Gibraltar has always been important. It guards the entrance to and exit from the Mediterranean. It welcomes guests or blocks invaders to Europe. It is inhospitable and bleak yet provides a comfort to those under it’s shadow. Today it is speaks English but yesterday Greek, Latin and Spanish. It has an Arabic name (The Rock of Tariq) and was an Islamic stronghold for seven centuries. It has been a British one for three. How this came to be, as with so many issues in history, involves a man who couldn’t have children.
In 1700 Hapsburg Spain was in the twilight of it’s life. The family who provided Henry VIII with his first wife and who launched the armadas of the Elizabethan age was departing the world stage. Charles II was ill, old and childless. Yet the family possessions were mouth watering – Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Cuba, Milan, California, Panama and the bulk of South America. Not to forget the jewel in the crown – Asiento – the monopoly to trade African slaves across the Atlantic.
As Charles was about to breathe his last breath, the powers of Europe held theirs. The interested parties were France and Austria. Ultimately any decision in the will would lead to war. And looking on with more than a passing interest were the naval rivals of the British and Dutch. Whoever controlled the New World Spanish possessions was a threat to the growing reach of their international commerce. And an Austrian was much preferable to a French man. When the Spanish cardinal informed all of the death of Charles, he passed news that Philippe of Anjou, the grandson of the French king, would get it all.
The War of the Spanish Succession had begun. The French with some of Spain fought against the rest of Spain, Austria, Netherlands, England and Scotland. (Half way through the war, England and Scotland united to form Britain.) This could be seen as the first world war as it was fought in the Caribbean, America and across Europe. By 1713 peace talks were under way and the side of the British had won.
Philippe of Anjou was permitted to rule Spain and their American possessions while the Spanish Netherlands, Italy and the Mediterranean islands passed into Austrian hands. This suited the merchants of London and Amsterdam as Austria was neither a naval power nor commercial rival.
Britain and the Netherlands had been fierce rivals until 1700 but the outcome of this latest war finally swung the relationship into Britain’s favour. The creation of the Bank of England, the National Debt and the exacting practice of the Treasury enabled Britain to maintain enormous trade while financing European wars from the safety of an island.
In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht Britain received Gibraltar alongside North American land and strategic stations. But most significantly Britain gained the treasured right of Asiento upon which her wealth would be built. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool, funded by the city of London, would amass a terrible wealth as millions of people were captured and sold in the much feared triangular trade. The markets for the mills and urbanisation of the industrial revolution were built on Asiento and world history lurched towards our modern age.
Oh, and Gibraltar became British.