On a warm July night in 1797, with a high swell running, British ships were anchored off the coast of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. One of them, the Theseus, was the flag-ship of Horatio Nelson, recently promoted to Rear Admiral of the British navy, under orders from Admiral John Jervis to attack the fortifications in Santa Cruz, which protected the port and thence the inland city of La Laguna, the island’s capital. In total, between all the ships, they counted on 400 guns, and 4,000 fighting men.
Silently, boats launched from the ships under cover of dark on July 22nd, but the high swell proved too much and they had to turn back, but not before they had been spotted by sentries on the watchtowers of the long fortification, which ran the length of the town and beyond, from the Castillo de San Juan at one end, now dwarfed by Tenerife’s iconic Auditorium, to Castillo San Andres at the other end – now a tumble-down ruin in the village of the same name, next to the much-photographed beach of Las Teresitas.
General Antonio Gutiérrez, commander of the Spanish troops in the Tinerfeñan capital had had ample time to prepare a strategy, and gather a force of some 1,700 men, less than half that of the British, and made up of local militia and hunters as well as regular troops. The British had executed a lightning strike on Santa Cruz in April, and Gutiérrez had taken heed of the necessity to prepare for another, more ambitious attack.
He cleverly moved his forces around, fooling Nelson into believing that there were more men and gun power than there actually were. He thwarted a second attack, and Nelson withdrew along the coast to plan a new strategy.
On the night of July 24th the British returned, and Nelson decided that this time he would personally lead the attack. It’s well-recorded that his eagerness to lead his men into battle cost him his arm. He was badly wounded in the elbow, causing the amputation of his forearm. With their commander returned to his ship for surgery the British troops fought on under the command of Captain Thomas Troubridge.
Eventually Gutiérrez superior strategy, and the enthusiastic co-operation of the local citizens was too much. Having lost 250 men, and with many more captured or wounded, Troubridge surrendered. Gutiérrez was magnanimous in victory, helping the injured and allowing the surrendered men to return to their ships. Gifts were even exchanged, and Nelson delivered news of the Spanish victory to the mainland, at Gutiérrez’s request, on his was back to Britain to recuperate enough to meet the next year’s challenge at the Battle of the Nile much more successfully.
On the evening of July 27th of 2013 I sit on the edge of the pool which was built in Santa Cruz’s Plaza de España five years ago, over the site of the Castillo San Cristóbal. The shape of the original fortification is outlined on the bottom of the pool as homage to the town’s history. There is, as always, a slight maritime breeze ruffling the water, but it’s warm on my skin. I’m trying to capture the moment when that breeze drops and the reflection of the War Memorial and the Canarian Parliament building opposite are good. Suddenly, a crack like a thousand thunders, a billow of smoke rises across the water, and the sky is filled with fleeing pigeons.
A cannon has marked the hour, and also the re-enactment of the Battle of Santa Cruz, now 216 years ago. Each year since 2008, the Battle, or parts of it, have been re-enacted on or around the streets of Santa Cruz. The first year was as faithful a re-enactment as could be achieved, over two days of July 24th and 25th, a somewhat belated celebration of the 200th anniversary. Since then, this never-ending recession has dictated what’s possible or not.
In the late afternoon of Saturday a makeshift camp was put together in Plaza de España, representing a typical military camp of the time. Back in 1797 Castillo San Cristóbal stood close to where the camp was pitched yesterday. Today most of the castle lies underground, and an excellent small museum has been made around the surviving ruins, which houses El Tigre, said to be the canon which robbed Nelson of his arm. The “camp” was roped off, and clearly one had to know someone or have a press pass to enter. It would have been great to have gotten closer, but it was effective, including the bloody doctor’s apron hanging on a peg outside a tent.
As the troops waited out the hours until the attack would come, they occupied themselves as soldiers do, preparing ammunition, drilling and eating and drinking. I managed to speak to a couple of the guys, though, and they were clearly having the time of their lives. I asked how much rehearsal they have to do, and apparently, since they come from all around the islands there isn’t time to rehearse as such, so it’s very much all done as they go along. Quite an achievement. The costumes are the best they can possibly do, not all refer to the same regiment, apparently, but are all based on original uniforms of the time.
As dusk fell, and the final firing of the cannon sounded over the square (the pigeons now thoroughly dispersed, goodness knows where they go to!) , the action moved to the streets around Plaza de Madera, near Teatro Guimerá, where the remnants of the British forces valiantly, and with much good humor, fought their superior (in strategy if not numbers) foes.
The trouble with re-enactments from the onlooker’s point of view is that it’s impossible to get to see everything. Folk station themselves at the points they wish to watch, so if you follow the battle from (in this case) street to street, you won’t get to see or hear the actual peace signing. Still it was fun to follow as much as one could.
It may not be on the scale of US re-enactments, like Gettysburg, but it is a valuable lesson to the local kids in remembering a proud moment in Tenerife’s history. It was the only real defeat of Nelson’s illustrious career. He was an innovator and a brilliant leader, so it’s a huge tribute to Antonio Gutiérrez that he pulled off this victory not only against a formidable enemy, but with less than half the manpower and arms available to the British.
Each year the re-enactment is different, as they play out various elements of the battle. Last year it centered around the Castillo de San Juan, where the British originally tried to land. It would be nice to think that sometime in the not too distant future they may be able to mount a full re-enactment again, though sadly the state of Spain’s economy would seem to indicate that it will be a long time before that’s possible.