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Siege of Gibraltar

From Jerez, we head southeast, across Andalusia, and on to Gibraltar, the tiny 2.6-square-mile British-owned territory on the very southernmost tip of Europe’s Iberian peninsula. From here, you can see across the Straits of Gibraltar to Africa, which lies barely eight nautical miles away across the Mediterranean Sea. With all this talk of port and sherry, perhaps it’s time for a quick toast?

If someone were to ask you what year the Siege of Gibraltar took place, what would you say? If you answered 1779, then kudos to you. If you answered, ‘which one?’, then even better; you’re obviously a genius. Or a naval historian.

The fact is that Gibraltar occupies such a strategically formidable position on the European mainland that it has been invaded, bombarded and besieged on no fewer than fourteen separate occasions throughout history – from the First Siege of Gibraltar in 1309, which saw the Moors hand control of the area to the Kingdom of Castile, to the last and so-called Great Siege, which lasted for four years, 1779-83. That violent history can’t have been much fun for the locals, it has to be said, but it does at least have a silver lining: the sailors of the British Navy managed to get a joke out of it.

In eighteenth-century naval slang, anyone who fancied a drink but could not think of a good enough excuse to have one – or, alternatively, anyone caught having a drink and questioned why they were on the booze at whatever time they were discovered – would reply that they were commemorating ‘the anniversary of the Siege of Gibraltar’. The joke was that given the sheer number of them in the military history my blogs, it was fairly likely that regardless of the date, there was an anniversary of at least one siege of Gibraltar coming up sometime soon. Before long, the expression the Siege of Gibraltar had slipped into English slang as an excuse for a drink, whether warranted or not. It’s five o’clock somewhere, after all.

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