tell that it has been meticulously researched. Whilst the main narrative is World War 2 many other events are explored before and after that, none more so than the Spanish Civil War. Some of the facts I did actually know, like how Gibraltar accepted many thousands of refugees, mainly from the republican side but not exclusively. From Gibraltar many of these people received safe passage to the UK and other places. Many Gibraltarians have Spanish ancestors or family and many of the divisions that were taking place across the border were being acted out on the streets of Gibraltar too.
Of course many historians have concluded that the Spanish Civil War was a dummy run of World War 2, when the Germans and Italians tested out their firepower and strategies in Spain.
Once war in Europe had broken out, it seemed inevitable that Britain would enter it at some stage which of course they did in 1939. Gibraltar would once more become a place of strategic military importance and Rankin’s book investigates why Hitler never invaded the British enclave. Again, Gibraltar would become a safe haven for people, this time escaping the Nazis and was a key place along the Comet Line that helped escaped British and American airman, via the convoluted route through Belgium, France, the Basque Country, Spain and eventually on to Britain via The Rock. In fact, according to the book over three thousand airmen escaped back to Britain via Gibraltar.
Gibraltar was also the epicentre for Operation Torch the British and USA Military campaign against Rommel in North Africa. Deep within the tunnels of The Rock the British and Americans planned the downfall of the Nazi war machine that was operating in the deserts of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
Then of course because of World War 2 there was the evacuation of Gibraltar. This was a defining moment in the history of the people of Gibraltar. In June 1940 around thirteen thousand people were shipped to Casablanca in French Morocco. Unfortunately, this coincided with the installation of the Pro-German French Vichy Government who obviously didn’t want these British subjects in their territory and wanted to remove them. Added to these tensions between the British government and the Vichy government was the fact that the British navy had recently destroyed a number of French warships to prevent them being handed over to the Nazis and also killed hundreds of French sailors in the process. The Gibraltarians were eventually accommodated on some cargo ships that had been used to evacuate French soldiers from Dunkirk. The families were literally marched up the gangplank at bayonet point, leaving many possessions behind, onto ships that were full of human waste and rubbish.
The convoy of ships headed for Gibraltar but they were unwanted there and it is thought that London didn’t want them in the UK neither. However, by July 13th the ships had eventually docked in Gibraltar. At first, the powers that be wouldn’t allow the people off the ships to see their families for fear that once back on The Rock, they would not want to leave again. Eventually, under the threat of riots, strikes and other civil protests the authorities relented and let the evacuees disembark for a few days. This also allowed for the ships to be cleaned up and made semi habitable for humans. The evacuees would ultimately make their journey north to the UK where they would in due course, find temporary homes in places like London, Liverpool, Swansea, Jamaica and Madeira. All these stories and many more are included in Nick Rankin’s book. He manages also to interweave the human stories of the famous and not so famous and recounts those bygone times much more eloquently than what I have done here.
So, what about The People of the Rock today? There are many inaccuracies about the people who live in Gibraltar and the place generally. For example, a British journalist, Brian Reade, who I have had some time for in the past and enjoyed many of his articles about football and politics has made some scathing attacks on the populace of The Rock on more than one occasion. He also stated in an article in 2013, albeit tongue in cheek, that he was going to start a “Hand Gibraltar Back campaign”. In the article he goes on to say that Gibraltar is “a haven for tax exiles, Tory postal voters, winter fuel payment claimants and apes which is geographically part of Spain and of no strategic military use to us anymore”. I have to say that Brian Reade’s lazy stereotyping has surprised me, especially coming from a Scouser who would rightly be in uproar if people did that about his city or Liverpudlians. However, it is likely that there are quite a few misinformed people who hold similar inaccurate views similar to Reade and I suggest that when you think about Gibraltar you take the following into consideration.
What Brian Reade is talking about sounds more like some of the British people who live a bit further up the coast around Marbella or people who I have met around the Costa Blanca. Obviously, there are some ex-pats who live in Gibraltar who might fit into that category too. In fact, I was informed by a helpful young lad on the checkout in the Gibraltar Morrisons that there is a distinct difference between the local populace, the Llanitos (Yanitos), and the British ex-pats. He had been born and raised on The Rock but was still classed as a Guiri (foreigner) because his family hadn’t integrated that much. I was also surprised when he told me he didn’t speak much Spanish.
Most Llanitos that I have met are bilingual English and Spanish speakers. They come from a historical and cultural three-hundred-year mix of British, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Maltese, Jewish, Moroccan and other smaller groups like Indians.
There is still a very evident Jewish population in Gibraltar that has been there for over 650 years and significantly they have faced almost no anti- Semitism during that time. In fact, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said “In the dark times of expulsion and inquisition, Gibraltar lit the beacon of tolerance,” and that Gibraltar “is probably the community where Jews have been the most integrated.”
Living side by side with their Jewish neighbours is the Muslim community, mainly from Morocco. Many are like Abdul, who works in one of the fish & chip shops. Abdul speaks Arabic, French, English and Spanish fluently and has lived on The Rock for years. He was born just across the straight in Tangiers but now has British citizenship and considers himself a Llanito. He has seen many changes and once worked in a night club that serviced the British Military. Because of that he now has friends from all over the UK. He told me that Gibraltar is now a very different place from those days.
Then there are the new type of immigrants too. Like Zoltan from Hungary and his Moroccan girlfriend, who like Abdul, is from Tangier. We rented their really nice and well situated Air B&B apartment for our stay. Zoltan works in a nearby restaurant and they both appeared to be hard working young people who will make good additions to The Rock.
The politics of the place is hard to fathom out but essentially the current government is a Labour/Liberal collation and the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo is a socialist although with a very small s. I like him, whenever he is on TV (Spanish or British) etc. he talks sense and I think he is a great ambassador for Gibraltar. He has said about Gibraltar’s reputation as a tax haven, that it is now a legitimate low-tax environment, rather than a potentially embarrassing tax-free haven.
Most of Gibraltar’s industry comes from financial services, tourism and online gambling companies and this doesn’t sit right with some people. Smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol has also proven to be a problem for many years.
Nevertheless, one of the huge positives about Gibraltar is that it provides work for thousands of Spaniards that live across the border in Campo de Gibraltar. Up to ten thousand people cross the border every day for work, then take the money back and spend it in one of the most deprived areas of Spain which has an unemployment rate of over 35% whilst Gibraltar has full employment. This has led to groups forming like the delegation known as the Cross Frontier Group representing Spanish employers and unions together with Gibraltar employers and unions. In fact, many Spaniards who live near Gibraltar wish that Madrid and London would just keep their noses out and let the people get on with it., even some Spanish Mayors have made similar comments. During my visit I spoke to one such Spaniard working in a local bar, he told me that he thought it was all nonsense and that politicians should keep out of it, I tend to agree. Incidentally, a hard Brexit could affect this free movement of people in the future and put these jobs at risk. The fact is that Brexit was a kick in the teeth for Gibraltar as over 96% of the population voted remain, only 800 out of 20,000 voted to leave. Incidentally, these high percentages reflect the sovereignty referendum of 1967, when the people voted an overwhelmingly 99.64% to remain British and the shared sovereignty (with Spain) referendum of 2002 when 98.97% voted against that proposal too. Self-determination in its purest form I would argue.
Although Brexit could make life difficult for Gibraltar, it will pull through it. During Nick Rankin’s talk he stated how visually The Rock is a shape changer, meaning that from different positions you get different views and it seems to take different shapes. Also mentioned was how Fabian Picardo refers to Gibraltar like a cork that is bobbing about in a turbulent sea and no matter how much the storm tries to sink it, it survives because of its smallness and buoyancy. Two good analogies that sum up The Rock and the resilience of the people.
It would be amiss of me not to point out that Gibraltar is not stuck in the past either. If you make your way to the Upper Rock, you can look down past the Moorish castle and see the new developments where the old dockyards used to be. For example, Ocean Village, which has lots of new apartments, a business centre and bars, including the Sunborn Gibraltar which is the world’s first superyacht casino hotel and cost £120M to build. Added to these new developments is the brand new University of Gibraltar, it opened its doors in 2015 and offers degrees and other courses in a wide range of subjects. The university’s motto is Sciatica est Clavis ad Successum which in English is Knowledge is the Key to Success, playing on the key in the Gibraltar flag that I mentioned earlier.
Within the university is the Gibraltar Centre of Excellence that offers specialist training programmes for high level international governmental and private sector officials on customs-related matters, for instance in the control of tobacco products and drugs.
So, is there anything I don’t like about Gibraltar? Well, I am no royalist and the staunch OTT loyalty to the Queen and the Royal family is something I find a bit uncomfortable. Nonetheless, all of that has to be put into the context of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ceded Gibraltar to the British Crown. Therefore, the survival of the British monarchy is probably quite fundamental to the status of this British territory.
In conclusion, if you’d like to know more about Gibraltar, then visit it. If you want do the touristy stuff, then enjoy the fish & chips, the British beer, the quirky red phone boxes etc. But, do try to meet some of the people and learn a bit of the history, then make your own mind up.
I have no doubt there will be people out there who will see this blog as maybe a bit naïve and will point out the tax status of Gibraltar along with the smuggling as reasons enough not to like the place but I have read articles on that and have included a couple in the further reading.
As Nick Rankin was closing his talk he was asked what he has taken away from Gibraltar whilst researching his book. He paused to think for a moment and then in a voice that quivered a little with emotion, said that he had grown to love the place. I get that and I hope to return sooner rather than later.
Tony Higgins (November 2017)
Video: People of The Rock (2009)
Book: Defending the Rock – How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler
Review of Nick Rankin book from Gibraltar Chronicle:
Book: Gibraltar Conquered by no enemy – Marc Alexander
William Chislett talk at the Gibraltar Literary Festival 2017
Brian Reade article on Gibraltar
Gibraltar and The Spanish Civil War (documentary)
New Statesman article July 2014 about cross border workers
John Prescott view
Jeremy Corbyn and The Rock
Unison article on cross border workers
BBC Radio: Chief Minister of Gibraltar talks about borders, specifically Northern Ireland
Legitimate low-tax environment, rather than tax-free haven.
… And for balance here is something about tax evasion etc.