General Tourist Information

The Rock

in History

Gibraltar - History and Geography

When you first see the Rock of Gibraltar, whether it is from the air, from the sea or from either the Costa del Sol or the western end of the Bay, it is its impressive stature, towering isolated above the surrounding countryside, that causes the greatest impact. It has had this effect on people for many thousands of years.

Gibraltar is a beacon which signals the position of the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow neck which separates Europe from Africa and provides the only link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

On the 3rd of March 1848 a skull was found in Forbes's Quarry at the foot of the sheer north face of the Rock of Gibraltar.

Nobody knew it at the time but it belonged not to a modern human, like us, but to a prehistoric form. It was put away and another found eight years later in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf in Germany gave this human its name - instead of Gibraltar Man it became Neanderthal Man - Gibraltar missed out.

This is not the only Neanderthal from Gibraltar. Another, a young child's broken skull, was found nearby in 1928, in a rock shelter known as Devil's Tower. Talk today to experts from the Gibraltar Museum or from the Natural History Museum in London and they will tell you that other caves in Gibraltar were also home to these people as far back as 120 thousand years ago or more. Excavations even today continue to produce exciting finds.

Many sites used by Neanderthals were situated where impressive features of the landscape made them easy to find. If you drive along the coast road eastwards from Malaga on a clear day you will see in the distance on your left a horseshoe-shaped pass, protected on either side by cliffs. The shape is quite unusual and very much a landmark. On those distant cliffs lies the cave of Zafarraya, another Neanderthal site. If you travel west from Malaga, the landform which strikes you most is the Rock of Gibraltar so it is not surprising that it was so important to the Neanderthals.

The Neanderthals once roamed over much of Europe and the Middle East. Then, as modern humans emerged from the African continent and began to spread across Europe and Asia, the Neanderthals somehow lost out. As the waves of modern humans spread, the Neanderthals became extinct, first in the Middle East, then in eastern Europe, then western Europe and finally south into the Iberian Peninsula. It seems probable now that Gibraltar was one of the last places where these Neanderthals survived, clinging on to their way of life in the face of overwhelming odds against them.

This beacon which attracted the early inhabitants had many advantages as a home. Being limestone, the Rock which is geologically very different from the surrounding landscape, is riddled with caves. Over 140 have been discovered so far. Those which had openings to the outside world made perfect shelters. The climate was also colder than today which meant that the sea level was lower: off the eastern cliffs of the Rock a large, flat, sandy plain stretched out towards the distant Mediterranean. It was full of good hunting. There were many rabbits, red deer, wild cattle and horse along with now extinct species of elephant and rhinoceros; on the cliffs there were ibexes, wild mountain goats.

The scene was close to paradise for the early inhabitants of Gibraltar. The hunting was so good that it attracted other predators, especially hyenas, leopards and lions. So these people must have forayed with caution.

So why is Gibraltar, a lump of limestone, so different from the surrounding countryside? It all has to do with events which took place long before any kind of human had appeared on the face of the earth. The first thing to remember is that limestone is made up of millions of small shelled animals which have died and settled in the sea bed; slowly these shells harden and become rock.

So another point to remember is that when you walk on the Rock you are stepping on an ancient sea bed Imagine then, for millions of years, a mass of limestone is growing under the sea. This is happening around 200 million years ago. The continents look nothing like they do today. Dinosaurs roam the land. Slowly over millions of years the continents assume their present shape. As Africa barges into Europe, the land folds and forms mountain chains like the Alps. Other chunks are pushed out of their position. One piece is thrust westwards and comes to rest where Gibraltar is today. It is very different from the surrounding countryside which is made up of younger rocks.

The story does not end there. The pressures continue and flip the Rock over on its back. The spine of the Rock, from the radar on the north side, to the top Cable Car Station, to O'Hara's Battery, was once its base! As all this is happening and for many years afterwards, the Rock sinks and is uplifted several times; the sea rises and falls. The Rock is an island, then is a part of the mainland with a wider coastline than today, and so on. The climate changes: tropical, cold, Mediterranean - it keeps changing as do the animals and plants which live on it. Winds blow with force and push sands against its eastern side, forming a huge sand dune: it is still there today, covered in parts by the corrugated sheets of the watercatchments. These winds shape the Rock. Waves lash against cliffs which are now suspended more than half way up the Rock. They too carve their signature. Shaping takes place inside as well as outside: rainwater percolates through the Rock along the lines of weakness, creating cracks, fissures, and eventually caves. All these processes are still at work today, eroding and changing the shape of Gibraltar, so slowly that we cannot see it within our short life spans. Eventually, millions of years from now, it will have lost all semblance of its present shape.

For now it remains as a narrow peninsula stuck to the end of the Iberian Peninsula, linked to it by a narrow isthmus. This isthmus, covered by buildings and a runway, is sandy. You can still see this sand on the surface in places, often littered in marine shells from a more recent past when the sea separated Gibraltar from the rest. This would have last happened during the latest warm period of the glaciations, probably around 120 thousand years ago. Many still refer to Gibraltar as an island. Historically, biologically, even politically it has been an island even in recent times, but physically it is a peninsula.

The peninsula of Gibraltar is geographically divided into several zones. The eastern side of its six kilometre length, is made up of sheer cliffs, reaching a maximum altitude of 426 metres above sea level close to O'Hara's Battery. The base is dominated by the massive prehistoric sand dune and by tall slopes on either side. These slopes are largely the product of years of rock falls as pieces of the Rock continue to collapse towards the sea when rain dislodges the loose boulders. Sandy beaches form the perimeter where this mass of rock and sand meets the sea. The western half is very different. Its slopes are gentler and gradually reach the sea. Much of its lower half is taken up by the city and the urban zone has spread westwards, within the port area, in recent years as land has been reclaimed from the sea.

The upper parts are a nature reserve. This western side has never had the large expanses of prehistoric sand of the eastern side - the gradient steepens offshore and the Bay is over 800 metres deep, as deep as the North Sea!

To the south of the main mass of the Rock there are rock platforms, a higher plateau known as Windmill Hill, a lower one known as Europa Flats, and narrower and lower segments on the fringes, forming rocky beaches. These plateaux are wave-cut platforms - they mark former sea levels and are clearly visible.

When the ancient mariners from the east arrived in this region in the eighth century BC, they once again homed in on the beacon which was the Rock and were attracted to large marine caverns close to these southern platforms. We know that Phoenicians and ancient Greeks came here. It has also been suggested by some, on the basis of cave paintings of sailing ships in caves near Gibraltar, that perhaps even earlier civilisations, the Mycaeneans for example, might have sailed to the Strait as far back as the sixteenth century BC.

Whichever way, the Strait and the Rock were known in the classical eastern Mediterranean world. According to legend Hercules passed through here to take the cattle of Geryon - his tenth labour - and opened up the Strait, creating the pillars which received his name (Hercules to the Romans). These pillars are still clearly identifiable today: the Rock of Gibraltar on one side and the Jbel Musa on the other. The legend matches the scientific reality although the timescales are somewhat different.

The last time the Strait opened up was around five million years ago and there were no humans around to watch it happen. It must have been a spectacular event indeed. The Mediterranean had been land-locked for a very long time and had evaporated. Then as a fissure developed where the Strait is today, the Atlantic gushed in filling the basin in just one hundred years, with a huge ten thousand foot waterfall at the entrance to the Strait.

Respect for the sea and fear of the unknown must have dominated the lives of the ancients as many perished in their small ships during violent storms as is clear from reading an ancient text such as Homer's Odyssey. The Strait is a narrow channel which funnels winds. Violent storms develop quickly with little notice, especially from the east and south-west. These winds have been known to sailors from time immemorial - the east winds, for example, are known as Levantes.

The idea of venturing past the channel must have filled the ancients with trepidation - it was only their curiosity and the lure of mineral and other resources beyond which made them take the risk.

They took the risks with certain safeguards. One of the caverns at the foot of the northern pillar, known today as Gorham's Cave, was a place of worship, a shrine. Many pieces of Phoenician, Carthaginian and Greek pottery have been found here along with glass beads, amulets and scarabs bearing classical and Egyptian gods. Many of the ancient references to caves on the Rock probably related to Gorham's Cave.

For many years Gibraltar continued in its role as stopping point and place of worship but nobody seems to have settled on it. The Phoenicians preferred sites on river estuaries or upstream - they had settlements by rivers close to the Rock. The Romans, too had cities nearby but never built one on Gibraltar. It was with a new cultural wave, much later on, that the basis for a city was established....

It happened in the month of April in the year 711 AD. Following the death of the prophet Mohammed a wave of Islamic conquest overran North Africa from Arabia. By 710 AD it had reached the shores of the Strait and Europe was poised for the Islamic conquest.

There are various versions of the events but one thing is clear - the Visigoths which had deposed the Romans and ruled Spain were weak and divided. The Visigothic Count Julian who ruled over Ceuta in North Africa was surrounded and he had a score to settle with his compatriots on the other side of the Strait. So, to divert the Muslims, he offered to assist them in the conquest of Spain.

The assault was down to a Berber chief, Tarik-ibn-Ziyad, the Governor of Tangier. He sailed across the Strait by night, from Ceuta not Tangier so as not to arouse suspicion and used Visigothic ships. His first attempt on Algeciras failed but he was successful in landing undetected on Gibraltar from where the conquest began. At that stage the Rock was probably only a bridgehead and was only lightly fortified for the first four hundred years of occupation.

By the 11th Century AD Gibraltar is part of the Arab kingdom of Seville except for a short period when it comes under Berber rule from Malaga. The mounting threat of invasion by North African sects forces the Arab Governor of Algeciras to order in 1068 the building of a fort in Gibraltar. Spain is eventually overrun by another North African sect, the Almohads, and it was their leader, Al- Mumin, who commanded the building of the first city in Gibraltar - the Medinat al- Fath, the City of Victory.

It was, by all accounts, an impressive city and its foundations were laid on the 19th May, 1160. On completion of the works Al- Mumin personally crossed the Strait to inspect the works and stayed in Gibraltar for two months, inviting all his subordinate kings to see the works. It is said that AI-Mumin was especially impressed by a large windmill which had been built on the top of the hill.

Skirmishing and fighting continued between 1160 and 1300, among Muslims or between Muslims and Christians. By 1252 only two Islamic kingdoms were left in Spain, in Murcia and Granada. By the year 1309, King Ferdinand IV had laid siege on Algeciras and, learning of Arab weakness on the Rock sent Alonso Perez de Guzman to capture it. Thus Gibraltar endured its first siege. The Spaniards took the Upper Rock from where they bombarded the town using cannon. The garrison surrendered after one month. Gibraltar then had 1500 inhabitants and they were allowed to leave for North Africa.

The Spaniards set to repair the fortifications and shipyard but few people wanted to settle in Gibraltar which was considered to be a high risk town. This forced Ferdinand to offer freedom from justice to anyone who lived in Gibraltar for one year and one day. By 1333 Gibraltar was once more in Muslim hands as Abdul Malik, son of the king of Morocco, laid siege. The garrison surrendered after four and a half months of siege. More sieges were to follow until 1462 when the Spaniards finally captured Gibraltar from the Muslims.

The strategic value of Gibraltar then declined as it became just another Spanish provincial town. Few people wanted to settle on the Rock as had happened earlier and the Spanish king, Henry IV, extended Gibraltar's municipal boundaries to cover much of the hinterland. The economic and agricultural potential developed but at the expense of the defences.

There were more sieges as Spaniards besieged Spaniards in petty local feuds. By 1474 Henry died and was succeeded by Isabella, the Catholic Queen. After the fall of Granada in 1497, she used Gibraltar as a base port for launching an attack on North Africa and in 1499 she used it as a port for the removal of exiled Moors from Granada.

It was Isabella who, tired of the petty squabbling among her nobility, issued a decree on the 22nd December, 1501, making Gibraltar crown property. On the 10th July of the following year, Gibraltar received its Royal Warrant granting it its coat of arms. The castle and the key, which still survive today, were given in recognition of Gibraltar as the key "between these our kingdoms in the eastern and western seas and the sentinel and defence of the Strait of the said seas through which no ships or peoples of either of these seas can pass to the other without sighting or calling at it."

By the middle of the sixteenth century a new kind of conflict had arisen as corsairs from the coast of Barbary, under their infamous leader Barbarossa, hounded the zone. In the summer of 1540 a large fleet of pirates assembled, and raided the poorly defended Gibraltar. Years later, after mounting pressure from the inhabitants of Gibraltar, the Emperor Charles V ordered the Italian engineer Calvi to build a protective wall. This wall was extended to reach the top of the Rock in the reign of Philip II some years later.

Life continued at a slow pace until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then, on the 17th July, 1704, a council of war was held aboard the English warship the Royal Catharine off the North African town of Tetuan. Four days later the English fleet, under Admiral Sir George Rooke, entered Gibraltar Bay. At 3 pm 1,800 English and Dutch marines were landed on the isthmus with the Dutch Prince Hesse at the head. Gibraltar was cut off but the Governor of Gibraltar refused to surrender.

The days that followed saw a massive bombardment of the town by the English fleet: on the morning of the 23rd, 1,500 shot were fired in 5-6 hours against the town. Landings took place in the south and in the morning of the 24th, the Governor capitulated.

So in this way a joint Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar, on behalf of Charles of Austria who was pretender to the throne of Spain. Things took a while to settle down. Shortly after the capture a Spanish goatherd, Simon Susarte, led 500 Spanish troops to Europa Advance on the south-eastern side of the Rock and killed the guard. They moved to the Upper Rock and spent the night in St Michael's Cave. The next morning they attacked the Signal Station but the alarm was raised and the English grenadiers counter-attacked. 160 prisoners were taken including a colonel and thirty other officers; the rest were killed trying to escape.

Skirmishes and attacks continued for a while. By 1726 trading between Gibraltar and Spain had resumed. Then, early in 1727 the Spaniards laid siege on the Rock but after several unsuccessful and costly attempts gave up in June of the same year.

The final military siege on Gibraltar followed many years later, in 1779. On this occasion the Spaniards and French combined forces and launched a massive onslaught which was to last close to four years. It was a siege, known as the Great Siege, which was to test the ingenuity and will to survive of the garrison. The first galleries were dug during this time, as Sergeant Major Ince attempted to drill a tunnel to place a gun in a vantage point on the Rock. On tunnelling sidewards to make ventilation shafts he realised that these exits would make perfect gun positions. Later, a Lieutenant Koehler designed a carriage which allowed the guns on the cliffs to be directly pointed down at the enemy. Accounts of the siege are full of vivid stories of survival and daring. On the 21 November, 1781, the defenders of the garrison took the offensive and caught the enemy batteries on the isthmus by surprise, destroying them and setting back their progress: this event is commemorated as the Sortie.

Desperate at their inability to succeed by land the attackers changed to a maritime assault and converted a number of vessels into floating batteries, double- hulled, highly fortified and fire resistant ships which were loaded with guns. They were placed opposite the king's Bastion with the object of making a breach in the defensive walls. It was hailed as the battle that would finally force Gibraltar to surrender. The enemy had failed to take one thing into account: the British had been using red hot shot, cannon balls fired after having been heated in furnaces, and these eventually penetrated the strong hulls of the floating batteries and caused them to blow up and sink. The siege ended soon after.

Nineteenth century Gibraltar was at last able to develop in relative peace. In the early years it was Nelson's base port and his body was brought here in 1805 after the Battle of Trafalgar, at the western end of the Strait of Gibraltar, reputedly in a barrel of rum. It was a period during which important social changes were taking place on the Rock. Its civilian community, composed of British, Genoese, Portuguese, Spanish, Jews and others, was beginning to establish itself firmly. The roots of the Gibraltarians of today were being consolidated.

The Gibraltarians of today are a friendly people, bilingual, with a unique sense of religious tolerance. Their identity is now firmly consolidated. A number of events contributed towards this. The most recent was the closing of the frontier between Spain and Gibraltar by General Franco in 1967. This measure had the effect of strengthening the sense of unity of the Gibraltarians so that, by the time the frontier was re-opened, partially in 1982 and fully in 1985, an unbreakable bond had been formed.

Earlier, during the second world war, the entire population was evacuated to Britain, Madeira and Jamaica. This mass movement away from the native home had highlighted the features and attributes common to all Gibraltarians and the collective desire to return after the war testified that a people had come of age.

The post war years were characterised by increasing legislative autonomy culminating in the constitution of 1969 which created the Gibraltar House of Assembly, Gibraltar's parliament with powers over a wide range of internal affairs. The autonomy of the Gibraltarians has strengthened over the years and the mood in Gibraltar today is of a people who identify themselves as British Gibraltarians and who demand the right to self-determination.

Between Nelson and today, Gibraltar has therefore not only changed socially, but it has also changed physically. The impressive reclamation schemes of the last decade are a culmination of earlier projects. All land below the defensive walls of Gibraltar is reclaimed from the sea.

In 1894, the dockyards, commercial and detached moles were built, a massive project which was to take 12 years to complete. During the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century Gibraltar's potable water problems, due to the summer droughts characteristic of the climate, were resolved with the excavation of huge reservoirs inside the Rock which stored rainwater collected from catchment areas specially prepared on the north-western and eastern sides of the Rock. More recently, as the demands of the population have grown, so new technology has replaced the old catchments. Today, Gibraltar desalinates sea water and is no longer dependent on the unpredictable rainfall.

The strategic value of the Rock has continued during this century. It was a port of call for the Mediterranean and Home fleets. During the Second World War, the runway was constructed and was the launchpad for Operation Torch - the allied landings of North Africa.

In 1982, ships were refitted for the Falklands campaign and Gibraltar became a stopover for ships and troops. It served a similar function in 1991 during the Gulf War. The Rock, the beacon which attracted the Gibraltarians of prehistory, retains its powers and charms as it looks towards the 21st Century.

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