Gibraltar’s venerable history is a complex intertwining of diverse civilisations and cultures dating back thousands of years. Ancient mariners from the east arrived in Gibraltar in the eighth century BCE, while the first description of Gibraltar was written by Roman geographer Pomponius Mela around 45 AD.
Phoenicians and ancient Greeks also travelled to Gibraltar; and, according to legend, Hercules passed through with the “Cattle of Geryon” (his 10th labour), opening up the strait and creating the pillars which took his name and are still clearly identifiable today: the Rock of Gibraltar on one side and the Jbel Musa on the other in Morocco.
The Muslim invasion of Europe was launched in the Bay of Gibraltar in 711, and the “Rock” remained under Moorish rule for more than seven centuries. Christians from the Kingdom of Castilla briefly held power for 24 years in the 14th century, until Gibraltar reverted to Moorish control in 1333. Spain’s Duke of Medina Sidonia recaptured Gibraltar in 1462, during the reign of the “Catholic Monarchs” Isabel and Fernando, who secured “crown property” rights in 1501.
After Charles II died in 1700 without an heir, different pretenders emerged during the War of the Spanish Secession (1701-1714) before Philip V (a grandson of the King of France) was named to inherit the Spanish throne as part of the Treaty of Utrecht, which also ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain.
Today, as a result of Brexit and its repercussions for Gibraltar (even though 96 per cent of Gibraltarians voted in favour of remaining in the European Union in the 2016 referendum), that treaty is once again at the forefront of the political agenda.
Spain has argued that Britain’s exit from the EU would render the treaty obsolete and signify the return of Gibraltar – which, as a “British Overseas Territory”, joined the then “European Communities” in 1973 – to Spanish sovereignty. Spain has suggested joint sovereignty with the UK, a compromise solution reportedly rejected by a majority of Gibraltarians determined to protect their historic “identity”.
But returning to the 18th century… The Great Siege, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Spain and France to capture Gibraltar, lasted from 1779 to 1783; and the following century Gibraltar began to flourish and prosper as a staging port on the key route to India. A second series of tunnels (in 1782 work had begun on the “Great Siege Tunnels”) was completed during World War II, when Gibraltar became home to the Royal Navy’s “Force H”, and General Eisenhower used the Rock as a focal point to control the northern Africa landings in 1942.
During the Franco dictatorship, Spain once again tried to reclaim sovereignty, putting pressure on Gibraltar by closing the border for 13 years from 1969. Today, Gibraltar’s tumultuous legacy is highlighted in several prehistoric caves, a Moorish castle and baths that date to the 11th and 14th centuries, and many Georgian and Victorian buildings as well as others that reflect its Portuguese and Genoese influences.
Gibraltar’s population totals around 34,000, drawn from a melting pot of people with different cultural backgrounds including Spanish, Genoese, Maltese, Moroccan, Jewish, Indian and Portuguese, who over the centuries – with British settlers – have formed a richly multi-racial community.
The main religion in Gibraltar is Roman Catholicism, but other Christian denominations and faiths such as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Bahai and Jehovah’s Witness are also common. The official language is English although the locals tend to speak a mix of English and Spanish in casual conversation, with the local “dialect” referred to as “Yanito”.