The 218th anniversary of Nelson’s attack on Santa Cruz
By the time you read this, the 25th of July will be long gone, but the story of this year’s commemoration of the heroic defence of Santa Cruz against the British invaders is still worth telling.
In case you still don’t know, or if you’re new to the island, or on holiday and don’t know your history, as I didn’t until a few years ago, this is where, on the 25th July 1797, the great British hero, Nelson, attempted to take the Canary Islands for Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Spain was France’s ally and therefore a legitimate target. BUT – Nelson not only lost the battle but it is here in Tenerife where he lost his arm, having been wounded and taken back to his ship before he could even set foot on shore.
For the islanders of Tenerife this is the most important event in their history (apart from the conquest of 1496), and it is commemorated annually by a series of events that includes a mass for the patron saint, Santiago, and a re-enactment of the battle.
Publicity this year was particularly thorough, which was very encouraging for the organisers. Four major newspapers carried articles and reports, often every day, sometimes even with two articles in one edition, for several days from the 19th July right up to the 25th itself.
The commemoration began on Friday 17th at the Military Museum of Almeyda with the launch of an exhibition about Nelson’s attack, which is open until 30th August. This is in addition to the permanent display on the first floor, with the spectacular son et lumiere diorama with an English commentary. The exhibition features in particular the role played by the women of Santa Cruz. As the British troops advanced up the hills behind the fort of Paso Alto, the Spanish climbed the hill on the opposite side of the valley to block them off. There was a stand off for many hours under the blazing sun, the British suffered with thirst and hunger, but the Spanish were helped by the ‘aguadoras’, the female water carriers, who climbed the hill on about a 60o slope, laden with food and water to revive and support their troops. The British were forced to retreat, suffering a few casualties on the way. On display are replica documents, firearms and swords of the period, as well as portraits of the main protagonists, Nelson and Gutierrez, who commanded the island’s forces.
In the evening of Thursday 23rd the Almeyda Military Museum saw the final rehearsal for the recreation of the battle for the re enactors of the Asociacion Historico-Cultural Gesta del 25 de Julio de 1797. Soldiers of opposing sides were drilled in marching, trained in loading and cleaning their muskets at the order, and instructed to fire high in case of accidents. Although blank cartridges were being used, the exploding gunpowder was real. The various museum buildings served to train the men in street fighting and the military library represented the convent of San Domingo, the retreat in 1797 of the British soldiers who had become lost and disorientated in the maze of dark streets of the city.
On the night of Friday the 24th, the hours nearest to the actual attack which happened in the early hours of the 25th July 1797, battle commenced. The scene of the climax, the showdown, was in the Plaza de Candelaria, where the crowds gradually gathered with little sign of activity except ‘General Gutierrez’ and one of his commanders acknowledging the crowds from the balcony of the Palacio de Carta. Then, suddenly, musket shots were heard from a street some where behind. In fact the British were approaching from Calle Dr. Allart. The Spanish were alert to the situation went off to meet their foe. Not long afterwards to the echoes of musketry the British were in retreat to the plaza from two directions, Calle Cruz Verde and Calle Candelaria. A lone British voice shouted “Long Live King George!” and “Tenerife for England!” and it is to the great credit of the tolerance and humanity shown by the Tinerfenos that the lone voice (who shall remain nameless) was not jumped on and beaten to a pulp. During intense fusillades from both sides the British held out until they were driven back into the Palacio de Carta, which served as the Convent de San Domingo, to where the British had really retreated in 1797. There was a tremendous reverberating blast from the cannon that was echoed by loud cheers from the crowd and then the British surrendered. ‘Commander Troubridge,’ who was in command of the British land forces, was blindfolded and led to sign the capitulation. (Every year the British attack and every year we are beaten, why don’t we ever give up?)
Saturday 25th was history day at the Almeda in the Plaza de Espana. An area was roped off for demonstrations of historic skills, with Spanish soldiers in period uniforms on crowd control, allowing guided groups of 10 to 15 at a time to see, amongst other things, food preparation, how to make a quill pen and learning to write with it, old blacksmithing work and the type of tents and equipment use by armies of 1797. A real army band, complete with Galacian bagpipes opened the proceedings, a cannon was fired over the pool every hour on the hour; standing too close was rather an unpleasant experience.
At 7 o’clock in the evening members of the Tertulia de Amigos del 25 Julio (the Group of Friends of the 25th July) laid their wreath, as they do every year, at the bust of the man who saved Tenerife, General Gutierrez, who commanded the island troops and made the best possible use of slender resources. Then at 7.30, at the Iglesia de la Concepcion, today’s army band marched smartly to the front of church to be inspected by the C-in-C of the Canaries Islands. Cannon were fired at appropriate moments, then everyone went into the church to hear Mass. After Mass the statue of Santiago was brought from the church and a procession wound its way through the streets to pass in front of the bust of Gutierrez where the Tertulia had lined up to watch the mayor of the Santa Cruz lay a wreath in honour of the great man. Santiago returned to the church and guests adjourned to the Museo de Naturaleza y Hombre for drinks and tapas, which made a very pleasant end to what could be the most important day on the calendar of Tenerife.
Do come to Santa Cruz next year for a very entertaining – exciting, even – day and night.