Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Harold Lee, an Englishman in Tenerife

Like many other travel authors of his time Harold Lee placed the Portuguese Madeira archipelago and the Canary Islands into one area of study. Both groups of Atlantic islands form part of Macaronesia, the Islands of the Fortunate or μακάρων νῆσοι makárōn nêsoi, as ancient Greek geographers referred to them. But there was another, more practical explanation for this. Steamers from the British Isles carrying passengers to the colonies often called in on both. His book, Madeira and the Canary Islands, a Handbook for Tourists which was published in Liverpool in 1888, is a constant comparison between the two and he portrays them, especially the island of Tenerife, with charm and candour.   

Madeira and the Canary Islands, published in Liverpool in 1888
The image of Mount Teide, of course, captured his imagination from the moment it became visible from about ninety miles away and, as so many adventurers and sailors long before him, he paid reverential attention to the great volcano. With a wicked sense of humour that on occasions betrayed a very Victorian and superior attitude towards the rest of the world he wrote of passengers on board the ship en route from Madeira to Tenerife virtually keeping themselves awake in order to be the first to spot the peak. Nevertheless Lee, whilst perhaps not so elaborate as some writers when he described Mount Teide, was both lyrical and accurate when he suggested, 

You must not look at the horizon itself, but in the sky above. Then, as you gaze, you will suddenly behold it, not looking like land at all, but to all appearance a nebulous cone, faint sepia in tint, floating above a deep bank of haze or cloud.

Mount Teide, as seen from afar, floating above the clouds
Most visitors in the late 19th century aimed to stay in the Orotava valley which indeed charmed him and where oleander, euphorbia, poinsettia and hybiscus flaunt their radiant colours before every passer-by and where orange trees were borne down to the earth by the sheer weight of their golden fruit. But Lee preferred the gentle rhythm of life in the capital, Santa Cruz, possibly because he liked to study people and their ways of life, especially those which so differed from his own. 

Santa Cruz, a place of extraordinary beauty, according to Harold Lee 

He paid tribute to Camacho's, Clarke's and The International hotels. These, as one can imagine, were splendid and delightful examples of a different age. Camacho himself is a Portuguese who speaks English and understands English ways. How very, very superior indeed! The Camacho was advertised as an English Hotel, the oldest, best and most centrally situated, having forty large well-ventilated bedrooms, with sitting room, billiards and smoking rooms. Furthermore, there was even a bathroom on each floor and sanitary arrangements were examined by a Doctor Paget Thurstan.....an English resident!

Camacho's English Hotel
Harold Lee was a keen observer of local custom. He referred to the eating of gofio with almost every meal. It was the staple diet of the original Guanche inhabitants, based on ground and toasted grain, typically wheat and varieties of maize and very similar to that used by Berber tribes of North Africa. He noted a preference for salt fish too and sketched a peasant woman selling roasted chestnuts on a street corner in the autumn.

A peasant woman roasting chestnuts
On occasions he sounded somewhat cynical in his honesty, as he would do, for instance when suggesting the visitor to the Canary Islands must not expect to find energy a feature of their inhabitants. He did qualify this by reporting that the peasantry, whom he described as exceedingly poor but content, did labour very hard to make the land produce. Lee remarked at the amount of children who smoked, and at the easy life the law keepers had, with hardly a disturbance ever occurring. Indeed, he suggested that any misbehaviour upsetting the tranquillity of this paradise was most likely to come from foreigners. A resident Englishman once admitted that in three years the only drunk he had seen was “precisely an Englishman”. 

Nevertheless, although he assured brutality is here unheard of or very rare, Lee was told about the clerk of a wealthy merchant having been murdered for money in Port Orotava. He was of course referring to a cause célèbre, to the death in 1878 of Mr James Morris, a gentleman who looked after the accounts of a firm belonging to Mr Peter Spence Reid, a well-known Scottish merchant.

Peter Spence Reid
Like one or two other comfortably off English travellers of his time, Harold Lee did show signs of irritability on occasions. One has visions of him being molested by marauding flies, especially after reading that his dislike for the habit of begging was so profound as to suggest that the practice might actually have been authorised, usually on Saturdays.

On a gentler, more charming note perhaps, referring to courting couples he wrote that they were not permitted to whisper in each other´s ear at a dance. In fact wishful lovers were only permitted to court after the man had proven his creditable conduct and when his economic value had been approved by the girl´s family. Of course she would never be alone with her novio, always being escorted by her mother, aunt or sister.

Will his music pave the way to her heart?
But like so many visitors to the Canary Islands, Mr Lee felt quite blessed by this Atlantic paradise. There is a hint from time to time that he might even have wished he weren't so inhibited by his superiority. He admits, in a fleeting reference to Canary Island women, their flashing eyes and expressive features are quite in keeping with Spanish loveliness.

(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, a collection of short stories



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