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24 June 2014updated 11 Sep 2021 6:00pm

Bordering on Britishness: what does it really mean to be Gibraltarian?

The public’s understanding of Gibraltar’s people often fails to account for the nuances of history and cultural diversity, says Professor Andrew Canessa, the academic behind the “Bordering on Britishness” project. He explains why this ambitious new oral history fills a much needed gap, and some of the surprises they’ve already uncovered.

By New Statesman

Gibraltarians regularly appear in the British media as arch Royalists festooned with the Union Jack and declaring themselves to be “more British than the British.”  There is no doubt that Gibraltarians can be relied upon to come out in great numbers to celebrate their British identity and loyalty – especially when there are problems on the border with Spain.  But what does it mean to be Gibraltarian and how did an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking population with intimate connections with Spanish people and culture come, over the span of a single lifetime, to identify so resolutely against any identification with Spain?  What does it mean to be more British than the British?  

There have been numerous studies on this question but the approach has largely been historical — based on colonial archives and predominantly English sources with some small social science surveys, almost always conducted exclusively in English and with a limited set of questions.  All of these studies confirm that the Gibraltarian identity developed over time from Genoese, Maltese, Spanish and other populations, but especially during the twentieth century, through the trauma of the enforced WWII evacuation of women, children and elderly, which ultimately led to the creation of a modern British Gibraltarian.  But is that all there is to it?

To date, no one has conducted a survey of Gibraltarians in the language of their choice, including the local dialect of llanito.  “Bordering on Britishness”, an Economic and Social Research Council funded collaboration between the University of Essex (where I teach) and the Gibraltar Garrison Library (Dr. Jennifer Ballantine Perera), therefore fills a much needed gap. We will talk to over 400 Gibraltarians in a series of interviews, lasting several hours in total for each participant.  The researchers are locally recruited, able to conduct themselves in llanito, and come from a wide range of backgrounds: unionists and company managers, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians, older and younger, male and female and so on.  One part of the project will also include people across the border in the Spanish hinterland.  The project team only began collecting data in January 2014 but there are already some striking findings.

The first is that Gibraltar is a much more diverse place than previous research would suggest.  Related to this is the way in which experiences of the border – which so defines Gibraltarianness – are equally varied.  The border simply means different things to different people.  Crossing it means something to a young Gibraltarian who may enjoy the diversity and anonymity of night life in Spain; it may mean something else to people with a disability when crossing the border is hot and difficult.  It will also mean something else to an older generation who never experienced these border difficulties in pre-1960s Gibraltar.  Different religious and ethnic groups experience the border in different ways: Orthodox Jews, for example, might enjoy living in a walled city, which has certain consequences on the Sabbath, and will have difficulty finding kosher food once they cross the border into Spain, whereas long term residents with Indian or Moroccan nationality will need visas to travel to Spain.  Other Gibraltarians will blithely pass through the city walls on a Saturday and go to Spain precisely to enjoy the food. 

Furthermore, I have been struck by the number of people we have met who have a story of not being able to attend a family funeral in Spain when the border was shut during the last decade of Franco’s regime, and well into the era of democratic Spain. This single act, for many, is the moment of rupture for people born on both sides of the border, and some articulate it with disarming clarity. As one woman married to a Gibraltarian said: “That was the day I stopped being Spanish”.

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There is no doubt that many Gibraltarians feel the daily harassment and humiliation of crossing the border and this translates to a profound and very public antipathy towards Spain.  There are also many Gibraltarians who have quite a complex relationship with Spain and the Spanish language.  Some may dislike Spain but have been born in Spain themselves or have a Spanish mother; some prefer speaking in English but can only write poetry in Spanish, or lament the fact that the younger generation no longer speaks Spanish but insists on speaking English to all children, including their own. Others might underline the profound cultural differences between Gibraltarians and Spanish but then point out that Gibraltarians are temperamentally much more like Spaniards than English people, and so on.   We have also found that class is a strong determinant in how the border is experienced and the networks that are established between the various communities.

On the other hand, many Gibraltarians say they are proud to be British but can’t imagine living in England; that they were shocked at how different everything was when they first went to the UK. They might see Spanish people as unreliable and untrustworthy in contrast to English people, but the latter are cold and don’t value their families. People’s attitudes to both Spain and the UK are infinitely more nuanced and complex than might appear at first glance. 

The central hypothesis of our project is, therefore, that before the Second World War (and to a considerable extent after) people on both sides of the border shared language, culture and kinship ties and there was little distinction between those who were “Spanish” and those who were “Gibraltarian”. Today these links are much more tenuous and differences, rather than similarities, are most likely to be stressed – especially in public.  This study aims to trace these changes over time, to explore the genesis of a Gibraltarian people and their identity through the life stories of those who have lived through the modern period, and to bring out the extraordinary diversity of experience of those who call themselves Gibraltarian. 

Andrew Canessa is a professor of sociology at the University of Essex