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A Brief History of Gibraltar

The following is an overview of the history of Gibraltar, from its geological origins to recent time, and is not intended to be exhaustive. From time to time however, we will continue to enrich this website adding articles which focus on particular aspects of Gibraltar's past.

In the Beginning...

The Rock of Gibraltar is a Jurassic Limestone promontory, formed from the shells of tiny sea creatures which compacted layer upon layer on the seabed some 200 million years ago. Between 60 and 20 million years ago movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates uplifted these layers of rock to their present position, where they have been shaped by the sea and weather to give the Rock of Gibraltar the iconic form we all recognise today.

Various caves including Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves on the east side of the Rock are yielding rich archaeological and palaeontological evidence of Gibraltar’s earliest inhabitants. Three Neanderthal fossils have been discovered in Gibraltar to date. The first, Gibraltar 1, was the cranium of an adult female discovered in 1848 by Captain Edmund Flint at Forbes’ Quarry. The second, Gibraltar 2, was the fragmented skull of a child discovered in 1926 by Dorothy Garrod and the third was a child’s upper right canine milk tooth discovered at Vanguard Cave in 2017 during the Gibraltar National Museum's annual summer archaeological excavations. These findings together with stone tools, butchered animal bones, charred seashells and engravings on the cave floor show that Neanderthals lived here during the Middle Palaeolithic from at least 127,000 years ago until 32,000 years ago, long after they died out in the rest of Europe. Humans continued to occupy these caves during the Upper Palaeolithic, 22,000 to 13,000 years ago and into the Neolithic (≈ 5,400 BC) and later on the Bronze Age (≈ 1,800 BC). A number of caves on the Rock were used as burial sites during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

Photography: © M. Antón / Gibraltar National Museum

Ancient History

Phoenician and later Carthaginian sea-traders then made use of these caves as places of worship. Between around 800 BC and 200 BC they regularly left offerings to their gods. Among their most prized offerings were scarabs. These were small, thumbnail sized, representations of scarab beetles in paste or glass. On the underside was usually a representation of an animal, person or a god. Their trade routes expanded out of the Mediterranean Sea and into the Atlantic Ocean. They were later succeeded by the Romans. They called the Rock ‘Mons Calpe’ which together with ‘Mons Abyla’ across the Strait of Gibraltar on the North African coast, formed the two legendary Pillars of Hercules.

Medieval History

In 711 AD, Berber troops from North Africa, under their leader Tarik ibn-Ziyad, landed at the foot of the Rock setting the Muslim conquest of Iberia into action. The modern name Gibraltar is a derivation of the older name ‘Jebel Tarik’, meaning Tarik’s Mountain. Apart from a brief period 1309-1333, the Muslims occupied Gibraltar for over 750 years, until finally ousted by the Catholic Monarchs in 1462 during the eighth siege of Gibraltar which formed part of the Reconquest. Surviving structures from this period include parts of the Line Wall, Moorish Castle and the Moorish Baths located within the Gibraltar National Museum building.

Kingdom of Castile

This period coincided with the emergence of the cannon as a main weapon of war, which meant that fortifications had to be updated and strengthened. Defensive walls were thickened and large bastions added. Some of these can still be seen today. Also during this period, Queen Isabella I of Castile granted Gibraltar its coat of arms by a Royal Warrant passed in Toledo in 1502. The ‘Castle and Key’ is still in official use today.

British Gibraltar

British and Dutch forces, under Admiral Sir George Rooke and Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt respectively, captured Gibraltar in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession. A Spanish attempt to re-capture the Rock between 1704 and 1705 (twelfth siege of Gibraltar) failed and the Spanish Crown ceded Gibraltar to the Crown of Great Britain ‘in perpetuity’ under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Despite the truce, they laid siege to Gibraltar again in 1727 (thirteenth siege of Gibraltar). The British continued to improve and strengthen the defences, with the large white limestone blocks which make up most of the city walls, bastions and batteries seen today having being placed during the nineteenth century.

Great Siege (1779-83)

The last siege, known as the Great Siege (1779-83), saw large-scale destruction of the city by Spanish and French artillery. Despite three relief convoys getting through, the shortage of fresh food and inadequate sanitary arrangements meant that more defenders died of sickness and disease than of enemy action. Despite being heavily outnumbered, however, the British troops did achieve two notable successes. On the evening of 26 November 1781 a sortie of 2,500 men raided the advanced Spanish lines, killing troops, destroying artillery and blowing up an ammunition magazine which was a massive boost to British morale. The grand attack of 13 September, 1782, saw ten specially converted Spanish Floating Battery ships approach the Rock. Gunners on the newly constructed King’s Bastion heated cannonballs until they were red hot and fired these destroying the supposedly indestructible ships.

This siege period also saw two significant engineering achievements. Soldier artificers under Sergeant-Major Henry Ince dug the first tunnels into the solid north face of the Rock to site cannon. Lieutenant Koehler then developed a ‘depression carriage’ which allowed cannon to easily fire downwards from these tunnels onto the enemy below.

Royal Navy Base

Gibraltar has been a major port of support the Royal Navy. After its defeat of a larger combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the body of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson was brought to Gibraltar aboard his flagship the HMS Victory. The Royal Navy maintained mastery of the seas for the next 100 years, ensuring a period of peace and stability.

With advances in naval technology, the turn of the last century (1893-1906) saw the construction of Gibraltar’s torpedo-proof harbour and three dry docks, one of which was extended to take HMS Dreadnought, the biggest battleship in the world in 1906. These facilities proved invaluable in supporting naval operations in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean during World War I (1914-18).

As a garrison town, British Gibraltar had always been under military rule, but in 1865 a group of local Sanitary Commissioners were appointed to improve conditions for the civilian population – the first step towards self-governance. A further step towards self-governance was achieved in 1921 with the election of the first civilian City Council.

World War II and the Evacuation

World War II (1939-45) saw major upheaval. Apart from men of working age, the entire civilian population of Gibraltar, mostly made up of women, children and the elderly, was evacuated in 1940 to places as diverse as Jamaica, Madeira and Northern Ireland. The Rock’s already extensive defences were once again strengthened and expanded with a huge tunnel system constructed to house a garrison of 17,000 troops inside the Rock itself. The spoil from these tunnels was then pushed into the sea to build the runway which is still jointly in use by RAF Gibraltar and Gibraltar International Airport. Early in the war Vichy French and Italian planes carried out air-raids on the Rock and Italian frogmen attacked shipping with small two-man submarines. In November 1942, United States General Dwight Eisenhower used Gibraltar as his base to support Operation Torch, the allied invasion of North Africa. Following the success of this operation, Gibraltar was never attacked again, but remains an active naval base supporting ongoing operations in the Mediterranean region.

Political Development

The post-war years saw a large programme to build housing for the returning evacuees, the last of whom did not return until 1951, eleven years after they were made to leave their homes. In 1955 a Legislative Council was created and in 1967 Gibraltarians voted in their first sovereignty referendum with the overwhelming result to remain British. In the 1969 Constitution Order, the Governor’s powers were limited and the Legislative and City Councils merged to form the House of Assembly (which would become known as the Gibraltar Parliament by the 2006 Constitution Order). These political advances strained relations with Spain and in 1969 General Francisco Franco closed the border with Gibraltar and severed all communications. The border did not fully re-open until 1985.

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