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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Sir Frederick Leighton, an English classical artist in the Canary Islands

When Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June went to the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1895, the artist was too ill to attend. In fact he was dying of angina pectoris. Like so many of his works, that exquisite and sensual painting, his most famous work of art, was just too meticulous for an era when Impressionism, with its carefree brushwork, was all the rage. Flaming June, which would now fetch a fortune, hung almost insignificantly at the Maas Gallery in London until it was eventually purchased by chance at a bargain price of ₤2,000 in 1963 for the Museo de Arte de Ponce in the Caribbean island state of Puerto Rico.

Flaming June (Museo del Arte de Ponce), Puerto Rico

It is interesting to note that one of Frederick Leighton’s least known and perhaps forgotten works of art hangs in another Puerto, right here in the Canary Islands.

As a mere passer-by I cannot assume it is worth the fortunes other works of Sir Frederick have fetched at Christies in recent years. Nevertheless, the artist’s history certainly stirs my imagination.

Born into a wealthy and cultured family in Scarborough in 1820, Leighton was able to travel from an early age. Thus he not only learnt several languages but was also introduced to art and architecture in EuropeHis father, Frederick Septimus, was a doctor. His grandfather, Jacob Leighton, had been friend and personal physician to the Russian Emperors Alexander I and Nicholas I. Like so many others who could permit themselves the luxury of leaving the damp and smoggy England, they sought to find a better climate for his mother Augusta’s ailing health.

Frederick, Lord Leighton (Aberdeen Art Gallery)

With such a background young Frederick had also been expected to become a doctor. His father taught him, in great detail, about human anatomy and this may well have influenced his meticulous artistic style. Nevertheless, recognising his immense talent, his father presented Leighton with a set of paints and by the time he was ten he was receiving his first master classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. But later, when he lived in Frankfurt, he enrolled at the State Institute of Art. There he was influenced by other painters like Johann Friedrich Overbeck and Eduard von Steinle of the German Nazarene movement, whose religious and spiritual overtones also influenced the British Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1855 he exhibited his work at the Royal Academy and when Queen Victoria bought one of his paintings he instantly became a member of Society circles in London. Leighton also lived in Rome and Paris, meeting other European painters and training in their studios before he returned in England in 1859.

But his purely classical style toiled against the Impressionists, who were in vogue, and was often criticised for lacking temperament and individuality. Apparently his stiff technique lacked expression and suggested laborious work and methodical use of colour rather than natural flair. Consequently critics said his paintings lost a certain charm. Nevertheless his art was regarded as being very refined and some of his finest paintings, often betraying his idealistic attraction to Greek and Roman mythology, suggest his own sensuality and passion. This became more evident after becoming less inclined to subjugate his own talent and self-esteem to other masters, especially after he met nineteen year old lass, Ada Pullan, in 1879.

Frederic Leighton was nearly fifty and fell captive to her beauty and headful of curls. She became his favorite model and muse. Although some have tried to suggest Frederick Leighton may have dabbled in homosexuality, possibly in earlier years, this has never been certain, especially as he kept his private life very much to himself. It is more likely that he enjoyed a very secret and passionate love affair with his model. It is thought he used her nude to paint Flaming June before adding her light, flaming orange robe to entice and awaken the senses.

Ada posed for Crenaia, The Nymph of the Dargle (Pérez Simon Collection, Mexico)

He persuaded Ada to change her name to Dorothy Dene, he educated her, he introduced her to fashionable circles and he helped her obtain a certain amount of success as an actress. It is believed George Bernard Shaw used her extraordinary relationship with Frederick Leighton to conjure up Pygmalion, which then reached such fame as the musical My Fair Lady. Leighton was considered most generous and helped younger painters and sculptors and was a pioneer in assisting women artists. After becoming President of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1878 he pushed a case for women artists to have the same privileges as their male colleagues.

Sir Frederick Leighton was a cultured and handsome man. He spent time at Cambridge, Oxford, Dublin, Edinburgh and Durham Universities. His talent earned him the Prussian Pour la Mérite distinction and the Medal of Honour as sculptor at the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1889. His last house in Holland Park is known as Leighton’s Art gallery. Many of his works are on display there, as well as treasures collected during his travels throughout the world. The mansion is regarded as a work of art in itself because it is filled with the tastes and fantasies of a man who lived for his art but who was also an enthusiastic volunteer soldier and commanding officer of what was known as the Artists Rifles.

Frederick Leighton visited Tenerife and Gran Canaria in 1887, spending most of his time in the Orotava Valley. The light and tones of the coast, especially in the colourful port of Puerto de la Cruz with its volcanic rock pools and Mount Teide in the nebulous distance, caught his imagination. Consequently one of his landscapes hangs proudly, albeit almost as discretely as his own private life, in the Mayor’s office at the Town Hall.

Frederick Leighton's painting in the Canary Islands
(Courtesy The Town Council, Puerto de la Cruz)

It is nothing like the colourful tourist resort we know today. In fact Frederick Leighton plays with the exact positioning of Mount Teide and the houses have a more Mediterranean look. But it is supposed to be a view of Puerto and the old harbour wall, possibly sketched from close to the San Telmo chapel.

Felipe Machado del Hoyo Solórzano

How Frederick Leighton’s painting should be there, as unaware of its artist’s prestige as it is of itself, is quite simple. We can thank another cultured gentleman and soldier, the late Felipe Machado del Hoyo Solórzano who inherited the title of Count de Las Siete Fuentes, one of the oldest hereditary titles in the Canary Islands. He was Mayor in Puerto de la Cruz in the 1970s when he spotted and purchased the painting for the Town Hall at an auction in Madrid in 1973.

(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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

When Sunbeam and Lady Brassey came to the Canary Island of Tenerife

     At the height of the British Empire, towards the end of the nineteenth century and when British influence and wealth was flaunted with considerable pride around the world, travel was still considered something of an adventure and often perilous. But it was also a period when women like Mary Henrietta Kingsley, Isabella Bird and Marianne North boldly journeyed far from the comforts and ties of a lady’s place. One of these was Lady Annie Brassey.

Lady Annie Brassey

     Although it is true to say that she travelled in certain style and comfort together with a husband, her children, friends and a full ship’s company, Annie was nevertheless equally courageous. Travel in the 19th century could never have been described as easy of course and she suffered from ill health throughout her journeys. But nothing would stop her. In fact Annie’s enthusiasm for adventure was contagious. Her letters to family in England so vividly described the first voyage aboard Sunbeam, her husband’s yacht, that she was urged to publish. Lady Brassey’s curiosity coupled with detailed accounts of ethnographic diversity, her evident sympathy for humankind and not a small amount of humour made her first journal an instant success.

     Annie lost her mother as a child and lived her first years with her grandfather in Clapham and her father in Berkley Square. Like so many young Victorian ladies she became interested in botany. At the age of twenty-one she married Lord Thomas Brassey, lawyer, historian, Member of Parliament, sailor, writer of naval books and later Governor of Victoria, Australia.

Thomas Brassey, Ist Earl Brassey

     Lord Thomas Brassey’s yacht was launched in 1874. She was a three-masted schooner with iron frame and teak skin. She had been designed for long distance voyages and although primarily a sailing yacht her bunkers carried eighty tons of coal and she could steam for three weeks if necessary. Accommodation for her owners and guests was luxurious, with cabins and staterooms furnished in elegant Victorian drawing-room style.

The Voyage in the Sunbeam, our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months

     Lady Brassey set foot on many more exotic and remote places than the Canary Islands but she wrote very fondly of Tenerife in The Voyage in the Sunbeam, our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months, which was published in 1878. Of course, Tenerife today is one of Europe’s favourite holiday destinations. It is dotted with modern marinas and her seas are saturated with pleasure craft and small and medium sized yachts but in the nineteenth century it was very rare to find ships of a private nature sailing the oceans. Sunbeam must have been a glorious sight as she approached from the northeast.

     “We all rose early and were full of excitement to catch the first glimpse of the famous Peak of Teneriffe” Lady Annie Brassey wrote on 21st July exactly 142 years ago, the morning  before they dropped anchor off the coast of Puerto de la Cruz.

Floating above the nebulous horizon - a first glimpse of Mount Teide 

     Always a lady of action and determination Lady Brassey volunteered with Captain Lecky, as soon as they could be rowed ashore, to visit Mr Goodall, the British Vice-Consul in Puerto. She planned to make arrangements for an expedition up Mount Teide immediately and in fact they set off at two o’clock the following morning after they had assembled twelve hired horses and guides. By half past seven they were already above the sea of clouds which Annie described as resembling “an enormous glacier, covered with fresh fallen snow, extending for miles and miles while the projecting tops of other Canary Islands appeared like great solitary rocks”.

"It was like the Great Sahara"

     She wrote of the oppressive heat as they rode through what local inhabitants call Las Cañadas del Teide. “It was like the Great Sahara” she exclaimed. She mentioned huge rocks of obsidian thrown from the mouth of the volcano and then the remarkable scene of bushes of yellow broom and the beautiful Retama in full white bloom “scenting the air with its delicious fragrance, and resembling huge tufts of feathers”.

Like tufts of feathers, Retama blossom with Mount Teide in the background

     When the expedition reached Altavista, a plateau where Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smythe had set up his telescopes in 1856 and where another Briton, George Graham Toler was to build the first climbers’ refuge,  Annie Brassey decide not to go any further. Lord Thomas Brassey and the men continued to the summit. Annie, who had found her splendid Victorian clothes unsuitable for such an adventure and her exhausted children found shelter from the sun under overhanging rocks. While the young ones slept, she took photographs. The guides who had not continued to the summit with her husband’s group returned with icy water from the cueva del hielo, the Ice Cave, a cavern in the volcano not far from Altavista.

The Ice Cave on Mount Teide

     They returned to the Sunbeam in the early hours of the following morning, twenty nine hours after setting out on their expedition and not without accidents, falls and becoming separated from her husband and part of the team during the night descent. “We were too tired to do anything but go straight on board the yacht, where, after some supper and champagne, we were glad indeed to retire to out berths”.

     Lord and Lady Brassey had given out invitations for people to visit the Sunbeam and there was a constant flow of visitors, now and then having to be reprimanded for being too curious. The seas off the north coast are notoriously rough but it was noted how a good many very attractive and distinguished señoritas came aboard accompanied by young men carrying bowls, presumably in case of sea sickness. Many local inhabitants brought gifts and the decks were adorned with baskets of fruit and flowers from the glorious gardens in the Orotava Valley, although in the stifling humidity they barely lasted a day.

     Afternoon tea was a necessary and elegant ritual, either aboard the Sunbeam or in the gardens of aristocratic landowners like the Marquis de la Candia where they were shown coffee plantations. Conversation was considered a stylish and necessary art in those days and Lady Brassey gathered much of her knowledge at these comfortable meetings about local customs, of botanical aspects in Tenerife and indeed about the variable weather in the north of the island. She was most enthusiastic about the variety of flora in the Orotava Valley and wrote that the temperate climate contributed to the valley being a giant greenhouse where plants from all over the planet could flourish. Indeed the remarkable Botanical Gardens in Puerto de la Cruz, which were shown to the Brasseys by the curator, Herman Wildpret, were opened in 1788 specifically to acclimatise plants from the Spanish and other European colonies before introducing them to Europe. Of the garden of the Marquis of Sauzal Lady Brassey remarked on the remains of an enormous dragon tree, Dracaena draco and “hedges of myrtle, jasmine, clematis and flowers of every description in full bloom”.

The Botanic Garden - Courtesy of the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens, London

     She was told that many landowners had been virtually ruined by disease affecting the vine industry, although historians now admit that part of the problem was due to European wine merchants being tempted by markets elsewhere. “Most of the large landed proprietors have left their estates to take care of themselves and the peasants, for the last few years, have been emigrating by hundreds to Caracas in Venezuela“. But the cochineal dye industry had been a success and coffee and tobacco were becoming alternative sources of wealth. 

     Sunbeam sparkled in the sunlight of Tenerife for just four days and departed as suddenly and splendidly as she had arrived, in full sail along the northwest and under the majestic cliffs of Buenavista before disappearing southwest towards the Americas and Brazil.

The Sunbeam -  as painted by the Italian artist Luca Papaluca

     Sunbeam was the nickname of their daughter, Constantine Alberta, who had died aged five of scarlet fever. On her last voyage aboard the schooner, nine years after visiting Tenerife, Annie also died of a fever. It had been brought on by renewed attacks of malaria, a disease she fought with for many years. She was only 47 when she made her final entry into her journal. She died four days later and was buried at sea as Sunbeam circumnavigated Australia.  

(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.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Did artist William Turner sketch in the Canary Islands?

     The life of Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of England’s greatest Romanticist artists and master of watercolour landscape painting, has been well and truly investigated and analysed over the years.

J.M.W Turner (self-portrait circa 1799) Tate Gallery

     Nobody, however, except perhaps the American biographer John Anderson in The Unknown Turner of 1926, has ever mentioned that Turner may have visited the Canary Islands or even sketched one of the colourful and still unspoilt scenery in the islands of the 19th century. Consequently it is now only local historians, researching in depth about foreign and famous travellers to the Canary Islands, who find themselves tempted to clutch at any evidence that Turner actually came to the islands.

     William Turner was constantly on the move and spent his very early days wandering all over England in the footsteps of his friend and fellow painter Paul Sandby. He also travelled in Europe, first to France and Switzerland and then, in 1819, to Italy and Venice where sunlight began to have a magic effect in his works. He later visited the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and the Balearics. He also spent time in mainland Spain during the 1840s where he sketched the Roman aqueduct in Segovia and the castle in Madrid, both of which are kept at The Metropolitan Museum of New York. Wherever he travelled Turner sketched and took detailed notes which he would eventually use in his customary studio-bound painting. John Anderson accounted for over 40,000 oil paintings, watercolours and sketches although some art historians suggest Anderson was not precise enough and therefore prone to exaggerate. In 1845 he travelled to Algiers and Gibraltar as well as to Madeira and the Canary Islands.

     If he was indeed so prolific one would assume that, like so many British visitors and artists to the Canary Islands in the 19th century, Turner would have captured some of the islands’ unique landscapes. Unfortunately there is no apparent record of any work carried out here although one or two analysts believe there must be something hiding somewhere and that he did sketch a scene from out at sea looking across the bay towards Santa Cruz in Tenerife, perhaps with Mount Teide in the distance.

Santa Cruz de Tenerife with Mt. Teide in the background (Le Monde Illustré, 1860) - not Turner's

     The reason for his apparent inactivity during his travels to the Canary Islands or even that he might not even have stepped ashore, is perhaps because he came to the islands as an old man in declining health.

Sir James Clark (1788-1870) - unknown artist

     In fact it is believed he sailed to the Canary Islands precisely for health reasons, following the documented advice of famous physicians like Sir James Clark of Cullen in Banffshire who recommended the climate in Tenerife. In his 1829 work The Influence of Climate in the Prevention and Cure of Chronic Diseases, more particularly of the Chest and Digestive Organs, Clark was especially complementary of the Orotava Valley and Vilaflor, remarking upon their peacefulness and clean, healthy air.

Vilaflor in the 19th century (courtesy blog Octavio Rodriguez Delgado)

     Nevertheless, artistic imagination does tempt one to wish that William Turner might have at least dreamed of painting just one of Tenerife’s sunsets from the rocky, volcanic northern coast, perhaps in Puerto de la Cruz. John Whitford, who published The Canary Islands as a Winter Resort in 1890 certainly did. He compared the sundown colours of the Orotava Valley to the same marvellous golden colours found in William Turner’s paintings.

Marcos Baeza - private collection - Puerto de la Cruz

     Would Turner, had he set foot on Tenerife and set up his easel on the volcanic rocks to the east of the fishing port in Puerto de la Cruz, or beside the chapel of San Telmo as so many artists do today, have captured the same marvellous golden colours depicted by Tenerife artist, Marcos Baeza in 1890? Would he have equalled the same scene with the typically golden sunset lighting up the placid rock pools, the waves and the island of La Palma on the horizon? There would certainly have been mutual admiration, for both Turner and Tenerife’s Baeza were masters inspired by the subtleties of the sun’s fading light.

(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.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Last Execution in Tenerife

     The wooden cart rocked slowly over the cobblestones down from the chapel in Our Lady of the Snows Convent and out between the fishermen's cottages before making its way towards a dusty plain to the east of Puerto de la Cruz. Two men, guarded by four members of the Provincial Guard, were seated at the rear together with the bailiff, a judicial clerk and two priests. The prisoners' hands were shackled behind their backs and their foreheads dripped beads of dirty sweat. 

The Lady of the Snows Convent was destroyed by fire in 1925

     It was 2nd June, 1881 and a typically humid morning in the Orotava valley, with that familiar low cloud hanging against the sloping hills. But their sweat was caused, not by the sticky warmth of early summer but by sheer terror. The Supreme Court had sentenced them to die by the dreaded garrote vil

     Shortly afterwards almost the entire population of Puerto de la Cruz, summoned to witness the execution as an example, held its breath. They watched as Manuel Brito and Pedro Armas were seated and tied, almost with compassion, to the two wooden posts which had been erected specially for them the previous evening. To begin with the silence was broken only by the sea punishing the nearby rocks just beyond the flat piece of land which separated the town from San Carlos cemetery and the San Felipe fortress.
The last execution in a sketch by Marcos Baeza Carrillo

     The officiating priest was thankfully brief. The authorities also stood in respectful silence. But there was horror in their eyes as the executioner, who had been brought out from Seville specially for the occasion, began to turn the wooden handles of the garrote at the back of the condemned men’s necks one by one and their imploring cries drowned the waves on the rocks. The fearful screams were the consequence of their crime. Their gradually reddening faces and desperate choking gasps was their cruel penalty. As the screws twisted behind the wooden posts the ropes pulled on the metal bands, tightenening gradually and with torturous agony around the men’s necks until they suffocated.

     Theirs was the last public execution in the Canary Islands and historians remember it as a horrible event. They had been accused of murdering James William Crighton Morris, a British resident who had arrived in Puerto de la Cruz in 1873. He was only 24 and had been sent to Puerto a year after joining his uncle Thomas Miller's firm in Grand Canary to be a part of the Miller's subsidiary in Tenerife, known as Miller and Son. 

     Peter Spence Reid managed the firm in Puerto de la Cruz but later broke away from Thomas Miller to found his own enterprise which became known as Thomas Miller Reid and Company. Young Morris was chief cashier. That may well have been his downfall. He is thought to have been a bit of a loner and historians suggest he had a weakness for women and possibly for wine. He also hung keys from his pocket watch chain. They were the keys to the company offices and safe.

Peter S Reid in his latter days

     Manuel Brito and Pedro Armas each had ambitions. Brito was 36. He was married with two children but apparently had a lover in Santa Cruz with whom he wanted to disappear to South America. His friend, 44 year old Armas also had a family but just hungered for money. They worked out a plot to rob James Morris of the company takings. Having studied the foreigner's liking for women and wine, they persuaded him that a local girl was interested in meeting him close to the San Felipe fortress.

The San Felipe fortress by Alfred Diston (belongs to a private collection in Madrid)

     The murder took place was on Sunday, 25th November, 1878. It was an overcast, dark and chilly evening. The younger of the two local men dressed up as a woman and hid while Armas led the victim to the chosen rendezvous. When Morris was close enough Brito threw a handful of clay into his eyes before they both beat him up and stabbed him several times. They took whatever possessions he carried on him, his gold pocket watch, a gold locket, a small revolver and the safe keys which dangled enticingly from his watch chain. 

The same dusty, executioner's plain became the town's football pitch many years later

     Brito and Armas had a risky plan worked out. First they returned in the dark to Peter Reid's offices in what was then known as Calle del Sol where they removed the contents from the safe. In total they stole over 20,000 Reals, the silver and copper coins of the period which they shared out and hid. To this day the coins have not been recovered. 

     Getting rid of the body was only their second priority. This they did in the early hours of the following morning when in those days nobody would be about. They carried the unfortunate Morris to the nearby San Carlos cemetery and placed his body in an existing tomb belonging to an aristocratic lady, the Marchioness of San Andrés and Viscountess of Buen Paso who died in 1853. In their haste to replace her tombstone, it cracked. That was to be their undoing.

The San Carlos Cemetery with Mt Teide in the background

     When company employees opened up the offices on the following Tuesday morning nobody suspected James Morris of going off with the cash even when he failed to turn up to work as punctually as always. Although they had apparently locked the safe again after removing the money, the thieves, in their eagerness to find more money, had left the offices in considerable disarray, with documents and other items strewn all over the wooden floor. On the contrary, whilst investigations were kept very discrete, there was immediately grave concern for the fate of young Mr James Morris.

     Three days after the crime there was a funeral for a child who had died of pneumonia. The burial ceremony at the cemetery was delayed because the gravedigger refused to do his job until the required official permit had been issued by the municipal judge. Mourners were forced to stand around waiting for the document to arrive. As fate would have it a local blind man, Juan García Olivera, sensed something strange in the air. He told the gravedigger there was a bad smell somewhere in the cemetery and pointed to where he thought it was coming from. It was rotting flesh and it was coming from a cracked tombstone. It had attracted the attention of greenbottle flies. They have a habit of laying their eggs in cadaver tissue within hours of death. When the tombstone was removed they found a decomposing body. Of course it was poor James Morris. An autopsy revealed he had been severely beaten and then stabbed. 

The trial of Brito and Armas is classified as a "celebrated legal case"

     Investigators discovered that Brito and Armas had befriended el inglés in a local tavern and they were arrested and taken, first to the jail in La Orotava and then to the prison in Santa Cruz where they admitted the crime. Three years later they met their own death, horribly garrotted, close to the very spot where they had murdered the accountant, James Morris.    

(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.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Honeymoon on Mount Teide


     Jessica Duncan Smyth is not the first woman known to have climbed Mount Teide. According to Canary Island historians she may have been preceded by a Scottish lady whom they simply refer to as Mrs. Hammond, believed to have crossed paths on the volcano with another expedition organised by the Prussian geologist Leopold von Buch in 1825. But Jessie, as everyone knew her, did belong to that unique and distinguished category of 19th century British women who made their name travelling the world in search of knowledge, adventure and, on occasions, romance. 
                             Jessie came to Tenerife in 1856 to accompany her famous astrologist husband, Charles Piazzi Smyth. 

     The purpose of the expedition was to assess the potential of the island’s high mountains for an astronomical observatory. But as well as scientific, it was also a romantic adventure because they were just married. Their honeymoon, in fact, became a voyage to the island on the yacht Titania, as well as a prolonged stay on the island of Tenerife, sixty five days of it spent on Mount Teide. Jessie was one of the first women to have been a member of a scientific expedition of such importance and her role marked a turning point in the history of the islands during the 19th century. 

     The Titania was a magnificent schooner. She was launched in 1853 and was the second of the same name to belong to Robert Stevenson, the great 19th century engineer. He put the yacht at the disposal of his fellow scientist for the entire duration of the expedition to Tenerife. Stevenson, of course, was a man of immense wealth but he was extremely generous with it. Sadly he suffered ill health for many years and died while sailing on his beloved Titania in Norwegian waters just three years after lending it to his astronomer friend.
The Titania, illustrated by Annie Chapman in "New Year on Piazzi's Mountain" 
(a story in The Skipping Verger and Other Tales)
     In Tenerife Jessie met Mr. Alfred Diston, a British merchant in the Orotava Valley who always saw to it that British visitors were well received. Through him she also became friends with Elizabeth Murray, the artist and writer who had been in Tenerife for six years due to her husband’s consular position. But Jessie, whose father, lawyer Thomas Duncan had also been an artist, was not going to accept the comforts and company provided by the small and distinguished British community.  She had studied geology in Edinburgh and her love of adventure and scientific travel was equal to Piazzi's.

     Jessie became a very important member of her husband’s scientific expeditions. She always kept notes and made sketches for their adventures and learned to prepare and to preserve local foods. Amongst other activities she acted as photographer for the astronomer’s team. Indeed her stereoscopic prints were the first to have been published alongside text in a book and her work is considered of pioneering value. 
Their first observation point was on Mount Guajara

On Mount Teide a walled enclosure provided shelter for the Piazzi's telescopes, as well as for the honeymoon couple and companions. 
This is what George Graham Toler later developed into the Alta Vista mountain refuge.

     It was thanks largely to the novelty of including twenty of Jessie’s stereoscopic reproductions in Charles Piazzi Smyth’s book, Teneriffe: an Astronomer’s Experiment or Specialities of a Residence above the Clouds, that it was accepted for publication in 1858.
 Piazzi's account of his experiments in Tenerife.

     After Tenerife the husband and wife team travelled to Russia and in 1864 the couple spent a year in Egypt. Jessie and Charles Piazzi Smyth lived four months under canvas whilst carrying out investigations into the Great Pyramid of Giza. Jessica’s photographs, inside and outside of the pyramid, were essential for backing up her husband’s work. Actually her photography in Tenerife only found limited recognition in the British Isles, but Canary Island historians consider Jessie Duncan Smyth’s work most important. After all, she was the first to have photographs of their islands printed in books. Therefore she is one of those early travellers who helped put Tenerife on the map, especially in scientific circles, and to have turned the spectacular mountains of Tenerife into a prime destination for any explorer. Some of her photographs of the interior of Teide’s ice cave captured the imagination of many explorers and early visitors to the island. The domed cave hid a beautiful icy lagoon with the purest water to be found, and icicles and stalactites hung in it like fragile works of art.
A photograph taken in 1927 inside the ice cave.

     The islands today are considered one of the world’s best locations for astronomic observations and there is no doubt that the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute, with its Tenerife centre at Izaña, owes much to Charles and Jessica Piazzi Smyth’s expedition in 1856.
The Mount Teide Astrophysics Institute at Izaña.

     The couple retired to North Yorkshire where Jessie Piazzi Smyth died in 1896, aged 81. There is an interesting, pyramid-shaped monument to the couple in the churchyard at St. John's Church at Sharow. It is a pleasant thought that they took their romantic adventures in Tenerife and Egypt with them to the grave.
The unusual pyramid where the scientific and romantic adventurers, Charles and Jessie, lie at rest.

(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.