Gibraltar History

Gibraltar’s appearance in prehistory was very different to its modern aspect. Sea levels were much lower due to the amount of water locked up in the larger polar ice caps at the time. The peninsula was surrounded by a fertile coastal plain rather than water, with marshes and sand dunes supporting an abundant variety of animals. Neanderthals are known to have lived in caves around the Rock of Gibraltar.

More Neanderthal remains have been found elsewhere on the Rock at Devil’s Tower and in Ibex, Vanguard and Gorham’s Caves on the east side of Gibraltar. Excavations in Gorham’s Cave have found evidence of Neanderthal occupation dated as recently as 28,000-24,000 years ago, well after they were believed to have died out elsewhere in Europe. The caves of Gibraltar continued to be used by modern homo sapiens after the final extinction of the Neanderthals. Stone tools, ancient hearths and animal bones dating from around 40,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago have been found in deposits left in Gorham’s Cave.

During ancient times, Gibraltar was regarded by the peoples of the Mediterranean as a place of religious and symbolic importance. The Phoenicians were present for several centuries, apparently using Gorham’s Cave as a shrine to the genius loci of the place, as did the Carthaginians and Romans after them. Excavations in the cave have shown that pottery, jewellery and Egyptian scarabs were left as offerings to the gods, probably in the hope of securing safe passage through the dangerous waters off Gibraltar. The Rock was revered by the Greeks and Romans as one of the two Pillars of Hercules, created by the demigod during his Tenth Labour to join the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. According to a Phocaean Greek traveller who visited in the sixth century BC, there were temples and altars to Hercules on the Rock where passing travellers made sacrifices.

To the ancients, Gibraltar was known as Mons Calpe, a name perhaps derived from the Phoenician word kalph (“hollowed out”), presumably in reference to the caves in the Rock. It was well-known to ancient geographers; however, there is no known archaeological evidence of permanent settlements from the ancient period. There were more mundane reasons not to settle, as Gibraltar had many disadvantages that were to hinder later settlers; it lacked easily accessible fresh water, fertile soil, a supply of firewood or a safe natural anchorage. Its geographical location, which later became its key strategic asset, was not a significant factor in ancient times.

For these reasons the ancients declined to settle on the Gibraltar peninsula but chose instead to live at the head of the bay in what is today known as the Campo (hinterland) of Gibraltar. The town of Carteia, near where the modern Spanish town of San Roque is located today, was founded by the Phoenicians around 950 BC on the site of an early settlement of the native Turdetani people. The Carthaginians took control of the town by 228 BC and it was captured by the Romans in 206 BC. It subsequently became Pompey’s western base in his campaign of 67 BC against the pirates that menaced the Mediterranean Sea at the time. Carteia appears to have been abandoned after the Vandals sacked it in 409 AD during their march through Roman Hispania to Africa.

Muslim Rule

By 681 the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate had expanded from their original homeland of Arabia to conquer the whole of North Africa as well as the Middle East and large parts of West Asia, bringing Islam in their wake and converting local peoples to the new religion. The Berbers of North Africa, called Moors by the Christians, thus became Muslims. The Straits of Gibraltar gained a new strategic significance as the frontier between Muslim North Africa and Christian Spain. The Visigothic rulers of Spain were, however, split between rival contenders for the throne. This gave the Moors the opportunity to invade and pursue a course of dividing-and-conquering the Christian factions.

Following a raid in 710, a predominately Berber army under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed from North Africa in April 711 and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Gibraltar. Although Tariq’s expedition was an outstanding success and led to the Islamic conquest of most of the Iberian peninsula, Tariq himself ended his career in disgrace. His conquest nonetheless left a long-lasting legacy for Gibraltar: Mons Calpe was renamed Djebel al-Tariq, the Mount of Tariq, subsequently corrupted into “Gibraltar”.

Gibraltar was fortified for the first time in 1160 by the Almohad Sultan Abd al-Mu’min in response to the coastal threat posed by the Christian kings of Aragon and Castile. Gibraltar was renamed Djebel al-Fath (“Mount of Victory”), though this name did not persist, and a fortified town named Medinat al-Fath (“City of Victory”) was laid out on the upper slopes of the Rock.

Its defences were put to the test for the first time in 1309, when Ferdinand IV of Castile and James II of Aragon joined forces to attack the Muslim Emirate of Granada, targeting Almeria in the east and Algeciras, across the bay from Gibraltar, in the west. In July 1309 the Castilians laid siege to both Algeciras and Gibraltar. By this time the latter had a modest population of around 1,200 people, a castle and rudimentary fortifications. They proved unequal to the task of keeping out the Castilians and Gibraltar’s defenders surrendered after a month. Ferdinand gave up the siege of Algeciras the following February but held on to Gibraltar, repopulating it with Christians and ordering that a keep and dockyard be built to secure Castile’s hold on the peninsula. He also issued a letter patent granting privileges to the inhabitants to encourage people to settle.

In 1315 the Moors attempted to recapture Gibraltar but were thwarted by a Castilian relief force. 18 years later, however, the Sultans Muhammed IV of Granada and Abu Al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman of Fez allied to besiege Gibraltar with a large army and naval force. This time the king of Castile, Alfonso XI, was unable to raise a relief force for several months due to the threat of rebellions within his kingdom. The relief force eventually arrived in June 1333 but found that the starving inhabitants of Gibraltar had already surrendered to the Moors. The Castilians now found themselves having to assault an entrenched enemy. They were unable to break through the Moorish defences and, faced with a stalemate, the two sides agreed to disengage in exchange for mutual concessions.

Abu Al-Hasan refortified Gibraltar in anticipation of renewed war, which duly broke out in 1339. His forces suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Río Salado in October 1340 and fell back to Algeciras. The Castilians besieged the city for two years and eventually forced its surrender, though Gibraltar remained in Moorish hands. The peninsula’s defences had been greatly improved by Abu Al-Hasan’s construction of new walls, towers, magazines and a citadel, making its capture a much more difficult endeavour. Alfonso XI laid siege in 1348 following the death of Abu Al-Hasan but was thwarted by the arrival of the Black Death in 1350, which decimated his army and claimed his own life.

Gibraltar remained in Moorish hands until 1462 but was disputed between rival Moorish factions. In 1374 the peninsula was handed over to the Moors of Granada, apparently as the price for their military support of the Moors of Fez in suppressing rebellions in Morocco. Gibraltar’s garrison rebelled against the Granadans in 1410 but a Granadan army retook the place the following year after a brief siege. Gibraltar was subsequently used by the Granadans as the base for raids into Christian territory, prompting Enrique de Guzmán, second Count of Niebla, to lay siege in 1436. The attempt ended in disaster; the attack was repelled with heavy casualties and Enrique himself was drowned while trying to escape by sea. His decapitated body was hung on the walls of Gibraltar for the next 22 years.

The end of Moorish Gibraltar came in August 1462 when a small Castilian force under Enrique’s son Juan Alonso, the first Duke of Medina Sidonia, launched a surprise attack while the town’s senior commanders and townspeople were away paying homage to the new sultan of Granada. After a short Castilian assault which inflicted heavy losses on the defenders, the garrison surrendered.

Castilian and Spanish Rule

Shortly after Gibraltar had been retaken, King Henry IV of Castile declared it Crown property and reinstituted the special privileges which his predecessor had granted during the previous period of Christian rule.[ He visited Gibraltar in 1463 but was overthrown by the nobility and clergy four years later. His half-brother Alonso was declared king and rewarded Medina Sidonia for his support with the lordship of Gibraltar. The existing governor, a loyalist of the deposed Henry IV, refused to surrender Gibraltar to Medina Sidonia. After a 15 month siege from April 1466 to July 1467, Medina Sidonia took control of the town. He died the following year but his son Enrique was confirmed as lord of Gibraltar by the reinstated Henry IV in 1469. His status was further enhanced by Isabella I of Castile in 1478 with the granting of the Marquisate of Gibraltar.

On 2 January 1492, after five years of war, the Moorish emirate in Spain came to an end with the Catholic Monarchs’ capture of Granada. Gibraltar remained in Spanish hands but lost its Jewish population, expelled from Spain by order of the monarchs. It was used by Medina Sidonia as a base for the Spanish capture of Melilla in North Africa in 1497. Two years later the remaining Moors of Granada were ordered to convert to Christianity or be expelled; many were evacuated via Gibraltar.

Gibraltar became Crown property again in 1501 at the order of Isabella and received a new set of royal arms the following year to replace those of Medina Sidonia. In the Royal Warrant accompanying the arms, Isabella highlighted Gibraltar’s importance as “the key between these our kingdoms in the Eastern and Western Seas”; the metaphor was represented on the royal arms by a golden key hanging from the front gate of a fortress.

By this time, Gibraltar had fallen into severe decline. The end of Muslim rule in Spain and the Christian capture of the southern ports considerably decreased the strategic value of Gibraltar. It had some minor economic value with wine and tunny-fishing industries but its usefulness as a fortress was now limited; it was effectively reduced to the status of an unremarkable stronghold on a rocky promontory and Marbella replaced it as the principal Spanish port in the region. Its inhospitable terrain made it an unpopular place to live and it effectively became a penal camp for Christian renegades and Moorish prisoners of war. The second Duke of Medina Sidonia nonetheless sought the town’s return and in September 1506, following Isabella’s death, he laid siege in the expectation that the gates would quickly be opened to his forces. This did not happen and after a fruitless four-month blockade, he gave up the attempt. The town received the title of “Most Loyal” from the Spanish crown in recognition of its faithfulness.

Despite continuing threats Gibraltar continued to be neglected and its fortifications fell into disrepair. Barbary pirates from North Africa took advantage of the weak defences in September 1540 by mounting a major raid on Gibraltar and seizing hundreds of citizens to hold as hostages or slaves. Many of the captives were subsequently released when a Spanish fleet intercepted the pirate ships as they were bringing ransomed hostages back to Gibraltar. The Spanish crown belatedly responded to Gibraltar’s vulnerability in 1552 by commissioning the Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Calvi to strengthen its fortifications. The seas around Gibraltar continued to be a dangerous place for decades to come as Barbary pirate raids continued; although a small squadron of Spanish galleys was based at the port to counter pirate raids, it proved to be of limited effectiveness and many Gibraltarians were abducted and sold into slavery by the pirates. In response to their plight, the mendicant friars of Our Lady of Ransom established a monastery at Gibraltar in 1581, where they begged for money with which to buy back the abducted. The problem worsened significantly after 1606, when Spain expelled its entire population of 600,000 Moriscos (Moors who had converted to Christianity). Many of the those expelled were evacuated to North Africa via Gibraltar but ended up joining the pirate fleets, either as Christian slaves or reconverted Muslims, and raided as far afield as Cornwall.

The threat of the Barbary pirates was soon joined by that of Spain’s enemies in northern Europe. On 5 May 1607 a Dutch fleet under Admiral Jacob van Heemskerk ambushed a Spanish fleet at anchor in the Bay of Gibraltar. The Dutch victory in the Battle of Gibraltar was total, losing no ships and very few men while the entire Spanish fleet was destroyed with the loss of 3,000 men. Although the Spanish and Dutch temporarily declared a truce ten years later to deal with the pirate threat, in 1621 hostilities were resumed with a joint Dutch and Danish fleet arriving in the Straits to attack Spanish shipping. This time, however, the Spanish succeeded in capturing and sinking a number of the attackers’ ships, driving away the rest.

In 1620, an English military presence was briefly established at Gibraltar for the first time when the Spanish granted permission for an English fleet to use the port as a base for operations against the Barbary pirates. The Spanish suspected, correctly, that the real purpose of the fleet was aimed against Spain rather than the Barbary coast. However, James I successfully resisted Parliamentary pressure to declare war on Spain and the fleet returned to England. A second English fleet arrived in 1625 with instructions to “take or spoil a town” on the Spanish coast. Gibraltar was proposed as a target on the basis that it was small, could easily be garrisoned, supplied and defended, and was in a highly strategic location. In the event, the English fleet attacked Cadiz, but the raid turned into a fiasco. The landing force gorged itself on wine stores in the town before being evacuated without achieving anything useful.

The presence of Spain’s enemies in the Straits prompted the Spanish King Philip IV to order a strengthening of Gibraltar’s defenses with the construction of a new mole and gun platforms, though the latter’s usefulness was limited due to a lack of gunners. The town remained an insanitary, crowded place, which probably contributed to the outbreak in 1649 of an epidemic disease which killed a quarter of the population. English fleets returned to Gibraltar in 1651-52 and again in 1654-55 as temporary allies of the Spanish against French and Dutch shipping in the Straits. After Spain declared war on England in February 1656, a fleet of 49 English warships manned by 10,000 sailors and soldiers put to sea in the Straits and reconnoitered Gibraltar at the suggestion of Oliver Cromwell, who expressed interest in its capture. However, the lack of a viable landing force precluded an English capture of Gibraltar at this time.

War of the Spanish Succession

In November 1700, Charles II of Spain died childless. The dispute over who should succeed him – the French Prince Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV of France or the Habsburg Archduke Charles of Austria – soon plunged Europe into a major war. Louis XIV supported Philip; England, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Savoy and some of the German states supported Charles, fearing that Philip’s accession would result in France dominating Europe and the Americas. In May 1702, Queen Anne formally declared war on France, opening the War of the Spanish Succession.

By this time Philip had been proclaimed as Philip V of Spain and had allied his kingdom with France. Spain thus became a target for the Anglo-Dutch-Austrian alliance. The confederates’ campaign was pursued both by land and by sea. The main land offensive was pursued in the Low Countries by the Duke of Marlborough, while naval forces under the command of Admiral Sir George Rooke harassed French and Spanish shipping in the Atlantic. In 1703, Marlborough devised a plan under which his forces would launch a surprise attack against the French and their Bavarian allies in the Danube basin while Rooke carried out a diversionary naval offensive in the Mediterranean. Rooke was instructed to attack French or Spanish coastal towns, though the choice of target was left to his discretion.

When Rooke arrived in the region several targets were considered. An attempt to incite the inhabitants of Barcelona to revolt against Philip V failed, and a plan to assault the French naval base at Toulon was abandoned. Casting around for an alternative target, Rooke decided to attack Gibraltar for three principal reasons: it was poorly garrisoned, it would be of major strategic value to the war effort and its capture would encourage the inhabitants of southern Spain to reject Philip.

The attack was launched on 1 August 1704 as a combined operation between the naval force under Rooke’s command and a force of Dutch and English marines under the command of Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt and Captain Whittaker of HMS Dorsetshire. After a heavy naval bombardment on 2 August, the marines launched a pincer attack on the town, advancing south from the isthmus and north from Europa Point. Gibraltar’s defenders were well stocked with food and ammunition but were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. The Spanish position was clearly untenable and on the morning of 4 November, the governor, Diego de Salinas, agreed to surrender.

The terms of surrender made it clear that Gibraltar had been taken in the name of Charles III of Spain, described in the terms as “legitimate Lord and King”. The inhabitants and garrison of Gibraltar were promised freedom of religion and the maintenance of existing rights if they wished to stay, on condition that they swore an oath of loyalty to Charles. The great majority chose to leave. As had happened two years previously in an Anglo-Dutch raid on Cadiz, the discipline of the landing forces soon broke down and there were numerous incidents of rape, Catholic churches but one (the Parish Church of St. Mary the Crowned, now the Cathedral) were desecrated or pressed into service as military storehouses, and religious symbols, such the statue of Our Lady of Europe, were damaged and destroyed. The angry inhabitants took reprisals, killing Englishmen and Dutchmen and throwing the bodies into wells and cesspits.

When the garrison marched out on 7 August almost all of the inhabitants, some 4,000 people in total, joined them. They had reason to believe that their exile would not last long; fortresses changed hands frequently at the time. Many thus resettled nearby in the ruins of Algeciras or around the old hermitage at San Roque at the head of the bay. They took with them the records of the city council including Gibraltar’s banner and royal warrant. The newly founded town of San Roque thus became, as Philip V put it in 1706, “My City of Gibraltar resident in its Campo”. A small population of neutral Genoese numbering some 70 people stayed behind in Gibraltar.

The confederates’ control of Gibraltar was challenged on 24 August when a French fleet entered the Straits. In the subsequent Battle of Malaga, both sides sustained heavy crew casualties though no loss of ships. The French withdrew to Toulon without attempting to assault Gibraltar. In early September a Franco-Spanish army arrived outside Gibraltar and prepared for a siege which they commenced on 9 October. Some 7,000 French and Spanish soldiers, aided by refugees from Gibraltar, were pitted against a force of around 2,500 defenders consisting of English and Dutch marines and Spaniards loyal to Charles. They were aided from late October by a naval squadron under Admiral Sir John Leake. A further 2,200 English and Dutch reinforcements arrived by sea with fresh supplies of food and ammunition in December 1704. With morale falling in the Franco-Spanish camp amid desertions and sickness, Louis XIV despatched Marshal de Tessé to take command in February 1705. A Franco-Spanish assault was beaten back with heavy casualties and on 31 March de Tessé gave up the siege.

Gibraltar was now nominally a possession of Charles of Austria but in practice it was increasingly ruled as a British possession. The British commandant, Major General John Shrimpton, was appointed by Charles as Gibraltar’s governor in 1705 on the advice of Queen Anne. The queen subsequently declared Gibraltar a free port at the insistence of the Sultan of Morocco, though she had no formal authority to do so. Shrimpton was replaced in 1707 by Colonel Roger Elliot, who was replaced in turn by Brigadier Thomas Stanwix in 1711; this time the appointments were made directly by London with no claim of authority from Charles. Stanwix was ordered to get rid of all foreign troops from Gibraltar to secure its status as an exclusively British possession but failed to evict the Dutch, apparently not considering them “foreign”.

The War of the Spanish Succession was finally settled in 1713 by a series of treaties and agreements. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, which brought together a number of sub-treaties and agreements, Philip V was accepted by Britain and Austria as king of Spain in exchange for guarantees that the crowns of France and Spain would not be unified. Various territorial exchanges were agreed, among them the cessation of the town, fortifications and port of Gibraltar (but not its hinterland) to Britain “for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever”. The treaty also stipulated that if Britain was ever to dispose of Gibraltar it would first have to offer the territory to Spain.

British Rule

Despite its later importance to Britain, Gibraltar was initially seen by the British Government as more of a bargaining counter than a strategic asset. Its defences continued to be neglected, its garrisoning was an unwelcome expense and Spanish pressure threatened Britain’s vital overseas trade. On seven separate occasions between 1713 and 1728 the British Government proposed to exchange Gibraltar for concessions from Spain, but on each occasion the proposals were vetoed by the British Parliament following public protests.

Spain’s loss of Gibraltar and other Spanish territories in the Mediterranean was resented by the Spanish public and monarchy alike. In 1717 Spanish forces retook Sardinia and in 1718 Sicily, both of which had been ceded to Austria under the Treaty of Utrecht. The effective Spanish repudiation of the treaty prompted the British initially to propose handing back Gibraltar in exchange for a peace agreement and, when that failed, to declare war on Spain. The Spanish gains were quickly reversed, a Spanish attempt to invade Scotland in 1719 failed and peace was eventually restored in 1721.

In January 1727, however, Spain declared the nullification of the Treaty of Utrecht’s provisions relating to Gibraltar on the grounds that Britain had violated its terms by extending Gibraltar’s fortifications beyond the permitted limits, allowing Jews and Moors to remain, failing to protect Catholics and harming Spain’s revenues by allowing smuggling. Spanish forces began a siege and bombardment of Gibraltar the following month, causing severe damage through intensive cannon fire. The defenders were nonetheless able to withstand the threat and were reinforced and resupplied by a British naval force. Bad weather and supply problems caused the Spanish to call off the siege at the end of June.

Britain’s hold on Gibraltar was reconfirmed in 1729 by the Treaty of Seville, which satisfied neither side; the Spanish had wanted Gibraltar returned, while the British disliked the continuation of the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain responded the following year by constructing a line of fortifications across the upper end of the peninsula, physically cutting off the town of Gibraltar from its hinterland. The fortifications, known to the British as the Spanish Lines, and to Spain as La Línea de Contravalación, were later to give their name to the modern-day town of La Línea de la Concepción. Gibraltar was effectively blockaded by land but was able to rely on trade with Morocco for food and other supplies.

Gibraltar’s civilian population increased steadily through the century to form a disparate mixture of Britons, Genoese, Jews, Spaniards and Portuguese. By 1754 there were 1,733 civilians in addition to 3,000 garrison soldiers and their 1,426 family members, bringing the total population to 6,159. The civilian population increased to 3,201 by 1777, including 519 Britons, 1,819 Roman Catholics (meaning Spanish, Portuguese, Genoese, etc.) and 863 Jews. Each group had its own distinctive niche within Gibraltarian society.

The fortifications of Gibraltar were modernised and upgraded in the 1770s with the construction of new batteries, bastions and curtain walls. The driving force behind this was the highly experienced Colonel (later Major General) William Green, who was to play a key role a few years later as chief engineer of Gibraltar. He was joined in 1776 by Lieutenant General George Augustus Elliot, a veteran of earlier wars against France and Spain who took over the governorship of Gibraltar at a key moment. Britain’s successes in the Seven Years War had left it with expensive new commitments in the Americas that had to be paid for, as well as catalysing the formation of an anti-British coalition in Europe. The British Government’s attempt to levy new taxes on the Thirteen Colonies of British America led to the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1776. Seeing an opportunity to reverse their own territorial losses, France and Spain declared war on Britain and allied with the American rebels.

In June 1779, Spain began the 14th and longest siege of Gibraltar, known as the Great Siege. The Spanish had learned the lessons of the failure of previous sieges and this time assaulted Gibraltar from both land and sea as well as cutting off its supply lines to Morocco. The intense bombardments from land batteries, gunboats and specially constructed “floating batteries” reduced much of the town of Gibraltar to ruins. The lack of food led to starvation and outbreaks of scurvy and other diseases. The garrison nonetheless held on, repelling several major Spanish attacks and carrying out sorties against the besieging forces. It was reinforced and restocked by several British supply convoys that successfully broke through the Spanish blockade of the Straits. The siege dragged on for over three and a half years before peace was finally declared with Britain ceding West Florida, East Florida and Minorca to Spain but keeping Gibraltar.

Gibraltar subsequently became a key base for the Royal Navy, first playing an important part prior to the Battle of Trafalgar. Its strategic value increased with the opening of the Suez Canal as it controlled the sea route between the UK and the British Empire east of Suez.

20th Century

During World War II, Gibraltar’s civilian population was evacuated and The Rock was strengthened as a fortress. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s reluctance to allow the German Army onto Spanish soil frustrated a German plan to capture The Rock, code-named Operation Felix. In the 1950s, Franco renewed Spain’s claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar and restricted movement between Gibraltar and Spain. Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to remain under British sovereignty in a 1967 referendum which led to the passing of the Gibraltar Constitution Order in 1969. In response, Spain completely closed the border with Gibraltar and severed all communication links. The border with Spain was partially reopened in 1982, and fully reopened in 1985 prior to Spain’s accession into the European Community.

21st Century

In a referendum held in 2002, Gibraltarians rejected by an overwhelming majority (99%) a proposal of shared sovereignty on which Spain and Britain were said to have reached “broad agreement”. The British government has committed itself to respecting the Gibraltarians’ wishes.

A new Constitution Order was approved in referendum in 2006. A process of tripartite negotiations started in 2006 between Spain, Gibraltar and the UK, ending some restrictions and dealing with disputes in some specific areas such as air movements, customs procedures, telecommunications, pensions and cultural exchange

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