PART I: Tenerife under Siege
“Don’t worry everyone, this happened a long time ago”
The Battle of Santa Cruz took place during the Napoleonic Wars, on the 25th July 1797, when a British fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson, attacked Tenerife and was defeated by rough seas, ferocious cannon fire and the tenacious heroism of the islanders, both male and female. After the battle, in which Nelson had lost not only the battle but also his right arm, he sailed away from Tenerife physically maimed and mentally broken, he believed his naval career was finished.
Nelson was an egotist, but one of his endearing characteristics was to recognise the good qualities of other men, so he unashamedly and generously took the news of his own defeat to his enemy in mainland Spain. In Don Antonio Gutierrez, Captain General of the Canary Islands, Nelson had encountered a man of true military ability and valour, and a worthy foe. Although the two men never met, after the battle they agreed in their exchange of letters that when peace came they looked forward to that occasion.
Nelson’s physical mutilation was permanent, but his optimistic personality soon bounced back, and as we all know he went on to greater things, but back in the Canary Islands, remote and out of contact for the most part with the rest of motherland Spain, even though he had won the battle, Gutierrez, in his headquarters at the Castillo de San Cristobal in Santa Cruz, was still under siege. Furthermore, his situation was far worse than it had been before the 25th July, because now, with his previously limited resources severely depleted, the arms depots of the forts and gun batteries somehow had to be resupplied, and he had to maintain the defence of the Canaries for the duration of the Napoleonic War, however long it might last, while warships of the British navy prowled the waters surrounding him.
MAINTAINING ORDER AND COUNTING THE COST
The first problems to be dealt with after the battle were on the home front. Despite the euphoria over the islanders’ defeat of the greatest navy in the world, Gutierrez had to remind everyone, to enforce the reality, that the islands were still at war and another attack could come at any time. Although Nelson himself had promised to leave the Canaries alone, that did not restrict other British commanders. On the 29th August 1797 Gutierrez issued a proclamation to prohibit desertion by the troops and remind them of the penalties for such desertion, warning them not to abandon the state of war against Great Britain.
Another problem was the financial reckoning. The defence of the island had come at a price, not everyone gave their goods and services free of charge for the liberty of the Islands. On the 2nd September, for example, a bill was submitted for food and water for the artillerymen, another bill was for the rent of a warehouse for seven days, another was for hats and shoes for the stranded French marines who had fought alongside the islanders, then there was the rent of barrels for the water, the repayment of expenses of individuals, and so on. The grand total was 9,713.13½ pesetas.
SUSPICIOUS SHIPS AND SANCTUARY FOR THE INNOCENTS
On the war front, constant vigilance had to be maintained and any tendency for troops of the Canary Islands to relax their guard had to be stamped on. Suspicious-looking ships, and indeed any ships, were closely monitored.
Not long after the great victory, on the 14th August, an American schooner called ‘La Delicia’ arrived in Santa Cruz. Captain John Harrison was on his way from Lisbon to Guinea to buy slaves and he had called in to Puerto de Orotava (now Puerto de La Cruz) for supplies of wine. Now because Harrison had sailed from a country that was an ally of Britain (Portugal is England’s oldest and most constant ally), and he spoke English (of a sort), and because the situation was further complicated because he was sailing without an American passport, he was suspected of being an Anglo-American spy. However, after his cargo and the documents he did have had been inspected, Harrison was judged to be the representative of a friendly nation. Visits by American ships were permitted; America was deemed a ‘nacion amigo’, a friendly nation.
Not long afterwards, on the 20th August, a ship arrived from Morocco with a fantastic rumour that is typical of wartime scares. It was rumoured that in London 30,000 troops were being assembled to take the Canary Islands and the same number were to go to Mexico. The officer to whom this story was related forwarded it to Gutierrez, even though he knew it to be false.
On the 23rd came an alarm from the coastal village of San Andres that an unidentified brigantine had been sighted coming from Gran Canaria. The report was accompanied by the repeat of a request for munitions for the fort there. Then, around the 27th August, a friendly brigantine, the ‘Fortitude’, arrived at Santa Cruz on its way to the fishing grounds off the coast of Africa. It had been chased by ships of the British navy for three days during the previous month.
Hot on the heels of the ‘Fortitude’, on 28th August, a report was received from the watchtower of Anaga of a large unidentified frigate some three or four leagues (nine or twelve miles) distant, but nothing came of it.
The harassment at sea by the British navy must have been seasonal, probably due to the stormy winter seas and contrary winds of the Atlantic, for it was only after a lapse of some months, and quite well into the next year, on the 23rd March 1798, that there was a reported sighting of a group of ships, but they could not be identified as British. Five days later, on 28th March, six ships, perhaps the same flotilla, were sighted from the Anaga watchtower. Gutierrez sent instructions to maintain vigilance.
Occasionally the tension eased and relief was felt when friendly ships made port in Santa Cruz. In May 1798 a commercial ship was inspected, its harmless cargo was timber. Days later, on 6th June, a foreign boat arrived that was registered as trading with North America and therefore an ally of Spain. On the 8th a warning was received at Santa Cruz of a suspected enemy ship that had been sighted between 8 and 9 o’clock at night sailing towards La Palma. However, on the 10th June, it proved to be an American frigate called ‘The Trial’. And finally in 1798, on 8th September, a trading ship called ‘La Pura y Limpia Concepcion’ (‘The Pure and Clean Conception’[?!]) called on its way from Buenos Aires. After a few days delay, on the 16th, an inventory was made of its cargo – cocoa.
ALARMS & TRUCES FOR PRISONERS
There were many alarms caused by the British navy, whose ships prowled the waters around the Canary Islands, and there are many proofs that keen vigilance was necessary.
A serious threat began on 3rd September 1797 when an enemy (that’s the British) ship was sighted at La Palma that was feared to be the sign of another invasion attempt. On the 5th, five British frigates were seen off the port of Los Cristianos. The local commander of militia mounted his horse and with as many recruits as he could muster he went to the coast of Adeje. At the Caleto de Adeje a landing was made by launches from the British ships under flags of truce and a conference was held. A watch was kept all that night, then in the morning twenty-seven French, five Spanish and fourteen Tinerfeno prisoners were off-loaded by the British. Two women were among the French prisoners and the commander, out of pity, allowed them to buy food. The French and Spanish had been captured from a cargo ship carrying sugar, coca, coffee, cotton and sticks of ink that they had delivered to the port of Confital on Canaria, and the Tinerfenos had been taken with their ship that had sailed from Puerto de Orotava. The freed prisoners reported that the British had been pillaging the coasts of Tenerife and Fuertaventura without any fear of the forts.
The British ships then headed north west around the point of Teno and along the coast towards Puerto de la Orotava. Gutierrez had already issued instructions for troops at Icod, Garachico, El Tanque, Los Silos and Buenavista to be on the alert when an alarming report was received from the Port of San Juan. The five British ships had been sighted at 8 o’clock at night, the 6th September, cruising between Las Palmas and the coast of Tenerife. Two militiamen were despatched from Garachico to keep watch but a sighting from the Port of Santiago of the flotilla led to the fear that it was sailing to attack Puerto de la Orotava (Puerto de la Cruz).
Find out what happened in the next issue of the ‘Tenerife News’.