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A view of Gibraltar as the Odyssey approaches.
Photo - Chris Johnson

December 3, 2004
The Rock of Gibraltar

Log Transcript

This is Judith Scott speaking to you from the Odyssey in Gibraltar. After a 5-day passage from Palma de Mallorca, the Odyssey arrived Gibraltar - the symbolic gateway to the Mediterranean. This marks the end of five months researching in this semi-enclosed sea. We will spend time here undergoing maintenance on the Odyssey, preparing to cross our third and final ocean - the Atlantic.

The rock is an imposing sight as it rises 426m (1397ft) directly out of the Mediterranean sea. As a British citizen, it is quite strange to be at the famous rock, some parts of it being very similar to home but other aspects of life here are different. The currency, language, and pubs seem the same as back home, but the weather and lifestyle have a more Mediterranean feel.

Gibraltar, situated at what is known as the Meeting of Continents, at the southern tip of Spain overlooking the strait to Africa, is celebrating its 300th anniversary as part of the United Kingdom this year. The rock has a complicated and interesting political history. The rock itself was originally formed in more or less the shape we see it today, by a massive upheaval of the earth, about 200 million years ago. The earth's plates which formed Africa and Europe collided and a massive lump of Jurassic limestone was forced up from the sea and flipped over. It is known that Gibraltar was inhabited from an early date as a skull was discovered in 1848 that was later identified as that of a Neanderthal man. The term Neanderthal had not yet been coined and if the importance of the find had been realised at the time, we might now be talking about Gibraltar woman (the skull was from a female). 50,000 years ago modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa and it is thought Gibraltar was the last place Neanderthal man survived.

Gibraltar at night. From the runway at Gibraltar airport you can see the side of the rock lit at night.
Photo - Judith Scott

These early inhabitants lived in the many caves that have been formed in the rock. The first recorded name of the island was 'Calpe', which possibly means 'hollowed out' and may refer to this tremendous cave system. Water erosion of the limestone means that Gibraltar really is hollow. The present name of Gibraltar comes from the Arabs who invaded Spain in 711 AD. The invading army was lead by Tarik and since then the rock has been known as Gibel Tarik - the mountain of Tarik. The Arabic name has changed over the centuries to its present form of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar remained under Islamic rule until 1462 when the Spanish took control. Britain only became interested in Gibraltar around the time of Cromwell, but it was not until the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704 that it was captured by an Anglo-Dutch force. Gibraltar was formally ceded by Spain to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, thus becoming a garrison. It was declared a colony in 1830.

Spain has never been happy about the loss of Gibraltar however, and it has been besieged numerous times. The most serious attempt was during the American Revolution when Spain joined forces with France with the specific aim of trying to win back the rock. On 21st June 1779, the great siege commenced and it lasted for almost 4 years. The rock was defended by approximately 7000 British soldiers and they succeeded in retaining Gibraltar when the siege ended on 2nd February 1783. The city was in ruins and it took many years to rebuild. Gibraltar has been a fortress for centuries and evidence of this is to be found all over the rock, from guns to battlements and gun turrets.

The famous Barbary Apes are a species of monkey called Barbary Macaques. There are about 160 living on Gibraltar, the only wild primates in Europe. They have been living on the Rock for at least two centuries, but it is not known how they first arrived. They are large with big, narrow faces. The females have grey beards and the males do not. Every monkey born in Gibraltar is given a name.
Photo - Judith Scott

One of the interesting places to visit is the Trafalgar Cemetery. The Battle of Trafalgar that took place on 21st October, 1805 was considered the greatest sea battle with sailing ships, and it was also the last. England's Admiral Nelson commanded thirty-three ships, whereas the allied ships of France and Spain numbered thirty-nine. Nelson strategically lined his ships up in two columns rather than the traditional parallel row, so avoiding the typical long strung-out battle which had been practised for centuries. This bold strategy caused confusion and resulted in a series of smaller, single combats of bloody ferocity.

Although the English lost their famous and beloved Admiral in the battle when he was shot by a French sniper, they suffered far fewer losses than the allies and after the battle was won the remaining English ships limped back to the safety of Gibraltar. The sailors who had died in battle were buried at sea and Nelson's body was preserved, ready for the long journey back to England, but those that died of their wounds were buried in Gibraltar, in what is now the Trafalgar Cemetery.

Gibraltar's unique natural history has provided it with some unusual flora and fauna. Typically the vegetation found on Gibraltar is mostly Mediterranean dense scrub but in contrast to Spain's largely sandstone, acidic soil, Gibraltar's limestone mountain creates a rich alkali foundation. So both geologically and biologically Gibraltar is very similar to Northern Africa and the tips of two continents share a number of species. Therefore Gibraltar's fauna, consisting of around 530 species, is an interesting mix of typical Mediterranean vegetation, along with some species from Africa and a few species that have evolved to be unique to the rock.

Probably the most famous Gibraltar residents are the Barbary apes, the only primates found wild in Europe. There are about 160 monkeys living on the rock, a species called Barbary Macaques, a tail-less monkey. They originate from Morocco, but it is not known how they came to live on Gibraltar. One theory is that they were left there from when the continents of Africa and Europe split, but the absence of pre-historic remains suggests this is not the case. More likely is that they were brought as pets by the Moors or the British. They are held in high esteem here because there is an old saying stipulating that Gibraltar will cease to be British on the day that there are no apes left on the Rock. Sir Winston Churchill hearing this and the fact that the numbers of apes were diminishing ordered them to be replenished, after visiting Gibraltar during World War II.

Spain still has an offer to Gibraltar of autonomous-region status within Spain, but it is continuously rejected by both the British government and the Gibraltarians. In 1969, an election was held and Gibraltar voted 12,138 to 44 in favour of British sovereignty and a constitution was created to give Gibraltar domestic self-government. Spain closed the border between 1967 and 1985, meaning the only way to leave was by ship or a limited number of flights. The British garrison was withdrawn in the 1990's, but the British navy still use Gibraltar as a base for their work in the Mediterranean.

This year Gibraltar is celebrating its 300th anniversary as part of the United Kingdom.
Photo - Chris Johnson

The spectacular rock rises high out of the ocean, covering a land area of only about six square kilometres. Twice during the first half of the twentieth century it proved its value as a strategic naval base. In both the first and second world wars, Gibraltar was important strategically in the anti-submarine campaigns. Many convoys assembled in the bay, the Dockyard worked flat out repairing British and Allied warships and the Strait of Gibraltar was patrolled heavily to keep it clear of enemy activity. In ancient times, right through the age of empires and in the global conflicts of our own century, Gibraltar has stood guard over the western Mediterranean, its unique position making it the focus of a continuous struggle for power.


Log written by Judith Scott.

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