A Brief History of Gibraltar

Author: Ed Cohen

Thanks to the logo of the Prudential Insurance Company (“Get a Piece of the Rock.”) many Americans imagine Gibraltar to be an island. It isn’t.

It’s the tip of a narrow peninsula on which stands the famous 1,400-foot-high chunk of Jurassic limestone, symbol of strength and stability. Bare on one side but largely covered with wild olive trees, petal cactus and other vegetation everywhere else, the Rock of Gibraltar is believed to have been formed by the collision of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates some 55 million years ago.

In 1848 the skull of an ancient woman was discovered at the foot of the steep northern face. Eight years later a similar skull was found in the Neander Valley near Duesseldorf in Germany. Gibraltarians argue that based on the timing of the discoveries the species of homo sapiens represented in the finds should have been dubbed Gibraltar Woman instead of Neanderthal Man.

The Greeks referred to the Rock of Gibraltar as Calpe, meaning vessel or ship. Along with Mont Abyla in Morocco it formed the Pillars of Hercules, western boundary of the known world. The nearby Straits of Gibraltar, between Spain and Africa, connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.

Various theories exist as to the origins of the name Gibraltar. The most likely involves the Muslim invasion of Europe from North Africa. In 711 A.D., the Berber chief Tarik Ibn Ziyad established a fortress on Calpe, renaming it Jebal Tarik (one of several spellings), which means “mountain of Tarik” in Arabic. Jebal Tarik presumably morphed into Gibraltar.

The Moors dominated Gibraltar for seven centuries. Spain controlled the Rock mainly from 1462 until the early 1700s. Anglo-Dutch forces captured the territory in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession, and the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht ceded it permanently to Britain. Spain tried and failed to recapture Gibraltar during a series of bloody sieges in the 18th century.

Today a grudging acceptance prevails between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar. Starting in 1969 the Spanish dictator Franco closed the border entirely for 13 years, and it remained closed to motor vehicles for another three. Spain sometimes still enforces lengthy delays for cars crossing into Gibraltar. The border sees about 4 million crossings each year, many of them Spaniards who live in the border town of La Linea and commute to jobs in the British territory.

In recent years Spain has proposed sharing sovereignty over Gibraltar, but the Gibraltarians won’t hear of it. In 2002 nearly 99 percent of them voted against a referendum on shared sovereignty. The celebration of the tricentennial of British rule last August 4 culminated in an estimated 17,000 of the colony’s 30,000 citizens holding hands for 15 minutes in forming a human chain around their Rock.

Gibraltar covers only about 2 ½ square miles, and flat land is so scarce that almost half of the runway at the tiny Gibraltar airport extends out into the bay. The only road into town runs directly across the runway, and traffic has to be halted during landings and takeoffs.

English is the official language, but everyone speaks Spanish too. The ethnic origins of residents are a mix of British, Spanish, Genoese, Maltese, Portuguese and German. The largest religious group by far is Roman Catholic, but there are members of the Church of England, Sephardic Jews, Muslims and Hindus. Everyone co-exists peacefully.

Gibraltar gained fame in 1969 as he site of the wedding of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, an event immortalized in the Beatles’ “Ballad of John and Yoko.” The story goes that the couple was frustrated in attempts to wed at sea (aboard a ferry to the European mainland) or in Paris; they didn’t have passports. As the lyrics recall, “Peter Brown,” who worked in Lennon’s office, “called to say, you can make it OK, you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain.” Lennon, being a British citizen, didn’t need a passport to get married in Gibraltar.

At a store in the town of Gibraltar you can buy a framed copy of Lennon and Ono’s marriage certificate with photos of the couple arriving at the Gibraltar airport. Price: about $55.