Gibraltar: Community and Identity since 1704

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: History


Most (of the few) histories of Gibraltar have been narrowly preoccupied with the military history which made and kept Gibraltar a British fortress and colony, or with the politics which have dogged Anglo-Spanish relations, especially recently. Gibraltar remains one of the UK's few 'Overseas Territories'. Spain demands that the 'Rock' should be 'returned' to Spain, and under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht this would seem to be required were Britain to give up its claim to sovereignty. However, most Gibraltarians insist that their identity is British and they are overwhelmingly hostile to integration with Spain. On the other hand, British governments are reluctant to accept the 'British-ness' of Gibraltarians and refuse to incorporate Gibraltar (like Northern Ireland) into the UK. The politics of the present, and indeed, of the past cannot therefore be understood without a deeper analysis of the internal history of Gibraltar over three centuries and of how 'British' Gibraltarian identity has been formed and expressed.

The book in preparation, based on extensive archival research, explains when, how, and to what extent a Gibraltarian community claiming British identity was formed among a civilian population mainly of Mediterranean ancestry. This occurred in a territory which the British authorities, mainly military men, recognised primarily as an imperial fortress and only latterly as a colony with civic and political aspirations. It argues that identities are formed in a colonial context not only by cultural inheritance and in cultural activities, but, within constrained space, by population pressure, competition for resources, material circumstances and, not least, the relationships negotiated between governments and governed.

Hence the book examines the demographic origins and complexion of the community, and how the attempts of a government to control entry and residence helped to generate a sense of being Gibraltarian. It traces the economic history of the territory, its dependence on open frontiers for trade (especially across the frontier with Spain) and on the demand created by the British presence, and hence also on how the colonial state managed the economy. It therefore explains how a Gibraltarian civic identity was formed among social classes alert to their distinctive civilian interests but yet dependent on government.
The book goes on to show how the political ambitions of especially the Gibraltarian moneyed class consequently developed, provoked by issues such as land use, public services and especially taxation, but also how governors tempered conflict by incorporating civilian representatives into public bodies like hospital boards, a sanitary commission and a city council, to provide health care, water supplies, housing and other public services. Responding to demand, British authorities eventually devolved political responsibility, but only for internal affairs, upon Gibraltarians, further advancing their sense of status and identity. And yet for decades Gibraltar still required British government financial support for public works, continuing the British connection.
Of course, external pressure from Spain, especially following the Queen's visit in 1954 and the closure of the land frontier for sixteen years from 1969, considerably affected Gibraltarians' sense of identity, and also in self-defense reinforced their claim to 'British-ness'. Finally the book explores the religious and linguistic roots of the consequent sense of self and how it was projected internally and to outsiders, and it employs the notion of hybridity to assess the distinctive features of Gibraltarian 'British-ness' today.


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