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When ‘Enlightenment’ came to Tenerife 

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Throughout Europe the eighteenth century was a time of growing intellectual ‘enlightenment’, when, in a spirit of inquisitiveness, people wanted to find out more about the world they lived in. For Spain the movement reached its peak between 1759 and 1788, in other words the reign of King Charles III, who has been called “the most enlightened of the eighteenth century Bourbons.”

King Charles III of Spain was a member of the French Bourbon family of monarchs, born in 1716, who succeeded to the throne of Spain in 1759. Strangely enough, he was an egalitarian by nature; he even drove his own coach and acknowledged the greetings of passers-by in a demonstration of mutual respect. As well as his official state portrait in royal regalia, he commissioned a portrait of himself standing against a rural background wearing the plain, drab clothes he wore for hunting, giving him the appearance of a man of the people.

In an age of ‘enlightened absolutism’, when a monarch’s wish was everyone’s command, Charles III provided firm, consistent leadership, he had the rare talent of choosing capable, conscientious ministers, and by his simple personal lifestyle he won the respect of his people. Over the years he reformed and expanded the Spanish national economy, most famously by freeing the grain trade in 1765 and by passing the free trade laws of 1778. He encouraged social reform and the reform of local government, which in the Canary Islands meant the establishment of a ‘common deputation’ (a sort of parliament), and the choice of magistrates by voters – selected voters of course. He also strengthened the authority of the crown over the church, especially in 1767 when he expelled 5,000 Jesuits from Spain and its empire. But it was not only his legislative government reforms that helped the economy to grow, there were practical measures such as improving the national road network by royal decree, which facilitated the growth of agriculture and wider domestic trade. These reforms included, and were willingly taken up by, the Canary Islands.

The king had a keen personal interest in promoting science and university research. Freed from the domineering influence of the Jesuits, reform of universities was possible which added greatly to the spirit of the inquiry and enlightenment. It was at this time in Tenerife that the first printed periodical appeared, so speeding up the spread of ideas. The ‘Semanerio enciclopedico elemental’ of 1781 was the continuation of existing handwritten journals that could only be read by a handful of people. The islanders didn’t keep their enthusiasm and enlightenment to themselves, several Canarians went on to attain national recognition, there was for example Juan de Iriate who became head librarian at the royal palace in Madrid.

This burgeoning curiosity and spirit of inquiry led in many directions, one of which was the establis-hment of gardens for the acclimati-sation of exotic plant species collec-ted from around the world. But here there was a limit to what could be achieved. Acclima-tisation for tender plants in many cases had proved impossible at gar-dens in the harsher climate of Aranjuez and Madrid in mainland Spain, so on 17th August 1788 King Charles issued a Royal Order that allowed Don Alonso de Nava Grimon, sixth Marquis of Villanueva de Prado, to found the Acclimatisation Gardens, or Botanical Gardens as we know them today, of Puerto de la Cruz and Orotava. However, construction of the 20,000 square metre garden in Puerto de la Cruz was not begun until 1791, three years after Charles’ death. But not so many people know of its smaller sister, the Hijuela del Botanico in Orotava. This little oasis encompasses only 4,000 square metres, but it was more conveniently located for the residents of the town to visit. Besides, Puerto de la Cruz didn’t really count at the time because it was only the port for Orotava and in any case the gardens themselves were at some distance from the town.

Newly acquired economic freedom led to the general growth of confidence and optimism, and the peace that followed the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 after the American War of Independence, in which Spain took part against Britain, further encouraged the spirit. Peace on the high seas led to an increase in Spanish trade with exports to her colonies and America. This in turn led to a shift in the balance of society due to the increasing influence from the middle class, the merchant class, with its wealth, its business acumen and its desire for self-improvement. With this opening of minds, informal cultural discussion groups, or ‘tertulias’, became popular, which often evolved into ‘economic associations’ that were concerned with more than just the economy.

The movement called the ‘Real Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais’ (The Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Country) began in 1764 with the Royal Society of Madrid, formed with King Charles’ approval. Its origins were among the noble elite but in the spirit of ‘the Enlightenment’ membership spread across all levels of society. The Royal Society looked towards modernising Spain, encouraging its prosperity by stimulating improvements in all aspects of public life and in all areas of knowledge. The movement reached Tenerife in February 1777 with the founding of the ‘Real Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais de Tenerife.’

This organisation formed a bridge between the developments begun by the ‘Tertulia de Nava’, an informal discussion group that met in the Palace of Nava in La Laguna, and the ‘Junta Suprema de Canarias,’ the first autonomous government of the islands. In 1778 King Charles granted permission to the Real Sociedad of Tenerife to occupy “the required rooms for the meetings, and the installation of its archive and library”. This was at 23, San Agustin Street in La Laguna, where, with a few exceptions, the Society has been until today.

Among its many achievements the Real Sociedad facilitated the establishment of the Botanical Gardens, the development of the University of La Laguna and the Bishopric of Tenerife. On Tenerife one of its more fundamental, practical activities was a tour of the island by members to make a scientific yet compassionate study of what they saw. One of the results was that between 1778 and 1780 the Society produced twenty-seven census returns of Tenerife, detailing the age and occupation of each resident and their relationship to others in the household. In doing so the Society beat the first similar British census by sixty years.

The Canary Islands differed from mainland Spain in that foreign influence on society was much stronger due to the maritime trading links and the number of foreign businessmen who came to live here. It was largely the wealth from foreign trade that changed the appearance of town centres and financed many grand 18th century houses, for example those in La Laguna where imported neo-classical Roman and Greek styles influenced island architecture. Public spaces were also improved, open squares and tree-lined avenues were laid out in the towns. One example is the Almeda Garden, constructed in 1787 in Santa Cruz, where the avenue of trees is entered through a triple arch in what is now the Plaza de España.

Sadly, this age of “relative splendour” ended with Charles’ death in 1788, when the accession of his son Charles IV was closely followed by the Europe-shattering French Revolution and twenty years of war under Napoleon. Nevertheless, at the high point of European Enlightenment, King Charles III of Spain, by his personality, his strength of will and his own enlightened attitude, earned the reputation of being “probably the most successful European ruler of his generation.”