In 1704 the Spanish town of Gibraltar capitulated after being attacked by Anglo-Dutch forces. The surrender was to the Hapsburg pretender to the throne of Spain, and not to any foreign power. It is something that is easy to forget given Gibraltar’s subsequent history. Even as late as 1994 Joe Bossano, then Prime Minister of Gibraltar, made just this mistake when he addressed the United Nations trying to make a case for the self determination of the Colony.
The majority of books about Gibraltar have mostly been written by Englishmen who also happened to be military men. There is much interest in matters of war, on imperial struggles for power and very little about anything else. The emphasis is on triumphalism with the Rock as an icon of military power and - after the Great Siege - of national pride. When the place was linked with Nelson and Trafalgar, it became a double symbol of the indomitable and tenacious character of the English both on land and at sea.
All these histories invariably fail to comment in any depth on how the civilian population of the Rock coped with the upheavals brought about by an overwhelming military presence or how they dealt with life in an atmosphere permeated by war. This failure is easily understandable. Gibraltar is one of the most fought over and most heavily fortified places on earth. For centuries, and long before the British arrived on the scene, it was directly involved in innumerable wars, sieges and skirmishes. There was little change after 1704.
The War of the Spanish Succession, the 12th Siege of Gibraltar, the Gunner’s War, the War of Jenkins’s Ear, of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the Great Siege of Gibraltar, the French Revolutionary Wars as well as the Peninsular War - all took place during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. All of them impinged directly or indirectly on Gibraltar.
There was little time and even less inclination to discuss the activities of a population of what were essentially camp-followers and whose numbers were at first always relatively small in comparison with the military garrison. But even during the nineteenth century when books about war were replaced by travelogues and guide books, the emphasis was on long descriptions of the Rock of Gibraltar itself, its formidable garrison and its imposing military fortifications. There are constant obsequious references to its Governors and its military heroes but when mention is made of the local non-British inhabitants the observations tend to range from the indifferent to the down-right contemptuous.
It is a Victorian conceit that the history of the Gibraltarian people is somehow synonymous with its military history and that the social history of Gibraltar really only starts some time after the beginning of the twentieth century by which time the place could be identified as a Fortress Colony rather than just a Fortress.
For me as a Gibraltarian, it seems perverse to try to understand ourselves via a history which only begins at some time in the past in which we become recognisable to others rather than to ourselves. It is even more perverse that many Gibraltarians continue to glory in historical events which however earth shattering and however much part of Gibraltar’s past, were never instigated by Gibraltarians.
The majority of books with titles which include the word ‘Gibraltarian’ tell us very little about the lives of the civilians who lived on the Rock before 1900 and exponentially less the further back we go. To my mind the history of any society should be that of a people in search of an identity, a language and a culture. Our increasing political awareness and gathering independence has made us mature as a social entity but my gut feeling is that we may still not be fully at ease either with our origins, our culture or indeed our language – or languages as we have more than one.
This is especially true when one realises that many of the negative comments which appear in so many histories and which make for such uneasy reading if one happens to be a Gibraltarian are often just plain wrong. Most were based on purely personal opinions. Some were written by lazy observers who were either uncritically repeating what had been written before or were simply basing their opinions on the appearances of several unsavoury characters which they happened to have noticed walking about in Main Street; all this after having spent only a few days on the Rock. The truth is that the majority of them had no idea who the locals were and seemed not particularly inclined to waste their time trying to find out.
With all these negatives it easy to forget one very real historical fact; the people of Gibraltar are the descendants of true survivors, of people who for more than three hundred years have grappled with the problem of living as a more or less politically powerless population within an overwhelming military presence. From almost every Governor to the lowliest private they were simply an inconvenient necessity.
It is also often forgotten by many British historians blinded by the brilliance of the heroics of their countrymen that the taking of Gibraltar is a history of failure. It failed to replace Philip V with the Hapsburg Charles III and almost by accident lead to the physical and cultural partition of a small peninsular from the rest of Spain. But mostly it failed in that it never became the ideal of so many of its administrators; a British colony populated by Protestant British people.
Today the standing army has left and the fortifications have become tourist attractions. Gibraltarians are still lumbered with a British Governor but they are slowly coming to terms with their colonial past. But to do so unreservedly I suspect that Gibraltarians need to break their artificial links with the Great Siege, Trafalgar, and all those wonderful stories of the heroes of the British Empire. We can sit back and admire but we are not really entitled to be proud of these events as they had nothing to do with most of us. Rather, we should spend more time trying to understand our own social history and how the few who struggled in those early days eventually became the many who live on the Rock today.