The Battle of Tenerife, (Comedy Version) was written sitting by a pool in Tenerife last year. For several years, various historian friends and I have occasionally lightened the mood of researching and writing about some of the darker moments of history by writing sketches about how things might really have happened on the day.
In real life, these were battles and things went wrong and men died and there is no intention to forget this. I write about that aspect in my novels. On the other hand, sometimes, reading about and researching a particular military episode, I find myself thinking just….why? How? Who even thought this was a good idea? And I’m sure that there were men out there at the time, who were thinking pretty much the same thing.
I knew nothing about the Battle of Tenerife other than the fact that Nelson lost his arm there, until I visited Santa Cruz last year and toured the various sites and museums. This sketch is the result of my bewilderment.
Today is the anniversary of the victory at Cape St Vincent. A naval historian friend has been very cross that the shops are full of Valentines Day cards, with not one card celebrating this famous battle. I didn’t have time to write anything about Cape St Vincent, so I thought I’d resurrect this instead, in honour of Admiral Jervis who was probably glad he didn’t go to Santa Cruz de Tenerife in person.
Please enjoy, and remember that Nelson went on to far greater things…
Somewhere at Sea, 1797…
Admiral Jervis is still celebrating his memorable victory at Cape St Vincent. He’s also a bit cross about Cadiz not working out quite so well and those pesky Spanish whizzing treasure ships around right under his nose. The sailors are getting restive. The Admiral is feeling the pressure. It’s Saturday night, a few drinks in the Admiral’s dining cabin and Jervis has had enough…
Jervis: What we need is a win. A nice little win. No, a nice big win. Big fat hairy prizes. Loadsa money…”
Captain: I say, Admiral, are you all right? Good wine, this. Strong, though. Maybe we should…
Jervis: Pour another one. A big one. Cadiz was a stupid idea anyway. Who goes there? Nobody. Nothing to see, nothing to do. We want somewhere nice. Somewhere sunny. Somewhere popular, full of treasure ships and nice forts we can blow up. We want….I know – Tenerife!
Captain: Tenerife, sir? Are you sure? I mean, why?
Jervis: Lovely place. Great for holidays. Should be British. Don’t argue with me and pour another glass. Now, who shall we send? I know! Whatshisname! You know. Little fella with the funny hair and squeaky voice.
Captain: Do you mean Admiral Nelson, sir?
Jervis: Nelson. That’s the one. Send him a message, will you? Now, anybody for charades?
HMS Theseus, July 1797
Nelson: Well here we are, chaps. Almost at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and a very fine day for it. Now, I’ve got my plan of attack all worked out and if everybody does exactly as I say, it will all go swimmingly.
Troubridge: I hope not, Admiral.
Nelson: What the devil do you mean, Troubridge?
Troubridge: Swimmingly, sir. Swimming not really the idea here, what?
Nelson: Was that a joke, Troubridge?
Troubridge: Er – yes, sir.
Nelson: Not funny. Not even slightly. If there are jokes to be made, I’ll make them. I’m the Admiral. All jokes should be run past me, clear?
Troubridge: Yes, sir.
Nelson: Now, here’s the plan. Troubridge, you’ll lead a night time landing. The frigates will approach the shore stealthily and disembark troops then attack the Spanish batteries north east of the harbour. Crompton, you’ll open mortar fire on the city. My ships of the line will enter the harbour at break of dawn, gloriously, seize the Spanish merchant ships and win the day.
Nelson: That’s me. I’m going in gloriously, you’re going in stealthily. Is that clear?
Troubridge: Do they know we’re coming, sir?
Nelson: Don’t be an ass, Troubridge, it wouldn’t be stealthy if they knew we were coming, would it?
Troubridge: No, sir. It’s just there are those mountains and cliffs. They’re pretty high, you can see them for miles. And I sort of think maybe they can see us coming for miles.
Nelson: Mountains? Cliffs? What nonsense, I see no mountains or cliffs. Anyway, these are the Spanish. Admiral Jervis assures me they’re hopeless. Haven’t a clue. Totally disorganised. No, stealth is the word here. Followed by glory. It’ll be no trouble.
Troubridge: Glad to hear it, sir.
Nelson: Oh, and by the way, I sent a note to the Spanish authorities demanding the surrender of all Spanish cargo, and threatening the destruction of the city. That’ll show them.
Troubridge: Very stealthy, sir.
20 July aboard the Theseus
Nelson: Right, chaps, final plans. Two phases to the attack. 1000 seamen and marines will land at Valle Seco beach and surround and capture Fort Paso Alto. I’m sure they’ll surrender immediately but if by some remote chance they don’t, the landing party will march on the port and attack.
Troubridge: Stealthily, sir?
Nelson: Exactly, Captain. Everybody ready? Good. Let’s go get ‘em, boys. I’d stay to chat but I need to pop off and write my glorious victory speech along with the prayer I’m going to say before going into battle.
Hood: You write out your prayers, Admiral?
Nelson: Not all of them, Hood, only the ones the newspapers might want to publish. Otherwise the fools might get it wrong.
The attack, Part 1
Troubridge: Right, men, we’re off. 23 boats aiming for the Bufadero cliff, the other 16 head straight for the city. Let’s go.
Marine 1: Huzzah, we’re off! We’ll show those Spaniards.
Marine 2: Great prize money out of this. Good job too, I could do with new trousers.These make me look fat.
Marine 3: Bollocks, Smithy, your gut makes you look fat. What’s going on?
Marine 1: Not much, by the looks of it. We’re getting nowhere here. These currents are impossible.
Marine 3: Row harder, lads. We can do it.
Marine 2: Er…is that gunfire I can hear? From the city?
Marine 3: Oh bugger.
Troubridge: Back to the ships, lads. Row for your lives, they’re sinking our boats. Some bloody stealth attack this was…
Interlude, aboard the Theseus
Troubridge: It was impossible, Admiral. The tides were against us, the city guns were sinking our boats and we seemed to get no help from our ships.
Nelson: Well what help could we give, Captain? The big ships can’t get close enough, the frigates can, but their guns can’t fire high enough to hit the city, the mortar is doing no good at all and the carronades are useless in this situation. We did the best we could.
Troubridge: What did you do, sir?
Nelson: We cheered you on. We supported you. I even said a prayer. I’ve got a copy of it if you want one.
Troubridge: Thank you, Admiral, that’s a big help.
Nelson: I knew you’d appreciate it. Right, time for another attempt. I’ve got the perfect plan this time, it can’t fail.
Troubridge: Like the last one then.
Nelson: Button it, Captain. This time we’ll get the boats to tow the frigates in, so they can anchor close to the cliffs. That way we’ll get past the currents and land men and equipment. After that it’ll be a piece of cake. Admiral Jervis is going to be so pleased, I can’t wait to tell him.
The Attack, part 2
Troubridge: Right, we’ve landed. Thank God for that, bit hairy with those guns firing on us. Right, Crompton, Thompson, let’s get this artillery moving and into place.
Crompton: How, sir?
Troubridge: Well I don’t know, I’m not a soldier or a marine. How do we usually move guns?
Thompson: Horses, sir. Or mules, in an emergency.
Troubridge: This is an emergency.
Crompton: Didn’t Admiral Nelson give any orders about this, sir?
Troubridge: No. But it’s all right, Captain Jackson of the marines will know. Where the devil is he?
Thompson: Er – still at sea, sir. Saw half the boats going off in that direction and he was in one of them.
Troubridge: What the devil is in that direction?
Thompson: Not much that I know of, sir. But then I didn’t know what was in this direction either. I don’t think any of the officers knew where we were going.
Troubridge: For God’s sake, didn’t someone tell them they were going the wrong way?
Crompton: Orders were to land in complete silence, sir, otherwise I’d have yelled. Because of stealth.
Troubridge: Didn’t anybody do anything?
Thompson: We waved, sir. And jumped up and down.
Crompton: I think a couple of them waved back, sir. Hard to tell in the dark. But cheer up,we were very stealthy.
Shell lands close by them on the beach
Troubridge: Ha bloody ha, Captain, clearly they’ve no idea we’re here. Take cover!
July 23, aboard the Theseus
Nelson: Troubridge, I have had enough! Two days, God knows how many landings and withdrawals, half the boats spent the night wandering around aimlessly in circles and the rest of you couldn’t even make it off the beaches. This is not how it was meant to go! Admiral Jervis assured me it would be easy!
Troubridge: Anybody know if Admiral Jervis has actually been to Santa Cruz, sir?
Nelson: Don’t get funny with me, Captain. Right, new orders. Now that all the troops are back aboard, I’m sending the three frigates past that beach and I want them to fire at those big cliffs.
Troubridge: At the cliffs, sir? Any particular reason?
Nelson: They keep shooting at us, Captain
Troubridge: From the forts, sir. Which we can’t reach
Nelson: There might be some defenders up there
Troubridge: We haven’t seen any, sir.
Nelson: Shut up, Troubridge. I’m as mad as a wet hen and I just want to shoot something.
Troubridge: I’ll send the signal then, sir
Later that day, aboard the Theseus, Nelson has called a meeting of all his captains…
Nelson: Right, I feel a bit better now. By gum, those guns did some damage to those cliffs. And now I’ve worked out what I’ve been doing wrong. I’ve been trying to run this campaign from behind the scenes. It’s time I stepped up and got involved personally. I’m leading the attack. No more Admiral Nice Guy. Once they see me in the boats they’ll know we mean business.
Miller: Sir, is that a good idea? I mean you don’t have much experience of fighting on land, and…
Nelson: Nonsense, how hard can it be?. Have you seen some of the idiots who lead the army, they don’t even have to pass an examination to get in? We’ll attack the San Cristobal fort directly and put a stop to this nonsense. Assemble the troops. I’ll be in the lead boat, when they see me the men will scent victory! Troubrige, Miller, Hood, Waller and Thompson you’ll lead the other boats. Huzzah!
Troubrige, Miller, Hood, Waller and Thompson (Gloomily): Huzzah.
10.30pm, 24 July, in the boats
Nelson: Cloth-padded oars to keep the noise down. Genius, eh, Nesbit? Now this is what I call stealth. Should have done this right from the start, never wise to delegate too much. Heard that from an army chap called Wellesley I ran into one day. He was definite that you can’t leave anything to anybody else if you want it done properly and I’m beginning to think the man had a point. They won’t see us coming, they’ll have no idea and we’ll be upon them before…what was that?
Nesbit: Warning shot, sir, from that frigate. I think they know we’re coming.
Nelson: Well row faster, for God’s sake!
Nesbit: Going as fast as we can, Admiral. Winds and tides are against us. You remember Captain Troubridge mentioned the winds and tides?
Suddenly a hail of cannonballs and musket bullets from the batteries of Paso Alto, San Miguel, San Antonio and San Pedro begins to rain down on the British boats
Nelson: Shoot back! Fire! Why is nobody shooting back, for God’s sake?
Nesbit: Powder’s wet, sir, seawater. Nobody can fire.
Nelson: Never mind! Once we’ve landed and they see our brave lads advancing up into the town, they’ll turn and run. Admiral Jarvis assured me…oh F**k.
La Consolación convent, Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Troubridge: Right, we’re in.
Hood: But we can’t get out
Troubridge: Any news of the rest of the troops?
Hood: Not good, sir. A lot of the boats were hit and the Fox was sunk. A lot of casualties on the beach. Bowen managed to spike some of the guns and rushed the town but he and his men were cut down by grapeshot. Most of the troops had to retreat. And there’s worse news. Admiral Nelson was wounded in the boat and had to be rowed back to the Theseus. I am sorry.
Troubridge: So the Admiral isn’t able to give any more orders?
Hood: I don’t think so.
Troubridge: Well cheer up, Hood. We might get out of this alive after all. Right, send a message to Gutierrez demanding the surrender of the San Jose or we will burn the town.
Two hours later
Hood: There’s a reply from General Gutierrez, Captain.
Troubridge: What does he say?
Hood: I don’t know that word. Anybody here speak Spanish?
Troubridge: Don’t bother, Hood, I know that word. What’s that noise…oh bloody hell. Take cover, everybody!
One hour later
Hood: Good news, Captain. We’ve got a message from the fleet. Admiral Nelson has survived the amputation of his arm and is sitting up and able to give orders again.
Hood: Also bad news. The Spanish have blockaded the pier so we can’t escape. Admiral Nelson tried to send 15 boats with reinforcements but they were driven back with the loss of 3 boats.
Troubridge: Oh stuff it, I’ve had enough. Send another message, Hood. In fact take it yourself. Find out what Gutierrez will accept in terms of surrender and let’s get out of here.
Some time later, somewhere in England, debriefing meeting
Jervis: So you surrendered to the Spanish, Nelson?
Nelson: Not in so many words, Admiral. Technically, Troubridge did. I was disappointed. If only I’d not been wounded, I’m sure we would have prevailed.
Jervis: What terms?
Nelson: Very generous, I thought. Very good chap, Gutierrez, very gentlemanly. Our men were allowed to return to their ships with full military honours as long as Hood undertook not to burn the town, or make any further attacks on Tenerife or the Canary Islands. And he lent us two schooners to help us on the way back, we were a bit short with so many being shot up and sunk. As a matter of fact I sent a thank you letter to Gutiérrez along with some beer and cheese. I got a very nice reply with some Spanish wine and cheese. Dreadful stuff but he meant well.
Jervis: Well I’m disappointed, Admiral. In fact, I’m more than a bit cross. When you think of my own glorious achievements, and you couldn’t even manage a smelly little port in the Canary Islands. Still, I suppose every man deserves a second chance. How do you fancy having another crack at it when you’re fully recovered?
Nelson: Another crack?
Nelson: At Santa Cruz?
Jervis: I can tell you’re following my train of thought here
Jervis: Are you sure?
Nelson: Admiral, I would rather lead a column of ships into a hail of broadside fire from the ships of two navies in a full scale sea battle than go back to that hell hole again.
Jervis: Oh all right, I get the point. Who needs Tenerife anyway, leave it to the Spanish. And I suppose even with your defeatist attitude we can find you something else to do…
Working on a book based around a navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, a visit to the National Maritime Museumin Greenwich seemed like an ideal way to start this visit to London. I can remember going to all the Greenwich museums growing up, but it has been a very long time.
The National Maritime Museum is the leading museum of its kind in the UK and probably one of the best in the world. It is part of a complex known as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and includes the Royal Observatoryand 17th-century Queen’s House. In 2012 the complex was given the overall name of Royal Museums Greenwich along with the famous Cutty Sark which stands nearby.
Greenwich has always had associations with the sea and the navy has roots on the waterfront while Charles IIfounded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for “finding the longitude of places”. The home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridiansince 1884, Greenwich has long been a centre for astronomical study, while navigators across the world have set their clocks according to its time of day. Something about this knowledge has always given me a slight sense of awe when visiting this part of Greenwich.
The National Maritime Museum has a huge collection on Britain’s seafaring history including art, maps and charts, manuscripts, models and plans, navigational instruments and personal items belonging to important historical figures such as Nelsonand Captain James Cook.
Flamsteed House, the original part of the Royal Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and was the first purpose-built scientific institution in Britain. In 1953, the Old Royal Observatory became part of the Museum.
The 17th-century Queen’s House, an early classical building designed by Inigo Jones, is the keystone of the historic “park and palace” landscape of maritime Greenwich. The Queen’s House was refurbished in 2001 to become the heart of displays of art from the Museum’s collection.
In May 2007 a major capital project, “Time and Space”, opened up the entire Royal Observatory site for the benefit of visitors. The £16 million transformation features three new modern astronomy galleries, four new time galleries, facilities for collections conservation and research, a learning centre and the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetariumdesigned to introduce the world beyond the night sky.
The National Maritime Museum has galleries exploring various aspects of Britain’s maritime history. A gallery dedicated to Nelson and the Navy tells the story of Admiral Nelson, his battles, his life and his death at Trafalgar, and sets the battle in the context of the wars against the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It describes the ships, the sailors and how they lived and the way the navy was perceived at home.
The gallery concerned with traders explores the relationship between Britain and the wider world, particularly the powerful East India Company which spread its influence until it controlled huge areas of territory in India. I found this fascinating, partly because I studied this at University and partly because I spent time researching the Company in India when I was writing about Assaye in An Unconventional Officer.
Another gallery covered the difficult subject of the transatlantic slave trade, both up to abolition and beyond. I thought this topic was well-handled, looking at both slavers and abolitionists as well as the slaves who fought back against their masters in places like Haiti.
Other galleries explored the maritime history of London, the first world war and in Voyagers, the personal significance of Britain’s maritime story. I particularly liked the exploration of Turner’s famous painting of Trafalgar which analysed the painting and it’s meaning in the context of national pride and naval power following the battle.
The museum is huge and there is so much to see and do that it is easy to miss things. Work is in progress on a new gallery and there are various temporary exhibitions, a children’s play area and the fabulous Great Map.
If the museum has a fault, it is that the various galleries are sometimes hard to follow in the correct order. Especially as it is sometimes possible to enter a gallery from either end it is easy to find yourself going around in the wrong order and there is no numbering of exhibits to help with this. With a fairly good background in history it didn’t really bother me that much, but I can imagine it would irritate some people.
I loved the museum along with the Royal Observatory, which completed the story of some of the scientific aspects of navigation and the Cutty Sark, standing 400m outside. I didn’t manage the Queen’s House this time around, although I’d like to go back to it.
The Cutty Sark is one of my clearest childhood memories. It was a Sunday afternoon treat, even just going to see it. Going aboard was even better. The ship was one of the fastest tea clippers in the world and there was something romantic for me as a small girl, standing on the deck gazing up at the tall masts and trying to imagine billowing sails and a fresh breeze at sea. I was devastated in 2007 when the ship was badly damaged by fire and have followed the progress of the restoration.
We used to take the bus to the Isle of Dogs back in the sixties and seventies and then walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich. The foot tunnel is a piece of history in itself, a masterpiece of late Victorian engineering which opened in 1902 and was built to replace an expensive and unreliable ferry service which took workers living south of the river to work in the docks and shipyards. The entrances at each end are beneath glazed domes and I can remember the joy of running through the tunnel calling out and hearing my voice echo, bouncing off the walls eerily. We used to count the steps at each end. There were lifts but for some reason we seldom used them.
A visit to Greenwich is both a research aide for the new book and a trip down memory lane. The strong sense of standing with both feet in maritime history is just what I need as I embark on the second half of my book which places me aboard a Royal navy ship bound for Copenhagen in 1807 under Admiral Gambier. But there is also a sense of standing with at least one foot in my own past, a child growing up in the East End with parents who took us to some historic site almost every weekend. There is a strong link between that excited little girl standing on the deck of an old ship and trying to imagine how it felt to sail in her and the woman writing a novel of those who did. I owe that as a debt to the parents who gave me that sense of history and why it matters to all of us.
The new book, An Unwilling Alliance, is due for publication in April 2018.