“I seek to stress the role of Minorcans as part of the origin of present-day Gibraltar”

Catalan historian and journalist Martí Crespo traces Balearic islanders’ 18th century settlement in the Rock in new book ‘Els ‘minorkeens’ de Gibraltar’

Martí Crespo publica 'Els 'minorkeens' de Gibraltar'. Els Tudury's Steps, a la portada, duen el cognom menorquí Tudurí encara avui.
Martí Crespo publica 'Els 'minorkeens' de Gibraltar'. Els Tudury's Steps, a la portada, duen el cognom menorquí Tudurí encara avui.
“I like minorities, diaspora communities and micro-societies. The Minorcans’ journey to Gibraltar brings together those three interests.” This is how Catalan journalist, philologist and historian Martí Crespo (Barcelona, 1972) explains his motivation to trace a not very well known episode of the western Mediterranean history of the 18th and early 19th centuries: the settlement in Gibraltar of hundreds of Minorcans from the Balearic Islands, a community that at some point reached 6% of the Rock’s population, and whose legacy can be traced to date. Out of his work, Els ‘minorkeens’ of Gibraltar has been published this summer, the book being presented in Barcelona (26 September), Minorca (15 and 16 October) and the Rock (26 October).

The book is the result of a research that Crespo has carried out since 2004 by digging archival documentary sources in Minorca, Gibraltar and Cádiz, which gained momentum thanks to a scholarship from the Minorcan Institute of Studies, “which besides funding, also provided me with a deadline to finish it.” After 10 years of research and another 4 updating it, Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat has published the book earlier this year. “I almost thought it should be like that, because it was the same publishing house for a book on Minoricans in Florida written by Philip Rasico and another one on Minorcans in Algeria by Marta Marfany.”

Minorca is a prolific island: talking to Crespo we guess and joke that, had no one ever left it, about one million people could be living there now. “Not enough space for all of them”, we conclude. In the 19th century, Minorcans settled Algeria in the thousands during French colonisation; before that, they had done the same in the Americas: many of them headed for Río de la Plata while one thousand left for Florida in 1768, in a terrible episode in which they endured slavery and massive mortality there. Their memories are still preserved in the US state by descendants of the few who managed to survive.

Why did they head for Gibraltar, those Minorcans?

“To earn a living,” Crespo summarizes. In the 17th century, Minorca had experienced considerable population growth but historical events at the beginning of the 18th century —the island changed hands several times while some years bad harvests were recorded— pushed many of them to settle away from home. Seizing the opportunity given by the fact that both Minorca and Gibraltar were British possessions since 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, Minorcans began to pour into the Rock by 1720, a process that extended until the first two decades of the 19th century.

Most people hailed from Maó and Es Castell, members of “lower classes, indebted people, or simply poor people.” In fact, not many rich people will be known in the Rock until well into the 19th century, a fact that enormously contrasts with present-day Gibraltar, which has one of the world’s highest GDP.

Minorcan migrants included “sailors, tailors, carpenters, shipbuilders... and two singular groups: priests and corsairs.” As for the latter, “they were people who took advantage of the conflict between the United Kingdom and France” and at some point saw themselves forced to leave Minorca and settled in Gibraltar. As for the former, “they are the most eye-catching group,” bearing a curious story: Gibraltar’s new British authorities, after the Treaty of Utrecht, accepted that Catholics could settle in the Rock —a provision that had been included in the treaty at Spain’s request, to which it was “an obsessive concern”— but stipulated that they be British subjects not depending on the diocese of Cádiz. “To that end, Minorcans were very suitable, as theirs was a British territory packed with clergymen.” From 1730 to 1790, it is estimated that more than 60% of the priests at the head of the Catholic see of Gibraltar came from Minorca. Some ended up starring heroic actions, such as Francesc Messa, who “saved the treasures of the cathedral, hiding them in the mountains” during the 1779-1783 Franco-Spanish siege of Gibraltar. Others, like Joan Febrer, served with a incredible record “of scandals and follies”, the author of the book points out, such as sexually harassing a local woman.

Catalan-speaking Gibraltar?

A few Catalan linguistic exclaves outside the traditional geographic area of the Catalan Countries have existed through history —on the coasts of Andalusia and Galicia, in Cagliari, in Marseille, in the north of Algeria and in Florida, in Argentina— and some of them are still alive today —Alghero in Sardinia and certain Roma communities in France, as Eugeni Casanova has recently proved. Is this the case for Gibraltar too? “One has to bear in mind,” Crespo explains, “that at the same time, besides Minorcans, other Catalan speaking people from Catalonia, Majorca and the Valencian Country also headed to Gibraltar,” albeit to a lesser extent. “In the century that extends from 1720 to 1820, we can be sure that Catalan was spoken in Gibraltar”, Crespo concludes, “as it can be inferred that the language was shared among Gibraltar inhabitants hailing from the Catalan Countries. A very high percentage of marriages among them is recorded, and even in the Gibraltar cemetery they were buried in the same area: all such things suggest that they made up a community with a quasi-family relationship.”

A drop in the arrival of Minorcans as of 1820 and their gradual assimilation into Gibraltarian society help understand the decline of Catalan throughout the 19th century, which in any case never had a large demographic base. In addition, “the mentality of the time, in which Catholic religious identity was very important, explains that Catalan speakers also intermarried with Andalusians and Genoese people.” The footprint of the language, however, can still be traced in many surnames in the Rock: Abrines, Alsina, Cardona, Carreras, Fabre, Gomila, Mir, Pons, Pou, Pratts, Serra... Crespo lists many more in his book’s introduction.

A half-forgotten component of the Gibraltarian society

The society that emerged in Gibraltar after 1704, with the British occupation, was a completely new one. “It is estimated that, of some 4,000 Andalusians living there before, only 80 remained in place.” Most of them left —more or less pushed by circumstances— towards neighbouring, Andalusian county of Campo de Gibraltar, where villages like San Roque were born and others, like Algeciras, were repopulated. “The whole Campo de Gibraltar has a lot to do with the Rock, many families ultimately coming from there.” Who replaced Andalusians in Gibraltar? “In the beginning, it was mostly the Genoese, many of them sailors —in fact a tradition of Genoese settlement on the Andalusian coasts already existed from centuries back; also Sephardic Jews from the other side of the Strait, especially Tangiers. In this case, more merchants are found.” From time to time some Andalusians were also coming back, as Minorcans also settled the British colony. “Towards the end of the 18th century many Portuguese begin to arrive, too.” What about British people? In those days, not many headed for Gibraltar. Military personnel did indeed arrive, but few civilians, since “it was a very unattractive destination for them, due to bad conditions and the inhospitable situation of the place. People from Britain were called to emigrate, but calls did not work.” It was not until the 19th century that more people from Britain arrived, at the time together with a new wave of migration from Malta, “when industrialization began at the port of Gibraltar.”

“What drew my attention,” the author says, “is that out of all that magma, until now there has been a certain recognition in Gibraltar that the local identity is Genoese and Jewish, Andalusian and British, and also Maltese. But on the other hand, a general recognition of Minorcan and Portuguese contributions cannot be easily perceived,” a fact the author wants to contribute to correct with his work: “I seek to stress the role of Minorcans as part of the origin of present-day Gibraltarian society.”

Towards a Gibraltarian nation?

A couple of years ago, Catalan public broadcaster TV3’s “¿España? No, thanks!” showed Gibraltarian chief minister Fabian Picardo saying that the University of Gibraltar, the International Bank and the Gibraltarian national football team were new “bricks of the wall of the nation of Gibraltar, a building that is gradually being completed.” We ask Crespo is he believes Gibraltar is undergoing a nation-building process. “My impression is that it is an instrumental, self-defence issue. The Gibraltar government has no desire to move away from the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, but rather to pressure London. Such ‘state structures’ are preventive: Gibraltarians want to have them prepared just in case, if London some day agrees with Madrid something that is a real threat to the sovereignty of Gibraltar.” In that event, Crespo believes, a strong pro-independence movement could emerge, as in much the same way that Gibraltarians prefer the UK to independence, they would prefer independence to Spain.

“I think that we may soon witness a new peak of Gibraltarian identity assertion, linked to upcoming Brexit events,” especially if Madrid seeks to take advantage of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU to make some progress in its own Gibraltar agenda. “The future is a little bit uncertain. Some Gibraltarians tell me now that they have the feeling of living the calm right before the storm.”

The Gibraltar government insists that the Rock wants to remain in the United Kingdom, but that in any case the future of the territory should only be decided by Gibraltarians. This has been London’s stance too for the last 50 years, and it was one of the obstacles why Spanish and UK foreign ministers Josep Piqué and Jack Straw did not arrive in 2002 to a full deal on Spanish-British shared sovereignty over Gibraltar: the Rock’s population opposed it in a referendum in which 98% of the local voters rejected the agreement. “Gibraltarians have a lot of determination, but they also have the ace of self-determination,” Crespo summarizes.