The Port of Gibraltar lies on a narrow five-kilometer-long peninsula on Spain’s southeastern Mediterranean coast. Gibraltar is a self-governing territory of the United Kingdom, and it is autonomous in all matters except defense. It is heavily fortified, used by Britain as an air and naval base protecting the Strait of Gibraltar, the only ocean gateway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. Gibraltar covers 6.5 square kilometers, including the port and harbor, and over 28 thousand people lived there in 2003.
One of the world’s most famous landmarks, Gibraltar is know as “the Rock.” It rises steeply 421 meters at its northern summit, 426 meters at its highest point near the south end. Morocco on the African continent is just 30 kilometers south across the strait. Gibraltar has no rivers or springs, and potable water is obtained from a desalinization plant. Spain and Great Britain have long disputed the status of Gibraltar. In 2002, Gibraltar voters near-unanimously rejected joint sovereignty under both Spain and Britain, and the two countries agreed to allow it to represent itself in future negotiations.
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have inhabited the Port of Gibraltar as far back as our earlier, extinct ancestor, Neanderthal man. Phoenicians established a settlement there in about 950 BC. Later conquerors included the Carthaginians and the Romans. Ancient peoples knew Gibraltar as one of the Pillars of Hercules. After the Roman Empire fell, the Port of Gibraltar was controlled by the Vandals. From the 5th to the 8th Centuries, the Visigoth kingdom of Hispania controlled the peninsula.
In 711 AD, Umayyad general Tariq ibn Ziyad conquered Gibraltar for the Moors, although they did not develop it much for the first four centuries of their rule. Sultan Abd al-Mu’min established the first permanent settlement on Gibraltar, fortifying the Rock. Ruins of his Moorish Castle remain today.
In 1309, the peninsula was occupied by Castilian troops, but it was re-conquered by the Moors. In 1462, the Duke of Medina Sidonia invaded the peninsula and brought 750 years of Moorish rule to an end. In 1476, the Duke joined the Kingdom of Castile, passing Gibraltar eventually to the Kingdom of Spain.
In 1607, a Dutch fleet made a successful attack on and destroyed the Spanish fleet at the four-hour Battle of Gibraltar. In the War of Spanish Succession in 1704, Dutch and British troops captured the Port of Gibraltar, claiming it for the Holy Roman Empire’s Charles VI.
Great Britain’s permanent sovereignty over the Port of Gibraltar was recognized in 1713 through the Treaty of Utrech. Over the years, attempted invasions by Spanish troops led to the British fortifying the border area north of the city wall, called “the British Neutral Ground.” That area has long been claimed by Spain.
After the American Revolution, the Port of Gibraltar was an important Royal Navy base, and it was an important factor in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1856, the Port of Gibraltar’s strategic value increased, as it effectively controlled traffic traveling to and from India and Australia.
During World War II, the Rock was converted into a fortress, and its residents were evacuated. An airfield was built on the old race course, and guns were installed on the peninsula to control the entrance to the Mediterranean.
During the reign of Francisco Franco in the 1950s, Spain again asserted its claim to the Port of Gibraltar. Several referenda were held asking voters if they wanted Gibraltar to pass to Spain. They consistently and over-whelming voted to remain under the British crown. These elections eventually led to the granting of autonomy for Gibraltar and more pressure from Spain.
Spain closed the border with Gibraltar from 1969 until 1985, just before it joined the European Union. The United Kingdom and Spain have continued to discuss the question of Port of Gibraltar ownership since the 1980s. In 1981, Gibraltar natives were given full British citizenship. In 2002, a second sovereignty referendum ended with a 99% vote to stay with Great Britain.
In 2006, negotiations between Great Britain and Spain settled a number of outstanding issues affecting the Port of Gibraltar. A trilateral process continues, and the British government has stated that it will talk about sovereignty with Spain unless the government and people of Gibraltar agree.
The military installations and personnel, including the naval dockyard, were traditionally the base of the Port of Gibraltar’s economy. However, over the last two decades, the peninsula has developed a healthy service sector dominated by tourism and finance. Several banks have opened offices in Gibraltar, and several online gaming operators have moved to the Rock.
Tourism is an important part of the Port of Gibraltar’s local economy, as it is a popular stop for cruise vessels whose passengers enjoy making a day-trip there. British tourists and residents of southern Spain also enjoy holidays at Gibraltar. All goods and services are free from value added taxes, making Gibraltar a popular shopping area, and several large British chains have opened branches there.