The Marquis de Branciforte and Carlos Soler de Carreno y Castilla
The name of Marquis de Branciforte is known in Tenerife mainly as the benefactor who gave Santa Cruz the Almeda Garden, the tree-lined avenue next to the Plaza de Espana that remains to this day, complete with its triple-arched entrance. Although he instigated this and many other public works, his philanthropy was not as altruistic as it might have been.
Scene 1: WE MEET THE MARQUIS DE BRANCIFORTE
Don Miguel de la Grua Talamanca de Carini y Branciforte, 1st Marquis de Branciforte (c.1755-1812), was a Captain General in the Spanish army and a grandee of Spain who became Commander General of the Canary Islands in 1784. After writing a letter of thanks from Cadiz on 20th May to the Marquis de Villanueva del Prado for the offer of the use of his house in Santa Cruz de Tenerife Branciforte set sail to take up his appointment.
His first sight of Santa Cruz cannot have been a favourable one because the mole, or pier, of the harbour had been destroyed by a storm ten years before in December 1774 and not repaired since. It was not until Branciforte’s arrival that the matter was taken in hand. In October 1784 the Marquis held a meeting at his house of merchants and businessmen to organise funding for the proposal, which met with the approval of the principal citizens whom he called upon to fund the construction. It was also proposed that the renovations should be extended to include the construction of the Almeda Garden, a public space where people could relax in peace and quiet. That the garden was completed in 1787 is recorded on one of the almost indecipherable plaques over the entrance.
With regard to his military duties as Commander General of the Canaries, in July 1785 a Royal Order was sent to Branciforte at the town council of Tenerife, ordering a general assembly of representatives from the fortifications of Tenerife and other subalterns of the whole Canarian archipelago in order to make an assessment for equipping of the militias. As a ‘man of parts’ Branciforte became a patron of the arts in the archipelago, he also set about improving the mercantile and social institutions. In 1785 he was appointed director of the ‘Real Sociedad de Amigos del Pais de Tenerife’ in La Laguna. He encouraged the formation of a society of fishermen and, following its success, he wished to encourage the wine producers to form such an association. This idea received the support of the Cabildo of Tenerife, but it was thwarted, when no agreement could be reached with the producers. His attempts to promote other similar associations met with little success, which deadened his enthusiasm.
The activities of the Marquis were subjects of general discussion. William Bradley, a First Lieutenant on HMS Sirius on its way to New South Wales that called in to Santa Cruz in 1787, heard that “The Marquis of Branciforte, Brigadier in the Spanish Service, is the present Governor, an Italian & very much esteemed for his great Benevolence & many other excellent virtues.”
Branciforte showed concern of some sort for the unfortunates of the Santa Cruz when he founded the Hospice of San Carlos for invalids and old people. A few years later, after the Marquis had left the islands, another Englishman, George Barrington, also called in at Santa Cruz on his way to New South Wales and wrote a favourable impression of the Marquis. He recalled that Branciforte had “established a manufactory of silk and woollen goods in the suburbs of Santa Cruz, which is carried on by poor children, old and infirm people, and by abandoned females with a view to reclaiming them.” He then qualified this by adding, “The inhabitants, however, it was thought, would withdraw their support of this place as soon as the Governor should leave them to return to Spain, as they urged that its original institution was to clear the streets of beggars, and which had not been effected.”
Barrington continued with his impression of the character of the Marquis: “The Marquis de Branciforte, the late Spanish Governor, I have heard, was extremely liberal and disinterested towards the inhabitants, though his salary was not quite equal to 1500 pounds a year. Even the stone pier at the landing place, having fallen into ruins, it lately appeared by an inscription in Spanish, that its complete repair was owing to the Governor’s liberality with the assistance he had received from some merchants. It was also remarked at the same time, that his Excellency’s house was by no means the best in town, the situation (being) at the upper end of the high street or square. And Mr. Carter, the treasurer, and some private merchants, it appeared resided in larger and better buildings.”
This may have been so, but throughout these good works and in all his dealings the Marquis had obtained a great deal of money for himself, much of it from public funds, by dishonourable means.
On his way up the social ladder the Marquis had become a close friend and the protege of the favourite of Queen Maria Louisa, Manuel de Godoy (1767-1851), who was becoming all-powerful in the royal court. Godoy had entered the royal bodyguard while still in his teens where he caught the eye, and more, of the queen by his singing and guitar-playing. He soon became her lover and, not surprisingly, her influence led to his rapid promotion. By 1791, at the age of only 24, he was appointed Adjutant General of the Royal Bodyguard and the next year Minister of Foreign Affairs for Spain. That same year saw the start of Godoy’s first term as Prime Minister, which lasted from 1792 to 1797. The Marquis de Branciforte and Manual Godoy were kindred spirits.
In the next issue: We see what happened when someone dared to oppose the Marquis and to question his methods.