An eulogy to Don Antonio Gutierrez
When Nelson left Tenerife he was a broken man, defeated and demoralised, he was an amputee in pain and in a state of severe depression. He wrote to his commanding officer, Admiral Jervis, “I am become a burthen to my friends and useless to my country … When I leave your command I become dead to the world; I go hence and am no more seen.”
He had been defeated by over-ambition, by a lack of local knowledge, especially of the sea currents, but in the main by the sheer brilliance of Don Antonio Gutierrez y Gonzalez-Varona, Captain General of the Canary Islands.
In 1797 Gutierrez was 68 years old to Nelson’s 39. His life since the age of 7 had been the Spanish army. He had campaigned in Italy, the Falkland Islands, Algiers and Gibraltar, and had served as the commander of the island of Menorca. In 1791 he was appointed Captain General of the Canary Islands, and it was here that he experienced his finest hour.
During the Napoleonic wars, when Spain and Britain were enemies, the Canary Islands were all but cut off from the high command in mainland Spain; supplies and reinforcements from 800 miles away across British-controlled waters could not be guaranteed. Gutierrez had to make do with what the archipelago had to offer.
What he had at his disposal were the island militias, the shepherds who exchanged their crooks for pikes, the cobblers and bakers who stopped work in order to become soldiers, the ‘Dad’s Army’ of Tenerife. Yes, there was a backbone of veterans, but only a backbone. There were the seventeen forts of Santa Cruz, but to man them all day and all night, in a constant state of tension for an indefinite period, required more than one team of artillerymen per cannon, and there was a shortage. Munitions had been allocated sufficient to maintain a respectable military presence but not to withstand an invasion. Gutierrez had his back to the wall. This being the case, when the mighty British navy appeared over the horizon, it would not have been unreasonable for Gutierrez to have hoisted the white flag and surrendered, but that was precisely what Gutierrez did not do.
Instead, he deployed his limited resources in the best possible way, making the maximum use of them with the result that the Tinerfenos were victorious.
After the battle Gutierrez showed himself to be not only an excellent strategist and tactician, but also a shrewd diplomat. Immediately after the signing of the capitulation by Captain Thomas Troubridge, he immediately set in train care for the British wounded and prisoners. He allowed the defeated invaders to retreat in dignity, even providing boats to help them return to their ships. This ensured that any existing enmity would not be allowed to linger. It also got the British off the island as quickly as possible, for if they had stayed longer they might have realised that Gutierrez had little left in reserve, and that if another British attack were to be mounted it would probably be successful.
Most of the time Nelson was a good judge of men, he was a professional naval officer who could appreciate the qualities or defects of those around him. Nelson was only 5ft 4ins tall, but he was a ‘big’ man, big enough to acknow-ledge without bitterness that on that day, the 25th July 1797, the best man had won.
The opposing commanders parted on terms of mutual respect with the promise of future friendship that was not to be. Gutierrez wrote to Nelson:
“It would be most satisfactory to me if I could address you personally, when circumstances permit, on a subject upon which you, sir, display such high and worthy gifts. In the meantime,” Gutierrez wrote, “I pray that God may preserve your life for many happy years.”
Gutierrez continued to serve as Captain General of Tenerife until his death on the 14th May 1799, and just as Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, so Captain General Don Antonio Gutierrez was buried in La Iglesia de la Concepcion, the main church of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
On the night of 14th May 2019 at the Naval Club in London, 222 years after the Battle of Santa Cruz and 220 years to the very day after the death of Don Antonio Gutierrez, glasses were raised by the Spanish Tertulia de Amigos and the English Nelson Society in memory and admiration of both men.