Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Oh! Gibraltar!

Janos Gereben
January 23, 1970

Fellowship Year

January, 1970


Lerchengasse 28/43
1080 Wien, Austria

GIBRALTAR—For a giant tooth of a rock, embedded in a peninsula just three miles long and less than a mile wide, with 20,000 people and two packs of Barbary apes living on its slopes, this place has been in the news somewhat out of proportion to its size.

And the prediction from here is that there is lots more to come.

Any day now, for instance, and soon, there will be an announcement about talks between Spain and England concerning the future of the Rock. These talks are going on now, people here suspect, but kept secret because both powers became entangled in their own propaganda and cannot extricate themselves from it in public.

Propaganda? Is that the right word to describe the noble cry “British Forever”? Or “Spain for the Spaniards”?

Nothing French about that. The name is derived from the Rock’s old tag, Gibel (mount) Tarik, after Tarik ibn Zaid, the Moor who occupied it in A.D. 711.

Let a student of East Europe loose in the Free West and strange things begin to happen.

He will, for instance, use the reflex conditioned by the invariable behavior of East European (and Arab) governments and therefore automatically doubt 40 to 60 percent of the validity of any political statement, of the righteousness of any government attitude.

The results are quick and gratifying. East or West, up close, things are just not the same as they look from a distance. This is a wonderful bonus of traveling: one can work out one’s own misinformed and half-baked myths to replace those of others—the public myths.

In the case of the Rock, this replacement process is particularly dramatic because of the ingrown strength of Gibraltar’s public myth.

A mixture of historical and almost personal memories adds up to something approaching awe as one is driving down N-340, the Costa del Sol highway, and that ridiculously familiar outline is beginning to form on the horizon.

A Pillar of Hercules! Spanish-Moor battles! Barbary apes! Turkish pirates! Walter Cronkite, even!

And the contemporary public and political myth, summed up admirably in the headline over the lead story of a special 1970 London Times supplement about Gibraltar:

A symbol of liberty


Of course! The heroic defense in the Great Siege of 1779-1783 by the tiny garrison against both France and Spain, the land base for the Battle of Trafalgar, the dock for HMS Victory with Nelson’s body aboard, the naval base for the Good Guys in the first, the air base in the second world war, and now holding off against the bullying of a fascist dictator… a symbol of liberty, indeed.

The Rock rises ahead in the inky Mediterranean dusk and it is FREE.

FREE as the memory of Marathon, the Alamo, West Berlin, Guantanamo (better drop that one though the physical similarities are interesting) … well, FREE as all the underdog, the besieged can be, triumphant at the end or not.

Feel Free in friendly Gibraltar

Free Color Postcard

Duty free allowance for the United Kingdom.

(Later one learns that Gib is also FREE in the meaning of a FREE port, duty FREE, producing many FREE color brochures to attract tourists, even that here it is FREE to fly the Union Jack or wear it as a bikini.)

Further, it is FREE in the complex and peculiarly British use of the Barbary ape as a symbol. Flashes from the Late, Late Show. Churchill personally ordering protection of the pack. “As long as the apes remain…” (“But, Sir, they are Macaca Sylvana, tailless monkeys…” “George, you’ll never make it in the slogans department; if you want to be accurate you’d better transfer.”) The mystery of the dead apes: their skeletons never found. The tough Corporal of the Regiment gently feeding a baby ape (while manning the anti-aircraft gun, fighting off Nazi bombers). Free as an ape (“Macaca Libera”?) … symbol of liberty. Very British. Very subtle. Two hips and a hurrah for the Union Jack, with or without bikinis.

The Facts

711  – 1309Moorish possession
1309 – 1462Spanish-Moroccan war
1462 – 1704Spanish possession
July 23, 1704Adm. Rooke occupies the Rock for Britain
1713Treaty of Utrecht, Spain yields Gibraltar to Britain “to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever.”
1964Spain steps up campaign to regain Gibraltar, refuses to issue new working permits, about 6,000 Spaniards continue to work at Gib
1966Spanish women (2,000) are forbidden to work
1968Spain imposes trade embargo
June 9, 1969Borders closed, ferry service halted
Oct. 1, 1969.UN deadline for British withdrawal passes, Spain cuts  telephone service to Gibraltar

Now, during this journey to Gibraltar through Spain, the first one, there has been a spot of trouble maintaining some well-learned public myths. About Franco, for instance. For the past 30 or 40 years actually it has been impossible to read or hear one good word about El Caudillo—so he must be All Bad, for sure.

(Come to think of it, how could he ever win with Hemingway, Orwell, Koestler, Cockburn, and all the Good Guys, all the Liberals, all the Socialists, all the Communists on the other side? From this perspective, he looks like a kind of triumphant underdog, doesn’t he? Of course, those Italian bombers explain a lot … don’t they?)

So one goes through Spain battling heretical thoughts, driving rapidly toward that symbol of liberty down south. But why does the country look so good, particularly after crossing the utter chaos of Affluent Italy or the stifling, surly air of Free France? The children—why do they look so well-dressed and well-fed and happy from Barcelona to Cordoba to Malaga? And what is Jose Iturbi saying about freedom and responsibility in Spain (without any direct or indirect reference to the government) during a most remarkable hour of the artist’s television portrait? And why are there no signs of poverty? No, it’s not that he made “the trains run on time” (he hasn’t), but you don’t see or feel anything like those obvious and secret signs scattered around all the other dictatorships.

The mind recoils as the Automatic Rabid Liberal sitting there deep down starts screaming: first you become an apologist for Franco … heaven forbid.

THE FORBIDDEN LAND—View from La Linea (note “neutral zone”). Above, illustration of the Algeciras-Tangier-Gib route and a Spanish map of the Bay of Algeciras where the Rock simply disappeared.

The Califloridian landscape of the Costa del Sol is disappearing now as we are reaching La Linea and just across the border there is Free Gibraltar.

A big, fat Spanish sergeant looms out of the dark. “Closed,” he says, “quite closed.”  Only for Spaniards, one had thought. No, for everybody. Since when? Last June. One should read one’s newspapers more carefully.

How to get to Gibraltar? The sergeant is helpful: Drive around the bay and take the ferry from Algeciras. Simple enough, and it gives one an excellent opportunity to say a few choice words about Franco’s idiotic power plays while driving away from Gibraltar in the middle of the night in order to get there, watching it gleam in the dark all along the 12-mile ride around the bay.

Algeciras (it’s fun to lisp to pronounce it right: Algethiras). Pouring rain. The ferry to Gib? Stopped in June. Why wasn’t the sergeant in La Linea told about that in seven months? Such is life, the official says kindly, but of course it sounds so much better in Spanish. Down with Franco.

So, instead of driving through a few feet at La Linea or taking a 20-minute ferry ride from Algeciras through the bay, the determined supporter of freedom and the underdog (“by Jove, they’ll have my tourist dollars!”) ends up on a three-hour stormy ocean voyage to Tangier and thence back to the Rock in another mere three hours. Make that 330 pesetas one way, two pounds the other, add it up to $9.60 and six hours of discomfort. A victim of international relations.

“Silly ass Franco,” fumes a London businessman aboard M.V. Mons Calpe as she is nearing the Rock. Ah, here’s proof personified at last, we can hear now more about freedom vs. fascism and all that! Do tell us.

Well, says the very British Britisher, it’s an awful inconvenience and it’s easy to blame it all on Franco, but that’s not the whole story.

It isn’t?

No, Gibraltar should really belong to Spain because the people here are really Spaniards at heart and, besides, why should the overtaxed and underpaid English shell out 50 pounds a year in subsidy for each man, woman, and child on the Rock.

Horrors, what is this man talking about? There must have been some like him even during the Blitz, etc. Now look here, one counters sharply, when these people here said “Forever British” in 1967 and 12,138 people voted for that (one happens to have these figures handy) against only 44, repeat 44, who wanted Spain to take over—well, isn’t that enough for you?

At 50 pounds a year and practically no taxes to pay, I would want to be British Forever too, he persists, but I happen to be forever British anyway and without subsidy or tax allowances so why should I cheer for them besides footing the bill?

Surely this man is not representative of British opinion. But what is this in the Times? Right under that SYMBOL OF LIBERTY headline, there is some even more treasonous stuff:

“In the negotiations over the new (1969) constitution…the Gibraltarians forced a reluctant British government to incorporate in the preamble the assertion of British sovereignty under the Treaty of Utrecht…

“These critically important assurances were largely wrung out of the Foreign Office by Major Robert Peliza, the leader of the Integration With Britain Party, and the electorate responded by giving that party five seats in the Assembly at the elections, which enabled Major Peliza… to replace Sir Joshua Hassan in government.”

All right, so there is a bit of politics mixed up in all this. But how about all those fish-and-chips signs, Union Jacks, historical tablets, statues, pubs, and helmeted policemen right out of Trafalgar Square?

“Hello, officer.”

“Buenos dias, Sir.”


Sure, he speaks English, too, and beautifully. And it sounds just a tiny bit like Puerto Rican or Hawaiian pigeon—the difference is the unmistakable Afro-Oxfordian accent.

EL JEFE—Chief Minister Major Robert Peliza

“Spanish at heart,” the gentleman on the ferry alleged. Well, the good people of Gib do sound Spanish, but what’s the truth beyond that?

The Gibraltar Tourist Office pamphlet (printed in Sussex) welcoming the visitor minces no words:

“Visitors hearing Spanish spoken in the streets often call the inhabitants Spaniards, but this is far from being the truth.

“They are Gibraltarians, British subjects and proud of being British, although they usually speak Spanish.”

For anybody persisting in his doubts, the GTO has a devastating argument:

“Would you say a Welshman wasn’t British because he preferred to speak Welsh to his friends’”

There. Jolly good argument.

On further inquiry, one learns that English was not taught at all in Gibraltar’s schools until the beginning of this century — 200 years after the British took the Rock!

Incidentally, when that event took place in 1704, Adm. Rooke gave all the inhabitants the option of remaining under the British flag—but they all fled to the mainland (and Spain), leaving only about 100 people in Gib.

Who are the “British Forever” people then? British, one would suspect.

But no, not really.

First, there were people from Genoa. Then some from Portugal and Minorca, some from Malta. Jews came from Barbary (Morocco), having fled from Spain before, Spaniards came from the mainland, some French and Germans followed… and so on.

The GTO, of course, has the proper way of interpreting this:

“Like the Englishman and the citizen of the United States, the Gibraltarian is a mixture of a number of races. Proud of being British, all he wants is to carry on with his own way of life—the British way, tinged with southern flavour!”

Did anybody tell Enoch Powell about what’s going on down here?

Actually, this “typically British” mixing of the races works out very well in Gib, especially because it did not develop under typically British (Rhodesian, South African) colonial circumstances.

True racial harmony (meaning that people fight for other reasons) of the Hawaiian model developed here because—just as in the Islands, two oceans away—no one group could sit in the saddle without working out a way to live with the other groups… and the white man had to learn to co-rule and co-exist. Who needs integration and giving up individual heritages? Gib’s many ethnic groups learned to preserve their many cultures and live together peacefully. If they want to call this “British” (weren’t the Sandwich Islands also British for a while?), that really is their privilege and the same goes for speaking Spanish. Just think of all those very British Welshmen…

But why the reference to the U.S. when the subject is racial coexistence and the model is Britain? It is not an accident; references to the U.S. are very frequent here and meaningful. It is the America of the Sixth Fleet, of profound influence in Madrid, of many potential tourists and businessman, the America of NATO they are talking about. And small wonder that the same London Times section on Gib which featured “Symbol of Liberty” had another story on the front page with this simple but powerful headline:

Strategic base for Nato


HAPPY TIMES—An old picture of the border, open for traffic. The gate is closed now between Gib and La Linea as shown on p. 10.

It is here that the public myth is beginning to get a bit too thick.

“Gibraltar’s geographical position is well recognized by NATO and is obviously of great significance at one end of the Mediterranean, particularly when the Mediterranean has become so populated by the enlarging Soviet fleet,” says the Times in its clear manner of stating facts.

What significance? It cannot be military. Gib’s three dry docks are quite empty, her harbor has no British or American war ships.

But Main Street does not suffer from lack of sailors buying up tax-free goodies. What sailors? Bulgarians, for example. So that’s why all those Cyrillic signs are up on the stores? No, those signs are mostly for the Russians.

That “enlarging Soviet fleet” is more aware of Gib’s “significance” than NATO is: in 1968 there were three times as many Soviet ships visiting the Rock as…British ones! (Make that “British Forever Plus the Russian Whaling Fleet!”)

So there is no defense against the Soviet fleet—it got through with its powerful rebels. Where else can we do our battle? Well, the Times says that “any examination of Gibraltar from the defense viewpoint must now start with the defense of the Rook itself against possible attack by Spain.”

Next sentence: “Gibraltar is not defendable against a really concerted attack by Spanish forces from land and sea, assisted by air support.”

Very true. The First Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment doesn’t even post a guard at the gate. Why bother?

Truth to tell, it’s a bit surprising to walk right up to the border and see nobody around (except six Spanish soldiers on the other side, playing cards in their small guard houses), but then what’s the use when the Timesalready gave the place up—having named it strategic first.

Charles Douglas-Home, the author of the article discussed here, appears a bit surprised himself at the bad odds, so he tries to speculate his way out of the maze:

“The defense establishment (at Gib) is calculated to raise the price Spain would have to pay for any minor attempts at harassment or small military coups de main in the area. The presence of the Gibraltar garrison means that Spain could not suddenly march into Gibraltar one morning,”

On the morning this article appeared, the only opposition the Spanish army would have found on the road between the frontier gate and the airport was a single, very old Ford (a disguised tank?) with a big, red “L” posted on it and its learner-driver zooming down the empty stretch, secure in the knowledge that no traffic or police will bother him here.

Having ducked the Ford, this reporter walked up to the gate and tried to open it—not to give up the Rock, just to get better pictures. The Spaniards stopped playing cards and looked worried, but the strategic Black Watch defenders were nowhere to stop this coup de main. (But there is no reason to worry, Spain will never be able to get through: the gate’s lock rusted badly.) Concludes Douglas-Home:

“The best way of assessing the basic importance of Gibraltar to NATO is to recognize how lost the alliance would feel without it.”

Ah yes, the old not-really-important-but-what-to-do-without-it trick! It worked in Vietnam, so why not throw it into the Gib package? How many wars were fought, how many Vietnams will yet come because people, unable to find or express valid reasons, give undue importance to things by saying “how lost we would feel” without them?

It is senseless to talk about Gib’s strategic importance. With the closing of the Suez Canal it lost whatever importance it might have had. The issue is so clear to the British themselves that in 1969 London permitted 5,500 feet of the Admiralty Harbor to be leased for commercial use!

Gibraltar is a very nice place—to visit and to live here—and its people are lively, kind, memorable, although now showing the strain of five years of needless islanditis. Gibraltar does have a few problems, such as being caught between British and Spanish claims (of prestige, not of real national importance) or being asked by the United Nations to “decolonize” (when that would only mean the loss of an annual $10 million subsidy and tax privileges from London).

These are simple problems unless they are being artificially inflated; they may be solved soon enough if the parties involved (London, Madrid, and the Gibraltarians) sit down to talk them over—something that may be happening right now.

The real problem is the artificial, unreal mythology being created around the issues—the humbug, of slogans and the waving (and wearing) of flags.

For a giant tooth of a rock, Gib would do very well if she were left well enough alone. As a symbol of anything, as a base for nonexistent strategies, she can only come to grief.

It would be too bad. Those Barbary monkeys are really fun to watch. And if you could ask them, surely it would turn out that they are staying on the Rock because they get fed there—not to fulfill anybody’s silly myths.


Received in New York on January 23, 1970.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.