Of Mountains, Monkeys, and Men:
By Ron Fritze
DATELINE: The Atlantic Ocean near Gibraltar
June 21, 2008
The ancients considered the Pillars of Hercules
the head of navigation and the end of the world.
The information the ancients didn't have was very voluminous.
— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
The Rock of Gibraltar is the first stop on our itinerary. We reached it after two days at sea, arriving about nine on a glorious morning. I got up at seven to find a good viewpoint on deck for photos. I could already see the Rock in the distance. To the south I could see Jebel Musa, the other pillar of Hercules, with its summit enshrouded in clouds. Fortunately the Rock was free of clouds, which is frequently not the case.
Soon after the Independence of the Seas dropped anchor, we decided to forego the guided tour for a leisurely walk into town. A bright, sunny day graced our two-mile stroll to the cable car station. Much of the walk was through old Gibraltar with its many shops, restaurants, and places to eat. There was a fairly long line for the cable car, but it did not go too badly, and we were soon on our way to the top of the Rock.
In Search of the Barbary Apes.
The Rock of Gibraltar is honeycombed with tunnels, some quite old going back to Moorish times, and others of World War II vintage. They are part of the fortification system. Our big goal was to see the Gibraltar monkeys, also known as the Barbary Apes. Gibraltar is the only place in Europe where monkeys live in the wild. I was under the impression that the monkeys had lived there since prehistoric times, having been cut off when the sea-level rose and caused the Atlantic to pour into the Mediterranean toward the end of the Ice Age.
Doing some reading in preparation for the trip, I discovered that the monkeys did not arrive in Gibraltar until the eighteenth century. They probably came over with food deliveries to the British garrison. One story, however, claims that they made their way to Gibraltar via tunnels under the strait. I am a bit dubious about that story as it raises the question of who gave those monkeys torches and flashlights!
When we got to the top of the Rock, we immediately spotted some of the apes. Authorities warn you continuously not to try and touch the monkeys and definitely not to feed them. The fine for feeding a Barbary Ape is about a thousand dollars.
Apes on the Prowl.
Authorities are less thorough in warning tourists about the tendency of the apes to touch human visitors to the Rock. Within minutes of getting off the cable car, we saw a monkey scramble toward a woman with great purpose — and noticed that the lady did not see the ape coming. When the ape used the fence and the woman's back to do some climbing, she got an unexpected thrill.
We saw other apes making grabs for bags and purses. One fellow even waited to ambush unwary newcomers as they got off the cable car. The apes are smart, too — and they're not prone to act like gentlemen. I noticed that women and children were the favored targets, while adult male humans were allowed to pass unmolested. The Barbary Apes are also good about sitting around and letting you take their picture.
At an elevation of over one thousand two hundred feet, and with the ocean stretching to the far horizon, and with ships and boats dotted along the harbor, the setting for photos is spectacular! (In the photo above, our ship can be seen just behind the ape's head.) There is a section of the Rock further north that rises about two hundred feet higher, but we didn't go there. Maybe on a future visit.
A Great Fortress Indeed.
Gibraltar has a reputation as a great fortress, a reputation it most definitely deserves. Not stuck out there on its own, the Rock shares a bay with the Spanish port of Algeciras. Up until the latter part of the nineteenth century, Gibraltar was out of range of shore cannons on Algeciras — and vice versa. Situated a mere twelve-to-fourteen miles from the coast of North Africa, which can be clearly seen on some days, Gibraltar is very strategically located.
To the east of the mountain called Jebel Musa lies Ceuta, the Moorish city captured by John I of Portugal in 1415, marking the beginning of Portugal's overseas empire. Jebel Musa is actually larger than Gibraltar, but not as dramatically rugged. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans all ignored Gibraltar as a fortress for the most part. The Moors fortified it after 711 when they began the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, the name Gibraltar derives from the Arabic word Jebel Tariq, meaning "Mountain of Tariq." Tariq ibn Zayyad commanded the first Moorish invasion of Spain.
The Eighth Siege Did It.
Anytime the pressure of the Christians became too dangerous, the Moors could turn to Gibraltar to provide a secure place to land reinforcements from their co-religionists in North Africa. No wonder that Christian forces wanted the Rock — and in 1309, Castilians managed to capture it. But the Moors retook it in 1333, and managed to retain it through 1462. The Rock endured eight sieges between 1309 and 1462. The last siege dislodged the Moors, delivering a great symbolic possession to Christian Spain.
Unfortunately, the Christians did not take good care of their prized possession. The problem with Gibraltar is that it is useful only during times of war. In times of peace, it is a boring and uncomfortable place to live. Millitary garrisons did not like being deployed there. Gibraltar was tempting to neglect, which the Spanish did — to their sorrow.
In 1704 the British admiral Sir George Rooke led an Anglo-Dutch fleet into the Mediterranean. Its primary objective was to protect Nice, but that mission failed. A secondary objective to capture Barcelona also failed. Cadiz appeared to be too strongly defended, so Rooke descended upon Gibraltar with a fleet of fifty-nine warships to attack a meagre Spanish garrison of between fifty and eighty men. The Spanish surrendered after three days, but only after the British and Dutch fired fifteen thousand rounds into the fortress.
The Treaty of Utrecht in 1714 confirmed Great Britain's possession of Gibraltar, and the British have held the Rock ever since.
Another Seige — and a Long One.
The legendary great siege of Gibraltar took place during a European war that broke out during the American Revolution and lasted from 5 July 1779 until 2 February 1783. The siege consumed three years, seven months, and twelve days — the longest continuous siege in history. Although other attempts have been made to take Gibraltar from Britain, none were as serious as the great siege.
Spain would dearly love to have Gibraltar back. The residents once went to the polls to choose between British rule and Spanish rule. They chose to stay with Britain.
It seems to me that Gibraltar holds the same quality for the British that the Panama Canal holds for the Americans. They are places where great challenges were raised, met, and overcome in triumph.
Fish and Chips, Pubs, and Spanish Lager.
Gibraltar is a little slice of Britain tucked onto the tip of Spain. The streets
are dotted with fish and chips shops. I cannot speak to the quality as Twylia and I were not hungry, despite all the walking and the dodging of apes. Pubs line the streets. We stopped at one called The Angry Friar. Since it was a hot day, I had a pint of San Miguel, the Spanish lager on draft at the pub. San Miguel was my second choice as The Angry Friar does not serve my favorite English beer, Abbot Ale. Perhaps the Friar is angry because he lost the Abbot?
By the way, Twylia and I both managed to avoid getting bitten by a Barbary Ape. No casualties so far. Whoops! I take that back. Since this cruise is heavily British, they are showing some sort of Hugh Grant film festival on one of the ship's TV channels. Pray for us.
Click on the black panther to read Ron Fritze's first report from his sea cruise,
"Britannia Rules the Waves? The Forgotten D-Day of 1545."