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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Pirates Attack Tenerife

Drake, Blake, Jennings and Nelson all attacked Tenerife

For the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sep 19), a Brit in Tenerife would do well to keep as quiet as possible, lest it be thought that they were a descendant of any of the many English pirates to have visited or attacked these shores.

During the 14th Century, pirates avoided Tenerife, since they heard hair-raising tales of the savagery of the inhabitants of the then, as yet, unconquered island, but almost as soon as the Spanish conquest was over, the island became a magnet for the many, mainly British, French and Dutch, pirates. The Canary Islands, due to their geographical position, became a compulsory stopover for the Spanish fleets on their way to and from the New World and because of their strategic location along these trade routes, Tenerife and its fellow Canary Islands, therefore, became sitting ducks for pirate attacks and skirmishes with foreign invasions. Galleons, which came back loaded with treasures from the American Continent, were often attacked by pirates protected by English and French crowns.

Robert Blake's flagship George at the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1657
Image Charles Dixon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Francis Drake attacked Tenerife in 1586 and Gran Canaria in 1595. In 1656/7 Robert Blake, the English pirate, tried to conquer Tenerife and annex it to the English kingdom. On April 20 that year, Blake totally destroyed a Spanish silver fleet of 16 ships at Santa Cruz Bay, Tenerife. In 1706, Rear Admiral Sir John Jennings, with a fleet of 13 ships, tried to occupy Santa Cruz harbour, without success.

The most famous "pirate" to attack Tenerife was Horacio Nelson, whose failed attack on Santa Cruz on 25 July 1797 cost him his arm. Even British history claims that the admiral's intention was to destroy the ships, loaded with a large quantity of gold and silver, which were anchored in the port of Santa Cruz and would have bankrupted Spain.

Of course, it depends which side you're on whether you call these pirates and privateers, or historical icons and national heros, but it's a testament to how tough the local people are that none of them succeeded in invading or taking the island.

These days, it's mostly legless, rather than armless, English invaders in Tenerife.

But the constant cross-ocean naval movements between Spain and its American colonies meant ships laden with treasures and spices. Pirate flotillas began patrolling the stretch of ocean between the Azores and Canary Islands in the 16th century, and would continue to do so into the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries. In their down time, these pirates would head for the islands where they robbed, burned down villages and killed islanders in search of wine and riches. This constant threat led to a militarization of the island.

Castillo de San Juan Bautista, popularly known as the Castillo Negro, in Santa Cruz.

Watch towers and castles were constructed in hopes of fending off bad-intentioned seafarers, villages were built out of sight from the coastline and, today you can still explore castles, forts and towers in Tenerife. Among those best preserved is the Castillo de San Juan Bautista (or Castillo Negro) in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Route of the Castles

Visitors can go on a guided tour of the Castles in Santa Cruz with a little help from the History Museum. Reservations are necessary. Information from 922 825 949/43.

Castillo de San Felipe, Puerto de la Cruz Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Castillo de San Felipe, in Puerto de la Cruz, was also built to protect that town from attacks of pirates and corsairs. Built in 1634, it continued in its original use until 1878. Restored and in an excellent state of conservation, it is used for cultural events.

Castillo de San Miguel, Garachico

The Castillo de San Miguel in Garachico - which was the island's main port from the conquest, until the eruption of 1706 - was built between 1575 and 1577, during the reign of Phillip II. This Renaissance style fort, now property of the local council, is occasionally used for art exhibitions and contains a mini-museum of history of the area.

Research also shows that many Crypto-Jews [Jews who secretly practiced their religion after being forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition] prospered when they cooperated with the local pirates who turned the archipelago into their main base.

Cristóbal de Ponte, founder of Garachico, financier of the conquest of Tenerife and father of Pedro de Ponte

The village of Adeje, prey to frequent Arab attacks, was also sacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, so fortification has played an important part in the development of the town. The fortified haciendaCasa Fuerte stands as testimony to the village's remarkable defensive structure. In 1555, Pedro de Ponte - son of Cristóbal de Ponte the Jewish merchant and banker from Genoa, who founded the town of Garachico - obtained permission from Spain to build the Casa Fuerte; a mixture of country house and fort, to protect his sugar-cane business from the incursions of British and French pirates on the coasts.

Casa Fuerte in Adeje - Image Adeje Town Hall

On several occasions, English corsair, John Hawkins, lived at the Casa Fuerte. Cousin of Sir Francis Drake and backed by Elizabeth I, Hawkins was the partner of Pedro de Ponte in the slave trade with America. One of the most flamboyant figures of the Elizabethan Age, having left his mark as a slave trader, privateer, rear admiral, double agent and noted shipbuilder, Hawkins made plans with his friends in the Canaries to break into the slave trade in Guinea. Pedro de Ponte would help provide the fleet with water and supplies, make necessary arrangements with merchants in the Indies, and find a skilled pilot to handle navigation. Hawkins would provide the ships and the capital.

The last member of the Ponte family to live in the Casa Fuerte was Marqués Don Domingo José de Herrera y Ayala, who died in 1766 and, although the Casa Fuerte is not - it is now - open to the public, in 2007, Adeje council announced that it was in process of rescuing and digitizing its historic archives, documenting the history of the area between 1445 and 1931. The 86 meters worth of documents from the Casa Fuerte: more than 17,000 files and more than a million folio pages, must surely shed some fascinating new light on the history of, not only Adeje, but also of the island of Tenerife, as well as those of the islands of La Gomera and El Hierro during the 15th to 20th Centuries.

Plaza de Santo Domingo and Chuch of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in La Laguna
Image Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tomb of Amaro Pargo in the Church of
Santo Domingo de Guzmán in La Laguna
The tombstone of Amaro Pargo - one of the most renowned corsairs of the Golden Age of Piracy - in the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in San Cristóbal de La Laguna bears the unmistakable trademark of piracy: an engraved a skull and crossbones.

The Canaries' wealth invited frequent attacks by pirates and privateers.

The most significant attack on Gran Canaria took place in 1599, when the Dutch Admiral Pieter van der Does attacked the capital, Las Palmas, apparently with 74 ships, 12,000 men (the city had 3,500 of the island of Gran Canaria's 8,545 inhabitants) and 150 landing craft. Despite this, the attack was unsuccessful.

Santa Cruz de La Palma too has a rich seafaring history. Founded by Alonso Fernández de Lugo on 3rd May 1493, from that time onwards, became home to Spanish, Flemish, English and Portuguese merchants and a target for pirates including those led by Françoise Le Clerc (known as Peg Leg) who, in 1553, pillaged and destroyed the town.

Protected by too small a garrison, Lanzarote's inhabitants were decimated, for centuries, by the relentless attacks of pirates who were slave-hunters. In the 17th century, pirates raided the island and took 1,000 inhabitants into slavery from the Cueva de los Verdes.

The island of Fuerteventura was once a favourite haunt for pirates and their legacy for divers are some great wreaks to explore.