Rock of Ages
In the early 1580s, at the height of Spain’s Golden Age, King Philip ii’s phrase (later borrowed by the British) “The empire on which the sun never sets” became popular. But only seven years later, the British defeated the best of the Spanish fleet!
From that time on, until just after the Spanish lost Gibraltar 125 years later, the decline of Spanish dominance on the world scene was increasingly obvious, while the British were coming ever more to the fore.
In 1704 Spain lost Gibraltar by conquest to Great Britain, officially ceding the Rock to the British throne in 1713. For the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, this was without doubt the most significant event in Gibraltar’s long, turbulent past. In a sense, Britain’s gains—first against Spain’s armada and finally at Gibraltar—marked the beginning and the end of the downfall of the Spanish Empire.
A gateway of vital world importance since very early times, Gibraltar was anciently competed for and conquered by the ancient Phoenicians, the Greeks, followed by the Phoenicians of Carthage, and then the Romans.
On the African side of the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean, another rock rises above the level of the ocean. Together they became known as the Pillars of Hercules, beyond which was the “unknown” world.
On April 30, a.d. 711, an invading Moorish army from North Africa under Tarik-ibn-Zaid landed on a rocky outreach at the western entrance to the Mediterranean with plans to subjugate the Visigoth kingdom of Spain. Tarik was soon to perceive that the Rock was, as it later become known, “the key to Spain,” and wasted no time in putting it to use as the initial base in his planned northward thrust.
The Spaniards retrieved the Rock from the Moors in 1309. Then, they quickly lost it back to them in 1333. Like a yo-yo, though it was passed on to the Moorish leader of Granada in 1411, by 1462 it had returned to Spanish hands, and the Duke of Medina was made its protectorate right up to 1502 when it was formally incorporated within the domains of the Spanish Crown by Queen Isabella.
The British had long realized Gibraltar’s strategic importance as an observation and control post, which is one reason why historically they have so tenaciously refused to give in over Gibraltar. A garrison of 6,000 of Britain’s bravest under General George Elliot resisted one of the greatest sieges of history for 31/2 years, when the combined force of 60,000 French and Spanish soldiers blockaded Gibraltar. Although the British defenders were able to get supplies in on several occasions, they were still plagued by scurvy, smallpox and near starvation. Through thick and thin, despite extreme hardship and danger, they fought and withstood. They were forced to carve a labyrinth of storage bays and tunnels within the Rock as they strove to reach more advantageous positions to set up gun placements from ever more inaccessible heights. Then, “During World War ii, additional tunnels were cut—large enough to drive trucks through. More than 30 miles of tunnels lace the interior of the Rock—more than the total road mileage in the streets and roadways [in the town] itself” (“Gibraltar’s Turbulent Past,” Plain Truth, Sept. 1974).
Gibraltar was once dramatically vital to the British people. It was a symbol of pride and power! But no more. We find ourselves in dramatically different times from the days when Britain would paint a heroic picture to the world defending what some modern politicians now see as “just a rock.”
Now, in a world where a dominant Europe, supporting member Spain, is increasingly throwing its weight about, whispers are that Britain might be bullied into giving away Gibraltar!
Almost forgotten are the words of one of Spain’s leading military men, the late Lt. Gen. Manuel Chamorro, who predicted in the late 1960s that the day Britain gives up the Rock would be the day it loses its major-power status. Today, it would be more realistic to ask whether Britain has any real world power at all!
Like a big nebulous cloud breaking up, becoming small and wispy and finally disappearing, most of Britain’s “big power” status has long evaporated.