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“It’s industry Jim, but not as we know it” 

A little while ago I was given a book entitled ‘Tenerife y sus pueblos’ (‘Tenerife and its towns’, or ‘Tenerife and the thirty-one municipalities of the island’ to be exact). It’s a lavish production, published in 2004, a sort of gazetteer in three languages, Spanish, English and German, and while idly leafing through it over a cup of tea (or was it a pint of beer?), some of the many photo’s aroused my curiosity, and an idea for an article came to mind.

Among the features of interest and attractions for each area, there were eleven examples of ‘hornos’, or ovens – three for tiles, one for drying fruit, two for bread, one for tar (tar?), one ruined, one with a purpose not stated and two limekilns that are called ‘hornos’ just the same.

Also included are two examples of surviving wind-mills and four of watermills. Of course there used to be many more ovens, limekilns, watermills and windmills elsewhere on the island. With windmills this was especially true near Santa Cruz, where a map made in 1701 showed the land to the south west of the town to be peppered with windmills.

‘Industry in Tenerife’ was the working title for the article, but can we call all ovens ‘industrial’? And should wine presses be included as ‘industrial’? After all they are machines that never fail to impress by the sheer size of the timbers they’re made from. There again, all over the island there are old threshing floors to be found, where no machines were involved, just human toil and sweat, but something was being processed to convert it from one state to another. Hmm, the boundaries of ‘industry’ were becoming blurred.

Think of British industry in olden days and what comes to mind? Chimneys belching smoke, the noise of machines, factory hooters, the white heat of furnaces, soot, smog, chemical pollution, etc. Then there are the three main fossil fuels that powered it all, coal that was used to fire – and steam – the first industrialised nation in the world (that’s us British of course), that also made town gas, and later came oil and natural gas, all of which are also used to fire power stations to make electricity.

But here in the Canary Islands there are none of those natural resources and so an industrial revolution was impossible. Nevertheless there was industry here of a sort – on a lightweight scale and overlapping into domestic and agricultural processes. I don’t know if all of this all qualifies as industry, but mechanical and industrial processes were involved in the machinery of the mills and the firing of the kilns and ovens. Whatever their label, the elements that powered them here were wind and water (‘green’ energy in fact), and fire that at first was fuelled by wood, the consumption of which led to deforestation on the island.

Most of this ‘industry’ was focused on food production. The windmills and watermills were for crushing grain, mainly roasted grain to make gofio, the local flour, and the ovens were for drying fruit, baking bread and roasting grain. The other ‘ovens’, the ones we call ‘kilns’, were for making clay tiles for roofs and floors and for burning limestone to produce building mortar and powdered lime for whitewash. But I’m intrigued by the one oven on the list that was for processing tar. How was that done and where did the bitumen come from? Or was it simply to melt imported bitumen for use nearby in its molten state?

Using imported metal machinery (the windmills and water mills used wood and stone), there were also water pumping stations, in particular El Elevador de Aguas (The Water Lift) de Gordejuela at El Realejo Bajo on the north coast, where, by means of a steam engine, fresh water was pumped from its low level source up a height of 270 metres to the banana and tomato plantations above that were owned by the Hamilton family. The steam engine here was the first on the island and an innovation in 1903. There was a smaller pumping station at Punta Hidalgo, also on the north coast. The ruins of both buildings are still to be seen, those at Gordejuela are quite spectacular.

At this point my lack of local knowledge shows up. It would seem to me that all the ovens and kilns that burnt trees would lead to deforestation that, in combination with a growing population and its demands for water, must have led to the land drying out. In other words there was a shrinking supply of two major sources of fuel and, therefore, mechanical power. But modern industrial production methods came to the rescue and brought a change in the scale of operations. In the 19th century coal arrived by ship, mainly from Wales. The imported coal and then oil brought the ability to generate electricity which led to the demise of the old methods, much the same as happened in Britain and elsewhere. Then the advent of the internal (or infernal) combustion engine meant in turn the demise of steam engines. Everything could now be produced in larger quantities, easier and faster, so Tenerife and the rest of the Canary Islands abandoned the old ways and moved into the modern era. The ovens and windmills disappeared and the watermills fell into ruin, although a few have survived long enough to be saved as historic attractions. Look out for them on your travels.

Older Star Trek fans will know what I mean, when Spock said to Kirk, “It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.”