Part II: Tenerife under Siege
After the Battle of Santa Cruz on the 25th July 1797, in which Nelson 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 qualities of other men, so he unashamedly and generously took the news of his own defeat to 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 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 strained resources severely depleted, he had to maintain the defence of the Canaries for the duration of the Napoleonic War, however long they might last, while warships of the British navy prowled the waters surrounding him.
In Part One of this article we left Tenerife at 8 o’clock on the night of the 6th September 1797, when five warships of the British navy were sailing along the north coast of Tenerife and the islanders were on high alert against an anticipated attack on Puerto de la Orotava (now Puerto de la Cruz).
TRUCES, PRISONERS AND FURTHER ALARMS
The five British ships were next sighted at 10 o’clock that night at the west end of Tenerife, in response to which Gutierrez despatched companies of troops, who were already on the alert, to Icod and La Rambla to prevent a landing or any attempt by them to offload more prisoners. However, at 7 o’clock on morning of the 7th, three British launches did in fact make a landing in order to parley for an exchange of British prisoners. Under a flag of truce, a British brig disembarked two prisoners and a further four Spanish mariners that they had taken locally. A corporal and two soldiers were sent by Gutierrez to deal with the exchange.
The feared attack of Puerto de la Orotava did not materialise and the British ships then made another half-circuit of the island of Tenerife. On the previous day, the 6th September, the district of Abona was on guard after an enemy brig was sighted harassing local shipping. The British flotilla rounded the point of Anaga and continued south along the coast to the southern tip of Tenerife where they were observed from Los Cristianos to be heading towards La Gomera to terrorise that island, offloading unwanted prisoners as they went. Prisoners, by the way, were of no use to the British, they only meant extra mouths to feed and they required the time of soldiers to guard them. During one disembarkation, at the Port of Santiago the British detained three islanders who had been able to observe that the two frigates carried about 300 men each and a brigantine about 40. Two ships of the British flotilla were ‘prizes’ that had been captured off the Port of Orotava.
On the morning of the 7th, an officer of local militia of Guia de Isora went with all of his men to the Port of Alcala, from where they saw three launches approaching from the British fleet, which included two frigates that had been seen off Puerto de Adeje. The ships changed their British naval flags for flags of truce, indicating their wish to parley. The Spanish officer ordered his troops not to fire until it was known what the enemy wanted. However, at about five in the afternoon, the launches appeared to change their minds and returned to their ships.
Later, three British brigantines were sighted off Punta de Teno at the north west tip of the Tenerife and the island troops continued to maintain watch until the next day. After this the flotilla must have sailed away, for there were no further reports of threats and alarms – at least for a few days.
But the tension did not let up. On the 12th September 1797, Captain General Gutierrez received a report that the British frigates ‘Almena’ and ‘Andromeda’ had captured a Genovese schooner, the ‘Santiago’, with its crew of seven. The Genoans were on the side of Napoleon, at war with Britain, and so they were fair game. The British ships stayed in the area and were sighted off Icod on 15th September, which led to further reminders from Gutierrez to his troops about the need for vigilance.
On occasion, British ships fell victim to the treatment that they meted out. A merchantman, the ‘William Henry’ that had sailed from Cork under the British flag, was bound for Jamaica when it was captured by a French corsair, the ‘Bonapart’. Captain John Long, pilot Edward Fish, mariners William Patterson, Edward Baylly, Michael Barry, John Howard, Patrick O’Connor and Charles Douglas, and passenger Martin Long, the captain’s brother, were taken prisoner and deposited at Puerto de la Orotava on the 30th September. Gutierrez sent a corporal and four soldiers from La Laguna to guard them. They would come in useful some time for bargaining.
Activity then appears to have finished for the winter season and it was not until well into the next year, 1798 on 24th May, that British ships offloaded another ten or twelve prisoners while sailing near the entrance to the valley of Masca. Curiously, that same day, a Spanish ship, which was chancing its luck by sailing to Havana in the Spanish colony of Cuba, called in to Santa Cruz to take on fresh fish and meat but gave no report of being harassed. It had slipped through the British patrol net.
The British blockade of the Canaries was not 100% effective, this was demonstrated again on 9th July when a French frigate and two other Spanish frigates that were sailing to the Phillipines called in safely to Santa Cruz to replenish supplies. Then, as if to prove wrong this assumption of safety, on 26th July two French frigates left Santa Cruz and they were seen from the port to be followed by a British frigate. The next day the two French ships were still in the vicinity and the British warship passed in front of Candelaria and Guimar, from where a close watch was kept on its movements.
There were some naval successes for the Canary Islanders. On 27th July 1798 a report was received from Abona about a British ship named the ‘Apollo’. The Apollo, weighing 180 tons and armed with 10 cannon, was on its way to Jamaica but had had to call in to beg for drinking water. Instead it was detained and captured as a prize for the Spanish.
Three weeks later, on 18th August, another ship flying the British flag was harassing local fishing boats. On the 27th it was identified as English brigantine ‘The Betsy’, under the command of Captain John Persson. While chasing ‘El Fulminant’, a French corsair, ‘The Betsy’ had captured a sloop with a cargo of fish. A few days later, on 4th September, ‘The Betsy’ captured another fishing boat. This might sound rather a pathetic way for the mighty British navy to conduct a war, but the local island trading boats provided a ready source of fresh food that supplied British crews without the need for landing or returning to a friendly port to re-supply. Then, as a small victory for the Spanish, ‘The Betsy’ itself was captured, perhaps by the French corsair, as briefly but proudly reported to Gutierrez on 20th September. An account of the circumstances of the capture has not survived, but the ship was reported as being by this time under the command of Simon Geoffrey.
The last reported warlike scare for the ‘season’ was on 6th September 1798, when a brigantine friendly to the Spaniards, the ‘Carracan’, landed at La Palma and reported sighting two British navy frigates. However, nothing else was heard of them.
The following year, 1799, was to be the last for Gutierrez. On the 20th March there was a general alarm in Tenerife, about which no report appears to have survived, but it must have been serious because on the 22nd Gutierrez wrote to all five colonels on the island of Tenerife, demanding as soon as possible, provided there was no emergency in their area to prevent them, that they submit a concise list of all troops and countrymen who were capable of bearing arms, together with their chiefs and officers. The list was to be entrusted only to someone who had the colonel’s confidence. The person was to ignore any disturbance in the town and if necessary to go on horseback in order to deliver the list more speedily.
We don’t know what happened next, we only know that this was the last written order given by Captain General Don Antonio Gutierrez that has survived to the present day. He died on the 14th of May 1799, a few days after his seventieth birthday.
The isolation of the Canary Islands from their mother country and the blockade by the British navy lasted until 1813, when, after Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign, Spain surrendered and became Britain’s ally for the rest of the war against Napoleon. Sadly, Nelson and Gutierrez, the two protagonists of the Battle of Santa Cruz of 25th July 1797, did not live to see this day and their mutually expressed wish to meet face to face in friendship was never to happen.
Acknowledgement: The portraits of Nelson and Gutierrez appeared in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Nelson y Tenerife: Una doble mirada’ (Nelson and Tenerife: A double view), 20-30 July 2012 and 2013-2014, produced by the Asociacion Cultural