For almost a century, only a string of widely-spaced sentry boxes marked Gibraltar’s border with Spain in an easy arrangement between London and Madrid that saw the demolition of the fortified Lines of Contravallation. These had been built by Spain on the north side of the isthmus in 1730 to isolate the Rock – ceded to Britain by Spain 17 years earlier – and which were demolished in a series of explosions by Royal Engineers based in Gibraltar in February 1810, when Spain changed sides to ally herself with Britain and Portugal in the Peninsular War. All that remain are the ruins of Fort St. Barbara, and Fort San Felipe on La Linea’s eastern seafront, currently being slowly restored.
Where there are borders there has always been smuggling, and the Spanish/ Gibraltar frontier is no exception – continuing today in a tradition more than two centuries old and where tobacco remains the most lucrative contraband.
Only a string of sentry boxes marked Gibraltar’s border with Spain.
Then, as now, a handful of customs officers on the Spanish side could do little to stem the flow. But under pressure from the Spanish government of the day – and to reduce numbers of soldiers needed for sentry duty – in 1909 Britain built a 7-ft high chicken-wire fence running from one shore to the other. But smugglers had wire-cutters and before long the chicken-wire was replaced by a full iron fence, establishing a new de facto border on what had been a no-man’s-land separating staggered sentry posts.
While this didn’t end contraband tobacco, it stopped one method favoured by the smugglers – the use of dogs, specially trained to carry smuggled goods strapped to their backs, between sentry boxes on either side. These became fast-moving targets and, according to one source ‘In their attempts at stopping these dogs, sentries from both sides would take shots at the animals and, in so doing, were sometimes in danger of shooting each other.’
Where there are borders, there has always been smuggling.
Access was still easy. No passports were needed, though Spanish customs officials occasionally stopped and searched the panniers of donkeys and mules carrying goods in either direction… searches which allegedly could be by-passed for as little as five pesetas. But it also contributed to the current contretemps – for Spain claimed that, in building the fence where it did, Britain annexed 106 of the original 156 hectares of neutral ground… the site of today’s new airport.