As is the case every few years, Gibraltar recently returned to many newspapers’ front pages as London and Madrid exchanged heated words over the British-controlled territory. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that ‘the UK would always stand up for the British territory and the interests of its people’. Spain’s Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel-Margallo, responded that Gibraltar ‘is, has been and will be a national priority’. But why?
Gibraltar is an oddity amongst the world’s remaining colonial possessions. A tiny peninsula, only part of which is habitable thanks to a 1,398-ft limestone promontory, Gibraltar and its environs have been contested by various European and North African empires for a millennium, each seeking control of ‘The Rock’s’ ideal position at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, it remains an occasionally emotional source of tension between two states otherwise intimately allied via NATO, the European Union, and almost countless cultural and economic relationships. Its remarkable physical and topographical geography has long fascinated explorers and politicians alike. Pero López de Ayala, a fourteenth century chronicler and counselor, described it as possessing near-mythical qualities: ‘With uplifted hands he [Ferdinand IV] gave thanks to Providence for the reduction [from the Moors] under his dominion of a Rock and Castle so important, and almost impregnable’. Alexander Von Humboldt described Gibraltar’s prehistoric formation at the rupture between Eurasia and Africa as ‘ante-historical, or far beyond any human tradition’, a point to which, in 1867, then-Royal Geographical Society president Sir Roderick Impey Murchison agreed. H T Norris intertwined Gibraltar and its central position with the vivid, exotic life and travels of fourteenth century Arab explorer Ibn Battūtah, who described the peninsula in lush prose:
I walked round the mountain and saw the marvellous works executed on it by our master (the late Sultan of Morocco) Abu’l-Hassan, and the armament with which he equipped it, together with the additions made thereto by our master (Abū ‘Inān), may God strengthen him, and I should have like to remain as one of its defenders to the end of my days.
Spain formally ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) – a peace which recognised the latter’s global ascendancy over the former’s empire. The Rock rapidly became a byword for British imperial power, the supposed stability of ‘Pax Britannica’, and – just as importantly – a slogan for the Empire’s geographical extremes. Scholars, explorers, and entrepreneurs turned to Gibraltar (or, at the very least, its image) to describe similar oceanic passages, strategic outposts and, albeit more recently, territorial-colonial disputes. ‘The best parallel I can give to tidal observation of Barrow Strait’, Sherard Osborn, for instance, argued in 1873, is that of the strait of Gibraltar…where the flood-tide flows into two enclosed seas from the Atlantic Ocean’. H H Johnston, visiting Stanley’s way stations along the Congo River, borrowed the colony’s importance and meaning to describe Franco-Italian competitor Pietro Paolo De Brazza’s attempts to control the Congo region:
Should De Brazza ever reach the Congo in his present expedition, and succeed in establishing himself at Mfwa, it is rumoured that he would like to take Calina Point and make it the Gibraltar of the [Stanley] Pool, and then with this fortified post and the station of Mfwa opposite he would be able to close, if necessary, the mouth of Stanley Pool where it commences to narrow into the rushing lower portion of the Congo.
In 1915, P M Sykes similarly invoked The Rock to describe Kala Márán, a mountain near the village of Pá Kala in Persia.
Gibraltar’s position extended far beyond the Mediterranean and European Atlantic. It proved to be an ideal replenishing site for expeditions in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and, after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Indian Ocean. Writing in The Geographical Journal months before the outbreak of the First World War, Rudyard Kipling reduced the Britain-to-India route to four essential steps: ‘London-Gibraltar; Gibraltar – Port Said; Port Said – Aden; Aden – Bombay’. Its pivotal location also greatly aided British and allied efforts during the First and Second world wars, and in a number of Cold War-era conflicts, including Suez, Aden, Malaya, Dhofar, and the Falklands.
The Royal Geographical Society was quick to discuss the Gibraltar issue following Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s decision in 1969 to close the border with the British colony. That year, John Naylon described how Spain intended to recover Gibraltar via the creation of an economic and social development around the peninsula: the so-called Campo de Gibraltar. Madrid indeed invested in the region’s growth, but Gibraltar steadfastly refused to revert to Spain.
Gilbard, G J, 1881, A Popular History of Gibraltar, Its Institutions, and Its Neighbourhood on Both Sides of the Straits, and a Guide Book to Their Principal Places and Objects of Interests, London, 52.
Kipling, R, 1914, ‘Some Aspects of Travel‘, The Geographical Journal, 43.4: 365-75.
Johnston, H H, 1883, ‘A Visit to Mr. Stanley’s Stations on the River Congo‘, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, 5.10: 569-81.
Murchison, R I, 1867, ‘Address to the Royal Geographical Society‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 37: cxv-clix.
Norris, H T, 1959, ‘Ibn Battūtah’s Andalusian Journey‘, The Geographical Journal, 125.2: 185-96.
Osborn, S, 1873, ‘On the Probable Existence of Unknown Lands within the Arctic Circle‘, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 17.3: 172-83.
Sykes, P M, 1915, ‘A Seventh Journey in Persia‘, The Geographical Journal, 45.5: 357-67.
’On This Day: 1982: Spain’s Rock Blockade Ends‘, BBC News.
‘Gibraltar: Talks on sovereignty discounted by UK and Spain’, BBC News, 3 September 2013.