Gibraltar: Past and Present

Original cover image courtesy of Julia Jarzyna


In 1704, during the  War of Spanish succession, a combined Anglo-Dutch force under the command of Admiral George Rooke seized the town of Gibraltar. By 1713, Gibraltar was ceded to the Crown of Great Britain in perpetuity under Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, and hence, became one of the many colonies of the British Empire that underwent the process of imperialism.


For Mackenzie (1988: IX), “Imperialism was more than a set of economic, political and military phenomena. It was a habit of mind which had… intellectual, cultural, and technical expressions”. In the contemporary world, these intellectual, cultural and technical expression are still seen in the form of legacy left by the various empires that have existed throughout history. For instance, the high rate of Catholicism found in South America is the outcome of the work done by Spanish missionaries during the era of Spanish colonisation of the New World (Archie, 2006). Thus, it can be suggested that the legacy of the Spanish Empire in South America is imprinted in the region’s religion. 

Due to its former status as a colonial and military powerhouse, Hedetoft (1985) argues that the imprint of the British Empire that has been left embedded in many of its former colonies is the idea of superiority.  Attained through successes in hardships and battles, this self-belief in superiority is the foundation upon which the ‘fighting spirit’ of the masses is built on during the times of turbulence (Hedetoft, 1985). Through the use of a field diary, which involved taking notes and pictures of various sites, this essay will aim to showcase how this idea of superiority is still present and how continues to fuel the fighting spirit of contemporary Gibraltar.

Despite the transfer to the Great British crown in 1713, Gibraltar was never truly considered to be British till 1783 (Plank, 2013). Debates about Gibraltar during this time revealed political divisions within the British government and brought into question; the purpose of imperialist expansion, Mediterranean commerce, and British relations with Spain, Berber states, and France (Plank, 2013). For many ministers, the character and demographics of Gibraltar was more synonymous with the Mediterranean, not Britain. Fundamentally, “the debates surrounding Gibraltar centred on the question of what it meant to call the place ‘British’, if it was appropriate to call it British at all” (Plank, 2013: 348). Hence, in-between the period of 1713-1783, British politicians would often toy with the idea of trading Gibraltar away for another territory (Conn, 1942).

In 1775 the American Revolutionary War began which not only pitted Britain against American colonies in North America but also against France and Spain in Europe. In 1776, Lieutenant Eliott was instilled as the Governor of Gibraltar and in 1778 he was told to prepare Gibraltar for a Spanish Siege (Plank, 2013). Elliot in response rebuilt Gibraltar’s fortifications and told the people of Gibraltar to grow to their own food (Plank, 2013). In the anticipation of a siege and the breakdown in communication between Gibraltar and the rest of the world, in September of 1979, Governor Eliott ordered his troops to begin firing on the Spanish lines which led for the start of the Great Siege of Gibraltar (Plank, 2013). As observed in the Gibraltar Natural Museum, the Great Siege was the longest siege to which the British Military have ever been subject to. During the siege, which lasted 43 months with no normal supply, Eliott utilised the Rock of Gibraltar. According to a tour guide, the north side of the rock was established as an Upper Galleries which mounted 22 guns. This combined with Koehler depression carriage allowed for Eliott and his troops to fire canons downwards from the lofty height of the G Gibraltar Rock (figure 1). Instances of bravery were also present as exemplified in 1781 when the British Garrison in Gibraltar made a daring, silent, sortie into the Spanish lines, spiking their guns and delaying their attack in process (figure 2). Writers stationed during this time were quick to point out that the defenders of Gibraltar were unconditionally British despite many of them not being from mainland Britain. In the end, Gibraltar was held and the Spanish siege of Gibraltar was unsuccessful.  

Due the losses suffered in North America, an impression of weakness was formulating within the empire. However, the success in the Great Siege “had given the British something rare to celebrate” (Plank, 2013: 368). The Great Siege characterised British virtues: discipline, patience and the willingness to endure (Plank, 2013). Hence, a patriotic pride of Gibraltar had formulated within the British Empire. The Rock of Gibraltar itself symbolised the British character and held a special place in the hearts of the British public due its status of being an impregnable fortress. As Great Britain continued to get stronger throughout the 19th century, the Rock of Gibraltar was seen in the public as a representation of the British might and endurance as exemplified by the saying ‘As strong as rock of Gibraltar’ (Garratt, 2018). Hence, it can be deduced that the sense of superiority by the British people was the product of the Great Siege and its relationship with the Rock of Gibraltar. The Great Siege solidified the notion of Britishness within Gibraltar.

While the days of the British Empire are long over, the sense of superiority fuelled by the success in the Great Siege still holds weight within contemporary Gibraltar. Tourist activities that fuel Gibraltar’s economy today all still make a reference to the siege and therefore counts towards the legacy of the British Empire. As seen by my visit to the Gibraltar National Museum, the biggest and the most informative section part of the museum is rooted around the Great Siege. For example, figure 3 showcases the painting by J.S Copley titled ‘The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar’. As expected, this was the biggest painting observed in the museum. If museums are considered as sites of story telling and education, then it can be suggested that the Great Siege was and still is the most important story of Gibraltarian history. It also represents pride and confidence, or in other words ‘superiority’, that continues to fuel Gibraltar in the face of the varying geopolitical issues that the country has suffered and might potentially suffer after Brexit. However, the reference to the Great Siege goes further than just tourist activities. For example, the ten-pound note of Gibraltar (figure 4) is dedicated to the Great Siege. According to a museum supervisor, the picture on the note depicts a dying Spanish officer who had refused the aid of Governor Eliott. Eliott offered him aid due to the officer’s bravery in fighting the British, despite being abandoned and injured. As well as showcasing superiority, the note represents the morality and the cultural expression of the British Empires military.

Despite limited involvement in World War 1 and 2, Gibraltar’s self-belief in superiority that was achieved during the Great Siege was still a very important foundation to the fighting spirit and sacrifice of the Gibraltarians. British Empire belief in Gibraltar was also intact, despite some rumblings of giving the territory away for Ceuta in 1919, Lord Curzon stated that: 

“Even now the Rock of Gibraltar was regarded by a great number of people as a pivot and symbol of Britain’s naval strength in the Mediterranean, and any suggestions to give it up would… create such a commotion throughout the empire as had not been know for a century” (National Archive, 1919).

World War Two was the first time since the Great Siege that Gibraltar was under fire again. For example, in 1940 the French Vichy government authorised various bombing raids on Gibraltar which caused heavy destruction in the town and killed four people (figure 5). For majority of Gibraltarians it wasn’t the fighting spirit on the battlefield that characterised their superiority, it was during the mass evacuation of 13000 Gibraltarians that took place in 1940. Many of those evacuated didn’t return for many years even after the war had ended. Rather than staying where they had settled, majority of Gibraltarians’ did indeed return back which showcases their belief in Gibraltar’s superiority (figure 6). 

Contemporary Gibraltar encapsulates the notion of superiority. As this essay has showed, the catalyst of self-belief in superiority was the Great Siege of Gibraltar. This in-turn has been very much showcased throughout Gibraltar’s culture and history and often been used as a foundation for fighting spirit and sacrifice as exemplified by WW2. Though this belief in superiority falls very much under the characteristic of the British Empire, and therefore is the legacy of the empire.

The future of Gibraltar looks very uncertain after the 2016 referendum results revealed the British desire to leave the European Union. However, despite its potential impacts on Gibraltar, one thing can be certain Gibraltar will continuously use their self-belief in their superiority to be the base of their fighting spirit against times of turbulence. 

The above could not have been accomplished without the help of the following:

Archer, E.G. (2006) Gibraltar, Identity and Empire, London: Routledge.

Conn, S. (1942) Gibraltar in British Diplomacy in the Eighteenth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Garratt, G.T. (2018) Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, Palala Press.

Hedetoft, J. (1985) British colonialism and modern identity, Aalborg University Press.

Mackenzie, J. (1988) The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Minutes of the Gibraltar-Ceuta-sub-committee, 10/01/1919, The National Archive/Public Record Office, CAB 27/51.

Plank, G. (2013) ’Making Gibraltar British in the Eighteenth Century’, History, 98, 331, 346-369.


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