A bit of Britain on Spanish shore

Sun Journal

Gibraltar: The colony fondly known as the Rock is a pebble in its northern neighbor's shoe.

May 02, 1999|By Maureen Conners | Maureen Conners,SUN STAFF

GIBRALTAR -- Richard Duo has a fond kinship for the Rock apes that inhabit this British colony.

The 62-year-old Gibraltarian was born on the Rock. The Rock apes have been here much longer, at least 300 years. "Let's go to see my relatives further up," Duo says as he drives a taxi with six visitors to the Upper Rock.

Many legends reside with the Rock apes, which aren't really apes but tailless macaque monkeys. The most popular: Gibraltar will be British as long as the monkeys are here. When the monkeys leave, the British will leave.

The talk was so widespread during World War II that Prime Minister Winston Churchill decreed that their population never fall below 24.

When the number got alarmingly low, many were imported from their native Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Today, about 300 Rock apes make their home in Gibraltar's nature reserve, Duo says. "We try to keep them happy so they stay here, so we can continue being British," he chuckles.

It's no joking matter to Spaniards, some of whom are a bit prickly on the subject.

"It's a piece of rock stolen by thugs from us," says Angel Rico, 53, of Torremolinos, Spain. "They're only pirates. [Gibraltar] started with pirates, and they're still pirates."

He also has a problem abiding by British custom and rules for Gibraltar's 28,000 residents.

"For us, it's a Spanish land," Rico says. "It's no other continent. It's no other country. I see it as Spain with a British flag and a British rule."

One of those rules is that only British citizens may enter Gibraltar without a passport. Rico arrived on a bus with American tourists and, like them, had to show his passport when crossing the border -- first to a Spanish police officer and then to a British authority.

Vehicles and pedestrians enter Gibraltar by crossing a runway built on an isthmus, which connects the Rock to the Spanish mainland at La Linea.

A red traffic light means a plane is landing or taking off, so entrance and exit are blocked until the way is clear. Duo says that, on average, four civilian planes land daily at this time of year, but air traffic increases in the summer.

Only British planes -- and those England approves, such as NATO aircraft -- may land at Gibraltar. That's another point of contention with its Spanish neighbor.

Spain vetoed Gibraltar's request to become an international airport, Duo says, because it would divert traffic from the Pablo Picasso International Airport at Malaga.

"It's all business," he says.

And history. Duo, whose father and grandfather claim Maltese heritage but whose mother came from Spain, doesn't understand why anyone today would question Britain's presence.

"Why? Why?" he says in a voice that first knew English but also has a Spanish influence. "Because 300 years ago nearly all the world belonged to someone else. For instance, Espana had South America, Argentina, the Philippines, Cuba; all these places was under the Spaniards.

"The French had north of Africa. The British were building their empire so they needed places like Gibraltar, Malta -- a steppingstone around different parts where they could stop for supplies and then continue their journey.

"Nowadays," Duo continues, "after 300 years, the population has been growing here. They are not English, they are not Spanish, they are Gibraltarians -- born here under British rule. And we want to continue that way because if this is not our home after 300 years, where do we go?"

Gibraltar's history is as rocky as its appearance. Used as a navigation landmark for thousands of years, Gibraltar is home to a monument whose inscription records the ancient world's belief that the Rock was a legendary pillar created by Hercules.

To many it was a religious shrine, to others an entrance to Hades. It signified the end of the then-known world.

Though its total area is only two square miles, many have wanted a piece of it -- and not just an American insurance company.

The Rock was first taken away from Spain in the eighth century. It was conquered and reconquered for hundreds of years. Muslim Moors and Arabs claimed it at various times.

In 1462 Spain recaptured Gibraltar, and it became an increasingly valued part of its dominion -- until the British arrived in the early 1700s.

After the king of Spain died without an heir, Britain and France fought over who should be Spain's new leader.

In 1704, while they bickered, Britain captured Gibraltar and made it a military base. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 confirmed its cession; it was declared a British colony in 1830.

Spain has never been able to accept the loss of Gibraltar gracefully. The Spanish general and dictator Francisco Franco (1892- 1975) tried to regain possession and failed.

In 1967 Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly against becoming a part of Spain, and that decision has left bad feelings.

The tourists in Duo's taxi decide that the conflict is best left to England and Spain.

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