So Far From Home

Given Great Britain’s motivations for holding the gate of Gibraltar and controlling access into and out of the Mediterranean Sea, it is perhaps little surprise that in the midst of World War II the civilian population that was not involved in essential war industries was removed for safekeeping in other areas, and became temporary refugees. It is also little surprise that there should be a great deal of concern about conditions back on the rock for those who were so far from home or the fact that those who had been able to remain home were concerned about the difficulties and unpleasant conditions faced by the evacuees [1]. Nor is it even a surprise that the people of Gibraltar would have such a strong identity as a distinct people in light of their experience as a British colony in an often-hostile relationship with Spain, on the other side of the line. Merely drawing a line in the sand, and exposing the people on both sides of that line to different social and political conditions over a period of decades and centuries, is often enough to generate a different identity, something that many colonial peoples have found out to their sorrow when trying to stitch the peoples back together when the reason for their separation is gone.

Be that as it may, the experience of Gibraltar’s civilians in World War II is instructive. In my own particular religious tradition, there is often a great deal of celebration in the fact that for so long the British Empire held so many gates that controlled access through seas and mountain passes around the world. In some of these cases, these strategic territories became the source of great power and wealth for Great Britain. The importance that the British placed on Gibraltar and Singapore, for example, have given those areas a strong sense of distinct identity from the land territories nearest to them, namely Spain and Malaysia. Yet while the possession of these gates was a particularly good thing for Great Britain, it may not have always been very good for those people who actually lived on the territories. After all, as was the case with the native inhabitants of the Chagos Islands [2], the people of Gibraltar were removed from their homeland for reasons of state. Fortunately, unlike those unfortunate islanders of what is now the Diego Garcia base in the British Indian Ocean Territory, they were returned home after the war, although some of them remained refugees for a period of up to a decade. When we celebrate the strategic value of a given land, we can never forget the suffering that results to common people from having the misfortune of trying to live their lives on such contested spaces that draw the hostility and aggression of others.

The experience of those evacuees reads like a comic opera. When war was declared against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the position of the inhabitants of Gibraltar was considered vulnerable given the need on the part of the British military to fortify the island and prepare to defend it against assault, so about 13,000 people out of the island’s prewar population of about 22,000 were evacuated to French Morocco. This, in turn, created an awkward situation when France surrendered to the German and the pro-German Vichy France regime took power, and then repatriated those refugees back to Gibraltar in the midst of the continuing war. The British were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unwilling to let the refugees return home while Germany and Italy were at their strongest, and so the refugees were moved again, some of them to the neutral Portuguese island of Madeira, and most of them to areas around London, where the evacuees faced the fury of the German blitz and conditions of rationing and peril, which they wrote about to their friends and family who remained on Gibraltar during the war. Some of them were even shipped as far away from home as Jamaica, and others to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it was not until the fall of Italy to Allied forces that plans began to bring the people of Gibraltar home, which ended up taking several years before all of them were able to return back to their homes.

It is clear, by their desire to return to their homeland, that the people of Gibraltar never saw themselves at home as refugees of war. Nations have at their disposal many ways of making refugees feel unwelcome. The boredom and isolation of refugee camps [3], the lack of opportunities to settle down and make a better life for oneself and achieve education in the native language of a country, the exploitation of refugees by guerrilla groups seeking to reverse political verdicts in one’s homeland, and the slow process of repatriation all combine to make the life of a refugee unpleasant and to encourage them to leave and go somewhere where they are wanted. The fact that even within the same Empire, the people of Gibraltar were treated as different and distinct also likely contributed to a certain strong spirit of unity among them to preserve that identity and to make sure that they were able to see their home again. After all, they were removed from a homeland where they wanted to stay, and so it should be expected that they should want to return as soon as possible.

It is a different matter, of course, when people flee from an area. Still, whether one leaves an area in terror and by choice, or whether one is forced out of an area, there is a sense of trauma in the experience. As human beings we are created to have bonds with other people and with places. We have a longing to belong, to have a settled place, and while we may be the sort of people who appreciate the opportunity to travel and see other lands and become familiar with other cultures and communities, we still want people and places to return to again. Fortunately, the people of Gibraltar were able to return home within a few years, to a land that was safe and sound, and were able to return to their lives with a renewed sense of identity in the little peninsula where they reside, on the other side of La Linea from Spain, overlooking their eponymous straits and not far from the shores of North Africa. They are fortunate as well in that Great Britain has respected their wishes not to be forced to unite with Spain, who is hungry for the land. Yet, ultimately, it is unclear how long Great Britain will be able to keep them as a dependency, or whether they would be allowed to be a small independent state in lieu of being united against their will to Spain if they were not able to remain a part of Great Britain. Not all peoples are as fortunate as the Gibraltarians—some remain far from home in a state of permanent exile, and some people, once cut from their moorings, never seem to be able to find home at all, no matter where they may roam.

[1] See, for example:

Finlayson, Thomas James (1991). The Fortress Came First: Story of the Civilian Population of Gibraltar During the Second World War. Gibraltar Books.

Garcia, Joseph J (1994). Gibraltar: The making of a people; The modern political history of Gibraltar and its people. Gibraltar: Mediterranean SUN Publishing Co. Ltd.,.

William G.F. Jackson, The Rock of the Gibraltarians. A History of Gibraltar, Grendon : Gibraltar Books (1987) 1998

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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