An 18th-century disaster for Nelson and the British navy

I said in my last post that there were two episodes in which Tenerife hit the headlines.

The first of these took place in July, 1797, when a small British naval force under Admiral Nelson attacked the port of Santa Cruz, on the north-east coast of the island.

The attack was beaten off by the local Spanish forces, with huge loss of life to the British. Nelson himself narrowly escaped death when his arm was shattered by a cannon ball. He had to have it amputated.

Now, I know a lot about Nelson’s career. Actually, he’s one of my heroes. I know he had many and serious character faults; but what I like about him is the way he paid attention to the welfare of his men – not a common quality for too many officers of that day and age, in any country – and also the way he took his subordinates into his confidence so that they knew exactly what he was planning. This greatly helped him achieve his great successes.

But his attack on Tenerife was an out-and-out disaster. And the funny thing is (which I realised for the first time whilst visiting Santa Cruz whilst on holiday in Tenerife), is that I actually had very little idea of why the attack took place.

I know that Santa Cruz was a port where the Spanish treasure fleets called, laden with silver from South America; and I had thought that the idea was to capture one of these fleets, which were a vital source of wealth to the Spanish. But I haven’t read anywhere that there was such a fleet at Santa Cruz harbour when the attack took place.

Maybe, therefore, it was because, if the British took the port, it would cease to be able to be used by the treasure fleets as a port of call.

This would have made things hard for the Spanish – but, assuming the British had succeeded in capturing the port, they would then have had to hold on to it. The local forces would undoubtedly have retreated into the surrounding territory and laid siege to the town. Since the town is surrounded by steep hills, they would have had a great advantage over the British. They could have easily lopped mortars and so on onto the heads of the garrison. Also, the British troops would have had to have been supplied from the sea, and that would have been expensive and dangerous.

So maybe the British intention was to actually capture the entire island.

Now, look at Tenerife on a world map, and it’s a tiny dot in the middle of the ocean. Actually go there, however, and it’s a major piece of land. It took us more than an hour to drive from south to north. Also, the terrain is not brilliant for any force trying to conquer the island. There’s a dirty great mountain in the middle of it – 13,000 ft Mt Tiede. In fact it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Tenerife equals Mt Tiede! Having myself driven through the steep vallies, ravines and cliffs of the interior of the island, I can personally vouch for the fact that a small force who knew the land could easily have held off a much larger one. The British would have needed a major expeditionary force to secure the island – far bigger than the one that Nelson had with him, and one involving serious expense.

So what WERE the British trying to do? Well, I’m still not sure, to be frank. I rather suspect that, like a lot of actions in wartime, it was simply done to inflict some damage on an enemy, however short-term, and achieve glory for the attackers. On this occasion (as so often), it backfired.

(By the way, in reading about this attack, I discovered that the British had twice previously tried to attack Santa Cruz, one (in 1657) a success but with no long term results and the other (1706) a complete failure, like Nelson’s. I’m surprised we Brits find the inhabitants are so welcoming!)


By Peter Britton


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