When the common people of Tenerife “tore off” Admiral Nelson’s arm

Esteban Villarejo

To the scorn of the English, the Canary Islands are not just a place of “sun and sand”, there Perfidious Albion suffered a humiliating defeat in his attempt to subdue them. The hero of Trafalgar promised not to attack them again

There was a time when the insignificant inhabitants of Perfidious Albion arrived on the shores of Spain for a purpose quite different from that of “sun and sand”. They were English hunting for new territories for their Crown and their strategic interests in the seas and business to America and the west coast of Africa. Such was the case of those hot days from July 22 to 25, 1797 when the still Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson – the one who already proudly exhibits London in his heart of Trafalgar Square – set out to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife and thereby put in jeopardy the always strategic Canary Islands.

But the British hero ran into the courage and determination of an entire people, the Tenerife, who, commanded by General Antonio Gutiérrez de Otero (Aranda de Duero, 1729 – Tenerife, 1799) put an end to the daring of the English to whom the skirmish cost him the lower part of his right arm and almost cost him the life that he would lose eight years later in the waters of Trafalgar.

Labriegos, fishermen, artisans, servants, in short, the plain people from one end of the island to the other defended the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife”, explains Jesús Villanueva Jiménez, author of the historical novel “El fuego de Bronze” (Ed . Libros Libres) that meticulously recreates the great feat of July 25. With its author, we delve into that episode in the History of Spain blurred and forgotten like so many others. And with a figure that stood out above all: General Gutiérrez de Otero from Burgos.

Strategic reasons for the attack on Tenerife

But why did the United Kingdom decide to set out to conquer Tenerife? What led Nelson to stand off its coast in the early morning of July 22 with 2,000 men and 393 naval guns? The answer is found in the defeat suffered by the Spanish Navy five months earlier at Cabo de San Vicente.

“The opportunity to take Santa Cruz, the most important stronghold and headquarters of the Captaincy General of the Canary Islands, presented itself at the beginning of the spring of 1797. At that time, the Spanish Armada was blocked by the British in the Bay of Cádiz, ad went to be defeated on February 14 in front of Cape San Vicente. The opportunity was appreciated by both Nelson and his direct commander, Admiral John Jervis, chief of the Mediterranean fleet. From a letter that Nelson addresses to Jervis, dated April 12, 1797, the invasion project is forged. In this and other letters, it is clearly demonstrated that the British intention was to invade Tenerife in order to take all the islands in stages.”

The geostrategic importance of Tenerife and the entire Canary archipelago was the compelling reason for a British Empire based overseas Spanish dominions: “Not only Tenerife but the entire Canary Archipelago was also coveted by Great Britain, since its islands could represent an extraordinary Atlantic platform for the shelter and supplies of the Royal Navy, given the British interests in the New Continent.”

Early morning of July 22

And so it was that at dawn on July 22, the British hosts and their eight ships, taking advantage of the absolute darkness, positioned themselves off the Tenerife coast to begin the landing. The English fleet consisted of the ships of the line “Theseus” (where the rear admiral flew his insignia), “Culloden”, “Zealous”, the frigates “Seahorse”, “Emerald” and “Terpsichore”, the cutter “Fox” and the bomb vessel “Rayo” (the ship “Leander”, from Lisbon, joined the expedition on the morning of the 24th). A total of 393 guns and 2,000 men, trained, experienced and well-armed. The plan seemed to be coming to fruition.

For its part, the defenses of the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife were made up of only about 60 veteran gunners and 320 militias (to serve 89 guns in 16 batteries), 247 soldiers from the Canary Infantry Battalion, 60 from the flags of Havana and Cuba, 110 from “La Mutine” (a French corvette that was captured in the Santa Cruz roads two months earlier by the British) and the militia regiments from La Laguna, La Orotava, Garachico, Güímar and Abona, about 900 peasants (including those attached to the batteries) with very little military training and mostly armed with implements. At the head of the defense was Lieutenant General Antonio Gutiérrez de Otero, already a 68-year-old man.

“That early morning of July 22, the eight English ships were positioned off the coast of Santa Cruz; 30 boats with 900 men were launched, under the command of Captain Trowbridge, commander of the “Culloden”. The receding tide delayed the advance and they were discovered at dawn. From the Castillo de Paso Alto, cannon fire drove the ships back; the surprise had been frustrated.”

At 9 in the morning, Nelson ordered another landing, whatever the cost. The plan consisted of assaulting the Castillo de Paso Alto and from this fire at the main one, that of San Cristóbal (where Gutiérrez and his staff were), while the infantry attacked from the ground. This time the 900 men managed to land on the Bufadero beach (northeast of Santa Cruz), but 200 Spaniards cut them off from the neighboring Paso Alto summit, forcing the invaders to take shelter at the top of Ramonal. Between both forces the broad Valleseco valley.

Under a blazing sun, musket shots and some field cannon (called violent) shots were crossed. With no food or water, and no chance to advance, Trowbridge ordered a retreat at dusk. Nelson must be exasperated; his plans were not working, so he decided to order a massive attack”, explains the author.

The British attack, by Francisco Aguilar (Naval Museum)

The British attack, by Francisco Aguilar (Naval Museum)

On the night of July 24, 1,300 men boarded 30 boats, the “Fox” cutter and a local fishing boat captured days before. “The objective was to land in a rush along the beach to the right of the Main Castle and through the mouths of the ravines to the left of it, to immediately assault and surrender the castle of San Cristóbal”, explains Jesús Villanueva.

At 1.30 am. On July 25, the boats were discovered from the battery at the head of the dock. Under the incessant fire from the cannons of the pier and the batteries of San Cristóbal, Santo Domingo, San Pedro, Paso Alto, San Telmo, and La Concepción, around 700 men managed to disembark, most of them at the mouth of the ravine called Barranquillo del Aceite and through the cove of Blas Díaz.

“Only a handful of Englishmen managed to do it on the beach to the left of the Main Castle, turned into hell by shrapnel from the “El Tigre” cannon, whose embrasure, along the beach, had been opened the day before at the lieutenant Francisco Grandi Giraud‘s providential initiative. Nelson, seriously wounded, was re-embarked on “Theseus”; being a matter of life or death, the surgeon had to amputate his right arm above the elbow. To make matters worse for the British, the cutter “Fox” was sunk by the Spanish artillery, sinking in a few minutes with 150 men, plus ammunition, weapons, and supplies for the capture of the castle of San Cristóbal.”

The English capitulation: Nelson’s word

During the early hours of July 25, the clashes on the beaches, streets, and squares of Santa Cruz were continuous and bloody. From the corners of the houses, in the twilight, the Canary Infantry Battalion fired at the British who were trying to reorganize to storm the castle. These, disoriented, dispersed through the town. General Gutiérrez divided the Infantry Battalion into four units, to whose section he added contingents of militiamen, and positioned them in such a way as to sweep away the British scattered throughout the town.

«The English capitulation», an oil painting by Nicolás Alfaro (Naval Museum)

«The English capitulation», an oil painting by Nicolás Alfaro (Naval Museum)

“At dawn, the Spanish managed to corner all the disembarked troops, around the Santo Domingo convent, where the invaders took refuge. Nelson, recently operated, ordered one last attempt to disembark a reinforcement of 200 men in fifteen boats, but in the light of dawn, they were massacred by the coastal artillery. Those besieged in the convent (ignorant of Nelson’s situation) decided to capitulate, under certain conditions.”

The capitulation was signed in the castle of San Cristóbal that morning of July 25, 1797. General Gutiérrez on the Spanish side, and the commander of the “Zealous”, Samuel Hood, on the British side. Gutiérrez accepted a reshipment with weapons, at the touch of the war drums, on the condition, under Nelson’s own word of honor, that no other English squad would attack the Canary Islands, in addition to the fact that the defeated themselves would take a letter to Cádiz with destination Madrid, with the news of the Spanish victory. A word that the English kept. The wounded were treated with total humanity, a fact that Nelson himself thanked Gutiérrez in the first letter that the Englishman signed with his left hand. A letter that is still preserved.

What was the outcome of the battle that Nelson lost? Of the 1,300 British who disembarked, almost 700 were killed or wounded, for only 24 Spanish fallen. In Santa Cruz there were remained weapons, supplies and, especially, two British flags (which today are exhibited in the museum of the Center of Military History and Culture of the Canary Islands, in the establishment of Almeyda, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife) captured in combat that day of July 25, 1797.

The importance of Gutiérrez de Otero

General Gutiérrez de Otero played an absolutely fundamental role in the defense of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. He was perfectly familiar with English tricks and tactics at sea and off the Spanish coast as he had defeated them on two occasions: “In command of the landing troops he expelled [the Britis] from Port Egmont, in the Greater Malvina [West Falkland] in 1770, and in the recovery of Menorca in 1782. So he knew how to anticipate, both in strategy and in tactics. The terms of the capitulation are a sample of his good sense and cold blood.”

Another of the key characters in this battle was a peasant woman from San Andrés, whose identity is unknown, and who raised the alarm on July 22 to the sentinels of the Paso Alto castle when she went to sell her produce.

But without a doubt, if there was a giant hero in this contest that would further reaffirm the Spanishness of the island of Tenerife, it was its people united with its regular Army, that nine years later in the Peninsula – this time against the madness of Napoleon in Spain- fought bravely and with all for one against the invader: “I want to make a special mention of the brave water carriers of Santa Cruz, who on the morning of July 22, literally risking their lives, raised water, food, and supplies three times to the Spanish defenders who were blocking the way of the invaders on the very steep summit of Paso Alto”, points out Jesús Villanueva Jiménez.

The reader already knows … if you go to the always blessed Canarian land of Tenerife … remember that there its belonging to Spain was defended with blood and fire on a hot July 1797, that there the admiral venerated by the United Kingdom was defeated and crippled, that the common people rose in victory together with their Army in one of the great feats of our History.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Villarejo, E. (2013) ‘Cuando el pueblo llano de Tenerife «arrancó» el brazo al almirante Nelson’, ABC, Madrid, 19 July. Available at: https://www.abc.es/historia-militar/20130401/abci-perdio-brazo-201303251229.html (Accessed: 12 February 2021).

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