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The “Golden Age” of shipping in the Canaries 

There is a famous definition of the word ‘lies’ that goes, “There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics.” But I find statistics interesting and with a bit of mind bending they can tell a story. In one of the appendices to Olivia Stone’s book, ‘Tenerife and her Six Satellites’, there are some statistics about shipping activity in the Canary Islands during the 1880’s. The following article was inspired by them and, although it might be a bit heavy going for some, I hope it will be of interest.

After the Suez Canal opened in 1869 ships from Europe bound for the Far East could travel via the Mediterranean instead of having to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. But there was still a lot of transatlantic shipping to South America and the West Indies, as well as vessels bound for West Africa and South Africa. In the days of sailing ships, stores of fresh water and fresh fruit and vegetables had to be replenished before setting out on the longest part of the journey, which was without stopping places. Located on a south and west-bound ocean current, the Canary Islands archipelago was the ideal location for a supply depot.

With the advent of long-distance steamships, stores of coal for refuelling also had to be maintained. In 1838 Santa Cruz de Tenerife was officially appointed a coal supplying port by the Spanish government, then, later in the nineteenth century, the construction of major ports in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas in Gran Canaria allowed ships of a bigger tonnage, sailing vessels as well as steam ships, to dock. For steamships this meant that larger quantities of coal (British coal) had to be brought to the islands and stored and the three or four decades up to the 1st World War were the golden age for coal traders.

The general shipping tonnages given for 1882 in Olivia Stone’s book show that Santa Cruz was by far the most important of the two main ports of the Canaries, with two others far behind.

Gross tonnage of vessels entering port in 1882:

Santa Cruz de Tenerife 627,750

Las Palmas 508,074

Puerto de Orotava   29,599

San Sebastian de Gomera     6,088

Out of 392 steamships that called at Santa Cruz in that year, 176 were British, and of the 235 that landed at Las Palmas, 136 were British. Of other nationalities, 120 steamships at Santa Cruz and 38 at Las Palmas were French, while 67 and 60 respectively were Spanish. The rest, in descending order, came from Germany, America, Portugal, Italy, Argentina and Russia.

Only 13 steamships berthed at Puerto de Orotava, which we now call Puerto de la Cruz, where most ships had to stand offshore to have their cargoes loaded into smaller boats for trans-shipment – not a very convenient arrangement.

By contrast, Spanish sailing vessels in 1882 outnumbered everyone else by far, as the following table shows:

Santa Cruz (Tfe)     Puerto (Tfe)       Las Palmas (GC)      Santa Cruz (LP)    San Sebastian (LG)

Spanish                         51                         323                                953          273                140

British                            19                            2                                   12             45                  –

 French                          23                            –                                     –               20                  –

 American                     17                             –                                    5                15                   –

  German                       9                              –                                    2                 14                   –

The other nationalities, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Norwegian, Danish and Austrian, numbered only 29 sailing ships. However, most of the Spanish vessels could well have been the small inter-island traders and ferries. The clue is in the number of vessel at La Gomera, which had only a small harbour.

The following table shows that while the number of sailing ships remained static steamship arrivals increased rapidly within a few years. The numbers of vessels entering Santa Cruz de Tenerife from 1880 to 1883 were:

Steamers               Sailing               Vessels                  Coasters                 Total

1880                           335                      127                        905                       1,367

1881                           349                      131                         935                       1,415

1882                          392                       136                       961                        1,489

1883                          448                      128                       908                         1,484

The day of the steamship had well and truly arrived. Thanks to its speed and reliability such luxuries as bananas and tomatoes could now be transported fresh from the Canaries, and the fruit trade grew to become the mainstay of the Canarian economy, with Great Britain as the best customer. The first major consignment of bananas was from the Orotava valley in the 1880’s and by 1905 over 40,000 tons were exported annually, along with more than 12,000 tons of tomatoes. By 1914 these figures had reached 70,000 and 18,000 respectively.

The shipping companies using Santa Cruz at that time were H. Wolfson, Harrison Bros., (established in 1853), the African Steamship Co. (established in 1852 to serve West Africa, Tenerife and Madeira, but bought by Elder Dempster in 1891), and the British and African Steam Navigation Co. (established in 1869, again to serve West Africa, Tenerife and Madeira, also bought by Elder Dempster in 1889). The latter two companies, although they were subsidiaries, continued to operate independently.

These shipping lines were joined later by the Yeoward Brothers (established in 1898 in Puerto de la Cruz), Sota y Aznar (a large Spanish concern set up in 1906 to serve mainland Spain, Tenerife and South America), and then the Blue Star Line (established in 1909, also to serve Tenerife and South America).

The number of shipping agents in Santa Cruz also increased to include Cory Bros., Elder Dempster (established in 1887), Hamilton & Co. Ltd. (who were also agents for Lloyd’s, and who were represented in London by Sinclair, Hamilton & Co., Harrison Bros.), H. Wolfson and Yeoward Bros.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were three companies in Santa Cruz supplying coal, Hamilton & Co. Ltd., which was possibly the first coaling company to operate in the Canary Islands, George Davidson, and the Guirlanda Brothers. Over in the port of Las Palmas, the main coaling companies were Hamilton & Co. and Millers (Canary Islands) Coaling Co. Ltd., who were also in London.

By 1904 there were seventeen shipping companies registered in Santa Cruz, sixteen of which were Anglo-Spanish while the remaining one, Elder Dempster, was wholly British owned. Further along the coast in Puerto de la Cruz, in addition to the Yeoward Brothers, Miller & Co. were present.

In 1904 the British Consul reported “five major coal companies” using Santa Cruz, which were the Anglo-Spanish companies of Blandy Bros. (established in Madeira as long ago as 1811), Cory Bros. (established in 1842), Miller & Co. (established in 1854), Hamilton & Co. Ltd., and the Tenerife Coaling Co., which was yet another subsidiary of Elder Dempster. Of the wholly British companies, as well as Elder Dempster, there was also George Davidson, which sounds British enough, but little is known about this company that disappeared soon after 1904. In addition there were two German shipping lines, Deutsche Kohlen and Woermann Linie Ltd. The sole Spanish company that used Santa Cruz was the Guirlanda Bros.

Between 1903 and 1911 two of these ten companies held the lion’s share of the shipping total, Hamilton & Co., who were by far the most important coal merchants in the Canaries, shipping more than half the coal for Santa Cruz, and Elder Dempster, fruit exporters, who had a 36% share of the general market. Both of these companies, incidentally, had their own banks.

The First World War drastically disrupted world shipping routes, and afterwards the rapid development of the internal combustion engine soon made inroads into the world of steam power, the ‘golden age’ was over.

There were of course many passenger ships plying the Atlantic that called in to the Canary Islands to refuel and replenish their stocks of fresh food and water. But for most ships the necessary stopover was too short to allow the passengers onshore and so they had to be content with a view of the Santa Cruz or Las Palmas from the ship’s rails. In the next issue of the ‘Tenerife News’ two accounts of passenger’s experiences will be told, and they weren’t as passive as might be thought.

There have been two main references for this article, both of which are online:

‘The role of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic coal route from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century’, a paper written by Miguel Suarez Bosa in 2008, and ‘Tenerife and its Six Satellites’, by Olivia M. Stone, published in 1889.