Friday, April 21, 2017

The Rock Of Mare Nostrum

Gibraltar, as with Brexit, is a subject I generally avoid. Both polarise opinion. There is no in-between. Arguing them becomes all but pointless. The extremes of views are underpinned by concepts that are still relatively recent phenomena in terms of socio-politics. Nationalism and sovereignty, according to one strong vein of historical theory at any rate, are products of mid-nineteenth century Europe. The nation state arose from what had previously been multi-cultural non-nations. This state, so the theory asserts, was one predicated on ethnic as well as cultural lines. Nationalism emerged; its consequences were to be disastrous.

Brexit is an internecine civil war, suffused with a blinkered parochialism that shouts sovereignty and nationalism. It is, though, and despite its far broader ramifications, a civil war, an internal affair for a nation (and many of its people) which has failed to come to terms with changes to its place in the world order and has also failed to break a collective mindset imposed by insularity and an historical defiance. William the Conqueror was the last to conquer. The Romans had done so much earlier. Subsequently, Hitler was prevented from doing so. Before the Nazis, the Spanish Armada was seen off.

The Armada is my link with Gibraltar. Two one-time empires argue over it. They've argued for centuries. The thirteen-year blockade, started in 1969 by Franco, may or may not have been influenced by John Lennon having referred to "Gibraltar near Spain". On such a frivolous notion is nationalism nevertheless offended.

These two empires at various times ruled the waves. Spain's was largely the result of a geographical accident. Columbus hadn't anticipated discovering America. Not that he really did. It took Amerigo Vespucci to confirm that there was indeed a whole continent in the way of the route to the East Indies, and Vespucci, like Columbus, except for those who would argue otherwise, was Italian. The Spanish Empire owed much to Florence and Genoa. It was also indebted to the viciousness of the Inquisition and to the ending of a multi-culturalism that had endured for some eight centuries. The peculiar coincidences of history were never more peculiar than in 1492. Columbus stumbled across land he hadn't expected to find, and Muslim Granada surrendered.

Gibraltar was taken in 1704. Control was officially ceded to Britain nine years later. One empire was emerging. Another was starting its long goodbye. The ever-reducing empire was to endure further psychological blows. Spain as a country has suffered them consistently. The loss of Cuba and the Philippines, getting on for some two hundred years after Gibraltar, was one of the most shattering.

The Rock resides therefore in the collective consciousness, a symbol of long-ago battles. For the British, there is an entirely different perspective, but still one linked to a faded imperial past. Brexit fallout has landed on Gibraltar and has given rise to absurdities such as those of Kelvin MacKenzie. Suspended because of Ross Barkley, he had only a short time before been advocating a British tourist boycott of Spain. The reason? Gibraltar. Hands off our Rock.

This Gibraltar consciousness in Spain is, however, something I wonder about in terms of its universality and indeed perception. Is there the same attitude in Galicia, for example, as there is in Andalusia or Mallorca? Mariano Rajoy is from Galicia, as was Francisco Franco. Perhaps there is a universality, therefore, if only in politicians' minds. That there may be a difference in Spanish perspective - one between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean - occurred to me in the course of working on the book about the Mediterranean's history and culture. Indeed, I would say that the events of 1704 appeared to be as profound as any other developments over the centuries.

The Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean were formed millions of years ago. The Strait, the narrow gap between continents, was the inlet and the outlet. Gibraltar was thus the guardian of the sea. The British took it away.

The "Mare Nostrum" was the name the Romans gave it. Our Sea. Not anyone else's. Ours. The legacy was passed to other cultures. Our Sea was a common space, and one in which Mallorca was just a tiny part. Nevertheless, it is an island that has been shaped by the activities of Our Sea.

One has to look at issues with alternative perspectives, ones that overcome the hotheadedness of nationalism and sovereignty. I was jolted by the 1704 reference. Although it wasn't stated, there was an element of lament, one for a Mediterranean existence. It was not as though the Mediterranean hadn't known previous usurpers. For instance, most of the Goths and Barbarian hordes had known nothing of the sea. But essentially, and over centuries, the Mediterranean was a Mediterranean affair until new powers arrived. And one of those is nowadays the northern European tourist army and resident. Do we borrow the sea? Can we claim it to be ours?

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