Gibraltar, a tiny, wind-swept crag may rank as the third-smallest territory on Earth, but it enjoys an outsized role in history and world affairs. It was a home for Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens, was featured prominently in Greek mythology, was a battleground for a host of civilizations and religions, is the only European home for Barbary macaques, and served as inspiration for an iconic American advertisement that was in reality fiction ginned up as fact.
Located in the southern region of the Iberian Peninsula the area was a desirable spot for hominids, owing to a large number of limestone caves, proximity to the sea, and a generally warmer locale. The species known as Neanderthal was named after the hominid remains discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. But the first of that species was discovered a full eight years earlier in 1848 at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a sea-level cave at its southern end. The Neanderthal known as Gibraltar I was an adult female estimated to be between 60,000 to 120,000 years old. Gibraltar II was the second Neanderthal skull found in the early 1900s and was a child estimated to be between 30,000 to 50,000 years old. Gibraltar was one of the last locations where Neanderthals lived in Europe. Archeological evidence exists that early Homo Sapiens also resided in the area, suggesting the species overlapped.
Greek mythology noted the importance of Gibraltar as the site of one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. The Labors were set down in an epic poem written by Peisander around 600 B.C. The logline of the story is Hercules went temporarily insane and killed his wife and children. Once recovered, as atonement, he was to carry out 12 labors. If successful, Hercules would be granted immortality. The Tenth Labor, the Cattle of Geryon, is where Gibraltar comes in. Hercules was to steal cattle from Geryon, a fearsome four-winged, three-bodied giant who lived in the westernmost region of the Mediterranean. To make a long story short, Hercules stole the cattle (prized for their coats stained red by the setting sun), slew Geryon, and smashed apart the mountain that stood in his way. The result is the Strait of Gibraltar and “The Pillars of Hercules.” The northern pillar is known as the Rock of Gibraltar, but then was called Calpe Mons. The southern pillar Abila Mons, is thought to be either Monte Hacho in Spanish-controlled Ceuta, or Jebel Musa in Morocco. The distance between the two pillars is 14 miles.
The territory called Gibraltar was named after a Berber from North Africa, Tāriq ibn Ziyād. Tāriq was a Berber commander who hailed from North Africa. Sometime in the early 700’s A.D. Tāriq was appointed governor of a region of North Africa, and the man who appointed him, Musa ibn Nusayr, sent his daughter to be educated in the court of Julian, Count of Ceuta (also in North Africa). But Roderic, a Visigoth king who was visiting Julian, raped Nusayr’s daughter. Enraged, Tāriq was dispatched from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula to avenge Nusayr’s honor. Tāriq’s army of 7,000 horsemen landed in Gibraltar at the foot the mountain which was later named in his honor – Djabal Tarik – Tāriq’s Mountain (the cavalry was later supplemented with 5,000 soldiers). Tāriq was an exceptional battle commander and ended up capturing much of the Iberian Peninsula. It was not until 1492 that the Moors were driven from Spain.
Once Tāriq came onto the scene, control and ownership of Gibraltar went back and forth for nearly 1,000 years – Muslims fought Christians, kings fought each other, and political greed was sprinkled in as an acrid spice. Spain prized Gibraltar as a critical outpost, and to guard the entrance of the Mediterranean. A formidable peak (running north south through the center of the land) reaches a height of 1,396 feet, there is a safe harbor on the western side, the location offers protection of Spain’s southern flank. But thanks to the fickle whims of fate and politics, Great Britain, with no likely claim to Gibraltar, gained a valuable prize.
Great Britain’s windfall was all due to the War of the Spanish Succession (July 1701 – March 1714). The stage and players were assembled when King Charles II died in November 1700. He was a terrible choice as a king of Spain. Crowned when he was just four years old, he suffered from ill health and depression all his life (possibly due to inbreeding). Despite having married twice, Charles II was childless. To make matters worse he was not Spanish, but from the Hapsburg Empire. He died just a few days shy of his 39th birthday. To other European monarchs the greater concern was not who succeeded Charles as king, but who could control of the territories of Spain. At stake was the balance of power in Europe, and that greed sparked the War of the Spanish Succession.
France was a key player and had much to gain. To be fair, Charles II had bequeathed Spanish lands to his grandnephew Phillip of France, but only the French were interested in that salient fact. To thwart French ambitions an alliance of Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, the Vatican, and Austria rallied against the French. Fighting went on for nearly 14 years, and at the end, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed (it was negotiated and finalized from April 1713 to April 1715). As part of the treaty (and for a number of complicated reasons), Gibraltar was awarded to Great Britain; considered by many to have been the main beneficiary of the War of the Spanish Succession. But Gibraltar’s importance in world affairs was far from over.
One group of residents enjoying a good life on Gibraltar could care less about the outcome of the War of the Spanish Succession. Barbary macaques may have been living comfortably in the area for as long as 5.5 million years. However, many believe they were brought over from Africa when Tāriq invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the 700s. To be more accurate, they are monkeys that originated from the Atlas and Riff mountains of Morocco. They are Gibraltar’s top tourist draw and the small population lives an easy and protected life. About 300 macaques live in five troops on the upper reaches of Gibraltar (though they will occasionally venture into the town). From 1915 through 1991 they were cared for by the British army (a task since taken over by the territorial government). The population is kept in check through birth control, the primates are well fed, and they are given identification tattoos and microchips to track the population. Births of offspring are announced in the local paper, and the young are often given the names of prominent military figures and important people. And while they are generally accustomed to people, they are still wild and can bite if annoyed or frightened. Feeding them is a strict violation and can result in a fine of up to $5,000 (£4,000). It is thought that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said that as long as Barbary macaques remained on Gibraltar, the territory would remain a British possession.
During World War II Gibraltar was a vital asset for the Allies. (Remember, Portugal and Spain were technically neutral in the war.) Gibraltar’s commanding heights enabled the British to control who had access into and out of the Mediterranean Sea. That meant Allied sea traffic could be routed more directly through the Suez Canal, rather than all the way around Africa. The protected harbor on the west side of Gibraltar was a key refitting and refueling station that served Allied ships in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Inside the upper limestone reaches miles and miles of tunnels were excavated in order to house troops, command centers, supplies, and materiel. And the airstrip that bisects the territory at the northern end was used by Allied bombers and planes. In short, Gibraltar in Allied hands helped bring about a quicker conclusion to World War II.
Even though Gibraltar is only 2.6 square miles in total area, it has always had a prickly relationship with Spain. This began with the Treaty of Utrecht. Though she signed the treaty, Spain voiced objections to British possession of Gibraltar. There are still ongoing disputes as to exactly how much territory might have been awarded to Great Britain (Spain claims the British have control over just the old fortress area of the city, and has encroached into a neutral zone, while Great Britain claims a larger area). The airstrip was unilaterally built on neutral ground by the British in 1938 while Spain was busy fighting a civil war eventually won by General Francisco Franco. In the British referendum of 2016 to decide if Great Britain would exit the European Union (“Brexit”) more than 95 percent of Gibraltar residents who voted (83 percent) wanted to remain in the EU. Like the nettlesome Treaty of Utrecht, Gibraltar’s status with Great Britain, a relationship to Spain, and how it might or might not fit into a newly-configured EU is still open to debate.
Even though Gibraltar is part of Europe and a territory of Great Britain, the iconic image of her dramatic, craggy peak was co-opted by an American insurance company as far back as 1896. Prudential Friendly Society (better known as Prudential Insurance), retained the services of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and devised with the slogan, “The Prudential has the strength of Gibraltar.” Despite the fact “The Rock” was riddled with a honeycomb of tunnels, it was a winning campaign. Using an enduring line drawing of the craggy peak, in later years the iconic phrase was added, “Own a piece of the rock.”
To the world it is known as Gibraltar. To the locals who live there, she is referred to more casually as “Gib” (jib). But throughout history this small rocky spit of land has played a major role in the history of the world. Her reputation is secure, and she will always be, “Solid as the Rock of Gibraltar.”
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