History loves to repeat herself (here, the first time is opera; the second farce). The Spanish are hurrumphing over Gibraltar again. There are several reasons for this, mainly because it’s a good distraction from Spain’s economic distress. But it’s 2013 this year, and thus the 200th anniversary of Spain’s formally losing Gibraltar to Britain. We accidentally conquered the Rock in 1704; the Treaty of Utrecht legalised the arrangement. Ten years on, the Spanish were already trying to get the island back. The 1720s also saw political instability in Europe and trade wars between the Dutch, the British and the Austrian east India companies.
In 1725, the Spanish allied with the Austrians, simultaneously declaring support for the Ostend Company and demanding the restoration of Gibraltar. The Spanish started to harass the island. British politicians petitioned for reinforcements and supplies to be sent to Gibraltar throughout 1726. The situation reached crisis point at the beginning of 1727. George I opened Parliament in January with these words:
“My Lords and Gentlemen, I Acquainted you last Year with the Treaties of Peace and Commerce concluded between the Emperor and the King of Spain….
…the subsequent Proceedings and Transactions in those two Courts, and the Secret and Offensive Alliances concluded between them about the same time, have laid the Foundations of a most exorbitant and formidable Power, and are so directly levelled against the most valuable and darling Interests and Privileges of this Nation, that we must determine either tamely to submit to the peremptory and unjust Demands of the King of Spain, in giving up Gibraltar, and patiently to acquiesce in the Emperor’s usurped and extended Exercise of Trade and Commerce, or must resolve to be in a Condition to do our selves Justice, and to defend our undoubted Rights against these reciprocal Engagements enter’d into, in Defiance and Violation of all National Faith, and the most solemn Treaties.
I have likewise received Information from different Parts, on which I can entirely depend, that the placing the Pretender upon the Throne of this Kingdom is one of the Articles of the secret Engagements; and if Time shall evince, that the giving up the Trade of this Nation to one Power, and Gibraltar and Port-Mahon to another, is made the Price and Reward of imposing upon this Kingdom a Popish Pretender, what an Indignation must this raise in the Breast of every Protestant Briton!…
…The King of Spain, impatient of the Disappointments he has met with, can no longer disguise that Enmity to Us, which for some time he has only waited for a favourable Opportunity to declare. He has now ordered his Minister residing here, to depart immediately from this Country, leaving a Memorial, that is little short of a Declaration of War, wherein he again demands and insists upon the Restitution of Gibraltar. He does not himself deny the Offensive Alliance, nor his Engagements to support the Ostend Company…
…But not content with these Menaces, Insults, and Infractions of Treaties, his Catholick Majesty is now making Preparations to attack and besiege Gibraltar; and in order to carry on that Service, or to cover another Design, has assembled a great Body of Troops in that Neighbourhood: But the present State and Condition of that Garrison, with the Reinforcements I have ordered thither, give Me little Cause to apprehend, or my Enemies to hope for Success in that Undertaking. The certain and undoubted Intelligence I have, that it is now resolved to attempt an Invasion upon these Kingdoms in Favour of the Pretender, by an Embarkation from the Coasts of Spain, gives Me Reason to believe, that tho’ the Siege of Gibraltar may probably be undertaken, the publick, avowed, and immense Preparations made for that Purpose, are chiefly calculated to amuse the World, and to disguise the intended Invasion, which, I am surely informed, has been for some Time agreed to be the first Step and Beginning of the long premeditated Rupture.
Gentlemen of the House of Commons, These Considerations must awaken in you all such a Sense of our common and immediate Danger, as will, I doubt not, inspire you with a Zeal and Chearfulness in raising the Supplies necessary for the Defence of your Country, and for making good our Engagements with our Allies.”
In the end, the Spanish backed down, owing to lack of Austrian support. The 1727 Gibraltar crisis left a nice musicological footnote – it might have been the reason that Handel chose Riccardo Primo as that season’s premier.