Gibraltar and Ceuta

The Rock of Gibraltar

Islands are often conquered by external powers. Two of the first British colonies in the New World were Roanoke and Jamestown, both islands. Europeans first established themselves in West Africa on the island of Goree just off of now Dakar. The African island of Zanzibar was held by the Portuguese and then the Omanis, as were the islands of Pemba and Lamu up the coast. Singapore and Hong Kong are both islands. The appeal of taking an island is obvious–an island is much more easily defended (some even had the advantage of being relatively unpopulated when “found”) but can still serve as a base for restocking ships or for forays into the mainland. On a relatively small piece of land can be built a formidable economic and administrative center. The extent to which one can develop an enduring and distinct social or political culture on an island is quite astonishing–consider that Arab Zanzibar lasted until 1964 and Hong Kong held by the British until 1997. Singapore remains an unchallenged, independent city-state and Taiwan is still controlled by the “Nationalist” Chinese, who have built a thriving, prosperous democracy just miles away from a rival many many many times its size.

And, it doesn’t take an island to accomplish these ends–a peninsula or “near-island” has also been used countless times. Examples include the city of St. Louis in now Senegal, Macau and the city of Bombay.

Our route from Morocco to Spain took us into two of the three odd territories in the region that are still examples of a “foreign” power in control of territory acquired in the colonial era: Spanish Ceuta on the African continent and British Gibraltar on the Iberian peninsula (the third is Spanish Melilla, also attached to Morocco). The colonial histories of Ceuta and Gibraltar go way back–Portugal or Spain has held Ceuta since the early 15th century, and Spain kept Ceuta even after it gave up its colonial control over (other) parts of Morocco, and the British have been in control of Gibraltar since the early 18th century, with its residents overwhelmingly rejecting Spanish sovereignty as recently as 2002–and in each the culture of the controlling power has taken deep root, battling against the geographical and demographic forces that will no doubt, over time, put stress on their statuses. How long will they last?

Some photos to consider the unique socio-political circumstances existing in Gibraltar and Ceuta.

Gibraltar’s Muslim history is recalled in the prominent white mosque built by the Saudis in 1997.

The name Gibraltar comes from Gibr Tariq, meaning Rock of Tariq, the Muslim Berber conqueror of Gibraltar and much of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century.

Other street names serve to remind you that you’re on British soil, like this avenue just in from the Spanish frontier.

British-style booths and bobbies, despite the fact that locals actually speak not English, but a language indistinguishable from Spanish.

Moorish-inspired architecture is a reminder that you are not only close to Spain, but the Arab world. Below, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

The Union Jack, flying on the Rock

The geography of Ceuta explains in part how long it has remained in control of a different power than the mainland. The border does not currently lie at the narrowest point, but the isthmus is still marked by medieval walls and moat.

Churches and mosques vie for space.

Ceuta is not only a bit of Spain in Africa but a bit of the European Union in Africa, an entry point for refugees and migrants from all over the continent. In the second picture, Moroccan workers commuting into Ceuta. Just as Moroccans commute to work in relatively wealthier Ceuta, many Spaniards and Gibraltarians living in Spain commute into Gibraltar.

Muslim woman, walking in downtown Ceuta

[Gibraltar and Ceuta are, geographically speaking, examples of near enclaves. For a list of similar places, see:

We passed near a couple other notable enclaves on our trip: Nahwa, now pay attention, a piece of the UAE inside a piece of Oman inside the UAE–we just *had* to make a detour here when we were in the UAE/Oman in April 2009–and the many enclaves of Central Asia. “Islands” of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lie in Kyrgyzstan, islands of Kyrgyzstan in Uzbekistan and islands of Tajikistan in Uzbekistan–all this despite the fact that the ethnicities in these countries are totally mixed up anyway (see post of 2009.07.08). The enclaves appeared after the disintegration of the Soviet Union–had the practice of reuniting all ethnic groups with their ethnic name country continued, Central Asian boundaries would have been almost completely redrawn! For more information, see and]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *