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The Canaries viewed from on-board ship 100 years ago 

In the last issue of the Tenerife News, we learnt about freight shipping to the Canary Islands. This time we read about the experiences of two passengers.

In 1912, Thomas and Margaret Spark and eight of their nine children left Cumberland in England for a better life in Western Australia. Their eldest daughter Rosa had married, but she and her husband followed not long afterwards. Their ship that departed from Bristol on 19th June was a purpose-built emigrant ship, the S.S. Ajana. By way of a final emotional thread of contact, Thomas and Margaret’s 21 year-old daughter Edith kept a diary of the voyage. And it’s worth reflecting that the long train journey to Bristol would itself have been an adventure for people in those days.

In common with other passenger ships of the time, the Ajana called in to the Canary Islands to refuel. The way of doing this was for the coal to be towed out in barges from the depot at the port and then transferred to the ship’s holds in slings worked by the ship’s hoists. The stop-over, however, was only for a few hours and so the passengers were not allowed on shore. Nevertheless, they were kept well entertained by the activity and by traders who arrived alongside in small boats. The scene while the ship was at anchor in the bay at Las Palmas in Gran Canaria would have been the same in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Edith recorded the event and gave her impressions of Las Palmas and some of its people [her descriptions are given, not mine]:

 “Tuesday 25th June 1912

The town lies on the hillside. Further along there are rows of houses along the shore, some almost hid by palm trees. The hills are sandy, a light brown colour, and form an admirable background. We can see the electric and motor [tram] cars running along quite distinctly. The [tram] cars seem to be about four times as long as those in England, but are open at the sides, with a shade on top. The houses are all red and white and flat-roofed, with deep narrow windows. The sea too is lovely and clear, and such a beautiful blue. Altogether it is a picturesque scene. And on the deck it is like Newcastle Quayside on a Sunday morning, or a Vanity fair.

“The small boats were lying in close to the steamer when we got up, their owners waiting [on] the passengers getting up, and permission to come on board. Ropes were thrown over to them, and their wares hauled to the deck. Rope ladders were let down, and they scaled them like monkeys. Such a chattering going on all the time. Some had silk goods – shawls, scarfs, blouse lengths, d’oyleys and fancy work of all kinds, some had postcards, and others fruit stalls consisting of oranges (20 for 1s.) lemons (1d. each), small black grapes (2d. per bunch), peaches and apricots (4d. per small basket) bananas (30 for 1s.), cherries and some fruit they call melon pears. These were rushed by our underfed passengers until they realised the prices. The islanders, who are of Spanish descent, ask about three times the price they will take. However by mid-afternoon, with only half their stocks sold, prices tumbled and by evening they were sold out and everyone [was] happy.

The sailors have been warning the passengers against leaving anything lying about, taking care of their money, etc. They regard them rather suspiciously, and have locked the doors going downstairs with the exception of one. They are a dirty, repulsive looking set of people. One can scarcely believe they are natives of so pretty an island. [Oh dear, Edith]

There is a Cardiff Coal Co. stationed on the Island from which they bring the coal to the vessel in small boats. The coal is tied in bags. With loading the vessel and a nice breeze we are covered with coal dust, and sticky with fruit. Some of the children have rubbed their faces with their sticky hands, and are going about as if they had been hewing in the pit. The water is turned off for an hour or two, so it can’t be helped. We all feel ready for a good wash.

 At present most people are engaged in throwing pennies, wrapped in paper overboard into the water. A little fellow about 8 years old is sitting in a fishing smack waiting, and as they throw them, he dives after them, and of course, secures them for his own. There’s the dinner bell. (It’s a cracked old thing, we know it distinctly now.) I must be off.

 4pm. The Spaniards are gone. We have waved them back to shore. I for one am glad of it. They are keen businessmen, in their line. After getting into their boats they were selling fruit wines and sardines. They made their bargain, and then sent their wares up in small baskets, fastened in the middle of a long rope. Some one on deck kept one end and the man in the boat the other, and so drew them up and down. Sometimes it upset into the water, and they had to dive in after it. They all seem quite at home in the water. We are now 1610 miles from Bristol.”

Descendants of Edith’s family are still in the area around Perth in Western Australia.

Twelve years earlier, in 1900, a contingent of British troops sailed from London on 3rd March bound for Cape Town in South Africa to fight in the Boer War. Like the S.S. Ajana, their ship also called in to the Canaries to take on coal, this time to Santa Cruz. Here is the experience of Private Joseph William Harrison, who wrote anonymously for a local newspaper:

“Thursday 8th– TENERIFE

All on board were anxiously looking for signs of land, as we were now in close proximity to Tenerife, but it was not till about seven o’clock [at night] that our patience was rewarded and we caught sight of the shore. A slight mist had settled and the boat slowed down, but when ‘last post’ sounded, few of the men were inclined for bed or hammock, as the electric lights at Tenerife were quite visible. Our officers were kind enough to give us leave to stay on deck until we reached the harbour, which was accomplished about 11.30, half an hour before our prescribed time. We were then ordered to our bunks, but it was not to sleep, as the excitement kept most of us awake.

 Friday 9th March

About 2 o’clock [in the morning] the coal barges came alongside, and all hopes of getting a sleep vanished for the majority of us. One or two chaps did manage to ‘stick it out,’ but I fancy that when reveille sounded in the early morning it would be to empty berths, as the greater part of us were on deck. The coal heavers, who were all Spaniards, created a good deal of amusement by their appearance. When daylight broke the fun of the fair started as there were any number of boats alongside with fruit, etc., to sell.

Joe Harrison hailed one of the boats and asked the price of cigars, but English not being one of the Spanish gentleman’s accomplishments, or Joe not knowing Spanish, considerable amusement was caused by their negotiations. Eight annas per packet of ten was the price, but the eight annas were a puzzler until it was explained by someone ‘in the know’ that eight annas were equal to 6d. and a sale resulted.

As we did not leave till noon these waterside merchants did a good trade, going away with full pockets and empty boats. None of the natives were allowed on board, and none of the men were allowed to go on shore, although several of the officers did. Some discontent was caused by this restriction, but in the end I think we enjoyed ourselves just as well on board. The island looks a splendid place, the northern end being somewhat similar to our own Cumberland fells. Towards the centre it is a ‘dream of beauty’ with splendid white houses and terraces. I had the pleasure of looking at it through a pair of binoculars, and also through a pair of field glasses, and so had a good view.

The country behind the town is laid out in terraced gardens, and looking at them through glasses they showed a scene of unparalleled beauty. At noon we up anchor and left this beautiful spot, passing the Peak of Tenerife about 2 o’clock. The top was covered with snow which made it quite home-like.”

Edith and Joe were only passing by and the appeal of the Canary Islands for the British didn’t start or finish with them, thousands have been tempted to stay, to make the islands their home. Incidentally Joe Harrison survived the Boer War intact.


Outward Bound – My Diary, begun on leaving for Australia, June 18th 1912; Edith Spark; Hundy Publications, 2002

The Black Angel; Colin Bardgett; Bookcase, 1997