Research Case Study

Insight: Exploring Gibraltar's identity in the 21st century

Bordering on Britishness is an oral history project on Gibraltarian identity in the twentieth century.

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  • Lead Academic

    Professor Andrew Canessa

Photo of Professor Andrew Canessa

No significant oral history study of Gibraltar, a nation state of 38,000 people on the Mediterranean Sea, had ever been undertaken. Bordering on Britishness, a three-year project led by Essex anthropologist, Professor Andrew Canessa, has changed that.

Now, four hundred life stories of Gibraltarian and Spanish people on both sides of the border have been collected in a bid to explore how Gibraltarian identity has developed throughout the course of the 20th century.

With the youngest interviewee aged 16 and the eldest 101, the project has focused on the border with Spain, ethnicity and language. To what extent has their Spanish heritage and identity been muted and how did Gibraltarians come to see themselves as British Europeans, with 96% voting Remain in the EU Referendum?

“Our aim was to give voice to the multiplicity of views and experiences, and to show the complexity of Gibraltar today,” explained Professor Canessa, from our Department of Sociology.

Why the project had to be done and what it tells us now

“I was very aware that the image of what it was to be Gibraltarian was very superficial and I wanted to dig down in order to track its real historical trajectory. The EU Referendum was held towards the end of our study so we were uniquely placed to gather first-hand accounts before, during and after the vote,” said Professor Canessa.

Bordering on Britishness shows that many Gibraltarians have shunned their Spanish heritage and now fear the prospect of either the border with Spain being closed once more, or a proposed co-sovereignty with their neighbouring country.

“My little Gibraltar is about to be shafted by Spain….,” said one Project interviewee when asked about Brexit.

During the project, Professor Canessa provided written evidence for the House of Lords European Union Committee's report on the impact of Brexit on Gibraltar.  His evidence can be  read on the Parliament website.

He also wrote this article based on the research for The Conversation.

From young to old - how Gibraltar has changed

During the first half of the twentieth century up to a third of marriages in Gibraltar were between Gibraltarian men and Spanish women, who saw the union as a step up to a better life. However, the effects of Franco’s rule in Spain and the eventual border closure in 1969 contributed to a profoundly anti-Spanish sentiment on the Rock. Our interviews bear witness to the fact that Spanish ancestry has often been omitted from both the personal and national narrative.

Professor Canessa highlights older interviewees stress a British identity forged through the experience of a Second World War evacuation to the UK. Middle-aged respondents articulated a Gibraltarian-British identity and the young expressed a European, Latin or Mediterranean identity – which includes a Gibraltarian or British one.

Gibraltar has also experienced a profound linguistic change through the course of the twentieth century. Professor Canessa said: “Today, the majority of Gibraltar’s children are monolingual English speakers due to education reform, a fall in Spanish-Gibraltarian marriages and the advent of satellite TV."

Research team