Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Apes have a penchant for handbags.

Gibraltar, Jebel Tarik

Depending on your pronounciation in Arabic, the word Gibraltar comes from the Arabic word Jebel or Gibel for mountain and Tarek or Tarik the name of the Moorish commander who took over the area in 711, Gibel al Tarik. So there you have it Gib-ral-tar, a corruption of the Arabic pronounciation. In 1462 Gibraltar became Spanish and it remained thus until 1704.

The rock (limestone) of Gibraltar

The Port, bottom the new town and at top Spain, so you have too ports, one on the UK side of the bay and one on the Spanish side. Enough work for all really.

Mons Abyla the other Pilar of Hercules in Morocco, North Africa 

The British took over this most Southern point of Europe to make a strategic and political point with France who was then a very powerful Nation in Europe expanding quickly under the command of the Sun King. The throne of Spain had become vacant and Louis XIV had the idea that he would install a Bourbon Cousin to help him secure even more political and military control over Europe. The Bourbon of France had cousins South of the Border in Spain, the Spanish Branch, known as the Bourbon y Bourbon, they rule Spain to this day. The English did not want anymore French expansion and the Dutch had their own troubles with Louis XIV and for those of you who read the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon you get all the details, the Prince of Orange had loss several possessions to the Sun King. It was time to get even.

So Britain and Holland decided to support Catholic Austria in the War of the Spanish Succession. But all these dynastic complications and fights between Royal Cousins on who rules where is very unseemly. Catholic Austria had other ideas they too had a candidate and they wanted to install on the throne one of theirs, all for political reasons. By the way the dispute is not over yet, it still goes on to this day, the last chapter was fought in 1975 between the current King Juan Carlos I and his cousins, he won out being a better politician, he courted the dying General Franco and his elderly wife making all manners of promises he had no intention of keeping.

England and Holland united against France, of course they would, they too are cousins, the House of Orange at the time to support the Austrian position against France. So the British arrived at Gibraltar in 1704 and in 1713 at the end of the war in the Treaty of Utrecht, ( a city in Holland) Britain got the prize, to this day Spain is trying to get them off the rock.

Gibraltar is 1400 feet in height, surrounded by wild countryside. The Romans believed that Mons Calpe, which is one of the Pilars of Hercule on the European side and Mons Abyla is the other Pilar on the African side (only 25 Km of water separate the two), well the old Romans never crossed the straight, they firmly believed that it was the border of the end of the World, if a ship crossed it, said ship would fall off the face of the Earth. This belief by the way, endured until the Renaissance when it was demonstrated in the face of much resistance by the Roman Catholic Church that the Earth was not flat but round. We crossed the line connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean and yes I can tell you the world is round.
The entrance to the Atlantic Ocean.

In this visit to Gibraltar I also learned that the rock is connected to the mainland Spain by an outcropping which is the British RAF airport, the main runway is crossed my a main road bringing people in by car and bus from the Spanish-UK border. I have never seen anything quite like it and I do not know how they manage to land planes which obviously have to cross this car trafic laden road. Someone pointed out that there is a Stop sign, so cars should stop when you see a plane landing to let it pass, how quaint.

Gibraltar is much more than a British Military base, it is a town of 30,000 people who are in part of British stock mixed in with Spaniards who lived there prior to 1704 and Genoan Italians who came to Gibraltar in 1704 as contractors, they had been employed in repairing and maintaining in Genoa, British Navy Ships. They followed with their families the Royal Navy to Gibraltar.

The Ottawa sign in one of the many tunnels dug by Canadian Engineers from 1941-43

To this day there is an Italian neighbourhood called Caleta, quite lovely with a nice beach. There is also a Muslim population, a Jewish population many coming from Morocco. Strangely enough there are 7 Roman Catholic Churches, including a Cathedral, 4 Synagogues, 3 Mosques and a number of Anglican and Presbyterian churches, including an Anglican Cathedral, a Garrison Church, a Royal Chapel for the
British Governor, all this for 30,000 people.

The Governor's Palace is located in an old Franciscan Convent dating to 1531 which was taken over by the British, quite lovely. It is also developing rapidly into a tourist mecca, with 9 million visitors last year, a brand new airport terminal just opened. Some 120,000 ship call in yearly for re-supplying, water, fuel, food, cargo and medical supplies and now ship building and repair. More and more cruise ship stop for a day. Every ship crossing from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic has to stop here. So the 3 pillars of the economy is Tourism, Financial Services and Shipping.

There is no unemployment in Gibraltar and some 10,000 Spaniards cross the border at the airport runway each day to come and work here. A massive tunnel under the rock called the multi-billion British Pound project is under way and should be completed next year, allowing for a boom in tourism expansion, hotels, condos and residential villages.
Real estate prices we saw look a lot like those in London. All the rubble from the excavation is being used to create more landfill on the sea to expand the territory of Gibraltar. In other words the economy here is booming.

An historical fact, during the Second World War the entire civilian population was evacuated to Madeira, London, Ulster, Jamaica and Canada. A garrison of 16500 British and other Commonwealth Countries came to live in the rock itself digging 36 Km of tunnels. Gibraltar the rock is like Swiss cheese, an amazing feat, men lived there in what was a complete town with shops and dining halls, sleeping quarters, hospitals, warehouses and battle stations. Much of the tunnels from that period were dug by Canadian Engineers between 1941-43. The British have been tunneling the rock since 1782 for various military projects. The British Navy sailed from Gibraltar with Admiral Nelson for the battle of Trafalgar.

We also discovered that the Town is a DUTY FREE port, this is real duty free, the prices are so low it is a bargain, premium single malt scotch for $12. dollars a bottle, never seen that anywhere. Same for cigarettes $25 dollars a carton, high brand of perfumes and all manner of luxury products at very low prices. They accept every credit card, dollars, euros and Pounds of course. It does have the feel of the old British colony, a bit like Bermuda or even Hong Kong prior to 1997. We met with an old Gent in front of the Governor's Palace, we were admiring the shiny polish on the copper cannons, he asked us where we were from and we said Canada, ah he says, the First Dominion, how nice of him to say so.

Whose got fleas?

Will and Sidd at Europa Point with the Rock behind them.

I could not conclude a post on Gibraltar without talking of the famous monkeys of the rock who have been there since 711, they initially came as pets of the invading Moors and got left behind when the Moors decamped a few years later. They have done well for themselves. The Barbary Macacs roam the upper reaches of the rock, there are 86 of them living in families as an organized social group. They are fed 5 times a day by the British soldiers and visited by a Veterinarian twice daily to ensure perfect health, there is also a special wing of the Vet Hospital dedicated to their care. Why all this pampering, well it was Winston Churchill who said if the apes ever disappeared from Gibraltar the rock would have to be surrendered to Spain. Needless to say the UK Government does not want that to happen and extraordinary care is taken with these creatures. They are wild and unpredictable, we were repeatedly told NOT to feed them, NOT to touch them, Not to stare at them and Not grin or show our teeth as they might take offence. They are not big apes but the big males are the size of a human child aged 8. So that is fairly big and can inflict pain if provoked. Mothers can be vicious if they think their babies are endangered by us humans. We stopped and our group of about 25 people watched them, they took a little interest in us but mostly just walked around us. They did jump on our mini-bus but mostly to get a reaction out of us humans. They did not try to snatch glasses or handbags this can happen. Our tour guide did get too smaller apes on his shoulders they wanted to groom him. They left him alone after a few minutes. In all it was a fun encounter.

There is a lot to see and do in Gibraltar for such a small place and I only wish we had had more time to explore 2 days would have been good. Unfortunately we only had 4 hours, oh well, we will have to return.

The lighthouse at Europa Point, the most southern point of Europe facing the African continent.


  1. Fascinating! I know very little about Gibraltar so this is all grist to my mill. Truly one of the last outports of British colonial power. That and the Falklands, eh?

  2. I was quite happy to see the apes: I have heard about them and I didn't quite believe they exist.

    1. I know and they say the same thing about you.

    2. This is quite a relief, as you can imagine.
      I will try to remember next August to jump on your head and pick at your ears.