Friends of Tenerife – A Fairy Tale
Once upon a time in Madrid there was consternation in the Royal Court and King Carlos lll was not amused. Earlier in his reign, in 1774, he had decided to move the Royal Botanical Garden to its current location next to the Prado Museum. The move had taken too long and the new garden was not opened until 1781. This was only the start of his troubles.
There was growing interest in the botany from the Spanish colonies but, because of the harsh Madrid winter; the majority of the plants would not take.
Yet another seven years passed before someone whispered in the King’s ear, “Why not develop a Garden of Acclimatisation on one of our islands in the Atlantic, off Africa?”.
“Good idea,” said the King, “I know just the man to oversee this undertaking.” And so in August 1788 he issued a royal decree and had it delivered to Don Alonso de Nava y Grimon, the sixth Marquis de Villanueva, at his stately home in La Laguna, which was then the capital of Tenerife.
Being a well respected gentleman and leader of a group of similarly rich landowners who were labelled the Friends of Tenerife, he had no option but to obey his ruler. Don Alonso was also left in no doubt that he and his associates were to finance and carry out this operation with no help from the exchequer.
King Carlos was pleased with this solution to his problem. Perhaps he wished that he could solve all his problems so easily. Four months later he did; in December 1788 he died.
Don Alonso must have felt relieved. The Friends of Tenerife had been let off the hook; but not so. The successor to Carlos lll was his second son, Carlos 1V who was perceived at court as being amiable but simple minded. His first declaration was that he would maintain the decrees and policies of his father.
Don Alonso was resigned to fulfilling his mission and called on his close friend and wine merchant, Archibald Little, to find suitable land in the Porto Orotava area; this being the principal port for shipping the produce of the island. It was not until 1808 that the town was re-named Puerto de la Cruz, created, as usual, by royal decree.
In 1774, Archibald Little, at the age of 14, had joined his uncle, John Pasley in the family firm of wine exporters on Tenerife. He was three years younger than the Marquis of Villanueva. By 1788, at the time of the royal decree they were both in the prime of their lives and in control of their families’ assets in Tenerife. Archibald had cornered the wine market with the help of the Marquis. They were both wealthy men.
Archibald suggested two sites which were halfway between La Orotava and the port. The first site was part of a zone known as El Robado which was very steep and covered in rough stone.
It contained a ruined building but was deemed unacceptable due to the precipitous terrain.
The second site was adjoining the La Paz area and was more suitable but, according to Alexander von Humboldt, it was partially covered by a huge volcanic cone, known as the hill of Durazno. The land was deemed useless and was donated to the cause by the Irish owner who resided in the mainland.
The levelling of the hill of Durazno took almost two years of hard graft and, in 1790, following plans drawn up by Nicolas Eduardo, an architect of La Laguna, work commenced on preparing the ground to accept the plants. By 1792 the Garden of Acclimatisation was finished and open to botanists from all over Europe. After all this trouble, the sad outcome was that the scheme didn’t work. Whereas the plants flourished in Puerto de la Cruz, they failed to transfer to Madrid. The harsh winter had won.
Meanwhile, the astute Archibald Little had purchased the first site and proceeded to restore the Canarian style house. He also planted a beautiful garden which, over the years, has been visited by many famous people. The initial visitors were members of the first diplomatic mission to China who stayed at the house in October 1792 before they set off to climb Mount Teide.
The local people called it Sitio Litre; Litre being their pronunciation of Little. Sitio refers to a place where the owners can rest and play, but it is not their main home. The finca is still called Sitio Litre today but it is also known as the Orchid Garden and remains under British ownership.
The two gardens adjoin the Carretera Botanico, the main road to Santa Cruz, and are both open to the public.
Looking back on those days of yore, the King was the law in the land and his subjects acceded to his wishes without question, except when he tried to ban bullfighting. The Friends of Tenerife had received the Royal Decree and they were not found wanting,
And today, if Don Felipe Vl decreed that the present Friends of Tenerife should build, at their own expense, the proposed Marina in Puerto de la Cruz they also will not be found wanting. They will not be found at all!
Ken Fisher, President of Friends of Tenerife