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In Spain the year 1898 is known simply as ‘The Disaster.’ That was the year when Spain lost its empire to a new imperial power, the United States of America.

There had been civil war in Cuba and unrest in the Philippines for years, then during the early part of 1898 tension reached its peak over the U.S. support for the Cuban and Filipino insurgents, or freedom fighters, who wanted inde-pendence from Spain. When an American warship, the ‘Maine,’ exploded in the harbour of Havana in Cuba the American press went wild and imme-diately accused the Spanish of treachery. Breaking point was reached and the U.S.A. declared war on 25th April, although it was backdated dubiously to the 18th, so that hostilities it had already initiated could be covered.
The war on land and at sea was carried out in and around the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, with the U.S. annexing the independent kingdom of Hawaii on the way across the Pacific, even though it had no connection with Spain.
The Spanish navy, out-dated and fairly decrepit as it was, was weakened further when it had to be divided into three parts, between the Philippines in the far east, the Spanish possessions in the West Indies, and a fleet held in reserve for the home waters. Home waters because it was feared that the United States might attack mainland Spain itself, taking with it the Canary Islands, so a defensive naval force had to be kept on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
The Canaries were put on high alert, with existing defences being rapidly strengthened and stores of munitions built up. The ‘Illustrated London News’ was one of the British periodicals that reported on the situation.
On the 23rd April the paper reported from the archipelago: “The defensive batteries and garrisons in Tenerife and the Canary Islands have been considerably strengthened … Among the preparations for war made by Spain since the situation between herself and the United States reached its most critical stage, has been the taking over by the Government authorities of all chief public buildings and warehouses in Tenerife and Grand Canary for the use of troops if need be, and the storage of ammunition and provisions. Large cargoes have already been landed on both islands, and further supplies are on the way. The number of Spanish troops estimated to be due at Tenerife and Grand Canary almost immediately is estimated at a total of twelve thousand. The fortifications which have been some time in progress are being pushed on apace, and even churches are being converted into barracks and store-rooms at points where other suitable buildings are scarce.”
A state of war, with civil administration handed over to the military, was declared in Tenerife on 9th May. Any criticism of the government or spreading of false rumours was to be punished.
Reports from Las Palmas featured more prominently in the ILN: “Las Palmas, capital of Grand Canary, and the most important town of the Archipelago, is protected by a mountain of some height, from the top of which a powerful land battery now commands the spacious harbour, which has been constructed within the last few years. Tenerife, the largest island of the group, is also being strengthened with batteries at its most commanding points.”
For readers unfamiliar with the Canaries the paper gave some background information: “The Canary Islands have been a Spanish province since the end of the fifteenth century. Their internal history goes far back into antiquity, and they are now generally supposed to be the Fortunate Islands of ancient legend. They were known to the Phoenicians and visited by voyagers of that far-travelled nation. They have been noted for their oil, wheat tobacco, tropical fruits, and other products, but now they seem likely to afford a valuable stronghold to Spain in the event of war.” On Gran Canaria, La Isletta was the focal point for army training. Road-making was undertaken and two gun batteries were completed.
“Scenes on Grand Canary Island, now being fortified and provisioned by Spain.
Troops road-making on the Isletta – A Spanish soldier of the 17th Cazadores – Breakfast-time on the Isletta – The Plaza de Santa Ana, Las Palmas, where the Military Mass was celebrated – The Port of Las Palmas and the Isletta, where two batteries are nearing completion.”
For the duration of the war the portion of the Spanish navy kept in reserve as a home fleet did not participate. But when news of Spanish reverses in the Philippines led to a government decision to send reinforce-ments, the reserve squadron, including torpedo-boat des-troyers, under Admiral Camara set sail from Cadiz across the Mediterranean to Port Said.
Spain was right to be concerned about the security of the Canary Islands. On 27th June the Marine Department of the United States announced the formation of an eastern naval squadron, commissioned to attack the Spanish coasts. A few days later, as Admiral Camara’s fleet was about to pass through the Suez Canal, half of the fleet, along with the admiral, was suddenly ordered to return to Spain, while the rest of the Spanish war-ships continued into the Canal. Admiral Camara expected that he would soon have to do battle with the greatly superior American force, commanded by Admiral Watson, which was about to cross the Atlantic.
Before this could happen however, fighting stopped in July. An armistice was declared on 12th August, and peace negotiations began that ended with the Treaty of Paris on December 10th 1898.
Spain had lost an empire and the U.S.A. had gained one. Among the few islands that Spain kept were the Canary Islands. But it has to be said, if the U.S. had threatened the Canaries, the Europeans with their financial interests, in particular Great Britain, the biggest investor in Tenerife, might have had something to say about it and the war would then have taken a very different course.

The photos and quoted text are taken from bound sets of the Illustrated London News by kind permission of Jose Manuel Padilla Barrera, librarian at the Casino Club of Santa Cruz, with help from assistant librarian Maria Esther Tubia Perez.