Wednesday, July 3, 2013

PIRATES OF THE CANARREAN




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"

 
 


 

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