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25th July 1797: The British invasion of Tenerife 

“One of our recent most popular features was Alastair Robertson’s account of how he took part in the recreation of the famous Santa Cruz battle of July 25th, 1797. Here, he delves more into the history of the historic day and reveals some surprising facts. “

In the dark, quiet early morning hours of the 25th July 1797 a flotilla of launches rowed in silence with muffled oars towards the harbour of Santa Cruz.

Almost a thousand British marines and seamen under the command of Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson were about to launch an attack that was intended to take the Castillo of San Cristobal (the Spanish military command centre), and then the town, after which the whole island of Tenerife would capitulate, followed by the rest of the Canary Islands. Great Britain would then have almost complete control of the trade route to South America and the West Indies, as well as adding a useful colony to its empire.

The idea for the invasion had begun far away, off the coast of Cadiz, when Admiral Sir John Jervis, recently ennobled as Earl St. Vincent after the great naval battle, authorised a detachment of the British fleet, comprising four ships of line, three frigates, a cutter and a mortar boat, that were joined later by another ship of line, to sail to the Canaries. The enterprise was encouraged mainly, it would seem, by Captain Richard Bowen, who assured all his fellow officers that Santa Cruz would be an easy target.

Misfortune for the British began when the flotilla was discovered by a Spanish ship anchored in the bay of Santa Cruz. The alarm was sounded that rallied the gun batteries lining the shore and the troops along the defensive sea wall. Then Hell was let loose. Terrific fire from the Spanish cannon drove off a lot of the launches. The cutter, ‘Fox’, was sunk with the loss of 97 of the 180 lives on board. Nelson’s own launch, along with seventeen others, managed to reach land but as Nelson himself was about to step onshore a fragment from a blast of grapeshot hit him in the right arm. He collapsed, bleeding profusely, and had to be carried back to his ship ‘Theseus’, where his arm was amputated at the elbow. The cannon that fired the shot is strongly believed to the one called ‘El Tigre’ (‘The Tiger’), now on display in the Castillo de San Cristobal. Other troops made for the pier, where Captain Bowen was killed on the first step by grapeshot that tore away his stomach. The British captured the pier, the Spanish had spiked their own cannon so the attackers could not turn them against them, but musket fire from the fort of San Cristobal and houses near the base of the pier was so fierce that they could not advance any further. They failed to make a rendezvous with the other forces and, what was worse, many of the British troops that landed were helpless because their gunpowder was soaked by sea water. Finally, the Spanish took forty-four prisoners with twelve men wounded. Twenty had been killed, including Bowen. The rest of the launches were swept off target by the sea current past the pier head to just south of the town centre where they disembarked in three places, La Caleta, the Barranco de Santos and the Barranquillo del Aceite. The invaders at first drove back the Spanish defenders but were in turn forced to retreat. The British then divided into two columns; the first marched to the Square of Santo Domingo, harassed all the time by the Spanish musket fire, where they occupied the Convent. The second column marched to San Cristobal with the aim of joining the marines at the pier and taking the fort but they were driven back to La Caleta and then to a provision store, of which they took possession.

The action by the Spanish implies that the British were fighting an experienced army, toughened by war, but this was not the case. The Canaries were at that time, during the Napoleonic Wars, often cut off from mainland Spain due to the control that Great Britain had over the seaways, so, with Spain as an ally of France, a request to the mainland for help was hopeless. The professional soldiers that were on the island were commanded by General Antonio Gutierrez, who had made a brilliant job of creating a defensive force with very slender means. For instance his 97 cannon, to the British ships’ total of 393, should have been manned by 532 artillery-men to work in shifts, but he had only 320, not all of whom were fully trained artillerymen. The force they were up against consisted of about 1,000 professional, disciplined, trained, well-armed marines and seamen, and although Gutierrez had nominally 1,669 men at his disposal, only 357 were professionals, the rest were island militia, veterans and volunteers. He had only 500 serviceable muskets available, other men had to use pikes, staves and machetes.

With 393 guns the British ships could have razed Santa Cruz to the ground, but war wasn’t like that in those days, ‘total warfare’ is a modern invention. Even so, fear spread throughout the town. Although some townspeople panicked and left with their valuables for La Laguna and other places of safety, most civilians, including the island government, rallied round and put themselves wholly at Gutierrez’ disposal. Country peasants who arrived in rags and without shoes to enlist had to be equipped with footwear; bakers were instructed to make as much bread as possible; as much linen as possible was collected for use as bandages; priests were allocated corps of troops to administer spiritual comfort and support; women acted as carriers for water and food; and doctors and ‘sangradores’ (men who let blood) assembled in the square of La Pila to be ready to rush anywhere they would be required. Even so, confidence was not high. These simple islanders with their few soldiers were up against the might of British Empire with its reputation for success in war. Their efforts, although great, could have been seen as a forlorn hope.

However, fate was on the side of Tenerife that night. Leaderless and disorientated, and in some cases without effective firearms, the British were seen not to be invincible. They had lost Nelson, their great champion, their forces were divided, trapped at the pier or under siege in the Convent, with a third detachment struggling to join them. The British, under Samuel Hood, realised that they would not be able to achieve their aim of conquest but, still pretending to hold the upper hand, under a flag of truce they contacted Gutierrez with imperious demands that were immediately rejected, at which the British capitulated. The final demand, or request, was simple:

“That the troops of his Britannick Majesty shall embark with their arms of every kind, and take their boats off, if saved, and be provided with such others as may be wanting; in consideration of which it is engaged on their part that the ships of the British squadron, now before it, shall in no way molest the town in any manner, or any of the islands in the Canaries, and prisoners shall be given up on both sides.”

Gutierrez could have insisted that the British should give up their arms, as was normal in defeat, but he trusted them and he was a gentleman, so he did not increase their ignominy any further.

On board the ‘Theseus’, Nelson, who was so depressed that he believed his naval career was at an end, agreed to the terms and the closing negotiations were so civilised as to be friendly. Gifts were exchanged of beer and cheese from the British and wine from the Spanish. Nelson even offered to take the news of his own defeat back to Spain on Gutierrez’ behalf, an offer that was graciously accepted. And so the Canary Islands remained Spanish, but what if …?

At the Museo Militar, Almeyda in Santa Cruz there is a huge, wonderfully detailed diorama of the town with sequenced highlighting of the event and a commentary in English. There are also relics of the battle. Please note that there is parking on site, otherwise it’s a ten minute walk from the city centre. Drive through the gates, where you might be asked by a soldier to stop because Almeyda is still, after all, a military establishment. Also, since July 22nd this year, it is possible to follow the course of the fighting around the seafront of the city. Information posts have been erected at the locations of actual events, including where Nelson fell, by the Tertulia de Amigos de 25 Julio de 1797.