Gibraltar: The History of a Fortress

Gibraltar: The History of a Fortress

by Ernle Bradford


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497637870
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 08/19/2014
Pages: 204
Sales rank: 410,470
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ernle Bradford was born in 1922 and died in 1986. He was a noted British historian specializing in the Mediterranean world and naval topics. Bradford was an enthusiastic sailor himself and spent almost thirty years sailing the Mediterranean, where many of his books are set. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II, finishing as the first lieutenant of a destroyer. Bradford lived in Malta for a number of years. He did occasional broadcast work for the BBC, was a magazine editor, and wrote many books, including  HannibalPaul the TravellerJulius Caesar: The Pursuit of PowerChristopher Columbus , and  The Mighty Hood.

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The History Of A Fortress

By Ernle Bradford


Copyright © 1971 Ernle Bradford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-1718-6


Rock and Sea

The strange and formidable Rock of Gibraltar has long been a symbol of all that is permanent and enduring. It is, indeed, a 'Rock of Ages'.

To Mediterranean mariners of antiquity it stood as a warning mark, to tell them that they were at the close of the known world. Beyond it all civilization ended—and possibly even the earth itself. Many centuries later, it was seen as the sally-port into Europe, the bridge across which the Moors stormed into Spain and the Christian continent out of Moslem Africa. Lastly, after the opening-up of the oceanic trade routes, it became the point where all of them converged to enter the Mediterranean. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Rock, and the whole area surrounding it, became imbued first with myth and legend, and then with history. Many battles have been fought beneath its shadow.

A four-faced Janus, Gibraltar looks out westward to the Atlantic, southward to Africa, and eastward into the Mediterranean. To the north it gazes towards Spain and Europe. This is, indeed, one of the great crossroads of the earth.

Less than three miles long by three quarters of a mile wide, the Rock is one of those natural phenomena which have acquired an importance out of all proportion to their actual size. Two accidents of nature account for this: firstly its geological structure, and secondly its geographical position. This immense 'rock', for such it is, rising to a maximum height of 1400 feet, is a jagged mass of Jurassic limestone which was formed on the bed of an immense ocean, during that phase of the world's history which has been called 'The Age of Reptiles'. The ocean, which covered a large part of modern Europe and the Mediterranean basin, was stocked by innumerable turtles, vast icthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, as well as by countless fish that were beginning to approach to their modern forms. Crustaceans and long-tailed lobster-like creatures; the catfish; and the ancestors of the sturgeon; all these formed part of the life of Tethys, as the ocean has been called after the Greek sea-goddess who was reputed to be the daughter of Earth and Sky. Molluscs and Cephalopods, sponges and corals, all contributed over the millennia to form out of their bony skeletons and frames a deep deposit on the ocean floor.

Looking at the Rock today, it is difficult to imagine that it represents the death of billions of creatures, all once vivid with life. But the time came when the earth's surface shrank, and the Atlas mountains of North Africa and the Sierra Nevada of Spain were driven towards one another. When this occurred, the former seabed, at the junction of what is now the straits, was thrust up into the sunlight. More millennia of sun and rain, wind and ice, tempered this marine deposit until it became the limestone that is so typical of the Mediterranean region as man knows it today. Geologically, perhaps, there is nothing especially remarkable about Gibraltar, but geographically there is—for it is separated from the main body of Spain and, therefore, of Europe. It is basically an island—probably indeed it once was—for the sandy isthmus that connects it with the continent is, in geological terms, an 'innovation'. In other parts of the Mediterranean, similar siltings have occurred. Monte Circeo, for instance, a little north of Naples and now united to the west coast of Italy by alluvial deposits washed down from the Tiber, was once, too, an offshore island. Its structure is very similar to Gibraltar's.

Gibraltar is what is known as a 'bill'; that is to say, the exact opposite to an inlet, where an arm of sea thrusts into the land. The bill, or rock of Gibraltar, is an arm of land thrust out into the sea. If this, and its geological structure, were all, then there would be nothing more to say about Gibraltar except that it is an interesting—but not unique—natural phenomenon. The Rock, however, is situated at the narrow entrance-mouth of the Mediterranean, and has thus acquired its unusual importance. It runs almost due North and South, terminating at Europa Point, and facing across the straits that bear its name towards Mount Ceuta on the Moroccan coast. At this point, less than fourteen miles of sea divide Europe from Africa.

In classical times Gibraltar was known as Calpe, and Ceuta as Abyla. (Both names seem to stem from Phoenician roots, the exact meaning of which has long provided a battlefield for Semitic scholars.) They were the famous Pillars of Hercules beyond which, as the dramatist Euripides wrote in the fifth century BC, there 'lies the end of voyaging and the Ruler of Ocean no longer permits mariners to travel on the purple sea'.

This was poetic exaggeration, of course (or perhaps no more than geographical and historical ignorance). The Phoenicians, for certain, had long been penetrating into the Atlantic beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and possibly even the Minoans and Myceneans before them. It is likely, though, that it was the Phoenicians who first named Gibraltar and Ceuta the Pillars of Hercules, or rather of Melquart. He was their principal male deity and it was the Greeks and the Romans who later equated him with Heracles, or Hercules. It has been suggested also that these two great rocks at the mouth of the sea reminded them of the twin pillars in the temple of Melquart at Tyre. Tyre was the most important city in the Phoenician world and, since it was the Tyrians who were among the foremost navigators of antiquity, it is probable that it was a Tyrian who first, lifting his eyes at dawn as the mist peeled off the strait, cried out 'The Pillars of Melquart, Lord of the City!'

The appearance and geography of Gibraltar have been best described in the Journal of the Geological Society (London 1878):

'The extreme length of the Rock from the base of the cliff at the north front to Europa Point is only a little over and the promontory tapers somewhat gradually away from a breadth of 1,550 yards between Gibraltar and Catalan Bay to a width of 550 yards at Europa. The Rock shoots abruptly upwards from the low flat land at the north front in a fine mural precipice, the basal portion of which is partly concealed by a sloping curtain of debris and breccia. This precipitous wall culminates.... at the Rock Gun (1,349 ft.) from which point the dividing ridge or backbone of the promontory extends southward in a sharp jagged arch, the dominant points of which are Middle hill (1,195 ft.), Signal station (1,294 ft.), heights above Monkey's Alameda (1,396 ft.), and O'Hara's tower (1,370 ft.). At the latter the ridge is sharply truncated, and succeeded to the south by the well-marked plateau of Windmill hill and Europa. From the Rock Gun to O'Hara's tower the dividing ridge presents to the east a bold escarpment, which is for the most part inaccessible, and in places almost vertical, the cliffs where they are lowest having a drop of not less than 300 or 400 ft., and of more than 1,000 ft. where they approach the sea on the north. From their base the ground falls rapidly away to the coastline at angles that vary from 300 to 40 The opposite slopes of the dividing ridge are not so abrupt, the only really precipitous portion that faces the west being the line of cliff that overlooks Gardiner's road and Engineer's road between the Moorish wall and the Mount. A low sandy plain, that does not average more than 10 ft. in height above the sea, connects the Rock with the mainland.'

It is the precipitous eastern face that gives rise to one of the more unusual phenomena associated with the Rock—the Levanter Cloud. The Levanter, or East Wind, which blows out of the warm Mediterranean, is the prevailing wind in the strait. In an average year it may blow for as many as one hundred and fifty days. Compared with this, the other two principal winds, the west and northwest, average about one hundred and twenty days between them. Since the east wind is most prevalent between June and September, it arrives across a thousand miles of summer Mediterranean, having absorbed on its way a very high humidity. The wind strikes the sheer, eastern, cliff-face, and spins upwards to close on fifteen hundred feet, where it condenses to form a cloud (somewhat similar to the vapour-trail of an aircraft). All the heights now become beaded with moisture, and the cloud trails away westerly over the whole area of Gibraltar and the bay beyond it. Sometimes it stretches right across the bay, five miles to where the Spanish town of Algeciras lies. While all the rest of the sky may be clear and blue, Gibraltar wears its grey hat. This obscures the sun on the western slopes, raises the humidity, and accounts for an irritability among the inhabitants somewhat similar to that engendered in Malta, Sicily and Southern Italy by the equally humid, but southerly, Sirocco.

When the Levanter cloud is particularly thick and heavy, life on the Rock has been accurately compared to living in a Turkish bath. T. J. Bickford writing in the Royal Naval Sailing Association Journal also describes how 'sailing in the harbour (on the western side) can be very tricky, for the cold air under the cloud rushes down the slope now and again ... and then stops while the cloud reforms to a different shape. In addition, the vacuum created by the loss of volume due to the cooling and formation of the cloud has to be filled by air rushing in from either side. These rotating miniature whirlwinds—for they do pick up a plume of water 1 o ft. high—progress across the harbour ... The terror winds are those that come down in gusts at 45 degrees and drive the boat over.'

The narrow strait of Gibraltar is also one of the few areas in the Mediterranean where a strong surface current is experienced. (The others are the strait of Messina, and the narrows of the Bosporus.) Since the Mediterranean only receives from the rivers that drain into it about a third of the amount of water that it loses annually by evaporation, it follows that this deficiency must be made good by an inflow from the Atlantic. There is, in fact, a small inflow from the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, but most of the water replacement pours in through the strait of Gibraltar. The result is that there is a strong surface current in the strait, flowing easterly into the inland sea and usually making at about two knots—although on occasions even greater rates have been experienced. The Admiralty Pilot for the area states that: 'Within about 20 miles eastward of Gibraltar the current is extremely variable, and special caution is necessary when making the strait from eastward. Thus, in 1936, HMS Nelson reported that south-east going currents, with rates up to 3 knots, were frequently experienced during the latter half of February and the first week in March in the area southward of the parallel of Europa point, whereas northward of that parallel very little current was experienced; the wind during the period was mainly between south-west and north-west. Between the eastern end of the Strait of Gibraltar and the meridian of Malaga, the main current has sometimes been found to have a rate of 5 knots ...'

But if the Atlantic waters flow into the Mediterranean to replenish what is lost by evaporation during the long dry summers, there is also an outflow from the land-embraced sea into the vast Atlantic. The reason for this is that the Mediterranean, due to its high rate of evaporation, is a very saline sea, as any swimmer can testify who has contrasted its buoyancy with other seas and oceans of the world. A higher salinity means a greater density, so the surface waters of the sea are constantly sinking, to add to the dense water in the hidden depths. The excess of this saline water now flows out through the strait of Gibraltar—well below the surface. It has been calculated that up to a depth of 68 fathoms (408 ft.) the water is flowing into the Mediterranean, but below this depth the 'old water is flowing out into the Atlantic. The whole of the Mediterranean basin, therefore, is constantly renewed every few years.

While the inflow averages a rate of about 2 knots, below the surface the water is flowing out at about knots, lifting gently over the sill that forms the comparatively shallow strait between Gibraltar and Ceuta, Europe and Africa. Another phenomenon of which the sailor in this area soon becomes aware is that at certain points along the adjacent coastlines, particularly on the African side, west-going eddy currents occur which are at complete variance with the main surface stream. Furthermore, when the Levanter blows strongly, the incoming waters are checked and the rate of the stream drops considerably. Conversely, strong westerly winds out of the Atlantic can double its speed. In all respects, then, Gibraltar and its strait are an area of unusual meteorological and oceanographic interest. It is not surprising that the ancients felt that this was a place of magic and mystery.


The Pillars of Heracles

In 1848, one year before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, a discovery was made at Gibraltar which occasioned little comment at the time. In a cave on the north face of the rock, 'an old skull'—in the words of the Gibraltar Society—was brought to light. It was the skull of a woman. Nine years later, at Neanderthal in the valley of the Düssel, a tributary of the Rhine, a similar skull, together with thigh and other bones, was found. Similar remains have subsequently come to light in Belgium, France, Jersey, Czechoslovakia and Palestine. They represent practically all that we know about what has subsequently been called 'Neanderthal' man—who should, more accurately, have been termed 'Gibraltar Woman', since it was here that the very first specimen was uncovered.

This forerunner of the human race had massive brow ridges, a short bull-like neck, teeth and palate that seem to indicate a vegetable diet, and thigh bones (to judge from the German specimen) that indicate a character more simian than the roots from which we ourselves spring. Nevertheless, the skull, although long and low, was capacious, and there can be little doubt that the type deserves to be called 'man' rather than 'simian'. Remains of Neanderthal man have also been unearthed in South Africa, Tangier just across the strait from Gibraltar, and as far north as Denmark. Anthropologists, although often as at variance with one another as archaeologists, seem to agree that this particular species of the human race originated in Africa. It is very possible that it was in the narrow strait between Ceuta and Gibraltar that this ancient forerunner of mankind crossed from Africa into Europe. He (or she) was to be succeeded by what seems to be our real ancestor, Cromagnon man—a more efficient killer, who most probably exterminated his predecessor. The English novelist William Golding in The Inheritors has brilliantly imagined and recreated the world in which gentle, fruit-eating Neanderthal met his doom at the hands of violent Cromagnon.

The first people in recorded history to have regularly passed through the strait were the Phoenicians. They were bound not only for the tin mines of Spain, but for those farther north in the rain- and wind-swept isles of Britain, There is no evidence that the rock of Gibraltar meant anything more to these master-mariners of antiquity than a landmark. Natural fortress it certainly was, but the Phoenicians and their descendants, the Carthaginians, picked the sites for their settlements almost entirely on the basis of trade. Sheltered bays, or offshore islands, with easy access to the hinterland of whatever country it might be—these were the places that they chose for the repair and slipping of their ships. They sought trading posts which, if the natives proved unfriendly, could be defended easily, and from which their seapower could always enable them to escape. It was for this reason that they founded a trading settlement north of Gibraltar at the head of the gulf, where they were protected from the Levanter by the towering rock, and on the west by the headland that is now called Punta Secreta.


Excerpted from Gibraltar by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1971 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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