IN February 2016, the Gibraltar branch of the Unite union is helping to organise a conference to explore Gibraltar’s role in the Spanish Civil War. The event comes in the year in which we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of the civil war, but also takes place not long after the 40th anniversary of the death of Franco. Doubtless under discussion will be the role that the Rock played in providing sanctuary for over 10,000 Spaniards fleeing the early fighting (and savage Francoist repression) in the neighbouring Campo de Gibraltar in the summer of 1936. But also of note is the solidarity and activism of Gibraltar’s Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite) in support of Spanish democracy during the civil war. This ranged from fundraising and parliamentary lobbying on behalf of the Spanish Republic to practical and symbolic assistance. Many Gibraltarian workers offered unpaid overtime in the winter of 1938, for example, in a bid to repair the damaged Republican warship the José Luis Diez. The TGWU’s organiser, Agustin Huart, appeared at one point in the civil war in a Republican newspaper, at the front with a revolver in his hand. His (and the union’s) commitment to those republican refugees left in Gibraltar after 1939 remained unwavering well into the 1950s.
Official and elite interaction across the Gibraltar frontier is widely recognised in the period before Franco’s dictatorship. Most famously of all, British and Spanish officers and aristocrats would join local civilian dignitaries by hunting foxes in the Campo. The ‘Royal Calpe Hunt’ boasted as its joint patrons the kings of Britain and Spain. Dozens of Gibraltar’s wealthiest inhabitants owned businesses across the frontier and built summer houses in the Campo, while local Spanish notables were intimately embedded into the social and economic life of Gibraltar. The Larios family, for example, had property on both sides of the border and the head of the family acted as the Master of the Calpe Hunt for decades. The family also insisted on speaking English and serving meals at ‘English’ times.
As social history has become more common in Gibraltar and the Campo in recent years, a similar picture has emerged for the local working classes, that is to say the vast majority of the local population. Now rescued from what E.P. Thompson referred to as ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, a vivid picture of extensive and daily interaction between Gibraltarians and Spaniards has emerged. This went well beyond the workplace – at times over 12000 Spaniards were crossing into Gibraltar each day to work alongside Gibraltarians – and extended to thousands of friendships, marriages and children. Sport was another bonding agent for the local population, and while football remained the most popular cross-frontier sporting fixture, bullfighting boasted thousands of fans on the Rock.
As noted above, Unite and its predecessor the TGWU are testimony to this shared history of working-class cooperation across the frontier. Few people realise, however, that the origins of organised labour in Gibraltar are not British, but in fact derive from a very different tradition: that of Spanish anarchism. In a recently published article, we have attempted to chart the origins of labour organisation on the Rock. What is notable is not only the fact that early ‘union’ activity in Gibraltar drew its ideological and organisational inspiration from anarchism, but also just how radical and effective these anarchist activities proved to be.
Anarchism was gaining ground quickly in southern Spain in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. While there is great debate as to the reasons for anarchism’s popularity in the region, it is widely acknowledged that one of the principal attractions of the movement was its roots in the everyday experiences of workers, not only in the workplace itself, but also in response to the harsh living conditions of the population and the repressive nature of the Spanish state. Living and working conditions on the Rock were generally acknowledged to be better than those across the frontier, but it should be remembered that Gibraltar was a heavily garrisoned and strictly regulated fortress community in this period. There was also a perception (not always warranted) that the British officers and colonial administration in the territory favoured the interests of local employers and merchants over those of workers. As anarchist ideas were brought to the colony by those thousands of Spanish labourers each day, it is little surprise that Gibraltarian workers found much to commend in the ideas and practices espoused by anarchists.