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.
Horatio Nelson is one of the great heroes of English history, and one of the few who has remained so, despite the uncomfortable truths which have come out about other historical figures, who were equally famous in my school day, but whose reputations seem a bit murky these days. Even his scandalous love life seems to have been forgiven in view of his overall gallantry. That he combined all the characteristics we crave in a hero speaks volumes about how the battle of Santa Cruz was conducted and its aftermath.
Few people here today, of any nationality, realize how heavily fortified the city was back then, so little of the ramparts which extended from more-or-less where the Parque Maritimo now is right along the coast to the edge of what is now Las Terresitas Beach, remain, but the Museums of Tenerife resolved to fill the gaps in our knowledge, and do so very ably, and it is a tribute to Lord Nelson that the guide, on a recent Saturday when I went with some friends, on “La Ruta de los Castillos”, spoke of him with what amounted almost to affection……….if only today’s leaders and generals were such gentlemen, were so intelligent or so well-mannered!
La Ruta de los Castillos is a fairly recent addition (2,000) to the network of activities and museums administered by the excellent Museum service of the island. The advantage of taking “the tour” was going to be that we would have access to places which were not open to the general public, and I should add right here, before going any further, that on telling a Canarian friend of a friend about the excursion the following day, she laughed at the name, and indeed, it is misleading. These buildings were not, actually, castles in the medieval sense of the building, where people lived, but a fortification to protect the port of Santa Cruz from invasion from the sea. So, that point clarified, one recent Saturday we met our guide outside the Auditorium, having booked the tour most efficiently over the phone.
Our tour began at the Castillo de San Juan, or the Black Castle, as it is nicknamed, where my second myth was shot down. I’d been told the nickname came from the fact that slaves had been kept there en route to the Americas, but Omaira, our lovely guide, explained that that was just a rumor, and the name came from the color of the stone used in its construction. These days it sits quietly between Calatrava’s magnificent Auditorium and the Parque Maritimo, where the city dwellers while away their summer weekends.
It is, arguably, the only feature which really still resembles anything like a castle, with turrets on the landside where shooters could take cover to fire below should a boat make landfall, and easily identifiable positions where cannon were placed. There are also, now here’s a historical note I’ve never considered in touring an ancient building before, latrines (i.e. holes in the wall) up on the ramparts, because, as the guide said, there isn’t exactly time to go to the bathroom in the middle of a battle! It was much smaller than it looked from the outside, and was used mainly for storage of arms, although the gunpowder, for obvious reasons was kept in the close by Casa de Pólvora, which we weren’t able to inspect because the locks had been changed and Omaira didn’t have a key.
From there we were bussed in air conditioned splendor to El Castillo de San Cristóbal. Again, it was, simply, a part of the massive ramparts, but perhaps the most interesting because it was the nearest to the city of San Cristóbal de la Laguna, which was then capital of the island, and was the largest part of the structure. The outline of the original walls has, very cleverly, been preserved in mosaic form by the architects of the ornamental pool which is now at the heart of La Plaza de España.
If you look at the edge of the pool here, you can see a black line, which meets with another one at right angles in the water, these lines denote where the original walls of the fort were.
What we saw were the foundations, now buried beneath the Plaza. We descended a short staircase to the small museum, which opened to the public this summer. Here we could see parts of the original walls, a video and lots of pictures and information, which I resolved to go back another time to see in-depth. Taking a tour like this is useful, but your time in contemplating anything, let alone taking snaps, is limited. Had we been alone and non-Spanish speaking then, as English speakers, it would still have been interesting as translations were good, and the staff charming.
It was in attempting to land and take this part of the fortification that the British fate was sealed, and the big draw here, is El Tigre, reputedly the very same canon which separated Lord Nelson from his arm. Whether true or not, the canon is in a grand state of repair, and makes a fine exhibit as the centerpiece of this little museum.
From San Cristóbal the next stop is just outside the modern city limits – Castillo de Paso Alto, from its top, an impressive view of the Atlantic, which must have been even more impressive back when, before all the industrial units of the modern port were there. This was the point at which the British forces were first supposed to land, under cover of darkness, signalling the beginning of the Battle of Santa Cruz. However, Spanish vigilance prevented their first attempt, and the second attempt the following day, though, successful, was a disaster in terms of how much the British were able to transport from ships to shore.
Thence to the final stop – el Castillo de San Andrés, just before the celebrated Las Terresitas beach. Cordoned off and tumble-down it’s just a shadow of its former splendor, as, were all of these buildings. Nevertheless, back in July of 1797 they were so well-organized and defended that they handed Nelson the only defeat of his illustrious career.
Such was the gentlemanly state of play in those days, that after the truce was signed by triumphant Spanish General Antonio Gutiérrez and his foes he made a present to them of a cask of my favorite tipple – Malmsey. The British, it is said, responded with a keg of fine ale, and Gutiérrez asked Nelson if he would kindly stop off in Cadíz on his way home to report the state of play. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world was still like that?!
Re-enactors recreate the Battle of Santa Cruz
The tour wasn’t all about Nelson, the “father” of the British Royal Navy, Admiral Blake had had a more successful visit in 1656, when he destroyed 16 Spanish ships, and Admiral Jennings in 1706 had been rebuffed by Spanish defences, though that battle is far less known than Nelson’s attempt. For this reason the shield of Santa Cruz shows three lion heads, symbolizing the three triumphs over the English enemy……ok, they don’t look like lions to me either, but I Googled griffins to be sure, and they’re not griffins.
More about that shield and more about Santa Cruz in general another day, this one was about the tour, which concentrated mainly on that period of the island’s history. Marks out of 10? Hmm, that’s a hard one, let me describe it this way:
Guide 11 out of 10 Driver and bus 10 out of 10 Information supplied 10 ut of 10 (there could have been more but it would have been too much and the tour was just the right length). Delivery of information 11 out of 10. The guide was interactive, encouraging us to answer questions and using modern, teaching techniques to explain the information. Castillo de San Juan 7 out of 10. It’s well preserved and should, really be the best exhibit, but is clearly used as a rubbish dump by the local population, and the ayuntamiento can’t be bothered to clean it up, regardless of the impression it gives to tourists. It was full of plastic bottles, broken glass, the usual. La Casa de la Pólvora Can’t say, because the locks had been changed (by the ayuntamiento and they had failed to liaise with the museum service to make sure they had the new keys). Castillo de San Cristóbal 10 out 10. Nicely restored, pleasant staff, translations, good info why on earth couldn’t the rest be this standard confounds the imagination! Castillo de Paso Alto 6 out of 10 Even more rubbish than in Castillo San Juan. Absolutely disgusting. Castillo San Andrés 7 out of 10. I can understand more easily why this might be perceived to be a suitable repository for rubbish (not that ANYWHERE outside of the correct containers is correct), because it’s very tumble-down, nevertheless the sheer AMOUNT of rubbish was amazing and sad.
Our guide was obviously distressed and embarrassed by this use of historical sites as dumping grounds for rubbish (most of which should be in the recycling bins anyway), and I felt for her. The museums seem to be making the most of what they have here. It’s an interesting story, especially if you are either Spanish or English, and the service is to be highly, highly commended on what they do, and how it is organized. From first ringing to book, when they kept me in touch with an unexpected change in date, to the guide’s refusal of a tip everything apart from the rubbish was first class. How the Ayuntamiento can either allow this to happen in the first place or not get the places cleaned up amazes me.
I’m a bit of a history buff, so I still felt it was worthwhile, but one of my companions was really put off (the other two I haven’t really had chance to chat with since then) and I had the impression that the Spanish people who comprised the rest of the group were pretty disgusted too. There was talk of complaints. Shame to end on that note. The Ayuntamiento of Santa Cruz is a weird thing. It can organize something as magnificent as the annual Carnaval, but can’t clear up its streets. It can commission something as outstanding as the Auditorio, but can’t get its shops to open up on a Sunday for cruise visitors (whose business, supposedly it is trying to encourage).
I don’t want to jump on that whinging bandwagon. I try to look at this as if I was a tourist, and I would have a pretty bad impression of the population of Tenerife from this tour, but an excellent impression of the museum service.