Gibraltar, after nearly 300 years of British control, is it going back to Spanish ownership?

Gibraltar, British for almost 300 years, has had a long and colorful history stretching back in time for many centuries.

Spain had long coveted the return of this territory, particularly since the Civil War and during General Franco's long reign, there have been strident demands for its return to the mainland.

It now appears, that Tony Blair's British Government is flirting with the once unthinkable proposition: " That Britain will agree to give up its sovereignty over Gibraltar, and return it to Spain."

To many of Gibraltar's residents who have given their loyalty to Britain over three centuries, this possibility poses a nightmare for them.

A brief history of Gibraltar
The Rock of Gibraltar stands as a fortress guarding one of the world's strategic straits, that narrow entrance from the Atlantic Ocean which leads into the Mediterranean and on to the Middle East.

Both the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians came to the area as far back as 950 BC. and it was the former that most likely gave Gibraltar its first name of Calpe, its derivation from Kalph.... to hollow out. (a number of caves exist here)

The Pillars of Hercules, is but one more name that is associated with this area.

Pluto, talked about The Pillars of Hercules when referring to Calpe (i.e. Gibraltar) and Mons Abyla (Jebel Musa) which are the two mountains dominating either side of the strait.

The Romans came next, but did not occupy the area of Gibraltar, then, by about 400 AD. their time had passed. The Vandals followed by the Goths invaded the Iberian Peninsula, the latter staying until 711 AD.   

Islam marched westwards and by the start of the 8th century, Spain was ripe for invasion.

A Berber, Tarik-ibn-Zeyad in 711, landed at the southern end of The Rock, giving Gibraltar its name, coined from the Arabic Jebel Tarik, literally meaning Tarik's Mountain.

Now the Moors took over control of Spain which they occupied for 600 years.

The first town at Gibraltar was built in 1160 at the behest of the Caliph of Morocco, and included the Moorish Castle, the ruins of which are still evident today.

Spanish forces in 1462 ousted the Moors from Gibraltar, but only four years later, they were turned out by the Duke of Medine Sidonia.

Then, in 1474 Queen Isabella was named Queen of Castile, and she plotted for the return of The Rock to Spain, but it took until 1501 for that to come to fruition, when she granted Gibraltar, a Coat of Arms.... A Castle and Key. Its inscription read: "Seal of the Noble City of Gibraltar, the Key to Spain."

For the next 200 years Spain remained in control, but the territory became a bone of contention between two claimants for the throne of Spain, on one hand was the Frenchman Philip of Anjou - PhilipV, and on the other side, the Austrian Archduke Charles - Charles 111.  

The Rock was held by forces loyal to the Frenchman, but fell in 1764 to a combined Anglo - Dutch force of 30,000 who supported the Austrian.

Now the Treaty of Utrecht resolved this conflict, ceding Gibraltar to the Crown of Great Britain: For ever, thus this fortress has been in British hands for almost 300 years.

In the early 1900's with Germany flexing its muscles in Europe, the British Government expanded the Royal Navy, spotlighting the importance of Gibraltar as an important Naval Base.

Gibraltar, an important base for the anti - submarine campaigns.

Gibraltar therefore had an important role to play in the anti -submarine struggle against the German U-Boats in both world wars, it also developed its dockyard facilities, and was instrumental in repairing many British and Allied warships over the 1939-1945 war.

Vice Admiral Somerville's Force H based on Gibraltar
Vice Admiral Somerville based his Force H at Gibraltar, and in September 1940, after taking part in the Dakar fiasco with the Free French General Charles de Gaulle, HMAS Australia, in which I was serving as an 18 year Midshipman, joined this force for a brief period. As part of Force H we sortied into the Mediterranean in support of a convoy bound for the beleaguered island of Malta.

This gallant Island was awarded the George Cross in 1942.

Fifty years later, to mark this anniversary, the Maltese Government struck the Malta National Commemorative Medal, to be awarded to service people who had assisted the Island and its People in their time of need.

Service with Force H in 1940, qualified me to receive this medal, and I have a citation from the President of Malta awarding one to me. It hangs from a Navy Blue Ribbon with central White and Red vertical stripes, one side bears the Coat of Arms of Malta, and the obverse is a replica of the George Cross.

It is quite a handsome medal, one that I am proud to wear with my other WW2 Campaign Medals on appropriate occasions.

Spanish Workers

Each day, thousands of Spanish people who work in Gibraltar stream through the border at La Linea to enter the territory, and then make their way back on the return journey to Spain at the end of their working day.

From 1969, Franco closed this frontier for the next 16 years, isolating Gibraltar from the Spanish mainland.

Nowdays, an uneasy peace exists, and the city is a teeming metropolis where tourism thrives, and many Spanish residents rely on crossing daily into Gibraltar to work for their livelihood.

Barbary Apes
The Barbary Ape, is the only primate that lives in Europe (other than man) and a small colony have existed at The Rock for many years, having made their way from Morocco, some say by way of a tunnel under the straits when Gibraltar and Morocco were joined many years ago.

There exists a legend, that The Rock will remain in British hands only as long as these Apes survive.

In 1942, the Apes numbered only seven, causing the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill to fire off a cable to those in command at Gibraltar ordering: The Apes to be maintained at all costs.

New recruits for the colony were hastily transported from Africa, so by the end of the year they numbered twenty.

At present some one hundred and sixty Apes are in residence.

Officer in charge of Rock Apes
Official interest in these Apes is such, that a junior officer of the Royal Artillery is designated Officer in charge of Rock Apes, with an NCO to assist him to keep records of births and deaths, and generally ensure they are fed and well maintained.

There is on record, an occasion, when the Secretary of State for the Colonies was asked in the House of Commons whether the allowance paid for the Apes subsistence was sufficient. No doubt, members of the house were pleased to hear the reply that The daily allowance had increased to fourpence a day per Ape, to meet the rising cost of living.

For many years Spain has considered Gibraltar to be a seething boil located on its southern rump, (of course Northern Ireland is in a similar mode for the Eire Republic)and has long agitated for its return and integration with the mainland.

Now, in May of 2002, it does appear that Britain may just give up this territory, I am sure much to the chagrin of many residents of Gibraltar who see themselves as British, and have no wish to suddenly become a part of Spain.

Spain will of course argue that Gibraltar is part of its traditional land, and no foreign country has any right to occupy it, however, this does not seem to preclude Spain from maintaining Territory in North Africa, notwithstanding it runs counter to their own argument about foreigners on Spanish territory. What hypocrisy?

Time alone will tell if Britain will relinquish its occupation of Gibraltar, but it seems likely that -  For Whom does the Bell Toll?  may turn out to be - It Tolls for Britain, for Gibraltar and its population.

Then once again Spain will be in command of The Rock!


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