An unnoticed historic relic: The anchor of HMS Theseus
Whenever the defence of Santa Cruz comes to mind against the assault by the British naval squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson between July 22nd and 25th 1797, the impression, influenced by the physical changes in the city itself and the passage of more than two hundred years, is that the episode is a distant event, lost in the haze of the past with no connection between that time and ours.
However, clues and evidence of the event remain dormant at several locations in the city and in various prominent symbols. For instance there is the third lion’s head on the island’s crest (the three black heads of lions represent three defeats of the British by the islanders), the city’s title ‘Unbeaten’, and the award of the status of an ‘exempted town’, which was granted prior to the designation of Santa Cruz as a city and the capital of the whole of the Canary Islands. There are also the remains of several forts and gun batteries that faced the invasion. In the Military Museum in Santa Cruz there are two ragged British flags and several weapons that were used in the clamour of the battle, while in the preserved ruins of the Castillo de San Cristobal beneath the Plaza de Espana there is the legendary cannon ‘El Tigre’ (‘The Tiger’).
To these, it is claimed, can be added the impressive anchor that rests on the lawn in front of the Comandancia Militar de Marina at the junction of Avenida de Anaga and Las Ramblas in Santa Cruz. It is for this relic that due recognition should be acquired, to bring it forward as an icon of great historical value of the island’s achievement. This article presents evidence to prove that this anchor is from HMS Theseus, Nelson’s own flagship.
PHYSICAL EVIDENCE AND STIRRINGS OF A THEORY
Over the years, over the centuries in fact, it has been pointed out many times that there is a huge treasure to be recovered in the anchors and wrecked ships that rest on the bottom of the bay of Santa Cruz. However, even if this were to be done, the identification of any one anchor would be very difficult, and most likely to be impossible. And yet the particular features of this anchor, together with the discovery of documentary references, make it possible that this relic is an exception.
From the form and the constituent materials of the anchor it can clearly be seen to be one of a type known as an “Admiralty Anchor”, which was in use on board British men-of-war from the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The dimensions of the anchor coincide, as does its arrangement of the flukes and cross, with other anchors of Nelson’s era. At the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, in the gardens and the car parking area, there are ten or so anchors from different eras and various types of vessels that serve as examples in the evolution and design of anchors for the Royal Navy, among them is one anchor that is exactly the same as the anchor on display in front of the Comandancia Militar. The anchor in Santa Cruz can be positively identified as belonging to a British man-of-war of that period.
Following on from this, it has to be borne in mind that the arrival of men-of-war and naval squadrons in the bay of Santa Cruz were unusual occurrences, with only a few each year for short stays to collect fresh water and food supplies, to repair small faults, or for diplomatic reasons. Spanish historical sources record very few arrivals of British warships in Santa Cruz, especially during the time that we can ascribe to the loss of the anchor, the period of war that was almost continuous between Spain and Great Britain between 1793 and 1805. Also, the loss of such an anchor by any ship is not a common event. If it occurred as we suppose it did then it was a very notable loss, because the anchor is one of the main components in the navigation and stability of a ship. Taking these circumstances into account, the number of options for possible identification of this specific anchor is considerably reduced.
THE DISCOVERY AND EARLY REFERENCES
Records of the discovery of the anchor during the final months of 1967 do not give much useful information. The only certain fact is that it was found on the bottom of the inner harbour of Santa Cruz by a dredger, the ‘Pluton’ of the Spanish navy, during construction works. From the moment the anchor was hauled up the general opinion was that it was a very valuable relic. In the newspaper “La Tarde”, on January 10th 1968, there appeared a short article entitled “A Nelsonian anchor”. This was the first claim to link the anchor with the events of July 1797. This claim was repeated in the “Revista de Historia Canaria” of the University of La Laguna.
The article also reported that the anchor was first offered to the Naval Museum in Madrid but that institution ordered that it should stay in Tenerife, “because it is very highly probable that it belonged to one of the ships of the squadron of Admiral Nelson”. The Port Authority of Santa Cruz was prompted into action by the importance of the discovery and took the initiative to repair the wooden stock of the anchor and to place it on display in the gardens to the front of the Comandancia Militar de Marina. Then on February 14th 1968, less than a month after the news first appeared, “La Tarde” published a letter that had been forwarded to don Candido Luis Garcia Sanjuan, the President of the Council of Works of the Port, in which the anchor was again identified as an “anchor of the Nelsonian fleet in our bay.”
To identify the anchor with the ‘Gesta’, or the ‘Achievement’, of the British attack of 25th July 1797, documentary proof was needed, and that proof was waiting in the navigational log of HMS Theseus. The log recorded the following crucial information; “Tuesday July 25th. Winds: ENE. Heavy winds and clear weather … At 5.30 we anchored at the east of Santa Cruz in 42 fathoms depth with the bow anchor … At four several boats returned on board of their respective ships … We lost our launch near the head of the mole [the pier]; our cutter smashed against the rocks. Cut the cable and made sail. Enemy opened fire upon us from a three-gun battery.”
So according to these references, which are supported by Spanish sources, HMS Theseus was forced to abandon its mooring place because of the heavy cannonade from nearby gun batteries. The entries confirmed that this ship-of-the-line in cutting its cable lost its anchor then drifted with the ocean current towards the village of San Andres, where the Theseus became the target of fire from the fort there. It is almost 100% certain therefore, that this anchor was from Nelson’s own ship, HMS Theseus.
Of all the constituent parts of a ship, the hull, the masts, the sails, etc., it is the image of the anchor that predominates. Perhaps in the light of these newly-discovered references (at the time of writing in 2006), this historic relic will acquire a higher status that will lead not only to its due recognition by academics and public, but to it being given a better place for its preservation and better arrangements for its display, focussing on its unique significance during that critical episode of the island’s past.
A measured drawing and photographs of the anchor have been sent to the Nelson Society for confirmation and recognition in England that this is indeed the anchor from Nelson’s flagship, Theseus. In Tenerife the latest news is that the anchor is to be refurbished and set on a new plinth that is currently being designed. So watch this space, or at least the space near the Comandancia Militar de Marina in Santa Cruz
By DANIEL GARCIA PULIDO
First published in the newspaper El Dia, October 10th 2006 (Edited for the Tenerife News by Alastair Robertson)