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



  1. A fascinating article. Diston's art captured a unique way of life to allow following generations a glimpse of times gone by.

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