A tour of the fortifications of Tenerife
Visitors to Tenerife come to relax in the sun for a holiday and many British have been tempted by the agreeable climate to make the island their home. But the sun is not everything. Tenerife has many facets; one of them is its rich history.
Although lacking in depth, we can only go back 500 years to the Gaunches, whose Neolithic culture had not changed for a thousand years, the position of the Canary Islands on the route to South America with its tempting riches, made Tenerife for centuries a focus for traders, travellers and visitors of many nations, not all of whom had good intentions. In fact, during the eighteenth century in particular, Santa Cruz was very heavily defended against intruders with up to seventeen fortifications. Embarrassingly for the British today, on the face of it, a lot of the military improvements to these fortifications were carried out as a reaction to the threat of attack by pirates, who were often English, and war, again often against the English.
Although Admiral John Hawkins made friendly trading visits to the island between 1560 and 1567, his relative, Sir Francis Drake, was a constant threat to the peace and tranquillity of the Canaries. Tenerife was attacked a few years later by William Winter in 1571, then by Robert Blake in 1657, John Jennings in 1706, Woods Rogers in 1708 (but whether this was this an attack or he simply called in to stock up with wine is open to dis-cussion), and Admiral Sir Charles Winston in 1743 during the curiously named ‘War of Jenkin’s Ear’. To us English the men involved were heroes, but of course the islanders took a different point of view.
In particular, the most famous Englishman to attack Tenerife was Admiral Horatio Nelson in July 1797, and the Tinerfenos actually had the effrontery to defeat him. Incidentally, how many British people know that this is where Nelson lost his arm? Islanders certainly do and they are justifiably proud of their ancestors who got the better of the most famous sailor and the most powerful navy in the world. Today the ‘Tertulia Amigos del 25 de Julio’, a group with a membership restricted to twenty-five, is in the process of setting up information plaques at points in Santa Cruz where the fighting of the failed invasion took place.
All this sounds very belligerent, especially when English civilians had maintained amiable commercial relations with the Canaries for centuries, so the hostilities must have been a puzzle and a nuisance to traders and residents of both nationalities.
There are quite a few fortifications still in existence, on view in a variety of sometimes surprising locations. This series of articles will look at all of the pre 20th century fortified sites on Tenerife, starting with the Museo de Artilleria a Almeyda, then clockwise around the island from the Casa Fuerte of Adeje, to the castillo of San Miguel in Garachico, the cute little fortin of San Fernando de Castro near San Vicente, the castillo of San Felipe and the Bateria of San Telmo in Puerto de la Cruz, the castillo de San Joaquin in La Cuesta, between Santa Cruz and La Laguna, the castillo of San Andres, the battery of Bufadero, and in Santa Cruz, the castillo of Paso Alto, the castillo of San Cristobal, the battery of San Francisco, the castillo of San Juan Bautista with its armaments store, and the Semaphore of Igueste.
On this armchair tour, any opinions expressed and mistakes made will be my own and not the manage-ment’s. Now, if readers are inspired to visit these fascinating places, I realise that most people will want to travel by car, but I can heartily recommend public transport, which on Tenerife is so efficient, economical and such an interesting way to travel, so do try touring the island by guagua to see everything on the list.
Museo Militar, Almeyda
First off, the Military Museum at Almeyda in Calle San Isidro in Santa Cruz is the starting point for this tour. It’s a ‘must’ for any visitor to the island and indeed for any resident of Tenerife with an interest in the history of their home.
The year 1859 signified a complete revision of the defences of Santa Cruz beginning with the construction of Almeyda gun battery, built to a ‘D’-shaped plan with twelve gun emplacements and more guns on an adjoining platform. By 1891 there were twenty-one of them.
For a time there was a proposal to set up a military museum at the Castillo San Juan, but it would have been far too small straight away, so a museum was founded at Almeyda in 1988 in what is still an active military esta-blishment.
The interesting and, at times, moving exhibition is well set out with captions in English as well as Spanish. There is a good balance of original artefacts, recons-tructions and amazingly detailed models and diora-mas. The scope of some of them is mind boggling, especially the model of Santa Cruz at the time of Nelson’s attack. And of course a large area is dedicated to the defeat of Nelson, with trophies taken from the British navy. But from a personal point of view the display that really stopped me in my tracks was one of the simplest. The case contained relics of the two battles between the Spanish invaders and the native Guanches. On the first occasion the islanders, even though they had a stone age culture, defeated the Spanish with all their latest weapons. I’d read much about the ancient conquest, but to see tangible evidence from the battlefields bridged the gap of some five hundred years in an instant.
For visitors there’s no parking on site but cars can be parked in nearby streets, otherwise a walk from the city centre reveals some of the attractive traditional, Spanish-style buildings. By the way, tucked away around a corner inside the fort, there is a café with a terrace overlooking the port. On my last visit the other patrons were military men, emphasising that Almeyda is still a working army base as well as being home to the story of Tenerife from the time of the Conquest to the Canarian’s role in the peace-keeping forces of the UN.