The Rock of Gibraltar

Air strip - Gibraltar 2000

Gibraltar is a curious phenomenon.

Straight-laced and British with Bobbies on the streets and its multi-ethnic population English speaking, yet because it is a major tax free port it has long been notorious simply for tobacco smuggling. Cigarettes are cleared through here and smuggled out but the ton – by-passing the major component of their cost: Government tax. Innocuous as it sounds, fortunes have been made, lives have been lost and whole crews of small merchant ships still linger in Mediterranean jails. It is a game that has been played for decades. Thirty seven years ago, when I was working on yachts moored at the Destroyer Pens there, I was asked if I could navigate a small ship out to a rendezvous deep in the Mediterranean. I kept the fact that I couldn’t navigate my way out of a cardboard box to myself until I had learned what it was all about. It involved, as I had suspected, shipping several tons of tax-free cigarettes in a beat up old craft to a rendezvous at sea well out of sight of land. The goods were then to be offloaded to the Italian connection. My prospective employers had lost a few crews to the authorities recently and were short staffed – so to speak. Often, old minesweepers were used as they were wooden hulled and difficult to pick up on radar. An Australian I befriended had set himself up in Gibraltar trading in these old WWII craft. He was doing very well.

More recently, on moonless nights, smugglers of smaller amounts setting out from here would play a deadly game of cat and mouse at sea, with ensuing, dramatic high speed chases. The protagonists were the Spanish Aduana (Customs) in their old patrol boats, and the smugglers in their superior, black painted, high speed offshore power boats: the ‘cigar boats’. The latter would hastily beach at a pre-determined spot on the Spanish coastline, to be unloaded in minutes with military precision. The cigarettes would then be distributed onto the streets of inland Spanish cities that very morning. Until very recently you could see cigarette sellers at any traffic intersection in Spain flogging the goods smuggled from The Rock.

There has been a recent, severe crackdown by Police and Customs, both Gibraltarian and Spanish. A year or so ago a Gibraltarian policeman involved in this crackdown was shot dead, a rare event in peaceful Gibraltar. For the smugglers, there was a lot at stake. Quite a few young men have drowned in clashes as Spanish Aduana modernised their fleet to match the smugglers’ speed. A young relation of mine was killed in this business. “He was mixing with the wrong crowd.” I was told. Several of these offshore power boats that the smugglers used are now in a cave in The Rock, impounded and confiscated. Such powerful craft are now banned in Gibraltar. Nowadays, however, people smuggling (or human trafficking) is a much bigger business. Nevertheless, many became wealthy from tobacco smuggling, and there are lots of men to be seen, especially in La Línea across the frontier, wearing fortunes in gold around their necks!

A Bit of History
One of the two mythical ‘Pillars of Hercules’, Gibraltar is a large chunk of hard limestone rock jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea at the flat, easternmost tip of the horseshoe shaped Bay of Algeciras. Africa, and the other ‘Pillar’, Jebel Musa, is just 27 kilometres away across the Straits to the south. I’d liken Gibraltar to a short section of a high mountain range, with a razor ridge along a lot of its 6 kilometre length. At its northern end it rises almost perpendicularly from the strip of flat sandy ground which connects it to the Spanish mainland. Here, there used to be a large lagoon, but it was long ago reclaimed to provide more living space. One of the high rise housing estates on the area is named Laguna Estate. At the top of The Rock are sophisticated telecommunication systems and strategically placed giant satellite dishes scanning the ether. At the highest point of the ridge, at an old gun battery, The Rock reaches some 450 metres in height. The habitable side (facing south west) is less steep than its almost sheer north east face and houses most of the population down its slopes and on the flat. The township is essentially an 18th century British Regency town, built on a 15th century Spanish town which was, in turn, built on a 12th century Moorish town. It is also where the compact, but historically very important port lies. Gibraltar’s potent position at this narrow entrance to the Mediterranean allowed whoever held it, by means of its Navy and shore based cannon, to control shipping entering or leaving through the Straits. To this day, some 200 ships pass daily through this bottle neck. A recent, massive reclamation project west of the port has extended the area and is now home to a multitude of high rise apartment and office blocks. The Rock’s strategic position is no longer of such significance.

The Gibraltarians, now a distinct race (though of obvious Spanish sentiment), are themselves of mixed stock. The word Gibraltar is a corruption of the Moorish words Jebel Tariq – Tarik’s Mountain, from Tariq-ben-Zaid who took the Rock by force in AD 711. The Moroccans living here now are a minority group, yet Gibraltarian, but their ancestral influence is evident – as it is throughout all of southern Spain – in the cuisine and in the often attractive, dark physical features of many of the locals. The English Gibraltarian has come about through the colonisation of the Rock by the British, who captured the Rock during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704. Their military presence and their system of government have remained ever since. Prior to that, Genoese traders and fishermen from Italy, Catalunians from north east Spain, Maltese and Portuguese settled and bred here. Jewish refugees escaping the witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition also fled to The Rock, and there is still a sizeable and influential Jewish Gibraltarian community today. Oddly, there has long been a large contingent of Indian shopkeepers here, adding to this strange mix. All these races that make Gibraltar what it is today, are at the very least, bi-lingual to a man – taught English and Spanish from the cradle. The Spanish influence is also obvious. In the preceding centuries, when politics didn’t affect the natural ebb and flow of people between The Rock and the Spanish mainland, there was much happy co-mingling. To my mind they are more Spanish than they like to admit. However, they are all fiercely Gibraltarian, with all its British connotations, for better or for worse.

Spain wants Gibraltar (which they call El Peñon) back and is making political noises at a very high level. Because Spain volunteered to go all the way with George Bush, along with Tony Blair and John Howard, Britain is talking of ‘giving’ Gibraltar to the Spanish in a gesture of amity. This is enough to raise the blood pressure of all Gibraltarians, who happen to have a higher standard of living than their Spanish cousins across the border. Spain officially ceded The Rock to the British in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, which according to the present Spanish government is of questionable legality and/or wording. Meanwhile the border between them, just north of Gibraltar’s very important airport and tarmac, is manned with customs and immigration officers from both countries. Here the Spanish, under orders from their politicians in Madrid, succeed in holding up the daily flow of thousands of workers and tourists alike with petty searches. These deliberate delays manage to frustrate everyone, including the Spanish public who are part of the traffic. As both countries are part of the EEC and subject to the provisions of European Law, this should be a thing of the past, but Spain is making its objections felt and so the game continues.

The Rock is riddled with tunnels, many exiting and visible high up on the rock face, as they were gun ports facing out to cover all quarters. From as early as the 18th century the British Army Engineering Corps was burrowing into and through it, developing an amazing network of supply tunnels, fortifications, roads, munitions bunkers, storage shelters, and even hospital stations. It is said that the network is large enough to be able to harbour all 30,000 residents of Gibraltar in the event of aerial bombardment! Recently, the Government has installed 2 desalination plants to solve the fresh water supply problem. One is set, strategically, deep within The Rock, and the other is down in the open on the newly reclaimed land. Long ago, the increasing need for fresh water outstripped the supply from the local fountain, where water sellers would fill their casks and traipse them around the town on mule drawn carriages. When I was first there some 37 years ago, fresh water was being brought in by tanker ships. This water supply operated in tandem with the water-catchment area on The Rock’s eastern flank; a vast area of concrete and roofing iron laid to catch and channel the rain into storage tanks. These are now obsolete and attempts are being made to restore vegetation to these slopes.

The most important sectors of the economy are the Ministry Of Defence, the Port, Tourism, and more recently, the International Finance Centre. There are no foreign exchange regulations in force and there is complete freedom to remit funds into and out of Gibraltar and to convert funds into other currencies. (See: Tax Havens). The latter three generate significant income: as does the Airport. Gibraltarians invest heavily in the education of the young, most finishing their schooling in the UK. Like Singapore, they have a very high percentage of highly educated high-achievers.

As you approach it from land, sea or air you cannot help but be impressed by The Rock’s dominance. Seen from nearby La Linea, it looms, thrusting steeply upward. Its jagged northern peak, often streaming cloud, is dramatically lit up at night like a beacon. It is easy to see how it must tantalise the Spanish.

Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2000