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Gibraltar is a nation state of 38,000 people on the Mediterranean Sea.  Due to its peculiar history (particularly being a British Colony and Garrison for over 300 years) the population, a mixture of Genoese, Spanish, Maltese, Sephardic, Sindhi, and British peoples developed its own unique culture.  In recent years there has been a growing sense of specifically Gibraltarian ethnic identity and nationhood which was largely absent in the 20th century.

Although numerous historians have studied Gibraltar, their focus has been overwhelmingly on the military side of Gibraltar’s history.  Although in recent years there has been more attention given to Gibraltar’s social history, to date, no significant oral history project has been undertaken.  This project aims to record Gibraltar’s twentieth century oral history, focusing specifically on people’s perceptions of themselves and others.  The overarching research question is how Gibraltarian identity developed over the twentieth century:   to what extent Spanish heritage is muted, elided, or forgotten; the notion of Britishness and how Gibraltarians came to feel British (and especially the key moment of WWII in this); and the role of language in ethnic identity.  The final point is both a key area of investigation in its own right and a methodological challenge (see below).

Key areas

The Border

A key area of research is the border that separates Gibraltar from Spain which has been open and shut several times during the lives of the interviewees.  It is such an obvious determinant of identity and attitudes that it is surprising more research has not been done on it although Haller’s (2000) work is a notable exception.  Haller reports that the border crossing, often characterised by delay and frustration, is a kinaesthetic experience which has the effect of inscribing a social relation on people’s bodies. Much anti-Spanish feeling in Gibraltar is focused on what are seen as arbitrary delays or humiliating searches and there can be no doubt that experience of crossing the border has a major effect on how people identify as Gibraltarian.  The project will explore experiences and attitudes to crossing the border from across the 20th century which includes periods were crossing was free and easy and others where it was impossible.  The border manifestly impacts on Gibraltarians’ lives but no study has been conducted on the other side of the border.

La Línea de la Concepción is a town whose very existence is owed to the imaginary line (La Línea) that divides Spain from Gibraltar.  In the 1960s approximately 10,000 Spaniards worked in Gibraltar but became abruptly unemployed when Franco prohibited crossing.  Nowadays a comparable number of people cross every day to work.  Although Gibraltar is a source of employment it is also a source of resentment as millions of people pass through La Línea on their way to Gibraltar but don’t stop in what is one of the poorest cities in Spain.   In 2010 the mayor of La Línea proposed a toll for everyone passing through his city although, to date, it has not been effected.  This project will explore the attitudes of residents of La Línea to the border, their affective and kinship links with Gibraltar, and their attitudes to their neighbour which quite literally overshadows them.  A key part of this research will be explore workers’ experiences of working in Gibraltar – in the past as well as today – and how they understand Gibraltar, Gibraltarians, and their relation to their own identities.


Interviews with residents of La Línea will focus on how they understand similarities and differences between them and Gibraltarians and, indeed, what they think Gibraltarians actually are.  Gibraltarians’ ethnicity is rather more complex.  They are often described as being more British than the British’ but as Dodds (et al. 2007) suggest, this needs to be explored more thoroughly, even in the highpoint of association with Britain when in the immediate post-war period the new Queen visited  The Rock (ibid).  In recent years there has been a growing assertion of Gibraltarian over British identity with a national day, the adoption of a national anthem, and many public symbols of an increasingly confident identity.  If in the immediate post-war period people identified with the British Empire and saw the United Kingdom as the motherland which offered protection against fascist Spain it is certainly worth exploring what this ‘Britishness’ actually meant to Gibraltarians living through this period, many of them who continued to speak predominantly in Spanish and enjoyed Spanish kin; and others who studied in the UK and were able to contrast their own sense of Britishness against that of UK natives.  It is also important to explore the attitudes of Gibraltarians in the pre-war period and the extent to which they actually felt British.  Similarly, there are many assumptions made today about Gibraltarians’ Britishness which have never systematically been explored.

The social history of Gibraltar has overwhelmingly focused on the majority Catholic population descended predominantly from Genoese, Maltese, and Spanish people.  The contemporary iconic Gibraltarian is often presented as being of Genoese and/or Maltese descent – with the Spanish contribution often elided – as is, for example, strongly presented in an exhibit in the Gibraltar Museum.  In the earlier decades of the twentieth century the Maltese-descended population continued to be residentially and socially segregated and was identified as a distinct minority; the contemporary discourse regularly ignores the fact that many Genoese and Maltese married Spanish women.  The Spanish grandmother was an almost iconic feature of most Gibraltarian families in the twentieth century and this elision is striking in public discourse.  The project will explore people’s attitudes to relatives, especially immediate ancestors, who were Spanish and how this has affected their attitudes to their own identities.

Catholicism is something that marks Gibraltarians as distinct from dominant British culture and this aspect of personal identity will be explored with interviewees.  There has been a sizeable Hindu population (of predominantly Sindhi origin) in Gibraltar for the entire 20th century as well as a Jewish population of far greater historical depth.  In focusing on Gibraltarian identity as being somehow in terms of two poles – English and Spanish – the internal differentiation of the Gibraltarian population is regularly ignored.  Individuals from these communities will be interviewed and members of the numerically dominant population will be asked about their attitudes to (dis)identification with religious and ethnic minorities in Gibraltar.  It is not, incidentally, to be assumed that the Jewish and Hindu populations are homogenous – quite the opposite is the case – and this further differentiation will also be explored.

Language issues

Gibraltarians in their majority are neither monolingual English nor Spanish speakers but are typically bilingual, speaking both languages more or less simultaneously in what is colloquially known as llanito.  Llanito is different from other examples of bilingualism or code switching in that speakers operate a large overlapping lexicon and maintain both grammars in conversation, even at the sentence level (Moyer 1993).  There has been considerable language change over the twentieth century.  Before the Second World War the vast majority of Gibraltarians were predominantly Spanish speaking whereas a combination of monolingual education system (it had been predominantly Spanish in the 19th century); the experiences of being evacuated to the UK and the English-speaking Caribbean during the Second World War; and the closing of the land border with Spain (between 1966 and 1987) led to Gibraltarians identifying more closely with Britain (Dodds et al. 2007), as well as becoming increasingly English speaking.  By the beginning of this century English has become the dominant language across almost all social groups (Levey 2008).  There has, however, been no comprehensive survey of attitudes towards language as well as language use per se has clear implications for how Gibraltarians identify themselves and with respect to Spaniards and other British people.  This project will not only explore attitudes towards language but also record many examples of llanito which is changing rapidly if not actually disappearing.  This is highly significant because one of the markers of Gibraltarian identity is being bilingual and this continues to be the case even as this bilingualism becomes increasingly symbolic.