Saturday, 31 August 2013


Once again, Spain is making claims over Gibraltar. It would be worthwhile to give a quick sketch of the history of Gibraltar, showing why it is under British rule.
     We should first look at the origin of the name. In the later seventh century AD the first great wave of Islamic conquest swept right across north Africa to Morocco, and in 711 a Moslem army crossed the straits and routed the forces of the Visigoths, a Germanic people who had ruled Spain ever since the collapse of the Roman empire three centuries earlier. The Moslem commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad, named the landing-place after himself: "Jebel Tariq", "the rock of Tariq",  hence "Gibraltar". The Moslem tide swept on through Spain and into France, and was only brought to a halt at Tours in 732.
     For the next few centuries, Islamic Spain was one of the great civilizations of European history, famous for its philosophers and poets (Jews as well as Arabs); and its magnificent buildings can still be seen, particularly at Cordova and Granada.

     The Christian reconquest of Spain began in the eleventh century, and lasted four hundred years. Spain was not a united country; its two principal kingdoms being Castile in the centre and Aragon on the east coast. Gibraltar changed hands more than once, but finally fell to the forces of Castile in 1462, and the reconquest was completed with the fall of Granada in 1492. Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, and a united Spanish monarchy was established.
    The new nation rapidly became rich and powerful. The kingdom of Aragon had for centuries included the Balearic islands, Sardinia and Sicily, and by a combination of conquest and diplomatic marriages, Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson, Philip II, also ruled the Netherlands and much of Italy. In the sixteenth century Spain claimed sovereignty over the newly-discovered American continent, and the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru flooded back into Spain. But Spanish supremacy did not last long, and the economy was not helped by the decision to expel all Moslems and Jews from Spain. (The notorious Spanish Inquisition was originally established not to persecute Protestants but to ferret out Jewish and Moslem converts to Catholicism who still secretly clung to their old religion)

By 1700 Spain was in severe decline as a great power. In that year there died King Charles VI, imbecile and childless, leaving his vast empire to a relative: Philip, the young grandson of Louis XIV of France. The result was the war of the Spanish Succession. Alarmed at the prospect of an enormous French-dominated superpower stretching all the way from Gibraltar to the Rhine estuary, plus the Mediterranean islands and much of Italy, plus the huge overseas Spanish empire, Britain, Holland, the Austrian empire and various lesser powers formed a "Grand Alliance" to check French ambitions. The Catalans also rose in revolt against the rule of Madrid. The war is best remembered for the Duke of Marlborough's great victories over the French in Germany and the Netherlands, but in Spain Allied forces were less successful. A British army briefly occupied Madrid, but was then defeated and driven out.
   The war ended with the compromise peace at Utrecht in 1713. Philip became King of Spain; but a Spain deprived of its European possessions. Belgium, Sicily and much of Italy went to the Austrians, and the Duke of Savoy became King of Sardinia. Britain's share of the spoils was comparatively modest, but included Gibraltar and Minorca. Together they formed the base for a naval presence guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean.

Throughout the 18th century, Spanish attempts to regain its lost possessions caused spasmodic diplomatic crises. Soon after Utrecht, a Spanish expedition attempted to reconquer Sicily, but after causing much damage on the island was defeated by the British fleet. The most serious attempt came in the War of American Independence, when Spain joined France in backing the American rebels and laid siege to Gibraltar. The attempt failed, with the Spanish fleet destroyed by Admiral Rodney at the "Moonlight Battle" of January 1780. In the eventual peace treaty Spain was rewarded by being given back Minorca, and also Florida, but Gibraltar remained British. (In this war the British government was so desperate for allies that Minorca was even offered to the Russians in return for help; but Catherine the Great wasn't interested. This opens up fascinating prospects for "alternative history", does it not?)
    In the 19th century the opening of the Suez Canal made Gibraltar vital to British strategic interests, since the "spine" of the British Empire now ran through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea to India and Singapore. At the start of the 20th century Admiral Fisher named Gibraltar as one of the "Keys to unlock the world", along with Alexandria and Aden.

Spain hit the international headlines in 1936 when the army under General Franco rose in rebellion against the Republican government. In the worst of all possible outcomes, the revolt was successful in the south, but the north and east, particularly the Basque and Catalan regions, remained loyal to the government, with Madrid on the front line. Three years of savage civil war followed. The official policy of the British government, with the reluctant support of the French, was "non-intervention", but inevitably other countries began to use the war for their own advantage. Hitler and Mussolini openly sent troops to fight alongside Franco. The Soviet Union supported the government; but the sheer forces of geography, plus Stalin's preoccupation with industrialization and the Purge, meant that Russian aid was far less effective.  
The British government pretended not to see these blatant infringements of non-intervention. This cartoon by David Low shows Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, playing cards on the prostrate body of Spain, alongside Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Leon Blum, the French Prime Minister. "Trustful Tony" is saying, "Just to discourage cheating, I'll wear a strait-jacket and let you chaps play my cards for me". Meanwhile in the background Italian warships and Nazi bomber-planes head for the rock of Gibraltar.
    George Orwell, who went to Spain to fight for the Republican government, was equally frustrated at his country's attitude; particularly those Conservative M.P.s who supported Franco even when British merchant ships trading with the Spanish government were sunk by Italian submarines. Was it not obvious to them, he protested, that a Hitler-backed government in Spain would seize Gibraltar and seal off the Mediterranean to British shipping? Indeed, in 1940 this is precisely what Hitler expected Franco to do. But Franco was too cautious, or too canny, to enter the war, and consequently he survived, though he was treated as a pariah for many years after 1945.
   And so Gibraltar survived in British hands, and remains so, since that seems to be the wish of the vast majority of its inhabitants. Any attempt to transfer territory against the wishes of the inhabitants (as, for instance, in the Falkland Islands) must be based on a "sacred soil" argument: namely, that the inhabitants have no right to be there, and therefore their wishes are of no consequence. I submit that such arguments are either drivel or very dangerous. Drivel because it is meaningless to say that any state has a "right" to take, against the wishes of the inhabitants a piece of territory which has belonged to another state for a considerable time (and, as we have seen, Britain has held Gibraltar for longer than it was held by Spain; though not as long as it was held by the Islamic Caliphate. Also, the Spaniards ruled Sicily for much longer than they ruled Gibraltar, but I see no sign of them demanding Sicily back). Dangerous because it postulates that the inhabitants of the territory, who may have lived there for several generations, have no right to be there or to decide their future (to give a notorious example: "This land belongs to us! It does not belong to the Jews! Sieg heil!").

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Minack theatre

This summer we visited the Minack theatre at Porthcuro, close to the extreme south-western tip of Cornwall. It was built in the early 1930s by Rowena Cade and her gardener. Rowena (1893-1983) came originally from Derbyshire, where her father owned a cotton mill. She was descended from the celebrated artist of the late 18th century who proudly styled himself "Joseph Wright of Derby".
The theatre has been run as a charitable trust since 1976. It stages a full programme of plays and music every year.
Beyond the stage is a sheer drop down to the sea. In bright summer weather the views are magnificent. (The sea really was this colour on our visit!)

 The concept is that of an Greek theatre. I was reminded of the theatre at Pergamum, in present-day Turkey, though that is very much larger and looks down onto a plain rather than to the sea:-

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Early Mediaeval International Revolution

In the 10th century the Mediterranean and Middle East were dominated by city-based empires, as had always been the case. All the significant states, whether Christian or Islamic were ruled by “palace culture”, centred on a capital city, with a court and a tax-collecting bureaucracy ruling a population of peasants, defended by mercenary armies. The oldest of the cities was Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire; but most of the other great cities were Moslem: Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate; Cairo, Palermo, Cordova. The Christians of the west and the nomads of the Ukrainian steppe were viewed as being much alike: barbarian threats to be contained; useful only as a source of slaves and mercenaries. The situation seemed stable enough, but by the early 13th century the position was changed utterly, with the old empires in full retreat or facing annihilation. How and why had this occurred?

The Caliphate at Baghdad was already a power past its peak. Its authority had once stretched all the way from the Pyrenees to the frontiers of China, but Moslem Spain had been ruled by a separate Caliphate since the mid-8th century, and Egypt and much of North Africa was subject to the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty. Then in the 11th century the Seljuk Turks, emerging from Central Asia, first occupied Iraq and seized control of the Caliphate, and then in 1071 defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert and flooded into Anatolia, not only turning it permanently into Moslem territory, but transforming the farms of the Greek cities which had dotted the region since the days of Alexander the Great into pasture for sheep. The Seljuk Sultanate did not remain united for long, but the entire balance of the Neat East had been destroyed for ever.
     Further west, Moslem power was in retreat. In Spain, Toledo fell to Christian forces in 1085, and for the next four hundred years Moslem Spain continued to shrink, until finally extirpated at Granada in 1492. There was another permanent change in Italy, where a family of Norman warlords, the Hautevilles, descendents of an obscure knight called Tancred, conquered Sicily and set up their own state there, fighting Moslems and Byzantines indiscriminately.
    So weak and threatened was the Byzantine Empire after Manzikert that the Emperor Alexius was driven to ask for help from the knights of the west, whom he knew well as opponents and mercenaries. The result was the First Crusade, which was not at all what Alexius had envisaged, but which forced its way through the Turks in Anatolia  to take Jerusalem from the Egyptians in 1099 and thereafter raided as far as Egypt and the holy city of Mecca.

Western Europe at the time was a region of weak central authority. The Kings of France had little control over the great lords, and much of present-day France was controlled by the Kings of England; a position which did not change until the early 13th century, when Philip Augustus drove King John of England out of almost all his French possessions. The most powerful state was the Holy Roman Empire, established by Otto the Great in the 10th century, covering Germany and northern Italy. Otto and his successors forcibly intervened in Rome to end a succession of scandalous Popes, opening the way to the pontificate of the great reformer Gregory VII (1073-85). But the claims of the new papacy to universal authority led to conflict with the Emperors which was to tear Italy apart for the next century and a half. The new emerging Italian city-states were able to play off the two rival claimants against each other, as “Guelfs” (supporters of the Pope) or “Ghibellines” (supporters of the Emperor); and as a result, Italy never developed as a nation-state. Almost unnoticed amidst this conflict, a breach came about between the Roman and Byzantine churches in 1054, which became permanent.

The Kings of the western European countries played no part in the First Crusade, which was purely a matter of private enterprise and religious enthusiasm (in varying combination) by great feudal lords, pilgrims and Italian merchants. The reconquest of Spain was similar, with the famous El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar: 1043-99) very much an individual freebooter rather than an obedient follower of any King. (Monarchs led the Second and Third Crusades, but without any great degree of success)

The motive that drove the Christian knights and lords was the hunger for land, which they would then hope to rule with as little control from above as possible. This hunger drove the Normans to conquer England in 1066, and to continue thence into Ireland and the Scottish lowlands; whilst at the same time other Normans were overrunning southern Italy and Sicily, and ultimately invading Palestine. (When judging the extreme cruelty of the Normans to anyone who got in their way, we must remember that really they were only second-generation Vikings, with a thin veneer of Christianity which had very little effect on their behaviour)

 The feudal states that resulted from this hunger were decentralized, with a strong tendency to fall into anarchic disorder. It is not surprising that between the crusading knights and the city-dwelling, bureaucratically-governed Byzantines there quickly grew up a profound mutual suspicion and mistrust. The early crusaders actually felt more empathy with the Turks, whose approach to life was not too different from their own. The mutual respect between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin should be seen in the same light: Saladin came from a family of Kurdish mercenary warriors, and he and Richard could understand each other more than either of them could understand a Byzantine emperor. Saladin’s reputation in the west was such that, within a century, Dante accorded him a place amongst the “Virtuous pagans”, whilst many Christian monarchs and even some Popes were depicted writhing in the nether reaches of hell.

Saladin’s recovery of Jerusalem from the crusaders was matched in importance by his takeover of Egypt, where he restored the Sunni faith. Western mistrust of the Byzantines culminated in the disgraceful episode of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when the crusaders sacked Constantinople itself. Once again, no state was involved, unless we count the Republic of Venice, which cynically manipulated the campaign for its own benefit.

So by the early 13th century, the whole picture of the Near East was different. The eastern Mediterranean was now dominated by Christian ships, especially those of Venice and Genoa. Moslem power had been permanently expelled from Sicily, and was in irreversible retreat in Spain. The Byzantine Empire was shattered, and would be unable to resist a later resurgence of Turkish attacks. Saladin had reunified the main centres of the Islamic world, but the Caliphate was now an empty shell, and the Middle East was about to suffer the hammer-blows of the Mongol onslaught. In the west, stronger states were starting to emerge, but the general picture was still one of feudal anarchy. Except in the Slav regions of eastern Europe, the supply of new land for settlement was drying up. Kings and nobles were less interested in crusading than in rivalry with each other. The Papacy was an independent power in its own right, with claims to universal sovereignty. The world had changed.