Among the most impressive of the fortifications of Gibraltar are the Southport Gates, still in evidence today, and still and well worth spending some time to see.
The Southport Gates are part of what was once a series of walls and fortresses that were part of Gibraltar’s defenses for literally hundreds of years. The three gates can be found in one of the earlier fortifications, namely the Charles V Wall, that was built to protect the southernmost part of the city. The gates are located right next to the Trafalgar Cemetery at the bottom of Trafalgar Hill. Flat Bastion lies to the east and South Bastion to the west. The “New” Southport Gate along with the original Southport Gate both provide access to Trafalgar Road, whereas Referendum Gate, the most recently built of the three gates, gives means of passage to Main Street.
Gibraltar has always been prone to sieges, wars, and neighbor accosting neighbor, and when that wasn’t taking place, piracy was rampant in the area. Imagine if you will the days when law was not that evident and outlaws were running rampant.
In those times, this area was home to a pirate called Barbarossa, who at one point in Gibraltar’s history attacked the city and captured a myriad of its citizens to sell as slaves. Not content with just the slaves, they sacked the Shrine of the Lady of Europe, taking many valuables and left the area. They were intercepted by Mendoza who had given chase and were defeated near Cartagena, with many of the captives being freed and returned.
In addition to this, nine sieges of major proportions took place. It really makes sense then, the necessity for such huge walls, gates, tunnels and fortresses! The evidence of their existence though, is all part of the charm, the mystique and the excitement of a visit to Gibraltar. They are all reminders, ancient landmarks, that tell us of a time when things were a lot more barbaric than today. Evidence of a time when the Moors landed on the shores of Gibraltar, or the Spaniards drove them out, only then to be themselves ousted by a British invasion.
Getting back to the Southport gates, the earliest of the three gates, known before as the “Africa Gate”, was built by Giovanni Battista Calvi, an Italian engineer back in 1552. It bears the Royal Arms of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the coat of arms of Gibraltar. At the time a large deep trench was dug that ran down the southern side of the Charles V Wall, starting at the southwestern end of South Bastion and ending at the Flat Bastion. It was labeled on a map of Gibraltar in 1627 as the “Southport Ditch”, a means of defence of the gate and inner city. Quite amazing that just this wall and gates alone offer up such an incredible story of a past rife with conflict, and peoples great need for security.
Moving along to the centre gate, also known as the “New” Southport Gate, was introduced to the Charles V Wall in 1883 during the reign of Queen Victoria. Its main purpose was to accommodate for traffic flow. It too bears the coat of arms of the governor at the time, those of Gibraltar, as well as the Royal Arms of Queen Victoria. At the same time, four new rifled muzzle loading guns were installed on the South Bastion, and the Southport Ditch was used to house a magazine to store the four guns ammunition. If you visit the site today, you will find one of these guns mounted just inside the gates.
Before the Southport Gates were constructed, around the time when Tariq invaded Spain in 711 AD and declared Gibraltar his own, there was built upon the spot where the gates now stand, a formidable fortress, that is widely believed to be the foundation for the Southport Gates. It must be said though that although Muslim sources claim this to be the case, no real evidence has proven this to be credible, outside of a fortified settlement that was built there in 1160 AD.
The Southport gates are truly a visible reminder of the past that Gibraltar lived through, a holdover from a time less peaceful than that which we enjoy today.
Last but not least is the widest of the three gates. The Referendum Gate, also known as the Referendum Arch, was built to the west of the other two gates, commemorating Gibraltar’s first sovereignty referendum in 1967. Gibraltarians voted by a staggering majority to remain under British rule rather than to become Spanish. During this time a reasonable portion of the Southport Ditch was also filled. Southport Ditch Cemetery represented the eastern part of it, which nowadays is called the Trafalgar Cemetery.
The Southport Gates are more than just one of the splendid attractions of Gibraltar, more than just one of the many fortifications of the city. They are a living breathing story, and one that every visitor to Gibraltar should take the time to see.
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