IT was a simple car trip across the border to stock up on cheap Spanish wine.
But on the return journey to Gibraltar the driver was stopped by armed Spanish guards and two loud cracks rang out: BANG BANG!!
He looked around, fearing the worst, sighing with relief when the penny dropped. He wasn’t being shot at by the Guardia. It was just the bottles of lively vino joven popping their corks.
“Such was his anxiety the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Things have escalated’ – in the 1990s there was lots of tension,” says Garrison Library Director, Dr Jennifer Ballantine Perera, quoting a rare humorous anecdote about the frontier’s effects on the Gibraltarian psyche.
This year, the future of that border has been pulled into sharp focus with Britain’s June 23 referendum looming. Over the past few weeks, Gibraltarians have once again been subjected to inexplicable frontier delays.
For Dr Ballantine and her co-collaborator, University of Essex Professor Andrew Canessa, the way the border has formed Gibraltar’s identity is the focus of their unprecedented 20th century oral history.
Since 2013, their team of eight local researchers have interviewed over 300 Gibraltarians for Bordering on Britishness, the most comprehensive oral history project of its kind ever undertaken in Gibraltar.
After securing a major grant from Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council, their specially-trained team began the mammoth task of interviewing locals in Spanish, English and Moroccan Arabic
“We realised there is a void in books and research on Gibraltar,” says Dr Ballantine.
“We were interested in looking at its society, culture, identity and people, not its history as a military fortress and place of siege.
“But we are also looking at how other borders serve to create identities within the Rock. Jewish, Hindu, Moroccan, Gibraltarian, British, Maltese, Spanish, expats.
“These are all Gibraltarians, but within Gibraltar there are very different people. I have spoken to people during the project who remember Maltese being spoken in their households.”
For Professor Canessa, the project has challenged narratives of key events in Gibraltar’s history.
“Sometimes the interviews are very disturbing. Lots of people had relatives who really suffered during the Spanish Civil War,” he says.
“One told me the story of her Republican uncle who spent years living in a room behind a chimney after deserting when his companions were blown up.
“People saw relatives shot in the street in La Linea. One of the differences between being Gibraltarian and being Spanish was when the nationalist troops arrived in La Linea, if you had a Union Jack in the window they didn’t touch your house. Many people have said that.”
Another interviewee gives a vivid account of being trapped on the wrong side of the border the night Moorish troops invaded.
“Hs family made their way to Gibraltar in the middle of the night,” says Dr Ballantine. “They ran towards the beach and along the side streets.
“People were being shot by Nationalist troops. They banged on doors saying, ‘Please help us’. Nobody would, they were so scared. They saw dead bodies lying in La Linea and armed Moorish troops on the beach.
“The border was heaving. People were trying to get out but Gibraltar couldn’t let everyone in. They finally got through as they were British.
“That experience of the border is so important as it becomes a point of salvation and safety.”
The World War Two evacuation is another key event recalled by interviewees, many of whom were sent to Ballymena in Northern Ireland during the war.
These recollections, too, are challenging previously-held views on a seismic period in Gibraltar’s history, says Professor Canessa.
“Some evacuees talk about the hardships, the bombs, the terror,” he says.
“Other people had a great time. They felt it was an adventure. One old guy talks about going hare coursing in Northern Ireland.
“One thing that struck me is how the Spanish-speaking communities remained very stable. An unusual example is a group of people who ended up in Yorkshire with relatives.
“When they arrived, the mother-in-law didn’t believe they were white. They had to show their tan lines, which was very humiliating.
“One of the narratives suggests that the evacuation gave Gibraltarians a sense of British consciousness.
“But I think we are picking at it a lot, because when people came back Gibraltar was still overwhelmingly a Spanish-speaking place.”
Indeed, interviewees describe how the Rock’s commercial and family life was conducted in Spanish until well into the 1960s.
One Indian immigrant complained to researchers that she thought she was coming to a British colony but nobody spoke English. Gibraltar was a far less British place, with many Gibraltarians’ horizons stretching no further than La Linea or the ferry to Algeciras.
“People talk about going to see the bullfighting,” says Professor Canessa.”I don’t know of anybody now who follows bullfighting. When my father went to university the first thing he did was put bullfighting posters on the wall.”
With the improvement of Gibraltar’s education system in the 1950s, an expanding civil service and the advent of universal suffrage, there was a sense of accelerated development on the Rock.
But for many interviewees, 13 years of border closure imposed by Franco in 1969 had a traumatic impact.
“You couldn’t even telephone. People would go to the border and hold up their newborn babies for relatives on the other side to see,” says Professor Canessa.
“It was very painful and sad to hear so many people tell me their father or grandfather was dying over the border and they didn’t get there in time.
“One Gibraltarian woman in Linea married a Spanish man and ended up staying in Spain. She rued that day for the rest of her life and what that meant for her children. She was crying when she told me.”
The hostility the border instilled in some people has poured out during the interview process.
“For those who don’t know Gibraltar, it’s shocking how angry people are,” continues Professor Canessa.
“But it’s worth knowing why they are angry. Older people get really angry about this border. And partly it’s the physical humiliation.
“There’s something arbitrary about the searches. There is an absurdity about it. It works on your body.”
As the project has developed, younger people have been interviewed. Whereas many of their grandparents’ first language was Spanish, the study is revealing a new generation of Gibraltarians unable to speak the neighbouring tongue.
At the same time, youngsters heading to the UK are discovering they are less British than they thought, citing food and Gibraltar’s closer family ties as stark differences with the mother country.
But one thing endures over the years: an apprehension of the ever-present border, something inherited from their parents and grandparents.
“What’s striking is the number of younger people who say, ‘I don’t feel quite safe until I’ve crossed the border again’. These are citizens of the world, people in their twenties with good jobs,” says Professor Canessa.
“You breathe slightly differently when you cross.”
As the project enters its final year, a film, a book and a trove of recordings are being prepared to create a lasting and unique social legacy of Gibraltar.
“We are leaving tools behind in place for people to take advantage of, scholars and anybody wishing to research their family history,” says Doctor Ballantine.
“Our data will be important for generations to come.”
(Bordering on Britishness’s website address is http://borderingonbritishness.net/
Neville Chipulina’s blog address is http://gibraltar-intro.blogspot.com.es/)