For centuries, the limestone promontory of Gibraltar has been one of the most disputed territories in Europe. Its position on the cusp of the Mediterranean Sea, on the bottom tip the southern Spanish seaboard, combined with a unique topographical formation that places it among some of the most naturally defensible positions in the world, has made it a much-coveted site for military encampment since its first settlement in ancient times. As a lingering source of diplomatic tension even today, the story of this rock is in many ways inexorably tied to the political tale of its nearest neighbour, Spain, and the country’s historical development in Western Europe as a whole.
Human settlement on Gibraltar was first recorded in the 10th century BC, at a time when the sea faring colonial powers of ancient Greece were fanning out across the Mediterranean and beyond. When the Romans finally conquered the same territory, Gibraltar’s suitability as a site for militaristic fortification was already well established, and the rock had begun to take its place in a mythological narrative that was to celebrate its place as controller of the seas.
Named as one of the mythical Pillars of Hercules, the rock of Gibraltar has long been seen as gatekeeper of the Med. When Moorish invaders settled on the peninsular in the 8th century AD, they were quick to establish lasting fortifications that were to ensure Gibraltar’s defence for the next 700 years. Only after a war-filled period of almost 100 years, when Christianised Spanish forces made attempt after attempt to reclaim the rock, did it fall to the Reconquista and undergo annexation into the Kingdom of Spain. One thing however had been made clear, and the evidence still lingers in the form of formidable Moorish fortification walls and keeps on the rocky hillsides of the peninsular today; once lost, Gibraltar was not easy to get back.
Fortifying and maintaining this natural hot spot of naval power in the Med should have been a priority of the Spanish monarchy in the period between re-Christianisation and the advent of the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but from around the 1500s onwards Gibraltar actually suffered a period of regression. It became one of southern Spain’s administrative districts, and the name Gibraltar was expanded to refer to all the local municipalities within the boundaries of the peninsular on the sea and the Guadiaro River near Malaga.
After centuries without the proper military development, Gibraltar entered one of Spain’s most formative periods of war both vulnerable and unprepared. When coalition forces were victorious against Spain in 1713, the treaty signed at Utrecht rendered the peninsular part of British overseas territory, immediately signalling a period of intense fortification that was to bring Gibraltar once more to the fore of naval combat and tactical warfare in Europe.
Eager to recapture their lost territory, Spain surrounded the rock in 1779. With the help from their French allies, they hoped Gibraltar would fall quickly. But this oft-besieged rock held out, and after one of the longest sieges in all of military history (lasting until 1783), Gibraltar had once again proved itself an elusive prize.
The British garrison was now defending a fully-fledged colony with almost 6000 inhabitants from all over its sovereign territories. As Gibraltar flourished and remained defiant, Spain grew more anxious to once more annexe the rock that was proving a thorn it its proverbial side.
With the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars, Spain seized its chance, and a naval alliance with France was once more the method of approach. After two pitched sea battles (Battles of Algeciras) with the royal navy the Spanish forces were heavily weakened and were unable to recapture the rock; Gibraltar remained the impregnable fortress Britannia its commanders had hoped it would be. In 1805 Spanish hopes for successful naval conquest of the rock were finally dashed, when Admiral Lord Nelson crushed the Spanish-French fleets off Trafalgar, using Gibraltar as his base of action and resupply.
After use as a major base for the royal navy during the first and second world wars, Gibraltar has become something of an enduring symbol of British naval might, and one that has often proved a little too close for comfort for the Spanish establishment on the mainland. Indeed the relationship between the UK and Spain has undergone fewer stresses more testing than those presented by this rocky promontory on the Med.
In the 20th century the Spanish government pursued a diplomatic course of action to facilitate the return of Gibraltar, incorporating border closures and other isolation methods to try and bring it back to the fold. But today, Gibraltar remains defiantly British, and a continuing source of tension and historical interest in the story of Spain as a whole.