Sunday, September 21, 2014

When the Mayflower sailed to Tenerife



In 1620, a group of Puritans, better known as the Pilgrim Fathers, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from the English port of Plymouth on a square-rigged brigantine called The Mayflower.  

The Mayflower

It was another Mayflower which sailed to Tenerife in 1776. Her master was Pleford Clark, an experienced seaman. She weighed 150 tons and carried fourteen guns, like any merchant vessel of the time, for self-defence. There were enemies around every head of land and merchants were at the mercy of marauding pirates of all nationalities, like the French or Turks. In fact any enemy ship could be considered a pirate. As I suggested in earlier posts, even most respectable English captains of the fleet, like Charles Windham, Francis Drake or John Hawkins were labelled filthy pirates or corsairs by Spanish historians, often with good reason. 

Sailing to the Canary Islands, even in the early 19th century, was risky and dangerous. It was also tough, with ships very often running out of food and water. A modern cruise liner will be nudged gently against the south mole in Santa Cruz de Tenerife after leaving Southampton in just four or five days. Eighteenth century vessels like the Mayflower could take weeks to complete the voyage. Their square rigging meant they depended on the convenient direction and strength of the winds to make any headway. They often ran into rocks or uncharted sandbanks and sometimes had to seek shelter for days on end in friendly coves until a privateer or an enemy vessel became tired of waiting and moved on.

On her maiden voyage the Mayflower sailed into the English Channel accompanied by three or four other merchants, all laden with wheat and bound for the island of Tenerife. Pleford Clark had an uneasy time with changing winds before finally beating it out of the English Channel and heading south. By then all ships in that particular trading fleet had lost sight of each other.  

On the way south the Mayflower passed Porto Santo of the Madeiras on her starboard beam and then, two days later, the Savage Islands, half-way between Madeira and the Canaries. These islands have belonged to Portugal since 1438 but Spain has recently claimed they should be classified as rocks, effectively eliminating Portuguese sovereign rights over them, as a result of the Portuguese having prevented Canary Island fishing vessels from fishing within coastal waters. In fact they are sparesely inhabited and in 1971 they were declared a nature reserve for their importance in the nidification of certain bird species, especially Cory's Shearwater.

 One of the two Selvagem islands

It was a safe and speedy voyage and they were anchored off Port Orotava, today known as Puerto de la Cruz, just twenty days after leaving the English Channel. There were several other merchant ships anchored off shore and Clark would have to wait in the queue. All the ships loaded barricas or casks of Tenerife’s famous wines destined for the inns of England and Europe. It was towards the end of October and Mount Teide was completely white after recent snowfalls. The little taverns or guachinches were jolly with English sailors gulping cups of Malmsey wine and eating what the host offered as the dish of the day. Some historians believe the word guachinche came from the English expression “I’m watching ye” used by these early English wine buyers when they were ready to sample the local product.  

The Orotava Valley, with Teide in the background, in the days of the Mayflower


When it was the Mayflower’s turn, Pleford Clark began to unload his supply of wheat and to take on barrels of wine. It was a slow process. Everything had to be ferried in and out by lancha. There were no safe coves along the north coast of Tenerife. There were no convenient ports either, except for Santa Cruz after the old harbour of Garachico was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of 1706. So sailors were firmly at the mercy of the seas. In fact, being late October, the Atlantic had begun to show its temper and the little ship was forced to weigh anchor and to make for the open sea and wait for the predominant north easterly wind and calmer waters. It was a common occurrence and the Mayflower weighed anchor at least five times off Port Orotava before completing her load.

The vineyards of Tenerife, like these in La Guancha, are  once again producing exquisite wines

But the wine was a profitable business and Tenerife’s vineyards, as Shakespeare recorded in works like The Merry Wives of Windsor, produced the finest wines, just as they do today. The Mayflower could not return to England without her full capacity of barrels and, on this her maiden voyage, took six weeks to unload her wheat and to load up her 360 kegs of wine purchased at Port Orotava. Once loaded, Pleford Clark sailed his ship  along the northwest coast as far as Garachico. Even more famous than the Orotava Valley for its Malmsey wines, Garachico was also where ships preferred to take on supplies of water because it was considered the purest. 

The return voyage to England was not dull although, due to unfavourable winds, the crew aboard the Mayflower could still see Garachico five days after weighing anchor. Close to Madeira the Mayflower’s lookout spotted what he considered to be an unfriendly ship moving to intercept them from the west. It was indeed what was known as a Salley Rover, a Moroccan corsair from Sale, a walled medieval merchant port and the base used by the Barbary pirates. 


A Salley Rover chasing a European galleon


Sailors dreaded encountering theses small pirate ships. They could easily outmanoeuvre the European merchant vessels and the crews manning these small vessels had a very bloody reputation, attacking at all cost for the smallest prize. There was no point seeking shelter in one of the Madeira Islands because the Moroccan would simply follow the Mayflower. Pleford Clark knew he must try to make a run for it. Although the other could manoeuvre with ease, the Mayflower had a strong wind behind her, whereas the pirate, heading eastwards from some hiding place in the Madeiras, appeared to be making heavy weather of it. Indeed the Mayflower slipped past and northwards at a good rate and the Moroccan gave up the chase and continued in a south-easterly direction, possibly back to Sale. Their best weapon was the surprise approach and on this occasion they had been spotted in time. From there on the voyage home was uneventful. Nevertheless Pleford Clark did have the strange pleasure of exchanging greetings with what was known as a friendly pirate, in this case a roaming Dutchman only interested in terrorising fat French merchants returning to Le Havre or Bordeaux.

The Hindustan at anchor off Tenerife - painted by Thomas Luny in 1790

The Mayflower made several journeys in following years to pick up good wines from Port Orotava and Garachico. She was just one example of the many foreign vessels that traded with these islands since the earliest days of he Spanish conquest. But there were many more, especially ships of the British East India Company who simply used the Canary Islands to stock up with food and water before heading south down the coast of Africa or across the Atlantic for the spoils in the Americas. Above is a detailed 1790 painting showing the company’s Hindustan anchored off the rocky coast of Tenerife with a small local craft in the foreground.

(Some information was adapted from a sailor's account - Barlow's Journal of his Life at Sea in King's Ships, East and West Indiamen and Other Merchantmen. Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

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




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