25th July – The anniversary of Nelson’s attack on Santa Cruz in 1797
One of the most important days in the history of Tenerife is commemorated with a re-enactment every year, but if you’d like to find out about the event at any time of the year then visit the Military Museum of the Canary Islands in Santa Cruz.
The Military Museum is housed in the half-moon shaped former fort and gun battery at Almeyda in Santa Cruz. The ground floor is given over to modern armaments and information about modern warfare, then, upstairs on the first floor, six out of the thirteen former gun bays house exhibits that tell the story of the attack by the British war fleet on Santa Cruz led by Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson. The fact that this permanent exhibition takes up almost half of the first floor demonstrates the pride that the islanders take in the achievement of their ancestors.
Models of some of the forts and trophies that were taken from the British, together with maps and paintings of the coastline, set the scene for the dramatic dioramas depicting some of the action from those critical days in July 1797, when the fate of the Canary Islands hung in the balance. There and portraits of Rear Admiral Nelson and Commander General Gutierrez, the two protagonists who ended the battle in such a gentlemanly fashion with the exchange of gifts of beer and cheese from Nelson to Gutierrez, and wine from Gutierrez to Nelson, with mutual promises of friendship in the future. In all, the exhibition movingly bridges the gap of almost 220 years.
On arriving at the first floor landing the first thing you’ll see is an enormous glass case that houses a diorama. This model depicts the whole town of Santa Cruz as it was in 1797, with the seventeen forts and gun batteries that defended Santa Cruz, the outline of the shore, and, out in the Bay of Santa Cruz, the positions of the British warships as they were during the course of that attack in the darkest hours of the morning. A commentary in English as well as Spanish gives a dramatic minute-by-minute account of the action, which can be followed easily as the various incidents are spotlighted to correspond with the narration.
After you’ve seen this, turn to the gallery on the left, where the first three former gun bays are given over to the early years of the Spanish in the Canaries and the conquest of the islands, including artefacts from the battlefields against the native Guanches. These are followed by the six bays that describe the events of the 25th July.
In the 4th bay there are plans and elevations of forts and the fortified pier. There is a cabinet containing firearms and other weapons of the period, including an 18thC English bayonet. There is a model of the pier with its gun battery, which was the first target of the British attack, as well as the fort of San Cristobal. San Cristobal was the military headquarters of Santa Cruz, Tenerife and the whole of the Canary Islands and it was from this fort that Commander General Gutierrez masterminded the defence of the city. The remains of the fort can be seen in the museum beneath the Plaza de Espana.
In the 5th bay are flags of the participating Spanish units and modern copies of portraits of Rear Admiral Nelson, and the monarchs of both nations at the time, King George III of Great Britain and King Carlos IV of Spain. Moving on to the 6th bay there is a case containing models of all the ships of the British fleet. The fort of San Cristo de Paso Alto, to the north east of Santa Cruz, is featured with a photo and a painting. There are fragments of a cannon ball from Paso Alto that was fired on 25th July from the British bomb vessel ‘Rayo’.
Moving to the 7th bay there are modern paintings and dioramas showing the action. There’s an English officer’s uniform, some captured English weapons – pistols and swords – and medal dies and printer’s illustration blocks. There is a dramatic model of the sinking of the cutter ‘Fox’ and a print of Nelson falling at the moment he was wounded.
In the 8th bay a huge British flag, a trophy from the ship ‘Emerald’, has its own case and hung on the wall nearby is a plaque commemorating the assistance given by Frenchmen from the ship ‘La Mutine’. A modern painting (1959) shows the signing of the capitulation by Captain Thomas Troubridge on behalf of Nelson, and there is the actual table at which the document was signed, together with a copy of it. Looking on is a portrait and a bust of Commander General Don Antonio Gutierrez.
In the 9th bay a large British flag, approximately 15ft x 9ft, is on display. It was intended that this should be flown from the fort of San Cristobal after the fort had been captured. The roll call of Spanish dead is on display, a list of British dead would be ten times longer. Finally there is a copy of the royal decree by King Carlos III to Santa Cruz, awarding it the title of ‘Leal, Noble y Invicta’ (Loyal, Noble and Unconquerable). All in all it’s a dramatic display that tells a very dramatic story and it’s well worth seeing.
On the lighter side, for me one thought that the exhibition led to was one of those “What if?” questions. What if the British invasion had succeeded? Except for Madeira and the Azores which were colonies of Portugal, Britain’s oldest ally, the British Empire would have had the complete set of Atlantic islands, the Falklands, Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, Ascension, and a collection of Caribbean islands. Tinerfenos today would have the luxuries and benefits of speaking English, talking about the weather, drinking beer, eating fish and chips and singing ‘Rule Britannia’. Actually, in any case, the Canary Islands depended heavily on Britain for their economic well being, so the end result didn’t matter too much.
‘British’ Marines in the Plaza de Espana, Santa Cruz 2015.
AND – look out for announcements about the re-enactment of Nelson’s attack by the Asociacion Historico-Cultural Gesta del 25 de Julio de 1797, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, to be held around the 22nd and 23rd July, it’s exciting stuff.