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Tobacco in Tenerife 

Today you wouldn’t think of the Canary Islands as having a tobacco industry, but the evidence is there to see in the shady Plaza del Pato in Santa Cruz. Here in the ‘Square of the Duck,’ you’ll find a beautifully tiled pool surrounded by spouting ceramic frogs and a central sculpture of a duck, also spouting. Pedestrians are encouraged to take a rest on a number of attractively tiled seats which, as well as showing off the island’s ceramic skills, advertise island products and imports of about a hundred years ago.

Some of the adverts entice people to indulge in what was then a fashionable pastime – smoking. And the illustrations are certainly attractive, there’s the ‘Tinerfena,’ made by Manuel Herrara, ‘La Lucha’ (the sport of Canarian wrestling which is very similar to Cumberland wrestling), by Manuel Lopez, the ‘Colon’ (or Columbus), by Isidro Rojas, and ‘La Lucha’ cigarillos, with ‘Extra Habana’ (extra Havana tobacco), by M. Morales Clavijo.

For much of the nineteenth century the mainstay of Tenerife’s economy was the production of cochineal, a scarlet dye made from the bodies of insects that live on cactus plants, until the discovery of a synthetic alternative. This discovery meant the collapse of the cochineal industry, which in turn led to a financial crisis from 1870 to 1880 when alternatives had to be found, and quickly. One of the alternatives was tobacco.

In 1875 50,000 kilos of tobacco were imported to meet demand and to encourage supply, and in the same year a magazine appeared, published for two years in Santa Cruz by Luis Machan del Corral, that gave instructions about the cultivation of the plant.

An attempt was made to establish a tobacco industry; the island government set up a commission to give encouragement following the ‘Cuban Model’ economy, which was the production and processing of main crops of tobacco and sugar, centred on Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Palma.

Commercial production began but the infant industry did not yield sufficient profit, and this restricted its development. A monopoly was set up by the government and leased to a company that refused to accept the local tobacco, saying that it was sub-standard. By this time a lot of money had been spent, and wasted, in the construction of drying sheds for the home-grown leaves.

Nevertheless the industry became established by blending imported Cuban tobacco, and it prospered, especially in La Palma, although a 1903 guide book for English visitors stated that “a little tobacco is, however, still grown in Tenerife but the industry is a small one.”

The tobacco companies employed a lot of workers to roll the cigars by hand, and wherever large numbers of workers were employed, workers’ movements and trade unions began to find their feet, in Spain as well as in Britain. Soon after the year 1900, dock workers, transport workers and construction workers came out on strike for better pay and conditions, which happened again in 1923. Significantly there were sufficient numbers of tobacco workers to join the strike.

Of the two products of the ‘Cuban Model’ economy, sugar and tobacco, tobacco survived. In 1909 there were sixteen factories, employing by 1914 2,300 workers in Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Palma, but the industry was soon overtaken by the production of bananas and tomatoes that had begun at the same time during the 1880’s. However, tobacco survived on a restricted market thanks to local demand and a contract with the Compania Arren-dataria de Tabacos that guaranteed sales in mainland Spain.

In Santa Cruz during the 1890’s two of the tobacco manufacturers, or ‘Fabricas de Tabacos’, were M. Zamorano, who made ‘La Matildata’ cigars at 24, Plaza de la Constitucion and 21, Calle San Jose, and Manuel Herrara, who produced the ‘Tinerfenia,’ at 18, Cruz Verde. The names of some of the other cigars have their own appeal, for instance there was ‘La Verdad’, meaning ‘The Truth,’ or ‘the Real Thing,’ and ‘El Torpedo,’ which speaks for itself, made by Snr. Vuida and the sons of Manuel Lopez who had produced ‘La Lucha,’ and was then under the management of the wonderfully named Gumpersindo Zamorano at 80, Calle Castillo, Santa Cruz. The tobacco companies also had their own London agents, for example there was Mendoza, Burt & Co., in London as well as Tenerife.

From 1890 to at least 1922 an Englishman, A. Samler Brown, published a guide book for English-speaking tourists in which he wrote that, in Tenerife “very good cigars can be obtained at most moderate prices,” and further that, “Tenerife and Canarian cigars have long been known all the world over.”(!) But now, so I believe, all the tobacco comes from outside the archipelago and the cigars are only rolled here.

To follow a historic tobacco trail in Santa Cruz, you can take a walk, starting from the colourful and informative tiled seats of the Plaza del Pato, south of the Parque Garcia Santabria to the corner of Calle El Pilar and Sanchez Guerra, where stands the palatial ‘La Lucha’ office building, available to rent, then up the Rambla de Pulido, past the Rambla de Santa Cruz, to find the ‘Victoria’ factory building, which looks a bit grim and is also available to rent, but standing just across the yard is the very smart and decorative former proprietor’s house and office. No. 7 Cruz Verde, the home of ‘Colon’ made by Isidro Rojas, is no more, but No. 13, Plaza de la Iglesia, opposite the Iglesia de la Concepcion, although it’s a bingo hall today, still proudly proclaims itself to be the ‘Tinerfena’ made by Manuel Herrara. And there are probably more that I don’t know about.

(Useful books for writing this article were, ‘La Tradicion Insular del Tabaco,’ by Anelio Rodriguez Cancepcion, published in 2000, ‘Canaries – A Thematic Encyclopedia,’ published in English by ‘El Dia’ in 1995,’ and A. Samler Brown’s series of guide books ‘Madeira, Canary Islands and Azores’.)