Feisty New Spirit : Gibraltar: Britain’s Rock Is on a Roll

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The remains of Capt. Thomas Norman, Royal Marines, who was fatally wounded in the epic battle off Trafalgar in 1805, lie in a tiny cemetery at the foot of Main Street. Nearby, the Barbary Ape Take Away advertises fast food: breaded haddock and Spanish omelets. The apes themselves still gambol, under government subsidy, on the limestone cliffs thrusting, defiantly British, out of the blue Mediterranean Sea.

Gibraltar’s fortress image lingers, but the Rock is shifting.

Bankbooks in Fashion

Bankbooks are more fashionable now than gun ports on an outpost long prized as an impregnable sentry at the western entrance to the Mediterranean. Residents, recognizing that forts are as passe as dreadnoughts, predict a profitable role for themselves as an offshore adjunct to the new Europe.


“We’re transforming ourselves from a fortress to a city,” J. H. Bautista, an adviser to the Gibraltar government’s ambitious attempt to transform the Rock into a major financial center, said recently.

Amid economic ferment, a feisty hometown spirit is growing in Europe’s last colony. After three centuries, the people who live here are demanding a piece of their Rock.

If there is no room for nationalism on 2 1/4 square miles of precipitate limestone, then call it village-ism. What it means is that the 22,000 polyglot people want a controlling say in their future.

This late-blooming assertion of local fervor may ultimately aggravate the British, who have controlled Gibraltar since 1704, as much as it irritates the Spanish, who for nearly as long have demanded the Rock’s return.


“What’s wrong with our being prosperous?” said Joe Garcia, editor of a weekly newspaper here. “How can 22,000 souls be so threatening to two such big countries? This is our homeland. There is no other. We’ve never been Spanish, and although we identify with the British, I don’t think we’ve ever trusted their governments.”

New Socialist Government

Change on the Rock is being accelerated by a labor-based Socialist majority elected a year ago in the first philosophical change of local government since World War II.

“The Gibraltar people are a free European community entitled to exercise freedom of choice,” said Gibraltar’s new chief minister, 48-year-old Joe Bossano, a union man.

Bossano and his allies argue that there must be room for Gibraltar in the frontier-free Europe promised in 1992, just as there is for other “Euroquirks” like Monaco, Andorra, San Marino and Liechtenstein.

Down the road, Bossano and many of his constituents envision some sort of free association with Britain, or with a united Europe, that would make Gibraltar master of its own rock.

“The right to our land is at the bottom of our position,” said acting Chief Minister Joe Pilcher, filling in for Bossano, who was traveling. “We agree that we are a very small country, but we have as much right of existence as anybody else. Gibraltar wants to become self-sufficent. Only that would assure our independence.”

The British government says it will respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar in any political rejiggering.


“We have an absolute commitment that Gibraltar will not pass to anybody else’s sovereignty against its wishes,” Deputy Gov. William Quantrill, a British diplomat, said. “We are not going to sell out Gibraltar for the sake of our relations with Spain.”

Garrison Cutback

But a recently announced cutback in the size of the British garrison has made some people nervous and will certainly have an economic impact on a colony where military spending has always been an economic mainstay.

“We accept the cutback without liking it,” said Michael Feetham, minister of trade and industry in the new government. “At the same time, while we are deeply bonded with Great Britain and have full faith in our long-term relationship, we must plan to use our own resources without help from Britain. We’re on our own. That’s a challenge we accept.”

In all, about 31,000 people live on the Rock. There are 5,000 British military and 26,000 civilians, of whom 22,000 can claim a relative living on the Rock in 1925. That makes them officially Gibraltarian.

So it is that Britain’s rock is patrolled by dressed-for-Piccadilly bobbies who, like their brethren Gibraltarenos , are equally at home in both English and Spanish, often in the same sentence. This is a Gibraltar tradition. Another is a dish called calentita , a chickpea pie brought to the Rock by fishermen from Genoa.

Along with the Genoese in the years after Britain wrested Gibraltar from Spain came Maltese, Portuguese, Spaniards and Sephardic Jews from Morocco, a group whose 600 descendants here wield great economic influence today. Recent immigrants include about 2,000 Moroccan workers. The mix is leavened by former British servicemen who never went home.

“The Rock has molded a people who are different,” said Peter Montegriffo, a young lawyer who is a leader of the opposition to Bossano. “Gibraltar is a unique Mediterranean community. Spanish? My God, I’m not Spanish! (He said this in Spanish.) But I’m not British either. (In English.) When we go to school in England we realize how different we are ethnically and culturally. They drink beer, play rugby, have all that bad weather. . . .”


Scandinavians and Arabs

On a recent day at Gibraltar’s Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned, the marriage banns of Brian Consigliero and Helen Martinez were posted. The Rock is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, but while Bishop Bernard Patrick Devlin said noonday Mass, the Main Street throng in front of his church included Scandinavian tourists in shorts, shopping Spaniards, off-duty British servicemen (a sprinkling of them black), Arab women muffled from toes to nose and a gray-suited Jewish businessman in a yarmulke.

“Until the border was closed, we were just a bunch of people who lived on a rock,” said Devlin, who came from County Cork four decades ago to preach.

To press Spanish claims, dictator Francisco Franco closed the land border in 1969, forcing Gibraltarians to look inward. The frontier was not fully reopened until 1985 and is still subject to the caprice of Spanish immigration and customs inspectors.

“None of us will ever forget it,” recalled Clive Cooms, the 46-year-old clerk of Gibraltar’s Parliament. “Nothing moved. Franco stopped even the oxygen for the hospitals and the Communion wine. As a result, my kids--the whole younger generation--want nothing to do with Spain. The Spanish say we’re more British than the British, and, well, if we do paint the town red, white and blue now and again, it’s because we know it annoys them. If Mongolia plays Spain in soccer, the Rock roots for Mongolia.”

Visiting Spanish tourists encounter no visible tension, but scratch a Gibraltarian and you’ll find a Rock patriot with no love for Spain.

“Franco gave identity to this place,” said Sam Benzaquen, a Main Street merchant whose Sephardic family came to Gibraltar from Morocco in about 1750. “He fused us into one people. We’re pro-British but not English. We’re anti-Spanish. The British now seek a modus vivendi with Spain. Will they try to divorce us?”

The last time Britain asked Gibraltarians if they wanted to align with Spain, in 1967, the answer was no by a vote of 12,138 to 44.

Tensions with Spain have eased in the democratic years since Franco’s death, and particularly since Spain joined the European Community in 1986. Under Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, Spain maintains its case for the recovery of territory ceded to Britain in perpetuity under a 1713 treaty, but not at a level that would sour relations between Spain and its British partners in a new Europe.

Under its 1969 constitution, Gibraltar is internally self-governing; Britain retains responsibility for foreign affairs and defense. The Rock remains an important base for British forces, but the economy, once tied to military spending, is now linked more closely to private enterprise.

Tourism, Financial Services

Tourism and offshore financial services, both growing, are bigger moneymakers than the old Royal Navy shipyard, which is now administered by the Gibraltar government.

With no taxes levied on non-residents, the number of banks in Gibraltar has grown from five to 23 since 1985, according to financial adviser Bautista. One of the banks opened 10,000 new accounts in the first six months of last year, when the Rock’s economy grew by 6%. About 9,000 offshore companies are registered here, four times as many as when the land border with Spain was reopened in 1985.

Tourism has increased to 3.5 million visitors a year, most of them day-trippers from Spain.

Gibraltar has become an important banking and shopping annex for several hundred thousand British and Northern European snowbirds who have settled along the Costa del Sol between Gibraltar and Malaga. Supermarkets that stock British goods are popular; so are cheap electronics and so, for reasons Gibraltarians cannot fathom, are umbrellas.

At present, Spain and Britain are both frustrated by Gibraltarian intransigence. The 15-member Gibraltar House of Assembly is balking, 15 to 0, at an attempt by Britain and Spain to ease their historic enmity over the Rock by allowing joint commercial use of the Gibraltar airport.

A bilateral agreement would allow travelers bound for Spain to have a separate exit and clear Spanish immigration and customs without reference to Gibraltar authorities. Gibraltar’s approval is required, though, and in the assembly the concept is regarded unanimously as an unacceptable surrender of Gibraltarian sovereignty.

Few Direct Flights

Until there is an airport agreement, one of Gibraltar’s peculiarities will continue to be that you can’t get there from here. The only direct flights are from Britain or Tangier, Morocco. Otherwise, a visitor must fly to Malaga and then drive three hours along what little the developers have left of the Costa del Sol. En route, the Spanish disgust with England’s Rock is manifest: There is not a single road sign mentioning Gibraltar.

Gibraltarians are betting that the prospect of a unified, frontier-free Europe will make historic antagonisms seem out of step and old fashioned. Even if they are wrong, the Gibraltarenos say, they are by now as wed to their Rock as to the Barbary apes, who have survived 15 sieges and two world wars.

Britain, legend says, will remain on the Rock as long as the apes are here. During World War II, Winston Churchill took that lore seriously enough to send a secret mission into the Atlas Mountains of North Africa for reinforcements when the ape population dwindled.

By tradition, the apes figured on the muster list of the British army garrison. Now, in a sign of the changing times, the apes, all 67 of them, are on the rolls of the locally raised Gibraltar Regiment.

There are even fresh breezes blowing at Ape’s Den, according to Cpl. Ernest Asques, who commands there. Michael, longtime boss of the ape pack that tourists see, seems to be on his way out. An interloper named David, a newcomer from the wild pack of apes that roam the north end of the Rock, appears to be ready to take over, Asques says.


The 2 1/4-square-mile island has been controlled by Britain since 1704.

About 31,000 people live on the Rock: 5,000 British military personnel and 26,000 civilians.