“Torre del Conde” of La Gomera
Through the pages of the ‘Tenerife News’, may I make a suggestion to the Cabildo of Gomera, the Ayuntamiento of San Sebastian and the University of La Laguna, that an archaeological survey be made of the land surrounding the Torre del Conde of San Sebastian, Gomera?
‘El Torre del Conde de La Gomera’, the ‘Tower of the Count of La Gomera’, is the landmark, the icon, of San Sebastian, the capital of the island. Today the tower stands in isolation but centuries ago it formed only one part of a much larger complex of buildings.
The Tower of the Count is a defensible building, it’s on record as having served as a refuge. However, on its own the tower would not have been able to withstand a siege of more than a few days, through a lack of drinking water if nothing else. Logic dictates that there must have been other buildings, and there is visible evidence in the masonry of two of the tower walls for parts of a larger structure. These parts were two ranges of buildings, one to the north west and the other to the south west of the tower.
This demonstrates at the very least a building with an ‘L’ shaped plan with the tower in the angle. But an ‘L’ shaped building could never be regarded as defensible, so it is certain that these two ranges were in fact two sides of a quadrangle of walls and buildings that surrounded a courtyard, the corners of which were approximately at the cardinal points of the compass, with the tower at the easternmost. In this arrangement there would have been accommodation for guests, the servants, stabling for horses, and store houses.
The all-important well, which today is in the open at a short distance south west of the tower, would have been situated inside a room that was part of the south west range and therefore secure for use by the occupants. The steps up to the first floor door of the tower also lead out of the south west range. The jambs, or sides, of two ground-floor doors have survived; one door faced into the courtyard, the other door faced the outside. There are sockets in the jambstones for substantial timber draw-bars, indicating that the tower with the south west range were self-contained, and they could be defended as the last refuge in the event that the rest of the complex had been overrun by attackers.
The Torre del Conde was built between 1447 and 1450 by Hernan de Peraza the elder during the earliest days of the Spanish Conquest of the Canaries. It was used as a retreat from attack by the native Gomerans on at least one occasion. In 1488, after the murder of her husband Hernan de Peraza the younger, the beautiful but notorious Beatriz de Bobadilla “… in all haste retired, with her children and the principal inhabitants of the town, into the castle at the port. They were scarcely entered the fortress, when it was surrounded and closely beset by the Gomerans”.1 All of these important people would have brought their families, their most valuable possessions and their servants with them. They would have taken up some considerable space, which is another clue to the existence of a complex of buildings, not just the tower.
The only documentary indications of a structure in the form of a quadrangle are found in the use of the word “fortress”1 and in a description of 1578 that noted “a tower and a casa fuerte”2, making a distinction between the two and hinting at something similar to La Casa Fuerte de Adeje in Tenerife, with its lord’s residence, its gun platform on the tower, various outbuildings and vegetable gardens within its walls. By way of confirmation, after the siege, Beatriz de Bobadilla entered the tower with thirty men and hung Hernando Munos “in the square of the tower”, in other words in the enclosed courtyard.1
One question is, ‘When was the quadrangle of buildings demolished?’ In 1578, well over a hundred years after their construction, the defences were described as being outdated and in need of modernisation.2 They had been built as a defence against attack from inland by the natives, but that threat had long passed, and the threat was now from the seaward side of the island. King Philip II ordered repair work to be done, subject to plans designed by the engineer Fracin.3
In 1587 the Italian engineer Leonardo de Torriani was called upon by King Philip to make recommendations for improvements to all fortifications in the Canary Islands. In his book, ‘Description and History of the Canary Islands’, a drawing of his proposal for San Sebastian shows the tower standing alone, to be surrounded by a new curtain wall with bastions at each corner.4 It seems likely that the demolition was carried out some time after 1578, but Torriani’s improvements were never started and so the tower was left in isolation as the sole survivor of a larger complex of defensible buildings, to become a prison for a time and then later it fell into disuse.5
Everything about the construction of the tower can be examined (and an up-to-date, detailed architectural survey should be made, if only because there are inaccuracies in the published drawings). On the other hand, nothing at all is known about the buildings that enclosed “the square of the tower”, so a strong case can be made for a geophysical survey of the site, to be followed, depending on results, by archaeological excavation. All around the tower is open ground so the opportunity is there waiting, and then perhaps the fifteenth century Torre del Conde, the ‘primitive fort’ of Hernan de Peraza the elder, will be revealed.