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Hugh Salvin in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 1824 

On 5th January 1824 HMS Cambridge, under the command of Captain Thomas Maling, set sail from England for South America to take four British Consuls, their families and their staff, making a total of seventy-two passengers, to the newly independent republics of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Peru.

The ship’s chaplain was Reverend Hugh Salvin, who later became vicar of the church in the town where I live. Reverend Salvin kept a journal of the three-year long voyage, which he published in 1829 entitled ‘Journal Written on Board of His Majesty’s Ship Cambridge, from January 1824 – May 1827’. Among other subjects, that included the war of independence in Chile between the Spanish government forces and the rebels under Simon Bolivar, Rev. Salvin wrote about his brief visit to Tenerife.

Many of the things he saw were new to him that are very familiar to us today. For instance, it’s hard to imagine an orange or a banana being a curiosity, or citrons and lemons, or being so fascinated with that strange creature called a camel. Rev. Salvin was a bit snobbish and unfavourably impressed by the lack of literacy or numeracy of ‘the lower orders’, but I wonder how England of the time compared.

One day Rev. Salvin and some companions set off from Santa Cruz to La Laguna but they gave up and didn’t complete the journey, even though there were rest stations at intervals on the road where travellers could buy refreshments. But let him tell us about his experiences in his own words, after leaving the island of La Palma on 21st January 1824. His diary reads (and the italics are mine) :-

“The majestic summit of the Peak (Teide) was distinctly seen ahead. About noon, we drew near to the island (of Tenerife), and all glasses (telescopes) were out to examine the appearance of the country. The whole island, on the side of Santa Cruz, to which we are approaching, appears thrown into sharp pointed hills (the Anagas), the tops of which are apparently covered with fir trees, but the sides present little or no appearance of vegetation.

Late in the evening the ship cast anchor in forty fathoms (about 75m).

January 22 – This morning, a little after nine, I went off in the captain’s boat, with Mrs. Maling (the Captain’s wife) and Mrs. Nugent, and Mr. and Miss Rowcroft, to visit the town. We went first to the house of the English consul, who received us with great politeness, and treated us with oranges, bananas, and sweet cakes. His house, which is one of the best in town, consists of a number of large rooms, the walls of which are all white-washed, the furniture, English chairs and tables, no carpets or curtains, large coarse-looking windows. We went next to pay a ceremonious visit to the governor.

As soon as the visit was ended we sent for donkies (sic) to carry the party up the mountain to Lagano (La Laguna). Mrs. Maling, who did not like riding on a donkey, and I walked, leaving the rest of the party to follow us. We had walked about a mile, when Mr. Rowcroft appeared magni-ficently mounted on a camel, perched on one side of the pannier, and his conductor to balance him on the other. When he reached us, the conductor resigned his place to Mrs. Maling.

These camels, of which there are many in the town, are much inferior in size to those which are found on the shores of the Mediterranean. They are docile patient creatures. They kneel down both with fore and hind legs to receive their burthen, their thigh bones being long enough to allow their hind knees to come to the ground. It is curious to hear them drink from their water-stomachs: a gurgling sound is heard from their insides somewhat resembling that which a cow makes when ruminating.

When we had ascended the hill as far as the first station, and had taken some goat’s milk and bread from some goatherds stationed there, we hardly thought it worth while to proceed any further. The station commands a magnificent view of Santa Cruz, and the hills are all thrown about in wild magnificence, sharp-pointed, rugged, and almost bereft of verdure. The road by which we ascended the hill is ex-ceedingly steep and rough, full of loose fragments that had once been lava. Towards the bottom, near the town, there is a great quantity of whitish stone, volcanic tuff, which is much used in building.

On reaching the town again, we visited a garden on the outskirts, where were growing, citrons, lemons, cocoa trees and roses in abundance.

I visited two of the churches; they are handsome, but somewhat tawdry, having a great profusion of ornament about the altars, brick pavements and plenty of wax images. In one of the churches a child was exposed in an ornamental box, and dressed in silk, with its face uncovered; it had died this morning, and was to be buried at four. I conversed a little with two priests, who were in the church: they were civil, and rather intelligent.

Upon the whole, the inhabitants seem lazy. I am told none of the lower orders can read or write; even few of the shopkeepers are able to sign their names, and they keep their accounts in ready cash.

January 23 – Went on shore, and employed a few hours in making a collection of minerals of the island.

Yesterday I visited a museum belonging to a Mr. Migliorini, a native of Verona, who has long been domiciled in Santa Cruz. He shewed us a specimen of a mummy, such as the original inhabitants, the Guanches, possessed the art of making, which are found in the caverns in the most inaccessible parts of the mountains. It looks like a mass of dried bones covered in parchment. In the same box was a mass of black balsam, or what was so called, and said to be used in the process of embalming.

I am told the snow does not remain the whole year on the top of the peak (Teide). At night I walked up on deck, the sky quite serene, and the stars brilliant; it is almost impossible to give an idea of the soft balmy feel of the air.

January 24 – Set sail again, after taking water, bullocks (to supply fresh meat), &c.”

We can only wish that Reverend Salvin had gone to La Laguna, and had had a longer stay in order to describe the island and its life. The Tenerife of 200 years ago was quite a different world.

(A sad post script: Thomas Rowcroft, the British Consul due to serve in Peru, was accidentally shot on 6th December 1824 by one of Simon Bolivar’s men and he died shortly afterwards.)