Thursday, January 19, 2017

An English Major and his Canary Sunset

     The Illustrated London News, for decades an essential newspaper and reflection of British imperial glory, often carried sketches and photographs from those fearless adventurers and explorers who helped shape British dominions. It was also an educational magazine in which contributors described interesting events and picturesque lands Victorian ladies and gentlemen might like to visit. The Canary Islands were idyllic and conveniently placed on steamship routes to India and Cape Town before the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. Travellers found themselves enchanted by the Spanish Macaronesian archipelago and contributed articles and images to British and European publications, including the Illustrated London News.

An Illustrated London News header

     One of those travellers was Major Henry Astbury Leveson. There is very little written about him, but there is no doubt he was one of those men who, if history had not forgotten them, may well have been the hero in some epic movie. He served his country as a soldier, not only in the British Army but also as a freedom fighter or on secondment to a friendly army. His courage was evident on many occasions and his body was scared from head to foot with the tell-tale signs of close encounter.
     His gallantry in battle and skill as an officer was often remarked upon and he is known to have fought in many campaigns in different countries. He served in the British Indian Army and was seconded to assist the Ottoman forces in Crimea. On 5th November, 1854 Major Leveson took part in the Battle of Inkerman. This has often been referred to as “The Soldier’s Battle” because troops had to fight mostly on their own initiative due to the foggy conditions. The fierce Ottoman commander, Omar Pasha Latas, personally reported his appreciation of the Englishman as a brave and skilled officer.

Omar Pasha

     But, above everything, Henry Leveson was an adventurer and a big game hunter.  In Four Fathers of Big Game Hunting - Biographical Sketches of the Sporting Lives of William Cotton Oswell, Henry Astbury Leveson, Samuel White Baker and Roualeyn George Gordon Cumming, by T.R Thormanby, he is one of the big names in the “sport”.

Major H.A. Leveson, the hunter, poses with servants outside his tent 

     But there was much more to him than soldiering and shooting. He was a cultured man. On his travels he sketched and wrote books and stories. But his drawings often betrayed a certain amount of imagination, perhaps being accustomed to wilder forms of adventure. Indeed he was known to have painted somewhat surprising images, exaggerating already spectacular natural scenery.
     In 1867 he broke his journey to the African continent for a second time on the Canary Island of Tenerife. He was tempted to sketch some of the magnificent scenery and his drawing of Mount Teide, for example, published in the Illustrated London News, was quite different and less accurate to any produced by his contemporary travelling artists. He gave the volcano a sharp pointed peak when it has a rounded crater at the top.

Mount Teide has an 80m diameter rounded crater

     The drawing depicts the charm of the nineteenth-century island, with a goatherd attending his tribe and an ox drawn cart about to cross a romantic, ancient bridge.  This sketch with mountains in the background and in the distance beyond the volcano, suggest that Major Leveson was prone to use his artistic imagination for effect.

A coloured print version of Leveson's drawing for the Illustrated London News

     Rudyard Kipling, in Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings, his last book, referred to Major H. A. Leveson as having published a number of stories of hunting and adventure under the pseudonym of The Old Shekarry.  Under the same name Henry Leveson also published a book called The Forest and the Field. In its introduction his 19th century sense of soldiery, adventure and romanticism cascade, describing his life as inseparable from fatigue, privation, hardship and danger but full of fascinating excitement, and possessing irresistible charms that amply compensate for the loss of more refined pleasures and luxuries of civilised life.

Front cover of The Forest and the Field, by The Old Skekarry

     It is evident that he was quite taken with Tenerife because in the same book of stories he dedicates a chapter to the island. He also betrayed a debonair and swashbuckling attitude. It was during his second visit that he even had time to become a member of the Casino close to where he took a room in Santa Cruz and he recommended the cigars purchased at Mr Belloso’s store in Calle Castillo. He had an eye for women too and observed - the ladies are elegant and piquant as any in Spain.
     In spite of his reputation, which would be frowned upon today, as a big game hunter, his stories also suggest a man with a tender feeling for the natural world when it didn’t imply the excitement of an encounter with a dangerous, wild animal. In Tenerife he referred to the constant singing of birds, especially of the Capirote, the Canary Island Blackcap whose song, he said was the most melodious of any songster I know. Indeed, there is rarely any sound more beautiful than the male’s rich musical warbling.

The Canary Island Blackcap (courtesy Miguel Bravo photographs - see footnote 1)

     His description of the island’s varied scenery was almost poetic. He ascended Mount Teide, the island’s magnificent volcano, on a stubborn mule. Looking beyond the lava flows and down into the valley of La Orotava he saw lush green hillsides dotted with small, picturesque country houses, dark ravines, woods, vineyards and open fields.
     As we can on a clear day today, across the sea he could clearly make out the islands of La Palma, Grand Canary, La Gomera and El Hierro. The sunset captivated him and the deep blue colour of the sea, with here and there a distant white sail, formed a magnificent background to the glorious panorama.
     Like others before him, especially whom was possibly the greatest naturalist in history, Alexander von Humboldt, “the lost hero of science”², Major Henry Astbury Leveson was enthralled by what he witnessed. I have gazed upon many of Nature’s most gorgeous pictures in different parts of the world, he wrote, but never beheld anything more transcendently beautiful than sunset from the highest summit of the Peak of Tenerife.
     While it was more scientific writers who persuaded the first winter visitors to begin sailing for Tenerife, especially to the Orotava Valley in the late 1800s, there is no doubt that adventurous travellers like Major Leveson considerably helped fascinate those early Victorian tourists. The Old Skekarry was 38 when he climbed Mount Teide. He died only ten years later in England, never recovering properly from old bullet wounds which weakened him over the years.

1. Miguel Bravo
2. From "The Invention of nature - The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

(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 set in Tenerife.


  1. Thank you for another very interesting article.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Perry HoyAugust 26, 2017 at 10:58 AM
    Each time I read your brief articles, I find more reasons to visit Tenerife. I find great solace in the idea that other ordinary as well as venerable people have viewed the views that I have beheld and somehow caught the magic of this distant isle. Thanks for your research and taking the time to share.


  4. Thank you, Perry and all of you for your very kind comments. Of course, the island beheld by those early travellers has changed considerably. Please accept my apologies for not replying before. I hope to post a new article soon but have been busy putting together a new collection of short stories for publication next year.

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