The history of Gibraltar: Everything you need to know
12 April 2023
Gibraltar is a rock with a special status. As such, this unique piece of land on the European continent has a special history. It dates back to the 18th century when an English, and Dutch fleet conquered Gibraltar. With Gibraltar’s strategic location, it is not surprising that the peninsula has been conquered and reconquered several times throughout history. Since 1713, the rock has been in the hands of the British.
The history of Gibraltar
In this article, we take you on an exciting journey through the rich history of Gibraltar, also known as The Rock.
However, the rock had been inhabited for much longer. Evidence of habitation by Neanderthals was found in several caves, such as Gorham’s cave. Just after World War II, prehistoric tools and ancient fire pits were found in this cave. At that time, sea levels were still much lower and the Rock of Gibraltar lay on an open plain. The higher cave was an excellent shelter for the prehistoric inhabitants of the area.
In ancient times, Gibraltar was mainly used as a place of worship. No evidence of longer habitation has been found. Only Roman cities are founded nearby, though. Patron gods are honoured in the various caves, probably by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans who roamed the seas there.
After the Romans
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Gibraltar, like the rest of Spain, was a plaything in the hands of different peoples. It is only with the conquest of the Moors in 710 that some peace returns to the peninsula. It is the Moors who first see the strategic significance of the rock. They build a large fortress on top of it. This fort can still be admired today. The Moorish tower stands proudly. The name of Gibraltar is a corruption of the Arabic Jebel Tariq, which means as much as Rock of Tariq; the leader of the Moors.
In the 15 century, the Spanish come to power for the first time. During the Reconquista, the re-conquest of Spain from the Muslims, Gibraltar and the area around Granada were captured last. The Spanish king appropriated the title of King of Gibraltar. The Jews who had helped in the conquest from the Moors were allowed to stay in the city as a reward. This was while they were severely persecuted in the rest of Spain. The Jewish inhabitants were still expelled from the city in 1476. Nevertheless, a large Jewish community lives in Gibraltar to this day. As a percentage of the total population, it is even the second-largest Jewish living community in the world.
For three centuries, the Spanish controlled ship traffic through the Strait of Gibraltar from the Rock of Gibraltar and so did the Mediterranean. With the discovery of new territories in the Americas and increasing shipping and trade towards Africa and Asia, this position became increasingly important.
Not surprisingly, direct competition also had its eye on Gibraltar. In 1607, the Spanish fleet is already surprised by the Dutch led by Jacob van Heemskerk. It reduced the entire fleet to ashes, but ignored Gibraltar. That was different a century later. Although the peace of Munster has already ended the war between Spain and the Netherlands, the young republic of the Netherlands and Spain are still at war. This time, the Dutch joined the English who, during the War of the Spanish Succession, wanted to prevent France from taking control of an even larger territory in Europe. (The Spanish king had died childless, and the French king laid claim to the Spanish throne) In the English, the Dutch found an ally who was also only too eager to make the powerful Spain capitulate. On 4 August, the attack was launched by an English, Dutch fleet. Admiral George Rook fired 15,000 cannonballs at the city from the water. When the marines enter the city the next day, they meet little resistance.
Peace of Utrecht
During the Peace of Utrecht, which ended the war, it was determined that Gibraltar would remain British territory forever. This was reaffirmed again in 1763 and again in 1783 at other peace talks. Gibraltar is part of the British Empire for all eternity.
Needless to say, the Spanish are not happy with this English enclave within their Spanish empire. Spain at this point is a world power on the wane (18th century), but it does not give in easily. In 1726, the neighbouring country already attempted to reconquer, but this resulted in a truce. In 1779, history repeated itself once more and the Spanish lay siege to Gibraltar. No one could get in or out. With a grand display of power, the rock is sealed off from the outside world. This siege lasts until 1783 and takes its toll on the population of the rock. There were major food shortages. The tunnels in the rock, which can still be visited, were built at that time.
This is because people had problems aiming the cannons down sharply enough to hit ships in the bay. The tunnels made it possible to fire the cannons at a sharp angle without being in danger themselves. The siege came to a climax in 1782. The Spanish ships present were equipped with wet sand and wet cork between the dry ship’s timbers to prevent them from catching fire again due to the intense bombardment. This helped for a while, but by the end of the day, the bay is still filled with burning Spanish galleons. The siege is lifted. The tunnels constructed during the siege are built on.
World War II
These tunnels again serve in World War II. As one of the last Allied support points, Gibraltar was of great importance. From here, the British could conduct operations on both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Most of the population was evacuated during the war, but some 4,000 soldiers remained behind to defend the rock.
There were also some 225 Dutch Englanders who managed to reach the English island via the Gibraltar route. Franco refused to allow German soldiers into Spanish territory so it was virtually impossible for the Germans to capture the rock.
From Gibraltar, Malta, among others, was supplied with food during the siege by the Germans. Nice detail from this time; according to lore, the British would not be driven out until the monkeys left the rock. Winston Churchill made sure the monkeys were not short of food during the war and the population was kept up. There are even rumours that he had some monkeys imported from the African continent.
After World War II, however, Franco did renew his claim to Gibraltar. He closed the border and hampered trade and passenger traffic between Gibraltar and Spain. The population itself, however, did not want to join Spain. England’s position after the war was also too strong to counter with military force. Franco did not dare to do this. In 1967, the people of Gibraltar even declared themselves sovereign.
Henceforth, internal affairs were settled by the population itself. Only foreign affairs were decided by the British. Following this, the Spaniards closed the border again for several years. However, it did not cause a change in governance. From 1985, normal traffic was possible again. The last attempt to add Gibraltar to the Spanish kingdom was in 2002. Again a referendum was called to allow Gibraltar to join Spain. Again, the population was clear. Things had to stay as they were. Gibraltar thus remains to be Britain.
The modern history of Gibraltar
Although a thick majority of Gibraltarians voted against the Brexit, Gibraltar remains part of the British Empire. The Brexit, in all likelihood, will not change this.
Thank you for reading: The history of Gibraltar: Everything you need to know.