Pomp in Gibraltar

A recent article in the news told of a soon to be raised wreck of a 17th century British ship, purportedly laden with tons of gold coins valued at four billion dollars U.S. This craft was on its way to secure the loyalty of the Duke of Savoy against the expansionist plans of the Sun King. Interestingly, the site of this wreck was simply stated as “off Gibraltar”, which leaves a great deal of open water as possible locations. Depending where this sunken ship lies in waters 800 metres deep, it is possible that our ship, The Royal Princess, sailed right over this spot as we made our way to Gibraltar from Casablanca, Morocco.

The views from the top of Gibraltar are legendary. Peering over a stone wall down on the harbour crammed with ships, I find it almost impossible to believe that a person could walk up the steep stairs. Those routes, viewed from the perch at the top, remind me of the children’s game, Snakes and Ladders. At this nose bleed site on the top of the rock, a small turn will open vistas of the Mediterranean all the way to Tangiers. From this height, the ocean to the east looks almost like a relief map of the Spanish coast.

The spectacular beauty of this site makes it easy to forget the strategic military importance of this Prudential symbol. Tunnels and caves, some natural, others dug, once made the placement of armaments important at this gateway to the Mediterranean. An underground theatre and a military museum now occupy that space. Tourists flock to the spot where soldiers used to stand guard.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ceded the Rock to the British, and on and off since that time there has been controversy as to the right of Britain to stay there. But England is indeed in charge of this tiny outpost and, typical of the British, have all the pomp and ceremony associated with the U.K.

By this point in our cruise, which had started in Argentina with visits to Brazil, Senegal, Madeira, Morocco and then to this dramatic rock guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean, we were very pleased to visit a place where we could speak the language. Being Anglophiles, we felt, at least culturally, we were in comfortable territory which is more than I could say about our two stops in Africa. It was also a relief to come back into a pleasant temperature after the oven-like heat of North Africa.

We happened to be in Gibraltar on the day that a new governor was installed. Scarlet coated military units with white pith helmets paraded down the street to Casemates Square. As they marched in the April sun past a thin line of tourists, the soldiers also passed stores with names familiar to any Brit. Past Mothercare and W.H. Smith, beneath signs for proper Fish and Chips, as well as banners for Newcastle Brown Ale, the colourful contingent made way for a Rolls carrying the new Governor and his lady.

At the square, shiny black boots stamped the cobbled pavement as the new man in charge left the car to take his place on the platform. He looked splendid in his dark blue uniform trimmed with gold and topped with a feathered hat that denoted his rank.

This scene, although stirring and picturesque, made me think of countless old movies of far flung pink spots on the map where Brits pretended they were at home, and I suppose in a way they still are. After all, the Barbary apes (monkeys, really) still roam over the pinnacle of Gibraltar, and so the legend continues that as long as these apes remain, Britain will rule Gibraltar.