Gibraltar - history

South BastionRooke Baterry

Because of its important strategic location, marking the entry or exit from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean the Rock of Gibraltar has been present in records throughout history. The Greeks, Romans, Vandals and Goths all passed through the rock at some point. However it was only with the Moorish invasions of the Iberian Peninsular that Gibraltar had any permanent settlement established upon it. This marked the series of long a numerous sieges as Gibraltar changed hands many times and spent many months at a time besieged by one army or another.

The First Buildings and First Sieges

In 711 the general Tariq ibn Ziyad, sailed from present day Morocco using Gibraltar as a landing point for his forces in the invasion of the Iberian peninsular, after failing in other places. This was how the rock got its name, from the Arabian words Gabal-Al-Tariq (the mountain of Tariq). However for the first 400 years that the rock was under Moorish rule, there was very little built in the way of permanent structures.

It was later, in 1160, that something of what still remains today was built. A permanent settlement including a castle was ordered to be constructed by the Almohad Sultan Abd al-Mu'min. He named the settlement City of the Victory (Medinat al-Fath), and parts of one of the towers, The Tower of Homage, still remains standing to this day. Gibraltar passed hands between the various Kings of the different Islamic empires, and it as when it was under the control of the Marinids, given to them as a gift for their help against the Christina Kingdoms, that the first ever siege of Gibraltar took place.

After a month long siege, during which the invaders led by Alonso Pérez de Guzmán on the orders of King Ferdinand IV of Castile bombarded the settlement from the higher rocks, the garrison surrendered. The King saw Gibraltar as a town in high risk of being reinvaded and wanted it to be populous so it could withstand any invasion. Consequently a town charter was granted which included the provision that anyone who lived on Gibraltar for more than a year and a day would become free from judicial proceedings.

However, this didn’t stop Nasrid caid Yahya unsuccessfully attempting to besiege the rock in 1316 in the (Second Siege of Gibraltar). In 1333 however, a Marinid army, lead by Abd al-Malik finally managed to wrestle control of Gibraltar back from the Castilian Kings after a 5 month long siege. A fourth siege was then instigated by King Alfonso XI of Castile, but this failed when his forces were attacked by a Nasrid army from Granada. However it didn’t stop him returning in 1350, when again he unsuccessfully attempted to take castle (now the Fifth Siege of Gibraltar) as his forces were hit by the Black Death, which wiped out many of the fighters as well as the King himself. However it finally fell out of Marinids’ hands and into control of the Nasrids after the 6th siege of Gibraltar in 1374. A siege attempt in 1436 by Enrique de Guzmán, Count of Niebla failed but the Castilians managed to finally occupy the rock for a significant amount of time in 1462 after the 8th siege of Gibraltar.

Castilian Rule and Spanish Wars

The Charter granted to Gibraltar in 1310 was restored by Henry IV, some of the land surrounding the settlement on the mainland became part of Gibraltar and the Santa María Church (the old Moorish Mosque) was given the status of collegiate church. Once the Catholic Monarchs were in control over Granada, they expelled the Jews, and most passed through Gibraltar on their way fro the continent. Half a century later the Muslim Moorish decedents were also expelled and also passed through the port.

In 1540 raiding parties from the Barbary Coast (ruled by Barbarossa) attacked and took and took away many people. 12 years later the inhabitants handed in a formal request to the King Charles I of Spain to reinforce the town. Acceding to their requests, he sent the Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Calvi to strengthen the defences.

In 1700 King Charles II of Spain died and left no successor to the throne. A dispute followed between Prince Philip of Bourbon (backed by the French) and Archduke Charles (backed by the English Austrian and Dutch). The resulting war brought in all the interested parties and Gibraltar continued to play its important strategic role. It also resulted in British control of the town. Interestingly the idea of taking the town as a Mediterranean port for the British was first mooted in 1625 during a navel battle council of war and mentioned again in 1656 in a letter sent from Oliver Cromwell to the Earl of Sandwich, so maybe it is no surprise that for their part in the war of Spanish Succession, the British aimed to take the rock.

Sailing under the name of Archduke Charles, the commander of the Anglo-Dutch fleet, George Rooke was returning from a failed attempt on Barcelona, upon arriving at Gibraltar in 1704. Rooke demanded its unconditional surrender and an oath of loyalty to Archduke Charles. The Governor refused and the resulting siege (the 11th so far) after heavy bombardment proved to be successful. It is then claimed that on his own initiative, Rooke then proceeded to hoist the British flag above the town and claim it in the name of Queen Anne, whose government later ratified the occupation.

However many have claimed that this is in fact a myth, used to stir up passions on both the British and Spanish sides. It has been suggested by most historians, than a British claim to the rock would have divided the bi-national fleet which Rooke commanded and undermined the name under which they fought. However, it has not stopped a statue being erected in honour of Rooke (in 2004) and many Gibraltans claiming this as the starting date for British rule. What is more likely to have happened is that the British troops raised a flag to stop the bombardments from the sea. Whatever the case, British troops remained on the island and the fleet set sail to meet an invading Franco-Spanish fleet and despite heavy losses from both sides halted the invasion.

British Rule and Spanish Sieges

Later in the same year troops of France and Spain attempted to take the town overland. More myth surrounds this Twelfth Siege of Gibraltar, including a tale whereby 17 British marines held the Round Tower against a surprise assault by 500 French and Spanish volunteer grenadiers. Later during the siege, in 1705, the wall was partly destroyed but still the town did not fall and the troops receded and the siege was over.

Though the town was taken in the name of Archduke Charles, it was de facto under British rule and the British Governor and garrison started to fully take over the running of the town. The Archduke did visit the town, and appointed the English Major General John Shrimpton as governor upon recommendation of Queen Anne. The Queen later declared the town a free port after the request of the Sultan of Morroco who then started to supply the town.

The British crown then started directly appointing Governors of the town and also giving it orders, including one in 1711 to expel all foreign troops from Gibraltar in an attempt to cement British rule. After the peace treaty of Utrecht, which brought an end to the war, Britain was granted rule of Gibraltar by the Spanish along the following lines, "the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts thereunto belonging (to Britain)... for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever."

In 1727 however, Spain attempted once again to take town from the British. Around 20,000 troops besieged Gibraltar from February to June, which was defended by 5000 British troops. At the end of this 13th siege, the troops were forced to retire after heavy losses. Two years later, at the end of the Anglo-Spanish war, the Treaty of Seville confirmed all previous treaties, including the ones allowing Great Britain to keep Menorca and Gibraltar.

The last siege (number fourteen) was known as the Great Siege of Gibraltar, and was the result of French and Spanish troops, who were again at war with the British, attempts to take control of Gibraltar once and for all. It lasted from July 1779 until February 1783 and at one point included an assault of 100,000 men, 48 ships and 450 cannon. In 1872, in the midst of the siege, work was started on the Great Siege Tunnels, which ran throughout the island and were bore into the rock, to protect the British forces from bombardment.

In 1908 a barrier fence was built which still exists until this day, in between Gibraltar and mainland Spain. Spain, for its part does not recognise the border as it claims it was built on Spanish soil, whilst Britain claims that in fact it is one metre inside British territory. The border is stranger today than it was, as both the UK and Spain are now members of the European Union (although Britain is not part of the ‘open borders’ Schengen agreement) but it is kept in place because Gibraltar is outside the customs union.

The Second World War and After

Surprisingly, despite its important strategic position, Gibraltar was never invaded during World War Two. It was fully expected to be so, and so the thousands of civilians who lived on the island were sent as refuges to Jamaica, London or other territories. A squadron of RAF fighters were based on the Gibraltar throughout the war and it served an important part in many operations, especially in regards to keeping open supply routes into North Africa and the Middle East.

There were German plans to invade Gibraltar, but they were put off until after the capitulation of the USSR and because Spain was reluctant to have the Germans launch the invasion from their soil fearing British reprisals against them directly. So Gibraltar, like the mainland UK, was spared Nazi invasion, however the Rock was attacked many times. As the war turned in favour of the Allies the first refugees started to return to the island in 1944. The small number of civilians left behind during the war and their returning compatriots started demanding more rights and political autonomy from the British state.

There were once again calls from Spain that the rock be handed back over to them, especially from the dictator General Franco. He was especially annoyed that Queen Elizabeth II visited the island on the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of British occupation in 1954. The deterioration in relations led to the closing of the border and the restrictions on Spanish nationals entering the rock.

Spain appealed to the United Nations requesting that Britain de-colonise the rock. It was interesting because national self-determination, which was what was popular throughout the world at the time, could not apply in Spain’s quest to take back Gibraltar because most of the people there considered themselves as British, and so would not (it was assumed) wish to become part of Spain. The people of Gibraltar were given this chance in 1967, when they were asked to choose between whether they wished to either pass under Spanish sovereignty, or remain under British sovereignty, with institutions of self-government. The vote was 12,138 to 44 to remain under British sovereignty – which was unsurprising because, at the time, Spain was still a dictatorship and economically less well off and so it would have meant a lowering of the standard of living most people living there had become accustomed too.

Tensions remained simmering for many decades and the border was not fully reopened until 1987 (after Spain and Britain had both joined the EU). Various proposals were made throughout the rest of the century, including ideas of joint sovereignty for 50 years before acceding to Spain with special status and other ideas but they have all been rejected either by the British Parliament or by the people of Gibraltar.

However in the last decade there has been much progress. Britain was more willing to recognise Spanish sovereignty although the people living in Gibraltar rejected it. But with the closer ties brought about by the European Union and a series of Tripartite talks, important barriers were lifted – flights now take place between Gibraltar and the Spanish mainland, there is recognition of Gibraltar’s international dialling code and the border is virtually of non-importance barring some customs issues. Gibraltar is also now no longer a colony and has adopted a new constitution. Visitors will find the place a relaxing and beautiful place for a holiday, with easy access to Spain if they so wish.