Sunday, December 15, 2013

Doctor in a Canary Island kitchen

     It has often been said that the Canary Islands have become one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations thanks largely to illustrious British scientists, writers and artists of the 19th century. One of these was Ernest Abraham Hart. He paid a visit to the island of Tenerife in 1886, when it was still generously blessed only by natural beauty and had not yet been ravaged by man’s self-interest.
Ernest Abraham Hart in a painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon 
     The son of a Jewish dentist, Hart was born in Knightsbridge in 1836. He was educated at the City of London School and later became a student at St George’s Hospital. In 1856 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, specialising in diseases of the eye. He was appointed ophthalmic surgeon at St Mary's hospital at the age of only twenty eight, and held numerous other positions. He is attributed many advances in ophthalmology and was also the first British surgeon to be associated with treating aneurisms of the popliteal artery.

     He betrayed a great passion for journalism. At the age of only twenty two Hart had already been published in The Lancet and soon became highly acclaimed for his medical articles. Many years later, as Dean of St. Mary’s Medical School, he was named Editor of the British Medical Journal.

The Royal College of Surgeons
    By the time he came to the Canaries at the age of fifty, he was one of the best known ophthalmologists in Britain and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was accompanied by Alice, his second wife. Her philanthropist nature complemented his own interests and she travelled with Hart on his many overseas expeditions, which he used to gather information for his articles on foreign medicine.
     Also travelling with Hart to Tenerife was his friend Sir Thomas Spencer Wells, one of London’s most eminent doctors and surgeon to Queen Victoria.  When their schooner, the Coast anchored in the bay at Santa Cruz in 1886, their intention was to inspect what they referred to as the Orotava Grand Hotel and Sanatorium, the original Martianez Hotel in fact, where patients could be cared for as if they were on holiday and not actually hospitalised.  
The original Martianez Hotel in Puerto de la Cruz

     However, both Ernest Hart and Sir Thomas were likeable gentlemen and soon won the affection, not only of British residents in Tenerife, but also of local people. They were welcomed with open arms by some of the island’s best known doctors, renowned for their progress in every field, and Sir Thomas was even persuaded to perform a surgical operation in the Orotava Valley.
Sir Thomas Spencer Wells
     As reported in the local press of the times, "Sir Spencer Wells, the Queen of England’s surgeon, has performed an oophorectomy on young Antonia Dorta, of the well-known and appreciated island family". This had been arranged by Doctor Jorge Pérez, who had spent many years in London and whom Ernest Hart would later highly recommend as a very well prepared doctor with excellent English.
     News had been filtering through to British medical circles for some years that Tenerife possessed one of the finest curative climates in the world and Hart intended to write an article about the island’s sanitary arrangements for The British Medical Journal. However, he gathered so much information that he was able to write a number of papers which were edited together into the book, A Winter Trip to the Fortunate Islands, a reflection of his journalistic rather than scientific mind.

Publicity bagage label for the Camacho Hotel

     Hart took note of everything. In Santa Cruz he recommended the old Camacho Hotel, which was mentioned favourably in all travel booklets of the time. In La Laguna, which he called St. Christopher of the Lake, he remarked upon the number of convents and the large villas used as summer residences by the island’s aristocrats. Hart thought Agua García one of the most beautiful spots in Tenerife, with its dense forests and gently sloping agricultural fields, but it was clearly the Orotava Valley they were heading for. In fact, like so many others before him, Hart fell for the place and on their arrival wrote, "the bird song, the splashing of the fountains, the huge variety of colourful flowers, the blue sea, the mountains, the warmth of the day long sun and the exquisite freshness of the air all tell us that we have arrived safe and happy to our destination. We will be spending our promising winter holiday in one of the best gardens in the world, Port Orotava, the pearl of the Fortunate Islands".

The Orotava Valley
     Although Hart’s principal aim was to study local medical practice, he was also very observant of local traditions and customs. Indeed he was most complementary about local cuisine, noting especially an eternal favourite, conejo en salmorejo, goat’s cheese and fried goat. He also pointed out that one could find a steak as good as anywhere in England.
Conejo en salmorejo - rabbit in spicy salmorejo sauce
     He also carried out a detailed statistical survey of local weather conditions in La Orotava and observed "From a medical point of view, Tenerife is an ideal place for that large number of people suffering from lung problems". He evidently found Tenerife kind on his pocket too because he remarked that their stay on the island had been the most pleasant and cheapest holiday ever! Ernest Hart gave Tenerife very good publicity and on the 19th June 1890 the local newspaper Diario de Tenerife referred to an article of his in the British Medical Journal in which he wrote so favourably about the weather conditions in the Valley of La Orotava and about Tenerife’s hotels. One can just imagine Ernest Hart, surrounded by elegantly dressed friends at an Octave, enthusing about the delights of eating rabbit  and wrinkled potatoes on the island of Tenerife. Octaves were dinner parties given by Sir Henry Thompson, Professor of Surgery at University College, London, at his house in Wimpole Street, at which eight courses, accompanied by eight wines were served to eight guests in addition to the host and a guest of honour.

Guest of honour at an Octave dinner party, Ernest Abraham Hart, seated to the right of the mantelpiece
     After their winter in Tenerife, Ernest Hart and his wife began travelling further afield. In Calcutta he was considered brave enough to criticise Indian medical standards, especially with regards the treatment of cholera. He was later highly regarded for his studies of both cholera and typhus. He fell in love with Japan and published a book entitled The Ancient Arts and Artists of Japan, helped to a great extent by procuring a large and valuable collection. His interests were so wide and his intellectual skills so varied that he even wrote a number of articles on cookery for the Times under the heading The Doctor in the Kitchen. Sadly, just ten years after enjoying the mild climes of the Canary Islands, the kind doctor required both legs to be amputated after developing complications related to diabetes. It is perhaps a coincidence that he would have found this disease to be very common in the Canary Islands as a result of a traditional preference for a diet rich in those delicious potatoes and sweet puddings. A year later, at the age of just sixty one, Ernest Abraham Hart died at the typically English resort of Brighton.

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales


Saturday, November 16, 2013

They called him Don Alfredo

          In fact Don Alfredo was an Englishman born in the coastal town of Lowestoft, in the English county of Suffolk, in 1793.
The harbour at Lowestoft
          He is one of quite number of adventurers from the British Isles who travelled to the Canary Islands in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and settled there. One can also say that Don Alfredo was one of a handful of British gentlemen to have been adopted as historical figures by the local Spanish population. This, as time only tells, generally happens when one falls in love with the islands and gives something back to them in return for their hospitality. I am talking about Mr. Alfred Diston.

Alfred Diston in a portrait by Elizabeth Murray in 1858
          Already fond of adventure and travel it was just after the Duke of Wellington and his allies defeated Napoleon in 1815 that Diston found himself bound for the Canary Islands. He was only twenty two when the merchant ship anchored off the northern coast of Tenerife. Like most vessels arriving to trade in the islands the Captain had to wait his turn to unload the cargo of timber and wheat in the town of Puerto de la Orotava, using rowing boats to ferry goods and passengers into the little harbour or to the black sand coves, depending on the tides.
One of the landing coves to the west of the port

          Diston, who began his life in the Canaries working as a clerk for the British firm of Pasley, Little and Company, was a likeable fellow and was accepted warmly by the local population right from the start. Documents recall his amiable nature, and how he would often be seen taking long strolls around all the northern towns of Tenerife with a notebook tucked under his arm. He took an interest in practically everything, especially in the country peasant folk, and evidently fell in love with the old port, now known as Puerto de la Cruz.
An early photograph of peasants outside a typical thatched barn

          Alfred Diston was a cultured young gentleman and he also had a great ability for languages. He possessed a charming manner and made friends easily. He would always be willing to help, not only local islanders for whom he felt a deep affection, but also fellow British travellers. During his first years in Puerto de la Cruz the British Consul, Mr. MacGregor, referred to Diston´s invaluable work. In their accounts and diaries, visitors and residents from the British Isles like artist Elizabeth Murray, who arrived with her husband after he had been appointed Consul, or scientists like Charles Piazzi-Smythe refer to Alfred Diston with gratitude and respect.

          Although he first worked for Pasley, Little and Company, his interesting and determined personality soon took him further. He had the honour of being invited to become a member of the prestigious Real Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, the Royal Economic Society of the Friends of the Land, based in the aristocratic old capital of La Laguna. He was also welcomed with open arms into the bourgeois business circles. For example, with vineyards devastated by disease, a valid attempt was made in the 1840s to establish cotton production in the islands and The Canary Island Cotton Company was funded. Diston was one of the directors, alongside Bernard Forstall, Mr. Lewis Hamilton, Count La Vega Grande, Count Siete Fuentes and Don Jorge Bruce. Unfortunately, although the cotton produced on land owned by the Cologan family of La Paz in Puerto de la Cruz was of an excellent quality, they could not compete with that produced in Egypt and the company did not survive.

          But Alfred Diston is recognised as the English artist who best captured local traditions and dress in his drawings and water colours. Today these are regarded as being of great historical value. They paint a vivid picture of how gentle this place described as paradise by the great German scientist Alexander von Humboldt was before the onslaught of progress.

A gathering in the village of La Esperanza
Outside the monastery
Women outside the town of Candelaria
          Alfred Diston’s observations and beautiful illustrations began to be published in London in 1829 by Smith, Elder and Company in volumes called Costumes of the Canary Islands.  His drawings also appear in the treasured Histoire Naturelle des Iles Canaries by Philip Barker-Webb and Sabin Berthelot.
Sabin Berthelot
          As a result of his friendship with Sabin Berthelot, botanist and French Consul in Tenerife, Alfred Diston was made an honorary member of Real Academia de Bellas Artes, the regional Royal Art Academy. Many of his illustrations capture the local flora and he was named manager of the Orotava Valley’s famous Botanical Gardens, a position he enjoyed for almost fourteen years.
Port Orotava in the 19th century
          Of course, there is no doubt that he may not have gained such a position in society had he not fallen in love with and married a young aristocrat, María de la Soledad Cósima Josefa Francisca de Paula de Orea y Luna. She was the daughter of Colonel Orea de Machado y de Guerra.

María de Orea y Luna
           Alfred Diston is known to have had a very happy relationship with the Colonel’s daughter, and a peaceful life in the pleasant town of Puerto de la Cruz. One late afternoon in 1861, after his usual stroll down to the water's edge, he began a gentle game of billiards with his beloved María at their home in the central, commercial street of Santo Domingo. All of a sudden he crossed over to one of the windows and sat down in an armchair with his back under the evening's last ray of sunlight. He smiled at his wife as she bent over to play her shot, and then closed his eyes. He died as happlily and peacefully as he had lived. 
By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales


Monday, October 14, 2013

A Wilde Irishman in the Canary Islands

     The first member of his family to settle in Ireland was a Colonel Wilde. He was the son of a Dutch painter whose work can be found today in the Hague Art Gallery. The colonel was awarded lands in Ireland after fighting with the troops of William III. One of his sons, Ralph, married Margaret O’Flyn. She was a descendent of one of Eire’s oldest families which gave its name to the district of Roscommon known as County O’Flyn. Ralph Wilde became Lord Mount Sandford of Casterlea.

     They had a son called Thomas. He became a highly respected practitioner known for his work caring for both rich and, gratuitously, the poor. He married Miss Amelia Fynne. She came from an even more distinguished Irish family although they were thought to be rather an eccentric lot. Thomas and Amelia had three sons and two daughters. The youngest was to become Sir William Robert Wills Wilde.
 Sir William Robert Wills Wilde

     Wills Wilde was born in 1815 and spent most of his youth exploring the hills and in the company of his friend Paddy Walsh who liked to dress unconventionally and played the violin. William was greatly influenced by his games teacher Dick Blacks, and especially by the Reverend Patrick Prendergast. Wilde described him as a very fine, courteous, white-haired old man. He was the last Lord Abbot of Connaught and it was from him that Wilde inherited an interest for languages and Irish traditions. But, like his father he also studied medicine.
     It was on account of his medical profession that he found himself bound for the Canary Island of Tenerife in 1837 when he was just twenty two. He was aboard the Crusader, a 130 ton schooner owned by Mr. Robert W. Meiklam, a consumptive Scottish merchant from Glasgow. Meiklam employed Wilde for the duration of a voyage in the Mediterranean and around the Macaronesian isles of Madeira and the Canary Islands in search of a miraculous cure for his tuberculosis.
                                                                      The Crusader
     Young William had a miserable time due to his irremediable seasickness. However he was able to write a detailed account of his experience in Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, published in 1840. His observations were of great interest, not only to future visitors to the Canary Islands but also to doctors and scientists of the time. He and many other scientists and travellers from the British Isles in the 19th century who published articles and books about the Spanish islands can be regarded as literary benefactors of the Canary Islands, first as a health resort and later as a marvellous and interesting holiday destination.
     Soon after the Crusader anchored in the bay at Santa Cruz, Wilde took leave and was rowed ashore whilst his employer and baggage were made ready for a long coach ride to the Orotava Valley. The young doctor was not kind about Santa Cruz in his writings. All he found mildly interesting were Horatio Nelson’s flags, cross and other items relinquished after the admiral's defeat at the hands of the Santa Cruz garrison and General Gutiérrez in 1797. He described the port as one of the driest places he had ever set foot upon. Indeed it was, until future generations filled it with the rich parks and wide, tree-lined avenues Tenerife's capital boasts today.
 An old postcard of The port at Santa Cruz
     On their way to Port Orotava they decided to halt for some days at San Cristobal de La Laguna. The air was cool compared with the dusty heat by the coast. Besides, the bumpy, meandering and endless coach ride up the hill had been just too much for Mr. Meiklam to take so soon after so many days at sea. Wilde described the town of La Laguna, Tenerife's first and principal settlement at the time of the conquest in 1496, as beautiful but rather desolate, with hardly a soul in the streets. 
A sketch of San Cristobal de La Laguna in the 19th century
     It is still a beautiful town today, but it brims with life as home to the island's university and the streets and alleyways are filled with charming restaurants and shops. A valuable heritage of mansions, churches and convents persuaded the UNESCO do declare La Laguna a World Heritage Site in 1999.

The Orotava Valley
     The travellers marvelled when they caught their first glimpse of the Orotava Valley over the rim from the village of Santa Úrsula, especially when the cloud evaporated suddenly to expose the peak in the background. A majestic and endemic Canary pine, Pinus Canariensis, caught Wilde's eye too and he took seeds back to Ireland. Examples of the tree grew wonderfully in the botanical gardens of Trinity College, Dublin. 

     Wilde and his Scottish millionaire stayed in the enchanting little port which is now called Puerto de la Cruz. The young medicinal student described the houses as being well built with volcanic stone, white-washed and topped with roman tiles. He also noted the pleasant fresh sea air and temperature compared with the haze in Santa Cruz and the damp of La Laguna. But, as in La Laguna he found people avoided being in the streets, especially the women, who had a preference to just peep from behind little postigos inquisitively, closing them firmly if one became too impertinent. But Wilde  remarked that when they did come out and always accompanied, the young women were without a doubt the most attractive he had set eyes upon since leaving Ireland. Like so many others, he found the climate in the Orotava Valley ideal for curing health problems, especially those related to the lungs, and Mr. Meiklam's health appeared to improve during their stay.
The church and square in Port Orotava
          With regards his interest in botanical matters Wilde may have been harsh in suggesting that the gardens in La Orotava were not well maintained and that it was a pity they could not have been in English hands. It seems nobody thought of taking him to the magnificent botanical gardens. However his observations were generally accurate.  

Dragon trees (Dracaena draco)
     He was fascinated by the dragon trees but took his experiments too far by placing the sharp needle of an endemic cacti species, the Euphorbia Canariensis, into his tongue. He felt very strange and quite sickly almost at once and took a long time to recover. Perhaps nobody told him that the pre-Hispanic aboriginals used the latex from this particular euphorbia to catch fish, stunning them by squeezing droplets in the rock pools where they nibbled green algae like the Caulerpa Webbiana off the rocks or ambushed careless crustaceans. But evidently, when not attending to Mr. Meiklam, the young doctor spent the hours investigating. He gathering examples of local flora, unusual stones and even cochineal whose dye was once the island's principal export.
Euphorbia Canariensis
     The episode with the euphorbia confirmed that Wilde’s eccentric blend began to manifest itself in Tenerife. Robert Meiklam allowed him time to explore and the Irishman hired Cristobal, a giant of a guide also known as the Gomeran to lead him up Mount Teide. He also took another splendid herculean fellow with him whom he had met on the beach, simply because he had a marvellous sense of humour. For luggage he took a bottle of wine presented to him by the British Consul.
 Mount Teide
     They took just twenty hours to reach the tip of Teide from the port. To this day it is considered one of the fastest ascents ever. Perhaps it had something to do with that wine. Still on the peak, on the way back down, the guide took them to what is known as the ice cave. The entrance to the cave is a deep, vertical hole three quarters of the way up the volcano’s north face. It leads into a vast cavity which, even in the heat of August, but less so today as Earth warms up and the winters provide less snows, hides ponds of icy water and rock hard ice. Before the arrival of the modern refrigerator ice-collectors would be paid to climb the mountain and bring down mule loads of ice from volcanic cavities like this.

The Ice Cave

     After completing more travels to London, Vienna and Berlin where he met Alexander von Humboldt, the great German scientist and explorer who paid such tribute to the Valley of La Orotava, William Wilde returned to Ireland where he founded the St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital in Casterlea. He became Queen Victoria’s eye specialist and almost at the same time married Lady Francesca Elgee, a passionate republican, poet and revolutionary. Perhaps this explosive combination, added to his own eccentric lineage, had something to do with producing the genius of a second son, poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde.         

John Reid Young, author of

"The Skipping Verger and Other Tales"

a selection of short stories set in the Canary Islands.

Friday, September 13, 2013

From Plymouth to Adeje in the Canary Islands

     This brief account will be the last of my flitting references to those honourable pirates, corsairs, valiant admirals, call them what you may, who touched the Canary Islands with their blades, cannonballs or hearts between the middle of the 15th and early 19th centuries. There is enough evidence of their activities to fill a thousand pages but I prefer to leave that task to more patient and accomplished investigators.

     Nevertheless I can't sheathe my pen without tiptoeing upon the connection which just one of those marauding seamen, Sir John Hawkins, ship-builder and distinguished admiral, had with the Canary Islands.

Portrait of Sir John Hawkins
     Born in 1532 into a wealthy Plymouth family of ship-owners, seafarers and merchants, Hawkins made several voyages to the Canaries trading mainly textiles for sugar and wine, although many accounts suggest he tampered with piracy from a very young age. He also became aware of the profits to be made emulating Portuguese merchants who needed manpower for their Brazilian plantations and transported Africans from the Gold Coast and Guinea to the New World. There were other Englishmen who dabbled in slavery, like London trader John Lok, believed to have taken the first five slaves from Guinea to England in 1555, but John Hawkins is acknowledged to have been the first English slave-trader, making three slavery voyages in the 1560's. It was he who developed the slave trade triangle between England, Africa and the Americas.

The Slave Trade Triangle
     Within that triangle, the Canary Islands became an important and strategic point where traders refurbished their ships or took shelter from other cunning brigands. They had also become home to very wealthy merchants who required foreign visitors to deal and exchange with. One of these, who became a great friend of our John Hawkins, was Pedro de Ponte of the powerful Canary Island merchant family.

Tenerife, Hawkin's favourite island
     It isn't clear on which of his many visits Hawkins met Ponte but Spanish historians admit that one of their most important merchants and landowners in the Canary Islands assisted a gentleman they refer to as a treacherous English pirate. One can understand their desire to brand him. After all, it was Hawkins, years later, who ordered design improvements to the Royal Navy vessels which were tested in 1588 against the Spanish Armada, making them faster and highly manoeuvrable and it may have been he who organised the fire-ship attacks against the Spanish fleet at Calais. Besides, although he won Queen Elizabeth's favour and she loaned him a huge ship called the Jesus of Lubeck, later known as The Good Ship Jesus, thus partnering him in his slavery enterprise, one would be forgiven for imagining him as a ruthless and cruel businessman worthy of being referred to as a pirate.

The Good Ship Jesus
     However, there is little doubt that a genuine friendship existed between Pedro de Ponte of Adeje and Garachico and the English slave-trader, and that Hawkins was a frequent and welcome guest at the Ponte fortress on the southern slopes of Tenerife, La Casa Fuerte. In fact, some suggest the fortress-mansion became his temporary residence on the island.

In the background, La Casa Fuerte in Adeje
     It was also in La Casa Fuerte, possibly in 1561, where he and his Spanish friend struck their most important deal, a secret agreement which also made them partners in the slave trade. Ponte was to provide the Englishman with food, water, a warehouse and intelligence about other merchants. Historians suggest the warehouse in Adeje may well have been used for "storing" slaves before shipping them off across the Atlantic. Ponte was also to loan Hawkins his personal pilot, Juan Martínez, to see him and his ships safely through the dangerous South American and Caribbean waters in search of clandestine trade at ports like Monte Cristo on the island of Santo Domingo. Spanish biographers suggest English navigators were not up to the task, but it is also true to say that English sailors and imports were not welcome in the Spanish and Portuguese American colonies. In return, Pedro de Ponte would not only receive fine English merchandise but also a share in the profits obtained from the trade in African slaves.

African slaves were cruelly shackled and packed below decks
     Hawkins became so well known on the island that he was known as Juan Acles, Juan Aquines or just simply Acles el inglés. His relationship with Pedro de Ponte lasted for over ten years, at least until October 1576, when local historians believe Hawkins may have made his last appearance on Tenerife. Internal politics on the island had begun to raise concerns about Ponte's friendship with Hawkins. The authorities and his commercial competitors questioned the morality of assisting possible enemies of Spain for personal gain.

     Hawkins sensed trouble or received a tip-off. So, when Spanish vessels apparently moved from their anchorage between the shore guns on the governor's fort and Hawkin's ship, he believed it to be a deliberate manoeuvre to expose the Jesus de Lubeck to the Spanish guns. He immediately set sail for San Sebastián on the island of La Gomera where the remainder of his fleet awaited.

Early chart of Tenerife with the landing place  and forts at Santa Cruz
     Spanish sources suggest that, as he departed from Santa Cruz, in gratitude for years of good will, Hawkins ordered his ships to fire a volley towards the shore, nearly hitting the chapel. Acles el inglés would never again be welcome on the island of Tenerife.

John Reid Young, author of

"The Skipping Verger and Other Tales"

a selection of short stories set in the Canary Islands.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Windham of the Canary Islands


     It was  May, 2013 and retired Royal Navy commander Alan Cockburn stepped out of the bar into the cool Spanish patio after ordering a sundowner. He was staying with his wife at the beautiful parador overlooking the port and town of San Sebastián on the Canary Island of La Gomera. It had been recommended as one of the finest places to spend a quiet, peaceful holiday away from the din of modern day tourism.

The Spanish patio inside the parador in La Gomera
     But this was their first evening and it was not a good start. He couldn't believe what the lady bar attendant had just said. In fact he was quite livid. She had had the impudence to suggest that many of Britain's admirals, especially between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, had actually been pirates. In fact the girl behind the bar had insisted. La Gomera had beaten off an attack from an English pirate exactly two hundred and seventy years ago, in May 1743.

     "Serves you right for chatting up waitresses!", his wife teased.

     "She told me I will find proof of the fact inside the church down in the town".

     "Well, you'd better go and see for yourself", replied his wife with the sweetest of smiles, hoping that might keep him occupied for an hour or so.

     The origins of the church, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, date back to the 15th century when the first chapel was erected by Spanish conquerors. It is an harmonious mix of mudejar, gothic and baroque architecture. But, as local historians describe, it was rebuilt on various occasions during the 18th century as a result of attacks from English, North African and Dutch invaders.
The church at San Sebastián

     A chapel within the church was erected to commemorate one of these raids and the consequent Spanish victory over British aggressors, and a rather faded fresco depicts what looks like three ships in the bay at San Sebastián pounding the port with cannon balls. Nobody seems sure who painted it but 19th century English traveller and author Olivia Stone referred to a local by the name of José Mesa as the artist.

The battle scene fresco  
    The retired English officer sat down respectfully at the end of one of the simple pews close to the picture. A practicing Catholic, he was somewhat surprised to find a battle scene inside a church, but the murmur of prayer in the background made him drift deep into thought. Indeed, after a while, his eyes closed as if he too were in prayer.

     The painting tells the tale. On 30th May, 1743 three sails were sighted to the north heading for La Gomera. As they came closer they appeared to be flying French ensigns. Early the following morning the ships lay at anchor off San Sebastián. At noon the French flags were lowered and replaced with their true colours.

They were  British ships

     They were two ships of the line, the Monmouth, with sixty four guns and the Medway armed with a further sixty. Accompanying them was a frigate. Their orders were to patrol Canary Island waters, to protect ships of the British merchant fleet and to hunt down those of the enemy. Leading the squadron was Captain Charles Windham, on the Monmouth. Second in command of the patrol, commanding the Medway, was Captain George Cockburn.

Captain Charles Windham
     Their plan at San Sebastián was to take on water and other supplies but they had also decided to have some fun at the expense of the islanders. This implied first taking precautions by using the town's fortifications as target practice and then sending in a landing party to negotiate. This kind of action was sometimes described as a punitive raid and shortly after raising their own ensigns Windham ordered the bombardment of the port's three small fortresses and other strategic targets.

     The bombardment continued throughout the afternoon. Cannons from the town's fortifications returned fire but fell well short of the British ships. After a night of relative peace Windham ordered his guns to open fire again at sunrise the following morning. It was less intensive and stopped punctually at ten o-clock when a rowing boat was seen to be lowered from the Monmouth and head for the shore.

La Torre del Conde, one of the forts targeted by Windham's guns.

     A letter addressed to the town's authority was handed over to Diego Bueno Acosta, Captain of the local militia. According to Spanish records the missive demanded they surrender their forts and supply the attacking ships with abundant quantities of wine, water, meat and other provisions. The Spaniard would have none of it, especially after having withstood such a pounding. He referred to the English demands as arrogant and unacceptable. What followed has also been reported differently by Spanish and British historians and one has to believe the version one prefers. The Spaniards say the English Admiral, a rank they incorrectly assign to Captain Windham, decided to send a fleet of rowing boats with heavily armed sailors to invade the town and that these only got as far as the beach. They were forced into a hasty and confused retreat to their anchored ships by the heroic and fierce defenders of La Gomera. British naval records never mention any such defeat. Instead, they suggest that it had been the three Spanish forts which had first opened fire on the English ships. This would have been understandable after the attempted deceit with the French ensigns, a common ruse in those days. Captain Windham's report suggested they had decided any invasion would be impracticable, without mentioning why.
     But it is common for history books from enemy countries to provide different versions and it is clear that what to one nation is a magnificent admiral to another is a filthy pirate. To Queen Elizabeth I of England, for example, Sir Francis Drake was a loyal servant. To Philip II, Spanish historians and local Canary Islanders he was a scoundrel of the seas.

     It is also clear that the Canary Islands, four hundred years ago, became a strategic link between the treasure hungry kingdoms of Europe and riches in the newly discovered Americas, and were a target for such courageous officers of the fleet and marauding scavengers flying flags of the realm. They were a place to patrol in search of a fat merchant, heavy in the water with south American treasure. They were also somewhere safe to replenish water and food supplies on the way to and from the Caribbean. Therefore Captain Windham and other heroes like Drake, who attacked Santa Cruz on the island of La Palma in 1585, were not the only British seamen referred to as pirates by Canary Islanders. John Hawkins, they admit, had resident Spanish collaborators in the Canary Islands. One or two Spanish historians have even had the audacity to suggest, when not proudly remembering that they defeated the Admiral in the battle of Santa Cruz in Tenerife in 1797, that Horatio Nelson was a pirate too.

     The island of La Gomera appears to have been a particularly popular target. The little port of San Sebastián was blessed with a well protected bay and sought after as a strategic base. It was from this bay that Christopher Columbus set sail with his three small caravels on his voyage of discovery to the Americas.

18th century chart showing La Gomera's sheltered cove

    When Alan Cockburn joined his wife for lunch by the parador's secluded and enchanting pool she was reading a booklet containing a brief history of the island of La Gomera.

     "It says here that one of your ancestors was a pirate!" she said, looking up with one of her triumphantly mocking expressions and evidently having swallowed the first of the day's gin and tonics.

     "Yes, I know", he replied. "But he wasn't a pirate. None of them were. They were just doing their duty", he countered quietly but firmly.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013


An old, abandoned ruin on the hillside in El Rosario overlooks the coastline between Santa Cruz and Candelaria on the island of Tenerife. It could be any old building left behind, as so many were in the years when tourism captured the imagination and attracted farmers and country folk to the coastline resorts.

But this one isn't just any old farmland ruin. There is a mysterious feeling about it, especially when the mist rolls down from the pine forests. And yet, the tranquillity around it is only disturbed by the distant hum of the south motorway and kestrels calling from high above as they circle in search of sunbathing lizards and scurrying rodents. However, like one or two other disused buildings with a history behind them, it has been the source of considerable political controversy in recent years. Some exponents seek to restore the building so as to turn it into a lucrative museum. Others say it should be left well alone.
The reason for such interest in this particular ruin on the slopes above the southeastern coast of the island, and another better conserved property in the valley at Tegueste, is because they hide secrets relating to the island’s mysterious past. In the early 18th century they both stored fortunes in jewels and riches captured by Tenerife’s most famous pirate, Amaro Pargo.

By the sixteenth century the Canary Islands had become strategically important, not only as trading ports where Europeans collected Malmsey wines, sugar and other produce but also for replenishing en route to the newly discovered Americas.
Ships from England, Holland, France and Spain would make use of the prevailing Atlantic trade winds down to the Canaries and thence across the Atlantic to the Southern Caribbean.

The resultant prosperity of the islands attracted famous pirates and corsairs. Francois Le Clerc, Jambe de Bois or Peg-leg virtually destroyed Santa Cruz de La Palma in 1553, just sixty years after Alonso Fernández de Lugo conquered the island from the indigenous population.
Francis Drake, known by the French as Le Draque, the dragon, and whom Spain will always consider a pirate and not the honourable Admiral who helped destroy their Armada, attacked Santa Cruz in 1585 destroying the harbour fort. Ten years later he was beaten off from Las Palmas. Dutch pirates, under the leadership of Pieter Van der Does, possibly the most feared in the Canary Island waters, ravaged Las Palmas in 1599. 
Barbary Coast pirates, like Pier Francesco Mola, magicently portrayed above, with smaller and faster vessels and known to be utterly ruthless, frequently ambushed the slower galleons from their base at Salé in North Africa.
There are even timid suggestions that more than one wealthy land-owning family in the Canaries owe their position to ancestral pirates, some modifying their English, Irish and Dutch names to sound more Spanish. In fact there was a time when certain corsairs were considered quite respectable, depending on the nationality of the history book. Why not? After all, not a few were well supported in their savagery by Kings and Queens aiming to expand their empires.

Amaro Pargo appears to have been one of these. He also seem to have been a different kind of pirate and very Spanish indeed. According to historians, Amaro received a privileged upbringing, was very religious and helped those in need. He is also believed to have been a solitary character and a very shrewd businessman, not only capturing great treasures in the Caribbean, but then administering his wealth with intelligence.
Unlike the rum drinking, one-eyed, one-armed image pirates acquired, Amaro would seem to have been quite elegant. He also knew his territory, the sea, better than any other. That is why he was so proud to be known as Amaro Pargo.  Pargo is the Spanish name for a “red porgy”, a kind of marauding fish that preys on innocent molluscs and crustaceans. Amaro was born in La laguna in 1678 and died at the age of 69. He was greatly influenced by the increased activity of pirates of all nationalities in Tenerife. He observed how they used the island’s coves for protection and to take on fresh water and provisions. He learnt from them how to lie in wait for rich merchants and slavers from whom they took not only treasure but their slaves.
He often landed his own captured treasures on the very beaches used by those other pirates to hide their contraband in the dark of the night at Punta del Hidalgo.

Amaro did not get on with his parents and went to sea as an apprentice, working his way up through the ranks until he became Captain of his own ship. With his first booty he built that house on the hill for a specific reason. From there he could keep watch over the sea and spot visiting merchant ships that might be worth following across the Atlantic before attacking them once they were loaded with treasure. Historians base their facts on accounts given by fellow sailors and privateers who regarded him as a gentleman with meticulous manners and strategies, in spite of being a thieving pirate.
He was austere, pale, and skinny. Nevertheless, although he has been referred to as humane, when tempted into action Amaro was brave and could become very violent indeed. Like all pirates he used deception to get the better of his enemy. In other words merchants would not realize that his was a pirate ship until the very last moment, when a peaceful appearance would give way to a thunderous volley from his guns followed by a ferocious massacre. His favourite ship, El Clavel, the innocent sounding Carnation, was built in what is today the popular San Marcos cove on the northwestern coast of Tenerife, and it boasted twenty four guns. Whenever he could he would defend Spanish ships in trouble. On one occasion an English pirate was attacking the King’s galley and he defended it for two hours before boarding the enemy ship. He had the survivors knifed to death. Well, after all, they were enemies of His Catholic Majesty. As a result Amaro was given the ancient title of “Gentleman of the Rope and Knife”. Back in his birthplace of La Laguna, the island’s first and richest city, Amaro chose to live no less than in the most noble and distinguished street, Calle Real, now known as San Agustín. Like so many pirates who built up immense fortunes and kept them without being accused of any illegality, he was protected by his King. Anyone attacking an enemy ship was a dreadful pirate, but a very useful one. He amassed a fortune in jewels, owned sixty properties and exported wine. He once took his ship through the middle of numerous anchored English vessels until he reached the largest of the lot lying heaviest in the water. Then he attacked it by surprise and came away with fifty thousand gold sovereigns and a diamond cross destined for a European Queen. Just a few days later he captured a Dutch merchant ship full of treasure and another English vessel.
On another occasion it is said he came across the famous pirate, Blackbeard, whom he had the audacity to salute with a volley of gunfire. The other ferocious pirate returned the compliment.

His fame for being religious and for helping those in need stems from the fact that he paid for his niece, Beatriz, to be accepted into a monastery. In fact three of his sisters became nuns too. He also befriended a protestant priest during one of his attacks with whom he spent great time discussing the mysteries of the spirit and different theological interpretations. He was sympathetic to the philosophy of the freemasons, in that whilst applauding self government he was obliged to seek self purification and to help his fellows. In Tenerife he is remembered most for his charity. He asked the local government to become involved in  making life easier for the poor and when he died he left money for the orphans and abandoned children of La Laguna and as well as for prisoners.


The pirate’s real name was Amaro Rodriguez Felipe and in 1727 he was made a noble by King Philip V of Spain, pictured above in hunting attire in a painting by Jacinto Melendez. 

He never married but left an illegitimate son by the name of Manuel de la Trinidad Amaro, who eventually made claim to a part of the pirate’s inheritance. Manuel was the result of the pirate’s affair with his lover on the Caribbean island of Cuba, Josefa María del Valdespino, with whom he slept whenever he sailed into Havana. Although he was clearly the boy’s father this was never recognised and when he returned to settle down in Tenerife Amaro left his lover with only a very few treasures with which to bring up the boy. Although she was a wealthy lady when he met her, having two houses, jewels and a number of slaves, she ended up blind and destitute. Abandoning her and his son is perhaps the only deed that tarnishes an otherwise Robin Hood like reputation and his bones lie in a private tomb, with noble crest above a skull and crossbones, in La Laguna's Santo  Domingo Church.


John Reid Young,

author of "The Skipping Verger and Other Tales"