The Kroger Grocery Empire: Barney’s Blueprint for Success

Regional History, Retailing history, Social History

The history of the Kroger Grocery Company has parallels with the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, another pioneering powerhouse of American food retailing. Both grocery businesses started in the 19th century as tea and coffee purveyors, however Kroger, unlike A&P Tea, has survived through the centuries and still trades today as lucratively as ever. In the 2016 fiscal year Kroger was the largest supermarket chain by revenue in the US (yielding US$115.34 billion). It shares a roost with Walmart at the top of the US retail tree…it is number 2 general retailer behind Walmart in the US, and is the third largest retailer in the world[1].

Origins, growth and expansion of the Kroger name
The man behind the Kroger Company was Bernard Kroger, better known as ‘Barney’. Kroger, the son of German immigrants, got into the retailing world at the basement level – working door-to-door selling coffee first for the Great Northern and Pacific Tea Co and then the Imperial Tea Co. By 1883 Kroger was in business for himself, his first store traded under the name The Great Western Tea Co…soon renamed Kroger Grocery and Baking Co✳. The Cincinnati-based business expanded exponentially into the 20th century, by the end of the 1920s decade Kroger had over 5,500 stores in the US[2].

The Kroger business ethic
Not afflicted with the curse of Hamlet, Barney Kroger was not one to overthink or complicate matters, as his simple motto attested: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.” Kroger’s business style was heavily and idiosyncratically micro-managerial, the businessman personally maintained an account book which meticulously recorded all the firm’s financial transactions. Kroger’s business credo was “First: Do it first. When seasonable goods come into the market, have the first. When prices go down, be the first to reduce them. Second: Never sell anything except for just what it is, and don’t sell it then if it isn’t good. Third: Advertise as liberally as business income permits. Fourth: sell on a small margin and make the turnover rapid”. The Ohoian entrepreneur’s pragmatism emphasised “duplicating and reduplicating…what works”[3].

One of Barney Kroger’s most enduring contributions to grocery retail revolves around his minimum cost/high volume approach to trading. He is remembered for introducing the template of the low-cost grocery chain, still much duplicated in modern retailing. Kroger was also innovative in his store design, adding distinct bakery, meat and seafood departments in his grocery stores[4].

In-house food manufacturers
Bread-making was a good example of the Kroger cost minimisation strategy…at variance with most grocers in the early 20th century who purchased the product from independent bakeries, Barney Kroger baked his own bread. This way he could further cut the price for customers and still make a profit. Kroger after the death of Barney has rapidly expanded its own product manufacturing facilities, now making thousands of comestibles within the company[5].

A typical mid-century Kroger store
Merger juggernaut
From the 1950s on Kroger embarked on an ongoing series of mergers with smaller firms to consolidate its market position in the US grocery/supermarket trade. The most significant of these, in 1999, was with Fred Meyer, Inc., then the fifth biggest American grocer. This new acquisition by Kroger saw it reach a new high of 2,200 stores in 31 states, netting the supermarket giant billions in annual revenue[6].

Kroger innovations
Kroger has led the way in retail grocery innovations…the innovations pioneered by the company include ‘firsts’ for a grocery chain, eg, the routine monitoring of product quality and the scientific testing of foods; testing of electronic scanners. As well Kroger was a pioneer in modern consumer research in grocery lines[7].

Kroger’s position today as a market leader in the US grocery and supermarket field (FN1) rests firmly on the solid foundations laid down by its founder Barney Kroger. Contemporary growth by the company has continued a trajectory of diversification well beyond the grocery staple into fuel centres, florists, drug and convenience stores.

✳ eventually the company name was shortened simply to Kroger

[1] as at December 2015 Kroger operated a total of 2,778 supermarkets and multi-department stores across 34 American states, ‘Kroger’, Wikipedia,
[2] ibid.
[3] ‘Bernard Heinrich Kroger (1860-1938)’, (Zachary Garrison, 08-Jun-2011), Immigrant Entrepreneurship: 1730 to the Present,; BM Horstman, ‘Barney Kroger: Hard work, marketing savvy won shoppers’, Cincinnati Post, 17-Jun-1999,
[4] Horstman, ibid.; ‘Kroger’, Wikipedia, loc.cit.
[5] ‘History of Kroger’, (Kroger),
[6] Dana Canedyoct, ‘Kroger to Buy Fred Meyer, Creating Country’s Biggest Grocer’, New York Times, 20-Oct-1998,
[7] ‘History of Kroger’, loc.cit.

A&P Tea Co: Once Were Giants of the American Grocery Trade

Popular Culture, Regional History, Retailing history

The year 2015 brought an end to one of the most enduring major retailers in the history of United States business. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (universally abbreviated to A&P Tea Co) succumbed after a succession of bankruptcy proceedings played out in the early 2010s (bringing an end to 156 years of continuous retailing in the US).

A&P Tea endgame
The beginnings of A&P Tea’s decline in the retail world harks back as far as the 1950s – the source of the downward trend was its inability to maintain parity with competitors who were opening larger supermarkets that, driven by customer demand, were more modern[1]. Partial sell-offs followed in the seventies and eighties. Things didn’t really improve for the grocery ‘Goliath’ despite sporadic and ephemeral upsurges[2]. In 2010 the company filed for bankruptcy, but were only able to hold on till 2015 when A&P again filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this time being permanently wound up.

A&P store, Westwood, NJ, 1959
According to industry analysts A&P’s demise could be attributed to a misguide focus, and to the company’s failure “to evolve with the changing market”…A&P had a tendency to concentrate on “extracting dollars from its vendors instead of selling to its customers”. This exhibited a woeful neglect when it came to improving the customer experience (George Anderson, editor-in-chief of RetailWire)[3].

The company’s woes were exacerbated by a failure to modernise its look…it doggedly kept its grocery lines to the basics and was disinclined to adapt to changing tastes and interests of consumers with their growing preference for organic, healthy and gourmet foods. Meanwhile its competitors like Whole Foods, The Fresh Market and Kroger were stealing a march on the erstwhile market leader[4].

Humble leather goods origins
Atlantic and Pacific’s company history traces itself back to 1859, founded by George Gilman, as a sideline to his hide and leather importing business. Gilman’s diversification into mail-order tea was so successful that he dropped the leather and Gilman & Co by 1869 had become the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co[5]. A&P Tea’s fortunes rose with the ascent of George Huntington Hartford who assumed control in 1878. George and his sons (affectionately known as “Mr George” and “Mr John”) oversaw the company’s inexorable growth and monopolistic practices[6].

A&P Tea at its zenith
At its peak in the 1930s (with the Hartford brothers still ensconced at the helm), A&P was by far the largest grocery chain in the US with 15,709 stores in 39 of the 48 states plus parts of Canada. The tea and coffee merchants had already diversified into bakeries and pastry and candy shops, and introduced innovations in food retailing such as pre-packaged meats and food-testing laboratories (pioneers of quality assurance)[7]. The Economy Store was another A&P concept: small stores located in secondary streets, away from the main street (comparison with King Kullen), inexpensive “no frills” lines; operated by only one or two staff members; low cost, high volume[8].

Slow to embrace the supermarket concept
The Hartfords were unimpressed by and reluctant to adopt the model of the supermarket, pioneered by King Kullen and others. Finally in 1936 A&P opened their first supermarket in Braddock, PA. Eventually the company’s supermarkets came to replace the increasing obsolete Economy Stores[9].

1928 A&P grocery ad
When it came to reading changing consumer preferences after WWII, A&P Tea, as was the case with F.W. Woolworth, was slow to move its stores from the urban centres to the suburbs, thus falling behind rivals like K-Mart, Safeway and Kroger in this respect. From the 1960s on A&P experimented with discount stores A-Mart (folded as its name was too like K-Mart!) and WEO (Warehouse Economy Outlet) with moderate results[9]…A&P sales continued to flatten out, it continue to jettison stores into the 21st century, with its market share haemorrhaging in the fierce onslaught of rising powerhouses such as Walmart[10].

PostScript: Legacy of the retailing ‘Goliath’
The heights to which Greater Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co rose in its heyday were of Everest proportions. Until 1965 A&P Tea Co was the largest US retailer of any kind…between 1915 and 1975 A&P was the largest food/grocery retailer in the US…until 1982 the company was also America’s largest food manufacturer. According to the Wall Street Journal A&P Tea Co was “as well known as McDonald’s or Google is today” and was lionised in the world of North American retail traders as “Walmart before Walmart”[11]. By the end of the 1920s A&P had become the first retailer to sell US$1 billion worth of goods[12].

[1] WI Walsh, The Rise and Decline of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (1986)
[2] ibid.
[3] Hayley Fitzpatrick, ‘A&P made one mistake that undermined its business’, Business Insider Australia, 22-Jul-2015,
[4] ibid.
[5] Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, (2011)
[6] A 1946 US Federal Court ruling found the Hartford brothers guilty of illegal restraint of trade by using A&P’s size and market power to keep prices artificially low, ibid.
[7] ‘The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Inc’,,
[8] ‘A&P: The Early Years’,,
[9] ibid.
[10] Levinson, op.cit.
[11] ‘The Great Atlantic Pacific Tea Company’, Wikipedia,
[12] Levinson, op.cit.

Prototype of the Modern Supermarket: King Kullen

Regional History, Retailing history, Society & Culture

The big players in US supermarkets in 2017 are names like Kroger, Costco and Safeway❈ but long before Costco, Safeway and Walmart existed and whilst Kroger was still a cash-and-carry grocer, there was King Kullen.

Founder of King Kullen
The entrepreneur behind the King Kullen story was Michael J Cullen – Cullen was an ex-employee of the Kroger Company (and before that he had worked for the famous Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, better known simply as A & P Tea). The manner by which Cullen came to start up his own supermarket chain is a classic story of turning rejection into a virtue. Cullen was managing a number of small Kroger stores in the late 1920s and identified a raft of improvements to the way Kroger did business that he believed, if implemented, would increase the company’s revenue tenfold. Cullen wrote to the Vice President of Kroger with his suggestions for a new, revolutionary type of dry goods/grocery store. In his letter Cullen envisaged “monstrous stores, size of same to be about forty feet wide and hundred and thirty to a hundred and sixty feet deep…located one to three blocks from the high rent district with plenty of parking space, and same to be operated as a semi-self-service store – twenty percent service and eighty percent self-service”, low prices and cash sales[1].

Kroger’s VP, whether through indifference, complacency or sheer lack of business nous, did not reply to his branch manager’s suggestions. Cullen, rebuffed but confident in the efficacy of his own store model, resigned from Kroger and set about realising the kind of new revolutionary grocery store he had envisaged. Settling his family in Long Island, Cullen found a vacant warehouse in Jamaica (Queens) with 6,000 square feet of space, which he chose as the optimal retail location. Cullen’s new store, which he dubbed “King Kullen”, opened its doors for business in August 1930[2].

King Kullen, Queens
Billing itself as the “World’s Greatest Price Wrecker”, King Kullen was an instant success in New York with its formula of high volume and low cost…KK’s slogan was “Pile it high, sell it low!” Customers were willing to travel up to 30 miles to the Queens store to cash in on the bargains[3]. The American Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Identified the contribution of King Kullen as “serv(ing) as a catalyst for a new age in food retailing” and the Long Island-based grocery company is widely thought to be the first example of the modern supermarket. King Kullen’s reputation as the prototype form of supermarket (or at the very least a strong candidate for being so) rests in part on the endorsement given it by the Smithsonian Institute…FMI in 1980 with funding from the Heinz Corporation) initiated research by the Smithsonian which concluded that King Kullen met its five-point criteria for a supermarket, viz. it provided separate departments for produce; it offered self-service; it offered discount pricing; it conducted chain marketing; and it dealt in high volume quantities[4].

Under Cullen’s leadership the supermarket chain grew exponentially…8 stores by 1932 (each new store bigger than the preceding one), 17 stores by 1936 with annual sales of $6 (this despite a climate of economic depression)[5]. To match the “belt-tightening” days of the Depression and deliver the lowest possible prices, Cullen took a “no frills” approach to his King Kullen stores – facilities were simple, service was minimal. Unexpectedly though, just as he was about to expand King Kullen nationally and into franchising, Cullen died suddenly in 1936, aged only 52 [6].

Cullen’s wife and children continued King Kullen after his death. In 1961 it was listed as a public company however the family retained a controlling interest. King Kullen, after going through a static period, not changing with the times, was revamped and modernised from 1969, growing the business to a total of 55 New York stores by 1983[7].

King Kullen eventually diversified into bakeries, delicatessens, florists, pharmacies and health products, in addition to its staple of produce lines. Today it maintains a modest but healthy market position in New York, operating a chain of supermarkets (around 35 in total) in the Long Island area, concentrated in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

❈ Walmart in groceries and food sales are the overall dominant competitor in the market but its retail outlets tend to be hypermarkets rather than supermarkets

[1] ‘About King Kullen Supermarkets’, (King Kullen: America’s First Supermarket),
[2] ‘King Kullen’, Wikipedia,
[3] ‘King Kullen Grocery Co., Inc. History’, (Funding Universe),
[4] D Simionis [Ed], Inventors and Inventions, (2008);
Funding Universe, op.cit.
[5] King Kullen: America’s First Supermarket, loc.cit.
[6] ‘Michael J Cullen’,
[7] Funding Universe, op.cit.

A Revolutionary Retailer: Piggly Wiggly, Keedoozle and Foodelectric – Antecedents of the Modern Supermarket

Regional History, Retailing history, Society & Culture

In an episode of the 2012 series of The Hairy Bikers the English BMW-riding celebrity chefs from “Oop North” do a road trip through the gastronomical delights of America’s Mississippi River Valley. Whilst the two girth-challenged biker-chefs are in Memphis, Tennessee, to check out the local speciality of soul stew and fried chicken, they make a visit to a Piggly Wiggly store, or at least to a replica of the famous original store encapsulated in a local museum, formerly the pink palatial mansion (pictured above) of Piggly Wiggly’s founder.

Piggly Wiggly (established 1916) and its 1930s successor Keedoozle were the brainchild of businessman Clarence Saunders – these stores were thought to represent the first forays into self-service grocery retailing. Prior to Saunders’ innovation, grocery store customers (in a typical corner store) would line up with their grocery lists, the clerk would take their lists in turn and scoot around the store collecting the orders whilst the customers waited. When completed, the clerk would bag all their items, and then go on to the next customer. Saunders’ revolutionary self-serve idea was: customers enter the store through a turnstile, collect a shopping basket which they’d cart round the shelves selecting the items they want and then proceed to the checkout.

Piggly Wiggly’s foundation store ca 1916
For 100% self-service to work, the store’s layout of merchandise had to be completely rearranged. As Ashley Ross put it, “the products had to do the tempting”, the store owner had to draw the shopper’s attention to the merchandise. Candy and impulse items were strategically placed at the checkout where they would be easily noticed[1]. All items in the Piggly Wiggly (PW) store were price-marked for the shopper’s convenience, the clerks no longer required to do the fetching were freed up to keep the shelves stocked with dry goods and to assist customers. Another innovation, the shop attendants were issued with uniforms, as was the use of refrigerated cases[2]. Because PW operated on a high volume/low profit margin, lower costs were passed on to the customers. By drawing customers away from speciality retail stores the prices could be further lowered. PW Saunders’ self-serving store was the “supermarket franchise model” of the future, and as John Stanton (professor of the history of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University, Pennysylvania) noted, the PW merchandise model was basically “the origin of branding”[3].

Copycats of the self-serve template
Saunders’ self-service stores were an immediate success…by 1922 there were 1,200 stores across 29 US states, 10 years later this number had ballooned out to 2,660 stores[4]. PW’s financial bonanza (over $180m turnover by 1932) spawned numerous imitators in the US retail industry – Handy Andy, Helpy Selfy, Mick-or-Mack, Jitney Jungle – all operating under Saunders’ patent system earning him royalties[5]. Another of the rival chains won no commendations for subtlety or originality in calling its derivative store idea, Hoggly Woogly!

‘Sole Owner of My Name’
Saunders’ substantial wealth derived from PW received a blow when the company’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange bottomed out after a bear raid by market speculators. Consequently Saunders lost $3 million and was forced into bankruptcy in the 1920s❈, ending his involvement with the company. The ‘Piggly Wiggly’ brand still operates with over 600 stores in 17 states, but it has no connection with Saunders’ family or descendants. In 1928 Saunders started up a new grocery chain which he called the Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores…the business initially flourished, accumulating 675 stores⚀. However with the onset of the Great Depression it also went into bankruptcy in 1930[6].

Keedoozle vending machines 1948 (Source: Francis Miller/Life)
Keedoozle 1.0 and 2.0
The indefatigable Saunders was soon at it again, devising a new take on his idea of a revolutionary grocery enterprise. In 1937 this materialised with Keedoozle – the prototype of an automated store. The name apparently a contraction of “key-does-all”✾…it worked like this, upon entering the store customers received a key which they used to access the merchandise. The complicated sounding process involved taking the items and a ticker tape from glass-enclosed cases (resembling vending machines) to the cashier who inserted the tape into a “translator machine” which had a two-fold action: it triggered electrical impulses which transported the goods down a conveyor belt, and at the same time adding up the customer’s bill. The added benefit for the customer, apart from convenience and speed, Saunders claimed would be 10-15% cheaper prices than Keedoozle’s competitors[7].

In practice though, things didn’t go to plan. The electrical circuits couldn’t cope with the traffic during peak hours, there were breakdowns (unreliable machinery, high maintenance costs)…and delays (compounded by a tardy conveyor belt system). Customers regularly got someone else’s orders. In all Saunders had three attempts at getting the automated service right. In 1948 he came up with (another) new, ‘improved’ version of Keedoozle…again the re-launch was accompanied by Saunders’ penchant for extravagant claims[8]. Alas, this venture also met the same fate of the earlier projects, eventual bankruptcy.

All of the grocery store projects that Saunders launched went pear-shaped in the end. One last hurray for the grocery pioneer was meant to be his Foodelectric concept. As heralded by Saunders, Foodelectric would take retail automation to another level – the customer would “act as her own cashier”, doing the collecting and wrapping of the purchases herself. According to Saunders, it would “cut overhead expenses and enable a small staff to handle a tremendous volume”. Saunders’ new innovation with Foodelectric was the “shopping brain”, a portable primitive computer which allows the shopper to select and despatch the items, whilst registering the prices on the computer window[9].

C Saunders, visionary grocer
Unfortunately Saunders died in 1953 before he could open the first Foodelectric store. The track records of Piggly Wiggly, Sole Owner Stores and especially Keedoozle were not stellar success stories in the world of retail grocery, the notion of triple-bankruptcy does not connote good business acumen. But Saunders was a visionary thinker-outside-the-box, his concepts and novelties in the field were decades ahead of their time…the Memphis grocer is remembered today for pioneering a nascent sales model of self-service which paved the way for the development of the modern supermarket.

PostScript: Piggly Wiggly or Alpha Beta?
PW’s and Saunders’ claim to being the originator of American self-serve stores could be contested by Alpha Beta a Southern Californian grocery chain which opened its doors in 1914 (two years before PW). Alpha Beta also experimented with self-service – goods in its stores were arranged alphabetically (hence the company’s name). Alpha Beta merged with American Stores in 1961 and by 1973 it could boast to having over 200 supermarkets in California (unlike PW though, AB remained a regional, Californian phenomena). After a further merger with Lucky Stores in 1988 the “Alpha Beta” brand name ceased to exist[10].

❈ also lost by Saunders due to his financial woes was the Georgian marble “pink palace” mansion, today the Memphis Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium which the Hairy Bikers visited on their American South culinary quest
⚀ Saunders established his own professional (American) football team to promote the new grocery venture, predictably the team was called the “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers”
✾ Saunders seems to contradict this explanation of the name’s origin in the ‘Life’ magazine article cited below

[1] A Ross, ‘The Surprising Way a Supermarket Changed the World’, Time, 09-Sep-2016,
[2] B Saar, ” ‘Keedoozle’ evolving into swiping”, (The Hawk Eye), 03-Aug-2003,
[3] Ross, loc.cit.
[4] ‘Piggly Wiggly’, Wikipedia,
[5] PH Nystrom, Economics of Retailing (1930), cited in ibid.
[6] ‘Clarence Saunders (Grocer)’, Wikipedia,
[7] B Cosgrove, ‘We Hardly Knew Ye: Remembering America’s First Automated Grocery Keedoozle’, Time, 25-Aug-2014,
[8] “In five years”, he boldly (and unwisely) asserted in 1948, “there will be a thousand Keedoozles throughout the U.S. selling $5 billion worth of goods” (in reality there was only ever three (Memphis) built between 1937 and 1949!), ‘Saunders is sure Keedoozle will build his third fortune’, Life, 3-Jan-1949; Cosgrove, ibid.
[9] Life, loc.cit.
[10] ‘A Quick History of the Supermarket’, Exploring supermarket history,

Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Disaster

Military history, Racial politics, Regional History, Society & Culture

Progressive advocates and activists for a more just and equal society in the US view the Port Chicago❈ naval disaster and mutiny in July 1944 as a crucible for the cause of civil rights. African-American seamen, the majority still in their teens, revolted against the entrenched discriminatory practices they encountered in the Navy during WWII, and although vilified and punished by White authority at the time, their stand was to be a key factor in the eventual decision to abolish segregation in the US armed forces[1].

Devastation on the PC pier after the explosion
The catalyst for the subsequent ‘mutiny’ (as the Navy and White society generally characterised it – see also the follow up blog) was a catastrophic series of explosions whilst two naval carrier vessels were being loaded at the naval dock with ammunition for transportation to the Pacific theatre of war. The mega-blast killed 320 sailors and civilians (the bulk of the sailors were African-Americans), plus a further 390 personnel were injured❧. It was the worst home front disaster of WWII (the cost included nearly $9.9m worth of damage to dock, ships and buildings). The fireball engulfing the Port could be viewed from miles away, triggering a quake felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Such was the force of the explosion that one 300lb chunk of steel was ‘cannonballed’ a distance of 1.5 miles, landing in the main street of the Port township[2].

The disproportionate toll of African-American enlisted men in the disaster was the result of the Navy assigning them to the most menial, labouring jobs as stevedores, basically “pack mules” loading the munitions. The Navy made casual racist assumptions about their ‘limited’ vocational capacity, despite the fact that at the Navy boot camp the black sailors had each completed specific training for one or other of the naval rating occupations[3].

Navy double standards
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Navy treated of the two groups of seamen involved markedly differently – the White officers and sailors were given a 30-day “survivor’s leave”, whereas all the Black sailors (despite being severely shaken and traumatised by the incident) were denied the leave – despite it being standard procedure in such instances. This proved a very sore point for the African-Americans at Port Chicago. African-American seamen enlisted in the US Navy, aside from motives of patriotism, for the promise of recognition as full American citizens – a chance to escape the South’s Jim Crow segregation policies or the North’s institutionalised “second citizenship”[4]. Unfortunately what they found, and Port Chicago was no exception to elsewhere in the military, was that they were still segregated and marginalised, despite the fact they were serving in the defence of their country.

Adding insult to injury: Compensation for African-American victims watered down
That the loss of Black lives in the Port Chicago catastrophe was of diminished importance in American society at the time was even more starkly underlined in the subject of restitution. The Navy asked for $5,000 to be paid to each of the families of the 203 dead African-American sailors. Extraordinarily, after a vigorous and forthright protest from Mississippi Democrat representative, John Rankin (a White Supremacist sympathiser) that the sum be reduced to $2,000, Congress caved in to his pressure and awarded the families $3,000 each[5] … a brazenly unequivocal acknowledgement from the authorities that Black lives in America at the time were not worth as much as White ones!

The Naval Board of Inquiry
The Inquiry into the explosion would give the surviving Black seamen (and the victims’ families) more cause for grievance. The report never established the cause of the disaster❖, but implied that an error by the enlisted men may have led to the explosions. As for the white officers and the base commander, they were all absolved of any blame for what happened[6]. The Naval Board effectively ‘white-washed’ the whole episode, choosing not to cast a critical eye over the glaring pre-conditions that contributed to the disaster. Both training and safety was lax at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. Deeply significantly, the Black assigned stevedores were not given instruction in ammunition loading. Training deficiencies were in fact common at Port Chicago – the White loading officers themselves had only minimal training in supervising enlisted personnel and in handling munitions. As well, the Port’s commander Captain Merrill Kinne himself had no training in the loading of munitions and very little experience in handling them[7].

Diagram of pier & the two cargo carriers prior to the explosion
Sowing the seeds of catastrophe
Safety requirements were not observed and unsafe practices abounded: there was a complacency about the maintenance of key operational equipment; safety regulations were not widely distributed for the staff to familiarise themselves with. The practice at Port Chicago was to force the stevedores, working around-the-clock, to load the explosive cargos[8] at a pace that would imperil safety – the rate was set at 10 short tons per hatch every hour (higher than commercial stevedores✾). Facility commander Kinne encouraged a climate of competitiveness between the different crews (which they called ‘divisions’) by keeping a tally of each crew’s hourly tonnage on a chalkboard … leading to the junior officers surreptitiously laying bets on which crew would win the “speed loading contests”[9].

PostScript: Was the explosion a nuclear detonation?
In the early 1980s investigative journalist Peter Vogel postulated the hypothesis that the explosion at Port Chicago was likely to have been a nuclear one. Vogel noted the continued secrecy surrounding the naval base site and pointed to the specific characteristics of the fireball (as described by eyewitness accounts) – a “brilliant flash of white” and the mushrooming effect of the explosion’s dispersion (ie, a Wilson condensation cloud). Vogel also asserted that the force of the actual blast was greater than the reported 1,780 tons of high explosives on board the two Liberty carriers (E.A. Bryan and Quinault)[10].

Whilst Vogel’s theory would hold obvious appeal for conspiracy theorists, it has been not gained traction among historians. Its detractors, especially nuclear historians Badash and Hewlett, point to Vogel’s lack of hard evidence to support his claim, and his inability to explain why the US Government would want to detonate a nuclear device on populated home soil. Badash and Hewlett have noted in particular the absence of any residual radioactivity and resultant harm to the local community – which suggests that only conventional weaponry was involved[11].

❈ the town of Port Chicago, now called Concord, is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on the Sacramento River
❧ toll for Black Navy servicemen: 203 dead, 233 injured – representing 15% of all African-American casualties for the entire war
❖ it was a bad time for the Navy, PR wise. Just two months prior to the Port Chicago disaster, another calamitous explosion at West Loch (Pearl Harbour) resulted in the death of 163 seamen and hundreds injured … and like Port Chicago the disaster remained unexplained
✾ the quota set on the main base at Mare Island for instance was only 8.7

[1] President Truman’s 1948 Executive order officially desegregating the American armed forced, United States of America Congressional Record (106th Congress), Vol 146-Part 4 (April 3, 2000 to April 25, 2000)
[2] 430 miles to the south, ‘Port Chicago Mutiny (1944)’,; ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia,; ‘A Chronology of African American Military Service. From WWI through WWII.’ (U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. History),
[3] RL Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History, (1989)
[4] ibid.
[5] M Moorehead, ‘The Port a Chicago Mutiny’, (Workers World), Feb 1995,
[6] Allen, op.cit.
[7] ibid.
[8] The White officers used wilful deception to gain acquiescence, lying to the Black loaders as to the inherent dangers of the work – telling them the ammunition was not live which was catastrophically wrong, I Thompson, ‘Mare Island mutiny court-martial changed Navy racial policies, Daily Republic (Solano County), 23-Feb-2014,
[9] Allen, loc.cit.
[10] Vogel, P (1982). THE LAST WAVE FROM PORT CHICAGO. The Black Scholar, 13(2/3), 30-47. Retrieved from
[11] L Badash & RG Hewlett, cited in ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, op.cit.

Project Fu-Go: Japan’s Pacific War Balloon Counter-Offensive

Military history, Regional History

In the latter stages of the Second World War, Japan, under pressure from American and Allied bombing raids on its territory, devised a novel fight-back strategy against the invaders. The strategy devised by the Japanese military high command, was certainly an unorthodox one and one signifying the increasingly desperate position of Imperial Japan in the global war.

By the second half of 1944 the Japanese military situation was unravelling fast … serious Japanese army and navy reversals in the Pacific theatre, Japan had lost its aircraft carriers, the earlier submarine raids in California and Oregon had been largely ineffective, and morale at home among the Japanese citizenry was flagging[1]. As the tide of the Pacific War was turning against Japan, the US targeted key cities of the Japanese home islands – from June 1944 to the Japanese surrender in August 1945 America unleashed a systematic, strategic bombing campaign (from bases in China and Micronesia) with long-range B-29 bombers causing extensive damage and destruction in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe, as well as a host of smaller cities❈.

The Japan military command in response devised a plan, the result of Project Fu-Go – to attack North America using hydrogen gas balloons, fūsen bakudan (literally “balloon bomb”). These “fire balloons” had incendiary bomb devices attached to them, and the idea was to release them from Japan, using the jet stream to carry them the 5,000km across the Pacific Ocean and destroy towns, farmland and forests in the US and Canada[1]. The mechanism constructed was a deceptively simple but clever device to “automate the flight and release the explosives” at a given point and altitude[2].

Japanese scientists had conducted atmospheric experiments from western Japan to eastern Japan, charting the pattern of late autumn/winter jet streams. The tests revealed a particularly strong air current in the Pacific at 30,000 feet✠. The first balloon weapons were released in November 1944 (at the same time that American B-29 missions started taking a more devastating toll on the Japanese homeland). The fire balloon journey took between 30 and 60 hours to reach the west coast of North America, however it has been estimated that about only one in nine of the balloons made it to America (an estimated 1,000 out of 9,000 launched from Japan)[3]. But the number that made the journey is very imprecise … US researchers after the war discovered or accounted for at least 342. It is believed that many more landed on the American mainland but they have not been detected yet owing to being located in remote, unpopulated parts of the country[4]. This is even more likely to be the case in the much sparser populated western Canada.

The first sightings of the strange hydrogen balloons on the American west coast were puzzling to the locals. Their origin was also a puzzle for the authorities until US geologists made tests of the sand recovered from the ballast bags which traced it back to Japan and the beaches of Honshu. Many Americans were still doubtful that the balloons had floated all the way from Japan, speculating that they had been transported by Japanese submarines and secretly unleashed on the North American west coast[5].

The American response to Fu-Gos
The seemingly capricious nature (and innocuous appearance) of the fire balloons, to the American authorities, might not initially have seemed to pose much of a danger. Washington (DC) however did take it seriously … there was concern about the possibility of forest fires breaking out in the western regions of Canada and the US¤, and especially worrying to the US was the prospect of the Fu-Gos carrying biological weapons (which it knew the Japanese had been trying to develop)[6].

Once the source of the balloon weapons was established, the US government through its newly formed Office of Censorship put a watertight security blanket around the incidents. This starved the Japanese military of vital intelligence on the results of the balloon offensive, so Tokyo had no idea of whether the attacks were successful or not. US fighter pilots were engaged to intercept the incoming balloons but the results were at best marginal (one score only of the Fu-Gos were shot down)[7].

Klamath Falls, Fu-Go fatality
The only known WWII fatalities occurring on contiguous US territory
The information blackout on the Japanese balloon attacks also extended to American civilians … this was to have a solitary tragic consequence late in the war. In May 1945 a picnicking group of adults and Sunday school children discovered one of the grounded fire balloons in countryside near Bly in southern Oregon. Their curiosity about the strange balloon led them to pick up the still live weapon … as a result a pastor’s wife Elsie Mitchell, her unborn child and five children aged 11 to 14 died instantly from a huge explosion. The victims were the only known American civilians killed by enemy action after Pearl Harbour[8]. After the fatal incident the Office of Censorship issued a public alert about the fire balloons, warning citizens to stay clear of them.

The Bly incident was the solitary lethal attack on sovereign soil of the US mainland in the course of the World War. The only other damage from the Japanese fire bombs was to property … one Fu-Go incendiary struck a nuclear weapons plant in Hanford (Washington state), temporarily blacking out the plant which was manufacturing plutonium for use in the August 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Japan which ended the war.

Cessation of the fire balloon attacks
The uncertainty of not knowing how effective the balloon weapons were, did not inhibit the Japanese military from trying to exact propaganda value from the situation. News bulletins emanating from Tokyo broadcast a steady supply of “fake news” (as much for domestic consumption to boost morale) … announcements proclaimed that the floating incendiaries had claimed 10,000 US casualties, that the attacks had resulted in general alarm within the American population … they also issued a threat that Japanese troops were about to invade North America[9].

In April 1945 the Allied forces succeeded in blowing up two of Japan’s main hydrogen plants … this resulted in a scarcity in the ingredient needed for the fire balloons. This blow to the production of balloon weaponry, added to a growing realisation by the Japanese commanders that the attacks has not been a success relative to the resources expended, sealed the fate of the Fu-Go program[10].

PostScript 1: A balloon-scattered continential landscape
American Air Force writer Robert Mikesh described the Japanese fire balloons campaign as the “world’s first intercontinental weapons delivery system”. In six months in 1944-45 thousands of fire balloons were dispersed across the eastern Pacific and parts of North America. For most of the projectiles their fate was a watery grave but in the 70 plus years since the end of WWII the remnants of Fu-Gos have been found, strewn across the continent – as far east as Michigan and the Great Lakes, as far south as Mexico, and as far north as Alaska and Yukon.

PostScript 2: Canada’s fire balloon fields
Some of the balloon bombs were found in disparate locations like Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands, and one in British Columbia as recently as 2014. Canada in fact was as equally susceptible as the US to the latent dangers of the fire balloon attacks, much of the western coast and all of the northern part of the country comprises dry, forested land. At least 57 Fu-Gos were discovered across the Canadian west during those six months of the campaign (in Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC). From the recollections of some Canadians who experienced close encounters with unexploded balloons, it is somewhat of a miracle that there were not more fatalities of the balloon weapons that the seven in Oregon[11].

Fu-Go landing sites
(Source: National Geographic) Two of the fire balloons actually drifted back westward & landed on Honshu island!

❈ the first US air raid on Japan had been in April 1942 – known as the Doolittle Raid – an isolated strike on Tokyo (primarily) intended as retaliation for Pearl Harbour four months earlier, and to probe Japan’s vulnerability to air attack
✠ this was the discovery of one particular Japanese meteorologist in the 1920s – Wasaburo Oishi
¤ a chilling recent echo of this was al-Qaida’s 2012 online urging of jihadists to plant “ember bombs” in American forests (Carroll 2014)

[1] R Carroll, ‘How Japan’s fire balloons took the Second World War to America’s soil’, The Guardian, 31-Oct-2014,
[2] S Lehman, Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Exploding Balloons’, Gizmodo, 13-May-2014,
[3] its purpose hoped to provide an inexpensive way to shift the war’s focus onto sovereign American territory, ‘Fire balloon’, Wikipedia,
[4] J Rizzo, ‘Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Balloon Bombs’, National Geographic, 27-May-2013,
[5] RC Mikesh, ‘Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America’, Smithsonian Annals of Flight, no 9 (1973),; ‘Fire balloon, op.cit.
[6] Rizzo, loc.cit.
[7] Lehman, loc.cit.
[8] ibid.; Rizzo, loc.cit.
[9] ‘Six killed in Oregon by Japanese bomb’, (‘This Day in History’, 1945), Seven in fact died including Mrs Mitchell’s unborn child
[10] Mikesh, op.cit.
[11] For instance one Saskatchewan youngster in 1945 accidentally stepped on a collapsed fire balloon which failed to detonate, S Brace, ‘Japanese bombs landed in Saskatchewan 71 years ago’, (Saskat News), 11-Feb-2016,

A Tale of Two Enclaves: Contested Sovereignty in the Mediterranean – Gibaltrar and Ceuta

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

They lie on different continents, just a shade over 28 kilometres from each other, on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the common denominator for both is Spain. Their situations are in some ways the mirror image of each other – one, Gibraltar, is a tiny piece of the United Kingdom within the natural geography of Spain, and the other, Ceuta, is a tiny piece of Spain within the natural geography of Morocco. Geologically, both landscapes are physically dominated by a large chunk of limestone rock, viz. the Rock of Gibraltar and Monte Hacho (both probably are heavily fortified). Another thing they have in common is that the sovereign state in possession of each enclave is fiercely determined that its unilateral hold over the territory is not negotiable.

Spain’s Places of Sovereignty
In discussing the tiny, controversial entities of Ceuta (known as Sebta in the Arab world) and Gibraltar, it is necessary to introduce a third entity into this binary equation – Melilla, because this territory located 225km east of Ceuta is linked to it by circumstance. Melilla, although overshadowed by the higher profile of Ceuta, shares its peculiar status – both are minuscule Spanish territories incongruously appended to the Moroccan state, which in turn claims sovereignty over both enclaves. And certainly, when it comes to advocating sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, both sides treat them as a “job lot”❈.

The following table is a snapshot of the comparative basic data on the three enclaves:

Comparative Table of the Spanish & British Enclaves

StatusOverseas TerritoryAutonomous CityAutonomous City
Area Size6.8km18.5km12.3km
Population32,194 (2015)82,376 (2011)78,476 (2011)
Ethnic CompositionGilbratarians, Other British, Maghrebis, Maltese, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, IndiansArab Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, IndiansArab Riffian Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, Indians
Ceded to parent country 1713 (England, later UK)1668 (Spain)1668 (Spain)
Source: Wikipedia


Walking through the streets of Gibraltar it’s hard to miss the very visible signs of ‘British-ness’ or ‘Anglo-ness’ in the territory … red telephone boxes, Leyland double-decker buses, fish-and-chips shops, “English atmosphere” pubs, British bobbies, Union Jacks and the like. It is after all a BOT, a British Overseas Territory – and there are scarce few of those left on the world map! To the residents of the Rock these trappings are an unequivocal testimony to the loyalty of Gibraltarians to the United Kingdom and the British Crown.

Brexit for Gibraltar?
The vote last June by Britain and Northern Ireland to leave the EU was nowhere more momentous in the United Kingdom than in Gibraltar. Gibraltar, in contrast to most elsewhere in Britain, voted 96 per cent to stay in the Common Market[1]. Energised, the Spanish government seized on the Brexit opt-out to push the Gibraltar sovereignty issue again, calling for joint sovereignty of the two countries. With the unpalatable prospect for Gibraltar of being denied vital access to a single European market thanks to the British decision, Madrid believe (or hope) that they can leverage Gibraltarians into a rethink of their future options.

Gibraltar for its own part has argued for a special relationship post-Brexit with the European Union (as has Scotland)[2]. Madrid however has turned up the heat on Britain and its Iberian BOT, initiating tighter border controls, a deliberate go-slow affecting all vehicles and persons crossing into the British Overseas Territory from Spain. Already in 2013 the Spanish government threatened to charge motorists €50 to cross the border, restrict flights as well as investigate the tax status of 6,000 Gibraltar residents who own investment properties in Spain[3].

Gibraltar Chief Minister Picardo stressed that the implementation of a ‘hard’ border by Madrid would impose hardships on both sides, pointing out that 12,000 workers cross daily to work in the construction and services industries on “the Rock”[4]. But the stalemate persists and border-crossers continue to endure (up to) six-hour delays into and out of Gibraltar⊛.

The simmering tensions have aggravated underlying issues between the two European disputants in recent times … the Brits in 2014 asserted that there had been over 5,000 unauthorised incursions of Spanish ships into Gibraltar’s waters during 2013[5]. Local fishermen from Spain have complained that the construction of an artificial reef in Gibraltar in 2013 has imperilled the livelihoods of Spanish fishermen by depleting local fish stocks[6]. Spain has also objected to the presence of British warships in Gibraltar’s port as an unnecessary provocation[7].

The Rock-cum-Fortress
A minor incident involving a US nuclear submarine and warning flares in the Port of Gibraltar in April 2016 also drew Madrid’s displeasure (notwithstanding the fact that the port is a frequent maintenance stop for US subs)[8]. Some suspicions seem to be fed by prolonged antagonisms. Spaniards have expressed disquiet about the 1,400 foot high limestone Rock, a fortress-like structure in itself, hinting darkly at the possibility that the Gibraltarians may have fortified it[9].

Another point of Spanish aggravation on the frontier has been the issue of smuggling. A recurrent problem since the 1990s, Spain sees Gibraltar as the conduit for an estimated 1½ billion contraband cigarettes as well as drugs, mainly hashish (from Morocco) coming into Spain each year … resulting in a massive loss of customs revenues for Madrid who accuse the British and Gibraltarian authorities of turning a blind eye to the illicit activities[10].

Gibraltar – the historical issue
The Catholic King (Philip V of Spain) … yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar together with the port, fortifications and forts thereun belonging … the said propriety to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever❞.
[Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, 13 July 1713]
(Note no reference in the legal document of Spain ceding the territorial waters of Gibraltar to the English victors)

Bay of Gibraltar ca.1704
The British secured the tiny enclave of Gibraltar during the Spanish War of Succession, having (with the Dutch) captured the peninsula from Spain early in the war and then been granted ownership of it as part of the spoils of war in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The longevity of Britain’s occupation of Gibraltar is one the arguments used to validate possession of this remote, non-contiguous part of the UK. Spain counters that the English takeover in 1704 was as interlopers in a conflict provoked by a Spanish dynastic dispute, and the English claims on Gibraltar were limited by the Treaty and did not include the isthmus, the area of the current airport and Gibraltar’s territorial waters[11].

A choice of principles: Self-determination Vs territorial integrity
Britain argues that its right to retain Gibraltar rests primarily on the issue of self-determination, pointing to the fact that the citizens of Gibraltar twice voted by massive majorities to remain part of the UK (1967 and 2002)¤. Despite being embedded in an Hispanic milieu, the people of Gibraltar culturally self-identify as British.

The Spanish counter-argument has been that the validity of its sovereignty lies in the realm of territorial integrity. In support of this Spain has cited UN Resolution 1514 (XV) (the UN principle of territorial integrity): “any attempt✥ at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Spain also argues that the passage of UN Principles of Decolonisation resolutions in the 1960s [2231 (XXI) and 2353 (XXII) ‘Question of Gibraltar’] affirms that the principle of territorial integrity prevails over Gibraltar’s right to self-determination[12].

Ceuta y Melilla
As already mentioned the parallels between Britain’s Gibraltar and Spain’s Ceuta in particular, are stark … two small but strategically positioned enclaves, one almost on the southernmost tip of Europe and the other on the north-western point of Africa, both tacked on to the end of a foreign state. The seeming irony of Spain’s passionate advocacy of its right to absorb Gibraltar into the nation-state is not lost on Morocco who has pointed out that the presence of Spanish military on Ceuta and Melilla poses a threat to Moroccan national security (and territorial integrity), and argues that its existence contravenes the UN principle of decolonisation[13].

Ciudad Autónoma de Ceuta (from Mon Abyla)
Spain’s basis for retaining its hold over Ceuta and Melilla rests on a number of criteria – longevity of occupation, right of conquest, the doctrine of Terra Nullis (historical justifications); national security and the territorial integrity of the state. As well Spain, like the UK, contends that the great bulk of its residents want to retain their Spanish status[14].

North Africa: Boundary disputes the way of the world
In North Africa, and in Africa generally, disputes between neighbouring states are legion (a 2015 estimate put it at close to 100 (active or dormant) border conflicts across the continent). And Morocco has had its fair share of them … with Spain over control of Western Sahara until Spain withdrew in 1975; and subsequently over the same territory embroiled together with Mauritania in a conflict against the Polisario Front (militaristic pro-independence group representing the Sahrawi people); in the 1960s contesting its border with Algeria[15].

A Spanish double standard?
Spain has gone to great pains to play down any perceived similarity that might be drawn between the situation of Gibraltar and that of its North African enclaves. Madrid portrays Gibraltar (officially a British Overseas Territory) as no more than a colonial remnant (“ripe for decolonisation”) … Gibraltar it argues should rightfully be politically reunited with Spain which it was part of until taken by force three centuries ago.

Ceuta and Melilla on the other hand, Madrid says, are integral parts of Spain and have been since the formation of the modern Spanish state, long predating the existence of modern Morocco as an independent, sovereign political entity (1956). The enclaves are semi-autonomous with the same status as the mainland (described by Madrid as “autonomous cities”), and under pressure Spain has hinted that it will offer Ceuta and Melilla greater autonomy[16]. Spain’s longevity argument could be countered by Moroccans who can point to an Arab presence in Ceuta and the other North African enclaves since the 8th century[17].

UN Committee 4: Non-Self Governing Territory status
Morocco’s claim on the Plazas, from a legal standpoint, is generally thought to be a weaker case than Spain’s on Gibraltar. Whilst the UN includes Gibraltar in a list of non-self governing territories (international entities whose eligibility for decolonisation the UN investigates each year), Ceuta and Melilla is not. This is because of the Barajas Spirit (Espiritu de Barajas), an agreement reached in 1963 between Spain’s General Franco and Morocco’s King Hassan II … Morocco agreed to deal with the Ceuta and Melilla issue bilaterally, with Spain separately, rather than submit it to the UN to be raised with other territorial disputes of the day such as Gibraltar. And because Morocco was preoccupied in the 1960s and ’70s with the recovery of southern territories (Sidi Ifni and Western Sahara), it delayed any action on Melilla and Ceuta and missed its chance to register them on the NSGT territories list for the UN to debate their future[18].

Ceuta/El Tarajal, a heavily-reinforced border wall
Spain, without pressure from a third-party, unsurprisingly, has played a straight bat to any attempts by Morocco to pursue the question of Ceuta and Melilla sovereignty. Spain fortified both enclaves and constructed razor wire border fences in the 1990s designed to stop illegal immigration and smuggling from Morocco. Impoverished Moroccans and other, mainly sub-Saharan Africans have long sought an entry point into Europe and the EU through the two Spanish autonomous cities. Because of the ongoing attempts to breach the border, authorities later reinforced the walls with a 6m high double fence structure and a “no man’s land” strip (a neutral zone) separating the Spanish outposts from Moroccan territory.

Border wars
The enhanced security hasn’t stopped desperate African migrants from trying to scale the border walls of Ceuta and Melilla (many have been shot and a number killed by unfriendly fire from security forces on both sides of the fence[19]) … since 2015 there has been an increase in the number of break-in attempts. As recently as January 2017 1,100 African migrants tried to storm the border in a violent confrontation with Spanish border guards[20].

Other incidents in recent years have kept the disputed territories issue on the boil. In 2002 a potential flash point erupted when a handful of Moroccan soldiers captured a tiny, uninhibited rocky outcrop named Perejil Island (near Ceuta and part of the disputed Plazas), leaving five cadets in charge of it. The cadets were summarily and peacefully ejected by elite troops and Spanish sovereignty swiftly reinstated[21]. The visit of King Juan Carlos I to Ceuta and Melilla in 2007 (the first reigning Spanish monarch to visit the Plazas) succeeded in stirring up further ill-will between Morocco and Spain over the territorial dispute[22].

PostScript: Gibraltar, Mission seemingly Impossible – what gain is there for Spain?
In the context of the United Kingdom’s commitment to Gibraltar and its people’s unwavering determination to stay subjects of the British Crown, the likelihood of Spain regaining its former territory in the foreseeable future is exceedingly slim✜. Why therefore does Spain persist in what seems to all appearances to be a futile exercise against such odds?[23]

1967 Gibraltar Poll: endorsement of UK rule
Madrid’s objections to “British Gibraltar” derive from a mixture of motives – that Gibraltar continues to be (in the words of former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzáles) “a pebble on the bottom of Spain’s shoe” is an impediment to the country’s sense of national pride. Gibraltar’s existence as the only colony remaining in Europe is an affront to Spanish nationalists, and its continuation in the hands of a historic foe a reminder of the loss of Spain’s once great power status. A further driver for Spain in its quest is the perception that Britain has breached the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. Article X states that if ❝the Crown of Great Britain (decides to) grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others❞. When the UK offered the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to determine their own future by referendum in 1967, it was (according to Spain’s interpretation) reneging on its 1713 agreement to allow the Spanish government the “first right of refusal” if Britain were to renounce its own claim to the enclave. Furthermore, Spain contends that Britain’s expansion of its territory in Gibraltar on land and sea also contravenes the Treaty[24].

Aside from these matters, the status quo in Gibraltar represents financial disadvantages for Spain, obstacles that regime change in the enclave could potentially provide a windfall for Madrid, eg, Gibraltar’s long-time role as a “smuggler’s paradise” (principally narcotics), which as Spain expert Gareth Stockey of Nottingham University states, continues to be “a drain on Spanish resources”. Similarly, Spain have sought to draw international attention to Gibraltar and its reputation as a tax haven (OECD “Grey List” of countries lacking fiscal transparency). Low-taxing Gibraltar has had negative spin-offs for its Hispanic neighbour’s revenues both in the collection of taxes for individual citizens and for companies. Madrid has tried to turn the spotlight on to the Rock’s company tax dodges … Gibraltar has had over 30,000 registered businesses (roughly parity with the territory’s population!) and only a 10% corporate tax rate (until 2011 it charged no company taxes for many businesses), compared to a 30% tax in Spain[25].

❈ there are three other minor Spanish territories in North Africa, which together with Ceuta and Melilla are known collectively as Plazas de soberanía (“Places of Sovereignty”)
⊛ an even more disturbing prospect for Gibraltarians is the closure altogether of the border – many of them are old enough to recall the closure by President Franco in 1969, a blockade that ensued until 1982
¤ the 1967 referendum asking if the Gibraltarians were in favour of replacing British sovereignty with Spanish, returned a resounding 99.64% ‘no’ vote; the 2002 referendum with the question rephrased as “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” again definitively said ‘no’, 98.97%
✥ ie, in this instance the UK’s insistence on self-determination for the enclave
✜ especially when you take into account the total lack of an irredentist impulse from within the Gibraltar community

[1] ‘Gibraltar: 96% vote to stay in EU’, Euobserver, 24-Jun-2016, www
[2] B Reyes, ‘EU parliament hears contrasting views on Gibraltar and Brexit’, Gibraltar Chronicle, 31-Jan-2017,
[3] V Barford, ‘What are the Competing Claims over Gibraltar?’, BBC News Magazine, 12-Aug-2013,
[4] B Hague, ‘Gibraltar caught between a rock and a hard place after UK’s Brexit Vote’, ABC News, 13-Oct-2016,
[5] ‘Gibraltar profile – Timeline’, BBC News, 16-Mar-2015,
[6] R Booth, Gibraltar frontier conflict causing frustration for locals’, The Guardian,
[7] Barford, loc.cit.
[8] R Faith, ‘Spanish-UK Dispute over Gibraltar Flares Up Again after Warning Shot Incident with US Nuclear Sub’, Vice News, 10-May-2016,
[9] Barford, op.cit.
[10] R Aldrich & J Connell, The Last Colonies (1998)
[11] Barford, op.cit.. The tiny Balearic island Minorca also fell to Britain in the wash-up of the Treaty of Utrecht – though unlike Gibraltar it was returned to Spain via the Treaty of Amiens (1802)
[12] ibid.
[13] Morocco takes the view also that Spain’s determination to pursue its claim to Gibraltar adds substance to Morocco’s argument in respect of the Plazas, G O’Reilly & JG O’Reilly, Ceuta and the Spanish Sovereign Territories: Spanish and Moroccan Claims, (1994). This uncomfortable comparison was not lost on King Juan Carlos either – documents declassified in 2014 reveal that the Spanish monarch conceded to the British ambassador in 1982 that Spain was reluctant to push too hard on Gibraltar for fear of encouraging Moroccan claims on its territories, F Govan (1), ‘Spain’s King Juan Carlos told Britain: “we don’t want Gibraltar back” ‘, The Telegraph (London), 06-Jan-2014,
[14] O’Reilly, loc.cit.
[15] G Oduntan, ‘Africa’s border disputes are set to rise – but there are ways to stop them’, The Conversation, 14-Jul-2015,
[16] F Govan (2), ‘The Battle over Ceuta, Spain’s African Gibraltar’, The Telegraph (London), 10-Aug-2013,
[17] ‘International Court of Justice – Morocco/Spain’, (Rumun: Rutgers Model UN),
[18] S Bennis, ‘Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla: Spain’s unequal sovereignty disputes’, The New Arab, 28-Jun-2016,
[19] N Davies, ‘Melilla: Europe’s dirty secret’, The Guardian, 17-Apr-2010,
[20] ‘Migrants storm border fence in Spanish enclave of Ceuta’, BBC News, 01-Jan-2017,
[21] though it was summarily repulsed, the would-be coup was seen as testing Spain’s resolve to defend Ceuta and Melilla, ‘Perejil Island’, Wikipedia,
[22] Govan 2, op.cit.
[23] if the highly improbable were to happen and Spain recover its long-lost province, an interested observer might be Barcelona … the Catalans lost their autonomy in the aftermath of the Utrecht Treaty and it has been speculated that the restoration of Gilbratar might trigger a new call for Catalonian independence, ‘The Economist explains … Why is Gibraltar a British territory?’ (T.W.) The Economist, 08-Aug-2013,
[24] ‘Four reasons Gibraltar should be Spanish’, The Local (es), 08-Aug-2013,
[25] ibid.; L Frayer, ‘Once a Tax Haven, Gibraltar Now Says It’s Low-Tax’, (NPR Parallels), 17-Apr-2016 (broadcast),