1915: A Human Rock of Gibraltar Is Born

Joshua Hassan was the territory's fiercely pro-British first mayor and a staunch supporter of its fight for self-determination.

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A view of Gibraltar from La Linea de la Concepcion, Spain.
A view of Gibraltar from La Linea de la Concepcion, Spain.Credit: AP

August 21, 1915, was the birthdate of Joshua Hassan, the first mayor and chief minister of Gibraltar. Having been born on the Rock, the 2.6-square-mile enclave at the southern edge of Iberia, he led the movement that resulted in its local autonomy under British sovereignty in the 1960s.

Joshua Abraham Hassan was born in Gibraltar to a Sephardi family of Moroccan and Minorcan origin. The earliest historical record of a Jewish presence in Gibraltar goes back to 1356, when the Jewish community sent out an appeal asking for assistance in ransoming a group of their brethren taken hostage by pirates. In 1474, a group of Jewish conversos actually took possession of the small colony from a local duke, in return for their promise to maintain its garrison for two years. After that period, the duke expelled the Jews, who at the time numbered 4,350.

With the Expulsion from Spain, in 1492, the official Jewish presence in Gibraltar ended for a period of more than 200 years, although it is likely that Jewish converts to Christianity probably continued to reside there.

The modern history of Gibraltar began in 1713, when it came under British rule after the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht. The Spanish crown actually inserted a clause in the treaty banning Jews from re-enteirng the territory, but the British chose to ignore it, a decision that contributed to Spanish claims that the agreement had been abrogated and prompted attempts to reconquer Gibraltar.

The Jewish presence in Gibraltar thrived in subsequent centuries, especially after Britain reached an agreement with the Moroccan sultan, in 1729, which permitted his Jewish subjects to settle legally there. The first of four synagogues was built in 1749, and the Jewish population reached its peak of 1,533 in 1878.

Sir Joshua Hassan, pictured on a stamp from Gibraltar.Credit: Gibraltar stamps

Joshua Abraham Hassan’s family had taken refuge in Morocco after the Expulsion, before settling in Gibraltar. His father was a cloth merchant. Joshua was educated in the law in London, and joined the Bar of England and Wales in 1939. During World War II, when most of Gibraltar’s civilian population was shipped off to Britain and other parts of the empire around the world, he remained, and served as a gunner in the Gibraltar Defense Force.

After the war, there was reason to suspect that the British did not intend to allow the civilian population to return to Gibraltar. As one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Civil Rights in Gibraltar, Hassan helped organized a campaign to pressure the crown for permission for their return. Once that effort succeeded, he became involved in politics in an ongoing fashion, while continuing to practice law.

Hassan typified a uniquely Gibraltarian set of impulses: a proud determination to remain British, in the light of ongoing pressure from Spain to change that situation, and a no less vigorous belief in their right to autonomy and self-rule. At his instigation, the population of Gibraltar held a referendum in 1967 on its future: 12,138 voted in favor of remaining part of the United Kingdom, and only 44 were opposed. In the constitution of 1969, which Hassan played a major role in drafting, Britain pledged that it would “never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.” That declaration led to Spain closing off its border to isolated Gibraltar, and keeping it closed until 1985.

Hassan served both as mayor of Gibraltar (off and on between 1945 and 1969), and as chief minister, 1964-1969 and 1972-1987. The latter position is given to the leader of the largest party in the Gibraltar parliament, and is equivalent to being governor of the territory. He also continued with his private legal practice, and his firm Hassans International Law Firm is today the colony’s largest, with some 80 lawyers. He died on July 1, 1997.

Even today, the United Kingdom and Spain continue to wrangle over Gibraltar, with Spain responding to the construction of an artificial reef off the coast of Gibraltar by imposing sanctions on people wanting to cross its border with the territory. Gibraltar says it is trying to protect the fish population; Spain says its fishing industry is being harmed. Both sides have turned to the European Commission to help resolve their differences.

But, as The Economist magazine noted in 1997, at the time of Sir Joshua’s death (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1963), it is in large part thanks to him that Spain is unlikely to regain control of Gibraltar: “It may be that even if Britain were willing to give Spain a say in Gibraltar, the move would be stymied by the Rock-like constitution granted in 1969, which Sir Joshua helped to make wriggle-proof. Under it, Gibraltarians have the last word on their future.”

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