Ernest and the
Macaques of Gibraltar
For the last fifty years, Ernest has cared for this
tribe of tail-less rock apes.
Updated September 20, 2014
For the last fifty years, Ernest has cared for this tribe of tail-less rock apes.
The apes are not exactly apes. They are monkeys - tail-less macaques, origin Morocco. Nobody knows exactly how they arrived on the peninsula, although theories abound. Many say they were brought here by Arab or Berber pirates in the fourteenth century. Others insist they were a tribe from the Baltic, pushed back to the edge of Europe by the Ice Age.
Some have more unusual explanations. In 1920, a journalist for the London Daily Mail wrote, "Well-known monkeys are absent for months, and then reappear with new, strange, adult monkeys of a similar breed. Those who know Gibraltar will agree that there is not a square yard on the Rock where they could have hidden." The author insisted that the only explanation was a submarine tunnel underneath the Mediterranean, connecting the African dens to Gibraltar.
As Gibraltar is simply a large rock (two square miles of Jurassic limestone) - a British colony on the Southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula - everybody, the monkeys included, are in close proximity. Squished together, hugging the steep cliffsides.
The monkeys have hands remarkably like humans, but their behavior is much more monkeylike. "You think their hands would be rough like dog paws," Jane says. "But it's like holding a human hand. They are like baby hands."
Ernest invites us to his shaded hut. His accent is more international than the other Gibraltarians we meet. Their English is perhaps the strangest on Earth, sounding sinister, Cockney and Spanish, Arabic and cartoonish all at once. When a bartender at one of the dozens of fish and chips parlours says, 'You want two lagers?', it comes out like this: "Yeh whan twah walagas?"
Ernest gives his own explanation for the origin of the monkeys, "They were brought over here in the year 1311 by Arabs. This was an outpost for them at the time. In 1704, when the British first came to Gibraltar, there were only 11 or 12 monkeys on the peninsula. The British Consul wanted to increase their number. Slowly they were cared for and reared by the military "
“So you’ve seen a lot of change?” Jane asks Ernest.
“Yes, you could say this. When the Germans were expected to come into Gibraltar and bomb, I was eight years old, and the women and children were evacuated.”
“So did the Germans ever actually bomb Gibraltar?” I ask. The notion seems absurd, but then the whole point of this rock is its role as a British garrison; a naval foothold in the Mediterranean.
“Oh yes. The Germans and Italians.”
“Where did you go?” Jane asks.
“11,000 of us were evacuated to Britain, and 4,000 to Jamaica. I spent four years in Jamaica."
"And how did you start taking care of the monkeys?" I ask.
"I was a private in the army," Ernest says. "In Gibraltar, you do your duty starting at age eighteen. I would come up here and help name the monkeys and look after them...Now I have been with the monkeys since nineteen-fifty-four."
"So the Government of Gibraltar officially takes care of them?" Jane asks.
“Oh yes. They are given immunizations and each are named and catalogued. We also feed them and give them medical examiniations. In the old days, the army doctors brought them in for treatment, and examined them one by one."
Caring for the monkeys is not all tourism and show. It is perhaps vital for the people of Gibraltar. Spain - which itself stubbornly refuses to give up its stake in two chunks of the Moroccan mainland, insists that Gibraltar is rightfully Spanish. I ask, "What do you think will happen to Gibraltar in the long run?”
"In two weeks, our foreign ministers are meeting. The foreign minister of Britain is going to Spain and they are expected to make some progress on the subject of our sovereignty. The thing is that we want to be at peace with the Spanish. If the British ever leave, we don't want to go to Spain. We want to be our own people. We will not be ruled by Spain! We are our own nationality. Everybody on Gibraltar believes in our autonomy. We like the British but if they leave we want to be a sovereign state."
"Isn't it true," I say, "that nobody has ever found an ape skeleton on the peninsula?"
Ernest folds his arms and grasps his chin. "Yes, this is true," he says. "Maybe when they go down the cliffs at night they climb into a big hole, and when they think they are going to die, they just stay there. It is believed that the apes created a giant underground burial site, maybe there is a cave. In the nineteen-fifties, there was a very special monkey to the British soldiers. He was called Jocko, and he was very large. When he died they wanted to find his body for a proper burial, and so they looked all over the cliffs but they never found him."
"But how hard can it be to find a hole in the ground, you would think somebody would try to find it." I say.
"Believe it, people are looking for the burial site all the time," he says. Although Gibraltar is tiny, most of it is dense scrub-trees on bare, steep rock. Human exploration of much of the rock is impossible, even by an experienced climbing team.
"Okay," I ask, "what would happen if all the apes of Gibraltar perish?"
"Yes," Ernest says. "This is the myth that we have here in Gibraltar. They say that if the apes no longer exist, then the control of the Rock will go from Britain to Spain. But I think this will not happen. The apes will thrive."
This myth has existed since the Spanish began making a series of military bungles against the British on the Rock in an attempt to seize what they could never keep even from the Moors. The Spanish finally resorted to the statement that when the monkeys perish, the British will lose Gibraltar.
When the ape population dwindled to about seven individuals near the end of World War II, Sir Winston Churchhill ordered a replenishment from Morocco. In a speech, he said that Gibraltar will remain British as long as the apes shall live.
Ernest pauses to fumble with his pack of Dunhill Filters. His perch is a small painted shack. Like all the rest of Gibraltar's human community below us, it is compact and built tightly against the cliff. His view is the best in all of Gibraltar - a view of a great harbor, a city and the Iberian mainland beyond. It is glorious and vaguely tropical. To his back is Africa, to his front the nation that wants him speaking Spanish.
"The fact is, there are now up to five tribes in Gibraltar. The monkey populations are growing and the people are committed to their survival. Five tribes, that's three hundred apes."
"So there is a lot of weight on your shoulders to keep them alive?"
"Yes, yes." He carries no modesty or pride with this statement. It is simply a fact. He must care for the monkeys lest Gibraltar goes the way of Hong Kong.
It's a big responsibility. Gibraltar was an essential military component in the defense against Napolean. It is thought that without its strategic location, the British Isles would now be French. It was important even in the Falkland's War. So important that the Argentines attempted to blow the whole harbor up by sneaking bomb-clad divers into Spain. When all England's Falkland ships would be refueling in port, the diver's would slip into the sea, creating Pearl Harbor II. Spain uncovered and foiled the plot.
Gibraltar was known in Roman times, along with a mountain on the African coast - called back then the Mountain of Apes - as the physical end of the world. Beyond these Straits of Gibraltar swam the dragons and demons of the Atlantic.
Later I say to Jane. "That has to be the best job in the world. Get to sit in the sun, meet people from all over the world, and play with monkeys all day."
"Great for him, maybe." Jane says. Almost as if I was suggesting we give up our careers and join Ernest.
An overfed lady is feeding one monkey a ham and cheese sandwich. The apes do not do well with the food that humans offer them. The signs are everywhere. Do Not Feed the Apes. The reasons are apparent. This human food is overprocessed. A ham and cheese sandwich will make the monkey die of obesity. Obesity from junk food has become the leading killer of the apes on Gibraltar.
The monkeys are notorious thieves, and one medium-sized male snatches the plastic-bagged sandwich from the overfed lady, startling her into a scream. The monkey drops the sandwich and the lady snatches it back, poking it at the monkey's face until he grabs it again.
This act happens every single day on Gibraltar.
There is only one answer – please keep that sandwich to yourself. The thing about this ham and cheese sandwich is that it came out of a plastic bag. The ham is not the kind of cured delicacy that abounds in Portugal and Spain. It comes from a factory paste. And the cheese is outsourced, a white block oozing oil in the sun. It is the kind of sandwich you get from a vending machine. The kind that makes a thud when it drops.
As Jane and I are traveling the world in search of the finest artisanal cheeses on Earth, I thought this ham and cheese sandwich would make a good conversation point for the point of defining good and bad cheese.
At home, cheese is ever-present. It is slathered on burritos, thick on pizzas, oozing in commercial pasta dishes. Some back-home friends are adamant about non-fat, low calorie cheese that comes in individually-wrapped containers. Bland chalky cheese from big corporations like Kraft. Processed cheese, which is really more a 'cheese food' or a 'cheese sauce', is filled with preservatives and artificial fats and artificial flavoring, shipped in big containers and bumped around by the pressures of modern industry. The ingredient buyers scour the world for cost-cutting schemes, looking to make every ingredient as cost-efficient as possible.
The habits of people in industrialized countries are changing along with the big companies that wish it that way. Restaurants and markets and farmhouse products were once more often distinguishable from others, and distinct cheese manufacturers existed around the world in the hundreds of thousands.
Today we are habituated to the idea of standardization in our products. We want consistency. Whether we're in Chicago or New York or Miami, we want to be able to buy our coffee or a taco or an individually-wrapped cheese and have it taste identical to what we know.
Standardization is comforting, but in the process we lose vital culture. The homogenization of modern food is putting our cultural traditions at the risk of extinction. Cultural cuisine traditions that evolved over thousands of years.
What is happening to our food traditions is like having a very large bookshelf, filled with an improbable combination of volumes, about unimaginably interesting subjects. And one day, you wake to find the bookshelf composed entirely of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and David Grisham's The Pelican Brief.
The idea of food as art, the idea of regional specialty. The idea of tradition and constant invention. The idea of food as exploration. But to suggest that real cheese is a vital component of human culture can be deemed snobbish. What is culture anyway, and does anybody have the right to suggest what is and isn't?
Culture is that barrier man has built for himself against the chaos of nature. It is the weeded garden, the composed yard, the hybridized specimens growing in the sun. It is the good things in humanity that separates us from the monkeys. It is tradition and dynamic invention. A tug of war between old ideas and new ones. When humans reject part of that balance between the old and new, they flounder. Their so-called gardens become filled with weeds.
Culture can only be defined by healthy societies over time. One thing you often hear from Americans on the subject of Europe is this statement: "They have more culture there." The statement is nonsense, because old buildings have nothing to do with culture. Culture is created by the choices that people make in the present.
This modern conflict is a circumstance St. Deuberex Montclair could never have predicted. In 1910 when he wrote his 'Cheese Travels', processed cheese had not yet been invented. At the same time, Montclair would not have imagined the incredible progress in new artisanal cheeses from Vermont, California, New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania. Small farmhouse cheeses, complete new inventions.
However, the five cheeses that lay to our north were lauded by Montclair. Back then in 1910, all five probably tasted about the same as they do now.