'Between a Rock and a Hard Stereotype' by M. G. Sanchez


We need to go back to June 2013. I was halfway through an episode of Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun, Channel Five’s reality documentary series, when all of a sudden I saw a shot of my parents at Eastern Beach, sitting by their sun umbrella, completely unaware that they were being filmed. Up to that point the series had been doling out the usual cringeworthy clichés: tables covered with empty pint glasses, wide-boy Southern accents, locals dressed as Redcoats marching up Main Street, a sun-hatted elderly British woman sitting in a pub and wearily stroking a cat, Londoners Tony and Shane (a.k.a. the ‘jolly boys’) up to their silly-sod scrapes down at Marina Bay. And then, right in the middle of it all, added to the footage almost as an after-thought, a fleeting one-second shot of my Gibraltarian parents sitting on the beach and gazing out to sea.

The deliberate anglocentric focus of Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun is, of course, nothing new. As the cultural anthropologist David Lambert has pointed out, British commentators of the nineteenth-century did not attach much importance to the colony’s indigenous population, preferring to see the Rock “as a place through which British troops pass and perform heroic deeds.” Frederick Sayer’s bestselling The history of Gibraltar (1863) is a case in point. Though Sayer writes extensively about the British soldiery and their way of living, he only has a few words to say about the local population: ‘The natives are for the most part idle, dissolute, and phlegmatic.’

The racist sentiments present in Sayer’s work may no longer hold any ideological currency, but it is still regrettable how certain commentators on the Left, in their eagerness to discredit a place which they regard as a crumbling bastion of Empire, continue to vilify Gibraltar’s inhabitants by presenting them as parochial ‘Little Englanders’, deliberating ignoring the polyglot, multicultural reality that lies behind this unfortunate stereotype.

It’s a ruse that’s been used many times before – and one that invariably cuts us Gibraltarians to the core. It was employed against us in the early 2000s, when Tony Blair and Peter Hain were trying to hammer out a joint-sovereignty deal with Spain against Gibraltarian wishes. To get the whole thing off the ground, New Labour embarked on a media campaign to persuade the British public that the Rock was just a valueless relic of Empire. Articles with titles like “Rock off, Britain” or “The People of the Rock Must be told what’s good for them” duly appeared in the left-leaning press, with one writer claiming that  Gibraltarians were no more than “[t]ax-dodgers … who moved to the offshore haven to pay less dues on investments … and brag about how special the place is because they use Sterling, have red phone boxes, and “don’t have to speak Dago.”

Thirteen years later, the Brexit fiasco has forced Gibraltar a second time into the limelight and we are once again falling prey to the same agenda-driven misrepresentations. “Gibraltar feels like Britain in the 1950s,’ a columnist for The Times recently proclaimed in sardonic, slightly schoolmarmish tones. ‘They have scones and teacups, Marmite and baked beans, the elderly sport handkerchiefs. They are not used to drama.” “Locals, clad in M&S polo shirts … speak English with clipped British accents,’ echoed someone else in the New Statesman. ‘Bursts of "bloody" and "gosh" reveal themselves to be the going expletives. Some are retired pensioners from Cheshire and Kent looking to retire to sunny Spain, without the effort of learning Spain's language and customs, or the distress of giving up home comforts like the Daily Mail and a decent cup of breakfast tea.”

It is the same old story as always, Gibraltar’s ‘Britishness’ magnified out of all proportion and held up as proof of parochiality and small-mindedness, trying to persuade readers back in the UK that we are an anachronism, a pointless anomaly, a rudderless ship of fools crewed by bumbling Carry On characters who sit around all day filled to their gills with Darjeeling and Lapsang Souchong.

But these are just crude misrepresentations that have little to do with reality.

If you want to encounter some flesh-and-blood Gibraltarians, go online instead and dig up some of those old episodes of Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun. Focus on the nonessential bit-players or, even better, those in the background you were not quirky enough to be selected for the handful of token ‘local roles.’ You will notice a wide-ranging gallery of faces, some tanned and craggy, others pale and delicately featured, many of them bearing that look of racial indeterminateness which makes it hard to identify a person’s hereditary origins. These are the real Gibraltarians, a tolerant, easy-going, ethnically diverse people who flocked to the Rock over the course of three centuries and now proudly call it their home. They came originally from all parts of the world: Britain, Spain, Portugal, Genoa, Malta, Morocco, India, the Sephardic settlements on the North African coastline. In the old days, people used to label them mongrels, half-breeds, Rock Scorpions, any term that the British ruling classes could come up with to highlight our racial compositeness, to remind us and themselves of our bastardised genealogical origins. But I believe that it is precisely our hybridity, the very fact that we are difficult to categorise, that makes us unique. Look at my own family background, for instance. On my mother’s side, we have the Schembris (who emigrated from Malta in 1864) and the Whitelocks (who came from England in the mid-1780s). On my father’s side, the Sanchezes (who arrived from Spain in 1804) and the Duartes (who turned up from Portugal around the 1820s).

Yes, it’s a complex and chaotic hereditary mix – but one that keeps churning up all manner of gloriously unclassifiable anomalies. Take my paternal grandfather Joseph Sanchez. Blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, his hands and forearms covered with a series of fading tattoos, he had inherited his fair looks from his maternal grandfather, a Mancunian called Joseph Brown who spent a few years posted on the Rock with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in the mid-1880s. In 1889 Private Brown waved goodbye to the military in order to marry Sebastiana Villanera, a locally employed seamstress from Cortes de la Frontera in Spain. Throughout Gibraltar’s colonial history there have been countless Protestant-Catholic nuptials of this type. The template hardly varied. English soldier meets Spanish/Gibraltarian woman. Quits the military. Gets married. Finds a job on the Rock. Becomes a father. Allows his children to be brought up as Catholics so that they can integrate better with the local community. This was more or less what came to pass in Sebastiana’s and Joseph’s case – except that for some reason (probably Joseph’s pig-headedness) their children were baptised as Anglicans rather than Catholics. There were five of them altogether: Charles, Florence, Isabel, Joseph and Maria Luisa. I’m not sure whether the first four continued this tradition when they themselves came to have children, but I do know that when Maria Luisa gave birth to my grandfather while temporarily domiciling with her Gibraltarian husband Oscar Sanchez in the Spanish town of La Línea she wasted no time in having him baptised as an Anglican. Thus, my grandfather Joseph (who throughout his life remained completely uninterested in political or religious matters) can in some ways be seen as the embodiment of one of those befuddling Gibraltarian paradoxes: a man who was born in Spain and whose surname was Sanchez... and yet who looked as light-skinned and blue-eyed as a Cockney costermonger and who was taught as a child to believe that the Pope was only the plain old Bishop of Rome.

And for the record, he didn’t drink tea; he drunk café con leche just like me.