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The Marquis de Branciforte and Carlos Soler de Carreno y Castilla 

Scene 2: WE MEET CARLOS SOLER

The acquisition of a fortune by doubtful methods by the Marquis de Branciforte, Commander General of the Canary Islands, did not pass unnoticed. Despite his all-powerful position he was the target of criticism from some of the bolder Canarians, in particular Carlos Soler de Carreno y Castilla, a person of distinction on Tenerife.

The activities and intrigues of Branciforte had become so intolerable to this one honest citizen at least that he began to make his feelings publicly known, then, realising that this was bound to incur the wrath of the Marquis, for his own safety Soler went to Gran Canaria. It was from there that, on 22nd August 1789, he wrote five letters, one to Count de Campomanes, the royal economic adviser, another to Count de Floridablanca, the secretary of state, another to the Minister of Fortifications, another to the Minister of War, and even a letter to King Carlos IV, about the abuses and excesses committed by Branciforte in carrying out his commissions while claiming to act on the king’s behalf.

In an attempt to gain a further safeguard for himself, a few days later, on 27th August, a letter was presented in the name of Carlos Soler by Antonio Jose Perez to the Royal Audience of the Canaries, requesting that it issue a command for Soler’s protection in case of any action ordered against his person and well-being by the Marquis de Branciforte.

But this was in vain, for Soler was inveigled onto a ship bound from Gran Canaria to Tenerife and while on board he was apprehended by agents of Branciforte, who, on their arrival in Santa Cruz, threw him into prison. After a period of silence that we can only be assume to be due to Soler’s initial confusion, in December he began to write a stream of letters, beginning with the Royal Audience, denouncing his persecution and the conduct of the Marques de Branciforte, and reiterating the accumulated pleas he had submitted previously.

Soon after this, for ‘personal reasons’, the Marquis de Branciforte left the Canaries, but he kept his title of Commander General of the Canary Islands until the following year, 1790. His ‘personal reasons’ might have had something to do with his patron, the queen’s favourite, Manuel Godoy’s sister, Maria Antonia, whom he married on 15th August 1790.

But before this, in January 1790, Carlos Soler had written to Branciforte as Commander General requesting that he be set free immediately. In February Soler again wrote directly to the king, this time also reporting the aldermen of the city council of Santa Cruz for the misuse they had made of their position, in which they had been encouraged by the Marquis, and denouncing his own incarceration in the Castillo of San Cristobal.

Throughout the following months, Soler incessantly wrote to such people as King Carlos, the Royal Court, Count de Floridablanca, Antonio Porlier, and the minister Campo Alange. But with time the tone of his letters changed from demands to pleas as his helpless imprisonment without trial or even a charge went on. In these letters he described the conditions of his incarceration, which eventually damaged his health to the extent that he said feared for his life.

He told his coorespondents about the tribulations under which he was suffering in his confinement and his inability to defend himself against the unknown faults of which he was accused. He persistently repeated his appeals to the Marquis de Branciforte, protesting against his detention and requesting that he be set free, but they all fell on the deaf ears and stony heart of the Marquis. Soler also queried why, mysteriously, he had not been included in the list of passengers on the fateful boat from Gran Canaria to Tenerife.

To what can only have been Carlos Soler’s great relief, Branciforte finally gave up his title and a new appointment was made. So, on 30th September 1790, Soler wrote to the new Commander General of the Canaries, Jose de Avellaneda, about his situation.

Even so, nothing was done. Perhaps Avellaneda was carefully examining the evidence before taking action, or perhaps he was intimidated because this had been an action taken by his powerful and unassailable predecessor. In either case it seems that he was unable or unwilling to act.

By this time Soler had been moved from his cell in San Cristobal to the prison in Paso Alto from where, in October, he wrote yet again to Branciforte, this time describing the damage to his health and his physical deterioration due to the conditions of his confinement. He repeated this appeal later in October and again in November, but it would appear that Branciforte had simply washed his hands of the affair and did not care in the least about the fate of Carlos Soler.

Frustratingly the correspondence about the matter stops here, but Carlos Soler must have been released eventually, because attempts were made to reinstate him and his good name. In April 1791 the nobility of the town of Garachico presented a petition in his favour, as followed in July by a testimonial from the great and good of Garachico for his services to the town. Then in August there came, again from Garachico, an accreditation, another testimonial as to Soler’s antecedents, his forefathers. After this the records fall silent, so we can only hope that Carlos Soler was fully reinstated as a reputable, respected man of Tenerife, who had had the courage and honesty to stand up to the corrupt Marquis de Branciforte.

Branciforte himself moved on to greater things, in 1794, when his good friend and brother-in-law, Godoy, was Prime Minister, he became Viceroy of New Spain, now Mexico, a post he held until 1798. By this time the Marquis had honed his skills in financial manipulation and he became immensely wealthy, even more by deliberate self-aggrandisement than by profitable philanthropy. He became known as one of the most corrupt viceroys in the history of the Mexican colony. The historian Dr. Cioranescu summed up the Marquis with regard to the Canaries when he said that that, although the Marquis de Branciforte contributed much to the prosperity of the archipelago, in doing so he amassed a fortune for himself.

Scene 3: THE VERDICT IS YOURS

While he was Commander General of the Canary Islands, the Marquis de Branciforte did a great deal of good for the arts, society and perhaps the economy of the Canaries, but did his means justify his ends? Was Carlos Soler simply ‘collateral damage’? If Branciforte had been an honest man, would he have done more good?