top of page

The Rock of Ages : Gibraltar. The peculiar peninsula

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

The 11th April is a significant day for Gibraltar, the day the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, gifting the rock to Britain

The Treaty of Utrecht is the area of expertise for specialist historians, the people of Gibraltar and Brits living in Spain. A treaty which set the foundation of a new era in Europe.

The Background

Before Carlos II, King of Spain died in 1700, having no direct heirs, he named the French Bourbon, Philip, Duke of Anjou as successor. However, Philip was not short on offers and was also in line for the French throne. The Treaty of Utrecht was part of several Peace Treaties drawn up across the century in the aftermath of the Spanish wars of succession that raged across Europe over whether the new Spanish royalty would come from the French Bourbon or Austrian Hapsburg dynasties.

The treaties included Spain, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Savoy and the Dutch Republic and allowed Philip to take the Spanish throne as Philip V, enshrining the rights of succession of the Bourbon family as Charles II had intended. In return for this position he would renounce his claim to the French throne and any possibility of Spain and France merging. This ended the French ambitions in Europe represented by the wars of Louis XIV and restored the European ‘balance of power.’

Gibraltar in the treaty

France and Great Britain had already signed the preliminaries of peace in October 1711. The preliminaries were based on an acceptance of the partition of Spain's European possessions. Philip V agreed to these terms which as well as dividing territory amongst the other European powers also ceded Gibraltar and Menorca to Great Britain, under Article X which stated “the town, castle and fortifications were to be held and enjoyed for ever without any exception or impediment whatsoever.” The full text can be read here. The treaty was renewed again in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris, and in 1783 by the Treaty of Versailles.

Further impacts

Menorca was British until it was returned to Spain in perpetuity in 1802. Gibraltar has remained a British dependency territory ever since. The Peace of Utrecht had wide reaching impacts far beyond Gibraltar, with settlements of sovereignty over territories in the Americas and consolidation of claims across Europe. Mostly the resolution of French territorial claims and military bases and Spanish territories across the continent, such as the Netherlands. Spain also ceded monopoly of the Atlantic slave trade to Britain, who would in turn abolish the trade a little over a century later and go on to enforce the decision on the rest of the European powers, the West African Squadron that patrolled the African coast hunting down slavers used Gibraltar to resupply and rest between home port of Portsmouth and their operations.

Article XIII of the Treaty upheld the historical rights of Cataluña which were deemed under threat, considering Cataluña had supported the Hapsburg cause. Philip was to lay siege to Barcelona the next year, effectively ending the Principality of Cataluña as a political entity and sowing the seeds for many of the resentments and complications of the current complications in the region.

San Roque - The Spanish exodus

Much like today, there were some people that wanted to remain a part of Spain, although in 1713 these people inhabited the rock of Gibraltar. To demonstrate their desire to remain Spanish, they moved to San Roque, taking with them the Spanish Gibraltar’s city council, records and banners. As reward for their loyalty, the Spanish King recognised San Roque as ‘Gibraltar in exile’ the city motto is “Very Noble and Very Loyal city of San Roque, where those of Gibraltar reside.” Even today Spanish Gibraltar lives on.

Defiant Stronghold

Across the centuries, the rock of Gibraltar has attracted much interest from foreign parties and was repeatedly attacked. These attacks were successfully defended. This includes the Great Siege of Gibraltar 1779-82 by the Spanish, culminating in the Grand Assault in which the Rock defended itself against 60,000 men and 49 ships with only a 5,000 strong Gibraltar Garrison.

The vital strategic importance came into play during the Napoleonic era. With Gibraltar effectively the gateway from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Gibraltar served as a staging post for the British Navy to blockade France, the Battle of Trafalgar was the Franco Spanish attempt to break that blockade. Gibraltar also played a vital role in the Peninsula war that followed as Britain liberated Portugal and Spain of Napoleonic rule.

Gibraltar & the Plazas de Soberanía

The Rock, as it is commonly referred to, has been a dog whistle political issue in Spain, a topic that surges the melody of the patriotic heart strings of Spaniards even if history tends to be considered an unwelcome intrusion in the chorus. The Spanish Royals refused to attend the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer as the couple planned to board the Royal Yacht Britannia from the port of Gibraltar on their honeymoon. In 2012 the Spanish Government abruptly refused to permit Queen Sofia to attend a luncheon for Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee as reprisal for Prince Edward visiting the Rock. It is not uncommon for Spanish Governments to close the border with Gibraltar when in times of political difficulty. Spain relentlessly arguing for their sovereign claim on the peninsula.

The hypocritical thorn in the Spanish side is the existence of the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the north coast of Morocco. The two cities and a series of small islands are collectively known as the Plazas de Soberanía, literally the "Places of Sovereignty". Spain insists they form part of the contiguous sovereign territory of the Kingdom, much to the chagrin of the Morrocans. The security fences that encircle the enclave cities are often referred to as the frontline of the European immigrant crisis by the Spanish Government, an expensive security operation that would be resolved if the territories were ceded to Morroco. Spain hotly disputes the Morrocan claim, citing the fact that Morroco has no claim to the territories, with the state of Morroco not even in existence until centuries after the founding of the cities. Curiously this is the legal position that prevents Argentina from heading to International courts of arbitration over the Falklands. Modern era law is built upon the universal right of self determination and not claims on territory. If the people of Ceuta and Melilla have the right to remain Spanish then how is this any different for the people of Gibraltar? Furthermore, Spain was ceded the enclave cities by Portugal as part of the terms the separation of the two Iberian Kingdoms a mere half century before a similar agreement was made regarding Gibraltar. How is one expected to be respected if the other is not?

Self Determined

Gibraltar has it’s own dialect ‘Llanito’ and unique architecture which comes from the large number of Genoese settlers during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also home to the oldest Jewish community in the Iberian Peninsula, those expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490’s who returned when Gibraltar was ceded to the British.

These people with their own dialect and culture have been asked if they wish to remain under British sovereignty in more recent times through the democratic process of a referendum. The first to trigger the referendum process was General Franco in the 1960’s and so in 1967 a referendum was held. Those in favour of British sovereignty were 12,138, those in favour of Spanish sovereignty were just 44, this represented a 73.4% voter turnout. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar at the time, Peter Caruana said “there is more chance of hell freezing over than the people of Gibraltar accepting Spanish sovereignty in any shape or form.”

Times, politics and hairstyles change. In this spirit a referendum was held again in 2002 posing the question ‘Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?’

The results, this time demonstrated a stronger separatist feeling represented in the figures ‘Yes’- 187 although the majority still ruled with ‘No’ - 17,900 representing a 87.9% voter turnout.

Brexit - the next challenge

Gibraltarians are proud of their British heritage yet voted overwhelmingly against leaving the EU. The consequences of Brexit for Gibraltar were clear, Spain were quick to insist on vetoing any Brexit deal if the terms were extended to Gibraltar. The British Government have made their commitment to the people of Gibraltar eminently clear and a possible solution is for Gibraltar to cede it's autonomous authority to Britain and become a part for the Untied Kingdom with members of Parliament to be sent to Westminster and to come under the laws and economic policies of the Mother country. This could well spell an end to their tax haven status, a benefit that the rest of the UK may not wish to stomach if commitment to the Rock derails a Brexit deal. In a curious reverse of the American revolution battle cry, it may be a case of "No representation without taxation."

Gibraltar, the rock of ages, continues to weather the storm, alongside Ceuta and Melilla they are living testaments to a period of European politics that while seem outdated to our modern eye, laid the foundations of the world we enjoy today.

bottom of page