Culture and commemoration
By Gianna Stanley
Historic monuments, sites and museums are the most public and recognised forms of commemoration around the world. Commemorative practices are key to maintaining a public memory and historical traditions, which is true in the case of Gibraltar. This article will explore how commemoration in Gibraltar has come to shape our narratives of history, our memories of key events, and a celebration of our national heritage.
Monuments and sites that commemorate heritage are not straightforward explanations of history, but instead are complex forms of expression and remnants of the society that constructed them. Interestingly, the main theme that is conveyed in Gibraltar’s commemorative sites is the idea of belonging to a sense of Britishness. For example, there are statues honouring Lord Nelson, Sir George Rooke, the Duke of Wellington, and General Eliott - all British soldiers who helped Gibraltar remain British. Thus, these statues represent Gibraltar’s desire to remain British by commemorating those men who helped retain that position.
Across Gibraltar, and typical spots for tourist photos, are the original, red telephone boxes. These are a British national icon, who’s distinct red colour was specifically chosen to stand out and match London buses and post boxes. They were widely used until the 1980s and were then moved to museums or sold in the UK. However, they remained in Gibraltar and were used well into the 1990s but were also a symbol of Britishness, as a reminder of what Gibraltar decided in both referendums, remnants of our colonial past.
The Gibraltar War Memorial is more commonly known as the British War memorial, and it commemorates the fallen of the First World War. Alongside the memorial are two Russian guns that were captured by the British during the Crimean War and gifted to Gibraltar for their assistance in 1858. Again, it is interesting that the idea of Britain dominates this memorial, even in its name. Although Gibraltar assisted Britain during the war, what is commemorated are the British soldiers and not those Gibraltarians who helped. Similarly, the Royal Engineers’ Monument was presented to the people of Gibraltar by the Corps of Royal Engineers to commemorate the Engineers’ own ongoing service to the Rock since 1704. There is not much which honours Gibraltar’s own help and aid provided to the British in their times of struggle.
The Gibraltar Defence Force Statue, however, is dedicated to all Gibraltarians who served in the Gibraltar Volunteer Corps, the Gibraltar Defence Force, and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. He is depicted in summer battle dress, and his posture is symbolic of the role undertaken in defence during World War II.
Similarly, the Evacuation Memorial was erected in honour of the Gibraltarians evacuated across the world during World War II. There is also a plaque with names of the Gibraltarian fallen in the lobby of Gibraltar Parliament. It is commemorations like these which put forward the unique narrative and experience of the historic Gibraltarian person that helps further the creation of a Gibraltarian collective memory.
The majority of commemorative sites celebrate things like British military achievements, British ‘heroes’, British guns, and batteries. Of course, this is Gibraltar’s attempt at showcasing our British nationality, and predominantly British history.
However, it is a shame that Gibraltar is lacking an acknowledgement to more recent historical events that are innately Gibraltarian rather than solely memorialising Britain. Without a commemoration of our own unique culture, the lines of history and public memory become blurred, which is why British history and Gibraltarian history have become inextricably linked. Of course, it must be acknowledged that Gibraltar lacks its own singular history, our history is intertwined with others, which is why Britain dominates the narrative, but there are plenty of Gibraltarian events that could be acknowledged for future commemorations.
Despite this, we must be thankful for organisations like the Gibraltar Heritage Trust and the UK based Friends of Gibraltar Heritage Society who work to preserve and maintain Gibraltar’s Heritage - protecting our beautiful sites.
The Gibraltar Heritage Trust is a nonprofit organisation charged under statute with the preservation, promotion, and conservation of Gibraltar’s Heritage. The Friends of Gibraltar Heritage Society are extremely passionate about Gibraltar’s history, and their main mandate is to fund projects related to Gibraltar’s history and to engage people around the world with Gibraltar’s rich heritage.
Their ongoing work in ensuring future generations are able to witness Gibraltar’s history is the reason why debates like this become possible, because we are able to witness these sites for ourselves.
My summer placements over the last two years with them have immersed me into the richness of Gibraltar’s heritage. If it was not for them, I would not be privy to much of the information I know today about my hometown.
I encourage everyone to go out and visit Gibraltar’s commemorative sites to learn more about our history and consider how it has shaped our memory!
Gianna Stanley is a Gibraltarian student completing a BA in History at the University of Manchester. She has just finished her second summer working with the Gibraltar Heritage Trust and Friends of Gibraltar Heritage Society.