British heritage in Menorca
The 18th century was a very turbulent period for Menorca, with the three imperial European powers of France, Spain and Great Britain occupying the island within the space of 110 years. The British however, who actually occupied the island three times in that period, left a lasting influence, which is still very evident today.
The first and longest period of their occupation, from 1708 until expulsion by the French in 1756, has been hailed as a golden age, largely due to the energetic first governor, Richard Kane. He built the first road across the island which still bears his name, curbed the power of the church by banning the Inquisition, built schools and in general improved the lot of the island’s impoverished inhabitants. The fortifications and some of the lovely houses which still stand today in the Port of Maó which Kane made the new capital of the island were completed during this period, and gave the city the unmistakeably British feel it still has today.
Its neo classical Town Hall and the Georgian sash windows with lace curtains which look down onto the old streets of the centre contrast greatly with the far more Hispanic aristocratic palaces of the former capital of Ciutadella. Indeed there is still a rivalry, today good natured, between the citizens of both towns which stems from the sudden demotion by the British of Ciutadella’s status as Menorca’s first city.
The British also made their mark in the gastronomy of the island with the introduction of new dairy breeding stock. Kane imported the Friesland cow to the island and its increased milk production enabled the extensive use of butter and cheeses in the gastronomy of the island. Today Menorcan chefs use far more butter than olive oil in their cooking unlike their Spanish counterparts, and the island’s cheeses have an international reputation for excellence.
The presence of so many British sailors on the island during the 18th century had its own unusual impact. The favourite tipple of the navy was gin, and within a few months of the first occupation in 1708 distilleries were doing a roaring trade, manufacturing gin flavoured with Menorcan juniper berries from wood fired copper stills in the port. Today the aromatic gin of Mahon is well known and is still produced in the traditional way, from a secret recipe which has not changed for three hundred years. A favourite drink at fiesta time for the Menorcans is Pomada – a deceptively refreshing drink made of three parts of lemonade and one of gin, also simply known as “gin amb llimonada” – which has to be treated with great care.
The British legacy can still be found in the Menorquín language with surviving loan words like grevi, (gravy), xumaquer (shoemaker) and the lovely but more obscure boinder for bow window. More curious is the word sarg meaning a bully, which probably comes from loud mouthed British NCOs trying to throw their weight around.
Today perhaps, the close link between Britain and the island is being reinforced by British residents, who number some 4,000 strong – nearly 5 percent of the total population of Menorca. Many have lived on the island for years and have thoroughly integrated, speaking perfect Catalan, becoming town council members, setting up businesses and ensuring that the British influence remains as strong as ever on the island.
Find out more about Menorca history & geography