Shadows on the Rock

Spain wants Gibraltar; the people of the Rock hate the very idea; England is caught in the middle

"Geography is destiny," writes Timothy Foote. "In Gibraltar's case, so is geology. The place is an amazing excrescence of rock, three miles long and a fifth of a mile high. It heaves up out of the Mediterranean like some petrified, Jurassic-age sea monster." One of the shadows on the Rock these days is that it is linked to Spain by a narrow isthmus. Gibraltar once belonged to Spain — for 251 years, in fact. Now Spain wants it back, under terms established by a treaty nearly three centuries old. But Gibraltarians, as the 31,000 folk who live there call themselves, don't want to be part of Spain. They play cricket and speak English as well as Spanish, and since 1713 — for nearly 300 years — their virtually impregnable fortress-city, bristling with guns and battlements, has been part of the British Empire.

Since the late 1960s, to reinforce its claim, Spain has kept Gibraltar more or less besieged — sometimes so strictly that no one can phone or cross the border between them. Britain, which no longer needs, or can afford, a great naval base on the Mediterranean, has nevertheless sworn never to let the Gibraltarians be acquired by any country against their will.

How will it all end? Nobody knows. Meanwhile Gibraltar is desperately trying to become financially independent as an offshore trading center. The Rock, as Mark Wexler's photographs make clear, is spectacular — a sort of Prospero's island with mysterious caves and Barbary apes, duty-free whiskey and cigarettes, and a museum of European history that documents Gibraltar's role in the wars of religion and the wars of turf, including the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and the launching of the U.S. landings in North Africa in 1942. Abstract of an article by Timothy Foote, originally published in the September 1997 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. All rights reserved.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.