Gibraltar Camp, Jamaica has resonance for the University of the West Indies (UWI), because the camp buildings hosted the first students, faculty, administrators and support staff in 1948, when the regional institution, then the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) was being created at Mona, Jamaica.
In Gibraltar, the camp is remembered variously by a generation that is passing: The parents and grandparents evacuated there in October and November 1940 are just about gone. The youngsters who came to adulthood there, the children who learned to love mangoes and guineps, and the babies born in Jamaica, were among the hundreds who crowded Gibraltar’s Casemates Square on May 22, 2015 for a celebration of the Evacuation Generation, on the 75th anniversary of the first compulsory evacuation order issued to the civilian population. Some four-fifths of the civilian population was evacuated to Jamaica, Madeira, the UK and Northern Ireland for periods between four and eleven years. Those present joined in singing the Gibraltar national song.
In Jamaica, the civilian camp was set up for Gibraltarian evacuees in 1940, with the expectation that up to 9.000 would arrive. Due to the exigencies of the war, around 1,800 Gibraltarian women, children and older men lived there until 1944. Extra capacity in the camp was made available to various groups of mainly Jewish refugees; with a section at the far end eventually given over to the military for civilian internees.
In 1944, the military took over the camp and in 1948 the Jamaican government handed it over to the UCWI as part of a square mile plot leased to the university for 999 years. The barracks buildings became halls of residence, offices, lecture rooms and laboratories. The students ate in the same dining halls the evacuees had used. The camp’s main streets remain, called Gibraltar Camp Way and Gibraltar Hall Road. But gradually the wooden buildings have been demolished until only a few remain.
I was invited to participate in the celebrations through a lecture about Gibraltar Camp, Jamaica, on May 21. The camp had been the subject of my PhD dissertation at the UWI, 2008. As I explained to more than one questioner in Gibraltar, I had been intrigued by these old, wooden buildings remaining on the Mona campus from World War, and then even more by the almost total submergence of memory on the camp and its many evidently European residents, living in an enclave amid semi-rural Jamaican communities. The thesis that emerged from an effort to understand the camp and its local context was titled ‘Gibraltar Camp, 1940-1947: Isolation and Interaction in Colonial Jamaica’.
Both at the lecture and then at the commemoration ceremony, evacuees generally remembered Jamaica positively, though there were also memories of differences over the style of food preparation, as well as colonial government efforts to keep residents within the camp. One Gibraltarian, who was 10 years old when his family arrived on board the ss Neuralia in October 1940, chiefly remembered the tremendous welcome given by Jamaicans who came out to cheer the arriving evacuees and to help settle them in; and the lift it gave to people who had left their homes during wartime.
One poignant moment was when members of the Gibraltar Regiment played the Last Post in memory of those evacuees not living to celebrate the anniversary.
Suzanne Francis-Brown, Curator