Jupiter! Hercules! Tiger! Horrible invincible! Dread! and clumsy?
The list sounds like a variation on the seven dwarves, but not so, read on …
Here’s something to do for a day out for the British in Tenerife. You can’t go on preserved railways, or visit castles or stately homes because there are none. You can go bird watching, if you’re lucky, or visit churches by the dozen, and there are parks with exotic plants, but for something completely different you could go cannon spotting. It doesn’t have be the cannon themselves that are the point of interest, the be-all-and-end-all, it’s the getting there, it’s the journey, it’s the finding of them that’s the entertainment.
Warfare, like murder, is morbidly interesting – in theory – so long as it’s not happening to us -hence our fascination with television crime dramas, usually with two or three bizarre and gory deaths per evening (Midsomer Murders everyone?). Warfare has its own fascination, and before the nineteenth century it was a fairly gentlemanly affair, where the two sides lined up on a battlefield agreed beforehand and then laid into each other, a bit like a rugby match but without the ball, and the artillery of the day was manufactured to be visually attractive as well as deadly. The old cannon actually have aesthetic appeal, they aren’t only functional, they are works of art with all sorts of heraldic emblems and impressive names; names to impress, such as ‘Duque de Alva’, ‘Malacayo’, ‘El Jupiter’, ‘El Hipomene’, ‘Hercules’, and names to terrify, such as ‘El Orible’ (The Horrible), ‘El Inbensibl’ (The Invincible) and ‘Espanto’ (Dread). All enough to scare your pants off if they were blasting away at you, but how would you feel about being fired at by ‘El Torpe’ – The Torpid, The Clumsy? You might well be tempted to sneer and blow a raspberry, or perhaps I’ve lost something in the translation.
But can you imagine being in a team of eighteenth-century artillerymen waiting in line to be allocated your cannon. The cheers would go up for ‘The Horrible’ (Hurray!), ‘The Invincible’ (Hurray!), ‘The Dread’ (Hurray!), but ‘Clumsy’? – well, I can hear the groans from this distance in time. (Oh gawd lads, we’ve got Clumsy again.) It must have been the one for the ‘B’ team.
Two of the cannon have stories to tell, one magnificent beast is ‘El Hercules’, the other is ‘El Tigre’.
‘El Hercules’ arrived in Tenerife in 1567 when it was already of mature years, having been cast around the year 1547 in Mechelen in Flanders. ‘El Hercules’ was first installed in the old fortress of Santa Cruz, then, in 1577, it was moved to the new Castillo de San Cristobal, where it remained until it was withdrawn from service in the nineteenth century. Three hundred years of service is pretty good going, and it saw some action.
One of the most significant incidents in the life of ‘El Hercules’ happened in the year 1657, when it helped to repel an attack from a British fleet under Admiral Robert Blake. Blake had tried to blockade the port of Santa Cruz in order to seize the cargo and treasure of Spanish ships returning from America. Fifty years or so later, in 1706, ‘Hercules’ took part in the defence of the city from another British attack, this time commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir John Jennings.
Finally, in 1840, ‘Hercules’ was taken, together with other obsolete cannon of the Canary Islands, to be part of the collection in the Museum of Artillery in Madrid, where it stayed for over 160 years. Then in 2004 the President of the Island Council, Senator D. Ricardo Melchior Navarro, requested the return of ‘El Hercules’ to Tenerife because of the significant role it had played in the history of the island. The Ministry of Defence of Spain agreed to the transfer and on 25th May 2005 ‘Hercules’ was brought to the Museum of Military History of the Canaries in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
In case you’re not aware of it, the most famous cannon of all in Tenerife is ‘El Tigre’ (The Tiger), you’ll find it in the Castillo San Cristobal beneath the Plaza de Espana in Santa Cruz. As decorated cannons go, like ‘El Hercules’, ‘El Tigre’ is a thing of beauty. The legend around this one is that in 1797 it was a piece of shrapnel fired from ‘El Tigre’ that wounded Nelson in the arm, causing it to be amputated. However, closer examination of documentary evidence shows that it was in fact a musket ball that caught his elbow, and certainly no one else in that closely packed longboat was hit by shrapnel. But it’s a good story.
Elsewhere, the cannon at Garachico, like many of those in Santa Cruz, are rusty, misshapen things, usually lacking their trunnions (a lovely word that – ‘trunnions’). These are guns that have been dredged from the sea bed. They are still being found in Santa Cruz in the excavations for tunnelling works at the port, which are very close to the historic shoreline and the site of the old pier. So how did these cannon come to be there? Were they pushed overboard from ships in the harbour when new guns came to replace them? Or were they tipped into the sea from the battlements of the Castillo San Cristobal or the gun battery at the end of the pier when they became obsolete? But why not melt them down to re-use the metal? Perhaps the metal wasn’t good enough quality. Perhaps the cost of trans-porting the old cannon to the foundries on the main-land was prohibitive. In some cities on the continent old cannon are used as bollards, but these ones are too corroded to be attractive.
If you enjoy gentle exploring and mooching about, then looking for cannon is for you. However, I have to say – to warn you in fact – that there is something on view in Santa Cruz that makes my stomach a little bit queasy. There are two small cannon at the chapel of San Francisco, not far from the wonderful Auditorium, they’re very nicely displayed but they are painted in the most bilious green imagi-nable. I couldn’t look at them for long without going green myself.
Put that aside, and for your day out I’ll give you some clues as to where to find the cannon. There’s one in Adeje, several in Garachico, three at the little gun battery in San Juan de La Rambla (if the path is safe and open), quite a lot in Puerto de la Cruz, and of course many in Santa Cruz, where the El Dorado of them all is the Military Museum at Almeyda. And there’s no need to take sandwiches and a flask because one of the great things about days out in Tenerife, except in the case of San Juan de la Rambla which is comparatively a little bit remote, is that cafes are never far away. Have fun!