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Exploring 'British Menorca': The UK's very own Balearic Island
Wednesday, January 5, 2022 @ 12:36 PM

THAT British nationals have long been making a beeline for Menorca is nothing newsworthy. The easternmost of the Balearic Islands is a magnet for expatriates, retired and of working age, and holidaymakers of all types, especially those seeking a quiet, relaxing haven with small fishing villages and secluded, rugged coves rather than nightclubs and theme parks. 

Yet once upon a time, a summer beach break in Menorca would, for a UK resident, have been a 'staycation': The most sparsely-inhabited of the region's four islands was, in fact, an integral part of the north-western European country.

If you were born and bred in Menorca, you would have been a British citizen, but unlike any other UK county, the legal and official language was catalán.

Nowadays, the island's tongue is recognised as a language in its own right, menorquín, rather than being considered a catalán dialect, as the two are far enough apart in linguistic terms for menorquín to stand alone.

View from Fort Marlborough over the port of Mahón (Maó), which became the island's capital when Menorca was British (this picture and photos 4, 5, 7, 9 and 12 from Menorca tourism board)

In practice, menorquín is part of the wider family of languages known as balear, which includes mallorquín and ibicuenco, both of which are very close to Menorca's co-official tongue, and Castilian Spanish is spoken at least as much as each islands' own language and understood by almost 100% of natives.

English has never been an official language in Menorca, making it probably the only known British territory where the governing nation's main tongue was not in use.


Britain gets Menorca and Gibraltar in Treaty of Utrecht deal

Although not continuously, Menorca was under British rule for the best part of a century – an Anglo-Dutch squadron conquered it during the Spanish War of Succession in 1708, and the island was not returned to Spain until 1802.

The stunning fishing village of Ciutadella, Menorca's capital prior to British rule (photo: DetFerMai/Wikimedia Commons)

Britain's sovereignty over Menorca was signed and sealed five years after the country colonised it, via the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 – the exact same document which made Gibraltar, on mainland Spain's southernmost tip, a UK territory.

The difference is that Gibraltar remains British, its natives are UK citizens and the official language is English - although most inhabitants speak Spanish due to the geographical proximity and often hop between the two in conversation - and this looks unlikely to change for another few generations, at least, given that the Rock's residents have always overwhelmingly spoken out in favour of remaining a part of Britain.

Perhaps this is because Gibraltar has been in UK hands for 309 years non-stop, whereas Menorca briefly became French after the two countries' neighbour seized it during the Seven Year War, between 1756 and 1763, and Spain also grabbed it back for 16 years between 1782 and 1798.

Britain would only hold onto the island for another four years after this, when the Treaty of Amiens passed it to Spain once again.

For a grand total of 71 years, though, the Union Jack was flown on the island – and the British decision to switch its capital from Ciutadella in the west to Mahón (Maó in menorquín) in the far east has never been reversed.


Menorca's Brit bits

Did the British leave their stamp on Menorca? Of course they did, but not in the form of fish and chip shops, supermarkets selling Marmite and Branston pickle, or Marks & Spencer or Boots or WHSmith stores.



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