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Garachico: The principal port in the Island of Tenerife 

‘The Principal Port in the Island of Tenerife’ – it’s hard to believe that that was once Garachico, and yet it was true for about 200 years. In 1588 Garachico had 400 houses, which made it twice the size of Santa Cruz.

The description comes from a book written by an Italian military engineer, Leonardo de Torriani. In 1587 King Philip II of Spain appointed Torriani to inspect the Canary Islands and report on them, with a view to improving their fortifications. Torriani faithfully submitted his regular reports over a period of about five years, and made practical suggestions, very few of which were carried out. In his book, ‘Description and History of the Canary Islands’, he published his findings and recommendations, as well as a brief description of each place he visited.

It’s a fascinating book, and with regard to Garachico it shows that the town was a far more significant place than it is today. Torriani claimed that it was the richest and most commercially important of all the districts and towns in all the Canary Islands. In size, by comparison, La Laguna, the island capital in those days, had 1000 houses, Buenavista, believe it or not, was the same size as Santa Cruz with 200 houses, while Puerto de Orotava (Puerto de la Cruz) was not even worth a mention.

The inhabitants of Gara-chico were described as “noble and rich people.” They were rich because the region that stretched as far as Realejos was very fertile, in the hills and higher regions there were beautiful woods and flowing streams, while lower down there were fertile fields of vines, sugar and wheat. Below them again the coast for about a mile and a half was useful and productive as much as for fishing as for the loading and unloading of ships.

The bay of the town was the port, which at that time was in the shape of a half moon, and it was here that Torriani’s military mind came into play. The port, where all of the products from west of Realejos came to load, was vulnerable to attack – “enterprising enemies can disembark secretly to sack and burn the town.” Torriani probably had the English and Sir Francis Drake – ‘The Dragon’ as he was known to the Spaniards – in mind when he wrote this. He recommended that to improve the security for the ships and the landing place, a defensive work should be built in an elevated location near the small fort.

(The map is an interesting combination of plan and perspective. The town is shown from above while the hills behind are shown as they would be seen from the sea.)

The port of Garachico did have a natural, defensive advantage in the direction of the sea, because it was encircled by cliffs of volcanic rocks which could impede disembarkation and its entry was very narrow, so narrow that it could be defended, he reckoned, by only four men. But not far away, at the first raised beach, “the enemy can raid inland with profit.”

Another problem Torriani identified was that, because of the port’s location, its orientation, and that the entrance was so narrow, when it was lashed by winds from the north, ships were inevitably trapped inside the port. To remedy this bad fault he suggested that two moles (piers, or breakwaters), should be built at the entran-ce, and because they need not be large, they could be built in a short time and at little expense. For military protection one of them could be joined to a new small fort. The change would benefit greatly the protection of the Garachico.

However, the people of Garachico did not rise to the occasion. They did not instruct Torriani to build the moles nor the small fort. He wrote that they were “not impressed by the proposal, not by the convenience, the security, the utility for everyone, nor the renown that would be gained for their intelligence.” You can almost hear him say, “What a small-minded, penny-pinching bunch!” He sounded rather brassed-off about the matter.

With regard to the existing castillo, or small fort, he could only make recommen-dations to improve the existing building, which was in the form of a square, without towers or bastions and small in size. In fact this is the Castillo San Miguel that we see today unchanged from Torriani’s time. He suggested that it be augmented with two curtain walls, one in the direction of the port, where the enemy had to pass to disembark, and the other in the direction of the cliff that overlooks the harbour. He had a low opinion of the castillo saying, “it is not in truth a fortification, but only a useful and appropriate place for the artillery.” But he conceded that it would be sufficient, because no other castillo could cover the places commanded by this one. In addition, two outside curtain walls and four small bastions could be added which would protect the artillery.

Despite all this there was a big problem; the town and the port were overlooked and dominated by San Pedro de Daute on the cliff to the west. Torriani pointed out that to gain access there would be easy for the enemy if they disembarked in one of the inlets to the west, from where they could also sack the towns of Buenavista, Los Silos and others. About this Torriani said, “as a result this place merits great consideration for defence,” and went on to discuss it in the next chapter of his book

So nothing was done about Torriani’s advice, but, thank-fully, Garachico was not attac-ked by those rotten English (who in fact were the main trading partners with the Canary Islands after mainland Spain), and the town with its port continued to flourish. At least it did until the 5th May 1706, when the Montana Negra volcano erupted and a huge flow of lava descended to destroy much of the town and almost fill the port – but that’s another story.

Nowadays, the area around Garachico is still fertile farmland and the town is a very peaceful, attractive place.