During the many years that Gibraltar was a British fortress, most of the area was taken up by military installations, and the civilian population was kept small. Many of the laborers lived in the Spanish border town of La Línea. The population now consists of people of Spanish, Italian, English, Maltese, Portuguese, German, and North African descent. More than three quarters of the population is Roman Catholic; there are Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish minorities. English is the official language, and Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese are spoken.
The town is a free port, with some transit trade. Financial services, shipping, and duty-free shopping are economically important, and Gibraltar is also an online gambling center. The climate is mild and pleasant, and tourism is also a significant industry. Gibralter must import most of its fuel, manufactured goods, and foodstuffs.
Gibraltar is governed under the constitution of 1969. The monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, represented by a governor, is the head of state. The chief minister, who is the head of government, is appointed by the governor with the approval of the House of Assembly. Of the 18 members of the unicameral House of Assembly, 15 are elected by popular vote and three are appointed; all serve four-year terms. Gibraltar is largely self-governing.
The name Gibraltar derives from the Arabic Jabal-al-Tarik [mount of Tarik], dating from the capture (711) of the peninsula by the Moorish leader Tarik. The Spanish Held the peninsula (1309-33) but did not definitively recover it from the Moors until 1462. The English have maintained possession since 1704 despite continual Spanish claims. The British post was besieged unsuccessfully by the Spanish and French (1704), by the Spanish (1726), and again by the Spanish and French (1779-83).
In World War I, Gibraltar served as a naval station. Many refugees fled there in the Spanish civil war (1936-39). In World War II its fortifications were strengthened, and most of the civilian population was evacuated. It was frequently bombed in 1940-41, but not seriously damaged.
After the war Spain renewed claims to Gibraltar, which, as a British strategic air and naval base, continued to be a major source of friction between Britain and Spain. The residents affirmed (1967) their ties with Britain in a UN-supervised referendum, and in 1981 all residents were granted full British citizenship. From 1969 to 1985, Spain closed its border with Gibraltar, although pedestrian traffic was again permitted across beginning in 1982.
In 1991, Britain removed its military forces from Gibraltar, while retaining it as a dependency. Tensions between Spain and Gibraltar continued through the 1990s, however, as Spain accused Gibraltar of being a hotbed of drug trafficking, tobacco smuggling, money laundering, and tax evasion. A 1997 Spanish proposal for joint British-Spanish sovereignty was rejected by the Gibraltarian government, and a referendum in 2002 on shared British-Spanish sovereignty almost unanimously approved of that rejection. In 2006 Gibraltar, Spain, and Britain signed an agreement intended to ease crossing the Spanish border and traveling by air to Gibraltar and to improve telephone service in Gibraltar. The same year a new constitution for the colony was approved that increased its government's autonomy.
See studies by H. S. Levie (1983) and G. J. Shields (1987).