View of Gibraltar from the Mediterranean.

Gibraltar is one of Britain's fourteen remaining Overseas Territories, along with such others as the Falklands in the South Atlantic, Bermuda in the North Atlantic, and the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. Despite being popularly nicknamed "the Rock," it lies on a promontory rather than an island, and is connected to the mainland by a sandy isthmus, of which it occupies the southern part. In the middle of the isthmus is the so-called Neutral Zone, and on the northern side is Spain territory (more particularly the Spanish city of La Línea de la Concepción).

Representing as it does the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar is dominated by the towering limestone cliff that gives it its nickname. This juts out into the Gibraltar Strait, a narrow strip of water separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean. Amazingly, at the nearest point, Morocco and the north African coast are less than ten miles away on the other side of the strait. Guarding shipping routes between two seas and two continents, Gibraltar has unrivalled strategic value.

The North Mole pier to the northwest of the promontory.

This single factor has dominated its long history. From remains found here, it is thought to have been one of the last strongholds of the Neanderthals. In later times, it saw successive waves of invaders, from the Phoenicians to the Moors — who gave the roughly three-mile-long spur its name (Gebel Tariq, meaning "Tarik's Mountain," after the early eighth century Berber chieftain, Tariq ibn-Ziyad). Notes accompanying engravings of paintings by Lieut. Col. Robert Batty (1763-1849) explain that "Gibraltar remained in possession of the Moors from the period when they first took it, A.D. 711, for about seven hundred and fifty years, when the Spaniards again got possession of it." Then, during the War of the Spanish Succession,

[o]n the 23d July, 1704, Sir George Rook, with the combined English and Dutch fleets, cannonaded Gibraltar; and a body of troops under the Prince d'Armstadt having landed, part on the isthmus north of the town, and part on the southern extremity of the promontory, the place was surrounded. On the 24th, after a feeble resistance, this important fortress surrendered to the English. [Notes following "From the Anchorage in front of the Old Mole"]

About nine years later, in 1713, Spain formally ceded Gibraltar to Britain under the terms of the Peace of Utrecht. But this was hardly the end of the matter. The Peace was contentious. In the words of the early twentieth-century historian H. E. Egerton,

For years the chief aim of Spanish diplomacy was to recover this fortress; and, at the time of Great Britain's humiliation in the War of American Independence, it seemed as though the hour had come; but the splendid defence of General Eliott (1779-83) preserved it to Great Britain; and there has been no subsequent proposal for its restoration to Spain. The natural strength of the position has been aided by science; and the importance of Gibraltar as a naval base and military stronghold is still great. [119]

Depressing carriage invented for firing downwards during the Great Seige, in use from February 1782, and now serving as a monument to the siege in "Casements," Gibraltar's main square.

The "splendid defence" mentioned above refers to the Siege of Gibraltar, which furnished G. A. Henty with the subject-matter of one of his rousing, patriotic novels for boys, Held Fast for England (1892), the sort of adventure story that inspired Victorian boys with their values and imperial mind-set.

For the Victorians, Gibraltar served a dual function, as a garrison town (where Queen Victoria's cousin George went to learn "Garrison Duty"), and as a gateway to the Mediterranean with its warm, restorative climate. One of the entries in Queen Victoria's journals reads, "Got a very long letter from the Queen Dowager, from Gibraltar with which she's charmed; and feels already much better" (30 October 1838; the Queen Dowager was Victoria's aunt, widow of William IV). From a later entry we learn that when the Prince of Wales visited Gibraltar as a young man, still in his teens, he found the people "so loyal" (20 May 1859). Prince Arthur is reported to have enjoyed a stay there much later (8 May 1876), while Prince Alfred, we learn from an entry of 6 August 1887, spent one of his birthdays there. It is no surprise to find that there is a copy of Batty's views in the Royal Collection.

Memories of the military past are everywhere in Gibraltar.

Other Victorians' experiences in Gibraltar may have been less memorable, or perhaps better forgotten, as life in a military posting was apt to be, but Hobart Chatfield, an American visitor at the end of the period, paints a very lively picture of it.

Egerton's suggestion that Spain accepted the loss of this useful territory was not quite accurate, and has since proved still more inaccurate. But up until the present, at least, Gibraltar itself has been happy to maintain its close connection with Britain.

Photographs by the author. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on all the images to enlarge them.


Batty, Lieut. Col. Robert. Select views of some of the pricipal cities of Europe from original paintings by Lieut. Col. Batty F. R. S.. London: Moon, Boys & Graves, 1832. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 8 January 2019.

Egerton, H. E. "Summary of Imperial History." The Oxford Survey of the British Empire: General Survey. Eds. A. J. Herbertson and O. J. R. Howarth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914. 118-79. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 5 January 2019.

Created 5 January 2018