A few days ago the Spanish government closed a Spanish-language school in Gibraltar (a British territory at the arse-end of Spain) because, according to them, ‘everyone [in Gibraltar] speaks Spanish except for the apes’. Now, this can be read two ways – he could be referring to the native monkeys that live on the rock, or he could be referring to the British. He’s most likely referring to both. You see, Gibraltar couldn’t be anymore geographically Spanish even if it was smack-bang in the Puerta Del Sol in Madrid, but the British classify it as their overseas territory and solely their territory. British border guards, British pubs… even British phone boxes, double-decker buses, little red post boxes, pictures of the Queen and crooked smiles galore! It’s nearly British in every respect, except there’s sun. As you could imagine the proud people of Spain see this as an historic injustice and therefore every now and again Spain makes life difficult for England and little Gibraltar, just to let them know they consider it their territory. To demonstrate that it really pisses the Spanish off, they sometimes just close the only land border into the country, for no reason at all… for days on end. So to help explain this bizarre situation I’m gunna have a look at a very influential navy seaman (lolz… seamen) and strategist called Alfred Mahan and see how his ideas’ from over a century ago might make some sense out of why the Spanish are referring to the British as monkeys.
The history of sea power is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war. The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected. To secure to one’s own people a disproportionate share of such benefits, every effort was made to exclude others, either by the peaceful legislative methods of monopoly or prohibitory regulations, or, when these failed, by direct violence. The clash of interests, the angry feelings roused by conflicting attempts thus to appropriate the larger share, if not the whole, of the advantages of commerce, and of distant unsettled commercial regions, led to wars. On the other hand, wars arising from other causes have been greatly modified in their conduct and issue by the control of the sea. Therefore the history of sea power, while embracing in its broad sweep all that tends to make a people great upon the sea or by the sea, is largely a military history…
Above is a very awesome quote from my main man Mahan. He’s a dude writing from an American perspective before the outbreak of the First World War, detailing extensively (and leaning heavily on historical examples to support his claims) that the great powers were those that could not only defend their own coastline but also provide a secure base (aided by a network of land bases) for their naval power. From this position, according to Mahan, national and global power could not only be grasped – but also advanced.
His focus for this particular theory was the country us Australians’ have so much affection for – Britain. He detailed extensively that ‘national greatness’ was intertwined with the sea – not only in regards to commerce but also for control in periods of conflict. Mahan noted that if “a nation be so situated that it is neither forced to defend itself by land nor induced to seek extension of its territory by way of land”, then Britain (whom he was referring to) can focus its energy upon the sea, as opposed to those that must contend with continental boundaries. So I’m going to have a look at what Mahan was saying and try and apply it to the recent name-calling between the Spanish and the British – hopefully we can shine a light on what’s really happening in that sun-soaked part of the world.
The current geopolitical issue involves a continued Spanish claim for sovereignty over the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean. An Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar from the Spaniards in 1704 and the territory was subsequently ceded to Britain in 1713. Reclaiming the territory by peaceful means remains the policy of successive Spanish governments, with the current conservative government of Mariano Rajoy reiterating this position recently. The traditional Spanish position is based on territorial integrity, as listed in the UN Resolution 1514 (XV), which according to the Spanish restricts the rights of the population of Gibraltar to proper self-determination. A recent escalation of nationalistic rhetoric and referrals to the European Commission over the disputed area have resulted in the British military sending a warship in 2013 to the docks in Gibraltar, much to the anger of the Spanish.
Why there is so much tension over a rocky outcrop only 6.7km2 can be found in Mahan’s theory on the importance of the sea. Mahan’s emphasis on the sea is best demonstrated by Britain’s reluctance to disassociate itself from influence in Gibraltar. It is not Gibraltar ‘the landmass’ that is of interest to the British, but rather the Strait of Gibraltar – linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean between Morocco and Spain. An expert on the Gibraltar mess even notes the insistence by the British in 1973 to articulate and put into place a right of international passage of vessels through this particular Strait, “including [for] submerged submarines!”. Why would you single out submarines? Well, so you can specifically use submarines, of course! It’s rumoured that the British already have a complex system of tunnels under the rock to accommodate their submarine fleet. This point illustrates that holding onto Gibraltar is about naval dominance – issues of culture and commerce feature a distant second. For the British, pissing off the Spanish by holding on to Gibraltar is just a bonus. Even though Mahan was writing before the conventional use of naval forces to utilize submarines, he writes extensively on the power of this particular strait of water to dislocate the empires of the other great powers. For example, he details in 1890 how the “eastern and western French fleets have only been able to unite after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar”.
Although Spain was significantly weaker than the great powers of Europe leading up to WWI, it can’t be dismissed that Britain’s dominance of the southern boundary of Spain kept any perceivable venture into North Africa or the Mediterranean by the Spanish in check. Gibraltar had become a key base for the British Royal Navy in the past due to its demonstrated strategic location, and this was only further increased with the opening of the Suez Canal. This boils down to the fact that Gibraltar lies on the sea route between Britain and the British dominated territories east of Suez.
Still, on it’s own, Gibraltar is not all that significant and hardly explains Britain’s domination of the seas for extensive periods of our modern history. Where Mahan’s geopolitical theory really shines through is in its ability to incorporate a wider over-arching theme of these great naval powers’ foreign policy. Mahan outlines,
Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Egypt, Aden, India, in geographical succession though not in strict order of time, show a completed chain; forged link by link, by open force or political bargain, but always resulting from the steady pressure of the national instinct, so powerful and so accurate…
So in summing up, I’m going to tell you a little story. My extended family in Spain live right near the bay of Gibraltar, you can see the rock from their house. Once you’re on the beach you can look out past the port in Algericas (one of the busiest in the world) and see Africa in the distance. You honestly feel like you’re standing in the centre of the known world when you’re on that beach. My family in Spain (and most Spaniards in general) have no qualms telling the world about how pissed off they are about the whole issue. Even so, what is currently a superficial squabble over Spanish speaking schools, fishing and the ‘smuggling’ of tobacco products is in fact a complex and multifaceted geopolitical issue with deeper underlying motives. Both the English and Spanish love using the rock as a battleground to stir up nationalistic sentiment when there is a dip in the polls at home. Mahan’s emphasis on control of the seas encapsulates the continuing importance of crucial waterways, even in an age of lessening importance on naval superiority. The current tensions over Gibraltar underlie the urge of both Spain and Britain to dominate the strait, and it will only be by working with the European Commission and keeping relations cordial that the issues involved can be properly resolved. Referring to each other as monkeys probably won’t help matters.