Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Monkeys and a Rock

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory nearly on the southernmost tip of Spain. Strategically it guards the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea. The rocky outcrop is just under 7 square kilometres and home to about 30,000 people and 300 Barbary macaque monkeys. The post boxes are red, schools follow the British National Curriculum, currency is the pound sterling, the official language is English, there are familiar British stores and, probably for the tourists, bobbies wear the traditional British police helmet. But why is this little peninsula, nearly 2,400 kilometres south of London, a British Territory?

The fourteen British Overseas Territories are a leftover of empire spread around the world from the Falklands in the South Atlantic to Bermuda in the North. They are the areas which chose to remain essentially British when the Empire broke up. The Territories are not a part of the United Kingdom though they fall under UK jurisdiction and sovereignty. The biggest of these territories is in the Antarctic but, as only about 50 people take it in turns to live there, it's not exactly crowded. It's the same, population wise, with the Pitcairn Islands, of Bounty fame. The Cayman Islands have a population nearly the size of  Tunbridge Wells and Bermuda, the most populous Territory, has as many people as Bognor Regis. Many of the Territories, including Gibraltar, have been Royal Navy bases though nowadays tourism and offshore finance are their main industries.

Charles II of Spain wasn't an effective king. He had severe physical, intellectual and emotional difficulties which is why he was called the “Bewitched” and maybe why he died childless in 1700. The big European powers saw their chance to grab the Spanish throne and began to push their own candidates which led to the war of Spanish Succession between 1701 and 1714. In August 1704 the British, fighting alongside the Dutch, captured the Rock. The British actually backed the faction that lost the war but didn't do at all badly despite that. As the hostilities drew to a close the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, handed the Spanish throne to Philip V, the French King's grandson. As a part of the horse-trading some Spanish territories were dished out to other countries and Britain got Minorca as well as Gibraltar. Minorca changed hands several times over the ensuing decades and was eventually returned to Spain, as part of the Treaty of Amiens, in 1802.

Gibraltar has remained under British control ever since. There have been several attempts to recover the peninsular by the Spanish. First up was a siege in 1727 and, some fifty years later, whilst the American war of Independence was being fought, the Rock was besieged again for the four years. Franco was never a big fan of having the British in Gibraltar. It was Franco who closed the border with Spain in 1969 after years of restrictions on cross border movements and it wasn't entirely reopened until just a little before Spain joined the European Union in 1985.

Nowadays there are occasional territorial scraps with Royal Navy ships squaring up to Guardia Civil patrol boats over this quarrel about fishing rights or that complaint about refuelling just off the coast. On the land border there are arguments about tobacco smuggling and Gibraltar's financial dealings provoke claims of dodgy practices from time to time. Nonetheless it's a bit unlikely that Spain will be invading Gibraltar again shortly even though Spain continues to claim Gibraltar as its own. Referendums in 1967 and 2002 showed that Gibraltarians are overwhelmingly in favour of staying British and it looks likely that Britain will be maintaining this strategically important scrap of Mediterranean coast for the foreseeable future.

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