25th July 1797: The British invasion of Tenerife
I’ve never thought of myself as a military man, but on Saturday 26th July 2014 I joined the British army as a private. Within ten minutes I was promoted to sergeant; that evening I was in the fight against a Spanish army through the streets of Santa Cruz; I came through unscathed and I was demobbed, all in one day.
For the uninitiated, during the Napoleonic Wars it was considered by some that it would be a good idea to take the Canaries for Britain, especially with Spain being Napoleon’s ally, the islands were fair game. For a brief account of the campaign read any biography of Nelson, but look out for a more detailed publication at some time in the not-too-distant future, there’s one in translation from the original Spanish as of now. (How many British people know that it was here in Santa Cruz where Nelson lost his arm?) Anyway, the islanders are very proud of what happened and they commemorate the event every year by laying a wreath at the monument to the commander general, Antonio Gutierrez, and performing a reenactment of the battle. In fact the day is a holiday on the island and a thanksgiving service for deliverance is held in the Church of La Concepcion, when a detachment of today’s army is present as a mark of respect. The statue of St. James (Santiago) is brought out from the church and taken through the streets in a parade led by musicians followed by civic dignitaries and reenactors, dressed in period Spanish army uniforms.
On Saturday 26th July this year, the nearest to the 25th, my own enlistment in Nelson’s army wasn’t exactly a press-gang affair, but it was a bit of friendly coercion. I’d never done anything like it before. Firstly, items of uniform had to be found for me. Luckily I had my own white shirt, but the red jacket, white trousers, white waistcoat, black shoes and black hat, all came from various generous sources, so I was complete apart from long white socks and a black neckerchief. After trailing the streets of Santa Cruz I finally found a shop run by a Chinese chap. I bought a pair of thigh-length ladies white stockings and a five foot long black cotton scarf with tassels on, the nearest things I could find to what was needed. I told the gentleman that I was buying them for myself and that I was going to be a soldier. The Chinese have a reputation for being inscrutable, but there was a definite look in his eye that said, “Oh, yes? Tell that to the Marines”. Which in fact is what I was going to be. With a bit of drastic surgery on the scarf, there was more than enough to cut in two and give one part to a comrade, I was kitted out and almost ready for action. But – no musket. So I could be the flag bearer, this was good because it was the simplest military task – even though I was likely to be a prime target for the enemy to shoot at.
The Spanish and British camps had been set up, tents and all, all very amicably, side by side in the Plaza de Espana, thankfully under the shade of the trees, and at eleven o’clock, the fun began. A cannon was fired over the pool, extremely loudly, to enthusiastic applause from the crowd. (British in the audience were noticeable by their absence.) Demonstra-tions were given during the day as to how to load a musket, the blacksmith of the camp was there doing his stuff, children were sword fighting and people were being photographed alongside the soldiers, a ‘monk’ held court to tell everyone exactly what the event was all about, soldiers were drilled and volunteers were encouraged to participate. People could also witness the mysteries of cartridges being made with gunpowder and paper for use that night. The cannon was loosed at twelve and then at one, again to great applause. To ginger up the spirits of the British soldiers, we were given something to drink. I’ve forgotten the ingredients but it was accurately called ‘firewater’ and it just about blew the top of my head off.
In the afternoon there was a lull to allow the soldiers to have time to eat, then the cannon was fired at six o’clock, when there was entertainment by Tinerfeno folk musicians, singers and dancers. Canarian dancing is so genteel and courtly, it’s a delight to watch.
As the evening drew in the atmosphere grew tense. The time for battle was approaching. The Spanish troops moved off to their places of deployment, followed by the British. As we marched we sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and in the absence of fifes and drums we whistled ‘The British Grenadier’, which, I’m proud to say, was my contribution to the proceed-ings. We assembled beside the fountain near the Museo de Naturaleza y el Hombre, the Spanish held the bridge over the Barranco de Santos with their cannon. We advanced on those Spanish peasants to take the bridge and their cannon fired on us, which was loud enough in that echoing space to scare the pants off some. Then musket fire was exchanged and – by Gad – we were driven back! I mean, we made a tactical withdrawal. However, there was a cunning plan because we re-assem-bled in the Plaza Iglesia and advanced to the calle of Dominguez Alfonso in front of the church, but the Spanish cannon that were still on the bridge were turned around to fire on us again and we had to withdraw further up the street. Then – Demmit – the Spanish were behind us as well, so we were fighting on two fronts and the musket fire was heart-stopping as it echoed around the narrow streets – all tremendously exciting for the assembled masses. The crowds of local people were cheering their troops – the mighty British were losing and were in retreat! There were shouts of ‘Go home British!’ and ‘Tenerife for the Spanish!’ I was offended. Honestly, it’s not as if we were Israelis taking our daily helping of land from the West Bank Palestinians; we were there to offer the Canarians the privilege of becoming part of the British Empire, much as the Americans did when they offered the Hawaiians the opportunity to join the USA, thousands of miles away.
Well anyway, retreating and fighting behind and in advance, we made it through the streets to the Plaza de Madera, where the Convent once stood to where the British had really retreated in 1797. This was the showdown, with hundreds of people to witness our humiliation. Singing a last gasp of ‘Rule Britannia’, and with cries of ‘Long Live King George!’ and ‘God save the King!’, which met with no response while every cough by a Spanish soldier received a cheer, we made a last stand on the steps of the theatre. Then, with our dead and wounded around us, we surrendered to the noble and very skilled Spanish commander general, Antonio Gutierrez.
After signing away our dignity, our defeated army again had to run the gauntlet through the jeering crowds to the Iglesia de Concepcion, where we were dismissed – defeated and ashamed. Ho, hum.
I learned several things about myself during the day: 1, I can carry a flag; 2, I can shout things; 3, I’m the world’s worst at marching – I was continually being hissed at by the sergeant major to keep back, go slower, march – left, right, etc.; 4, I – an unacclimatised Englishman – can withstand the Tenerife temperatures for hours during the heat of the day in full military uniform (While people in the audience wore tee shirts and shorts and were sweating, we had to wear a shirt, a waistcoat, a thick red jacket, all of which had to be fully buttoned up, a black hat and a black neckerchief for good measure.); finally, 5, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day and I’d like to do it again next year. (Any volunteers?)
The only slightly disappointing aspect was the lack of British support in the crowd. Perhaps the event wasn’t publicised sufficiently, or maybe we British are just too embarrassed that our national hero actually lost a battle to a force where the majority of soldiers were just a bunch of local lads – Dad’s Army.
So, on next year’s calendar, draw a ring around the nearest Saturday to July 25th and come along to the Plaza de Espana in Santa Cruz to cheer us on, and, who knows, with your rousing support we might change the course of history and WIN!