In 1620, a
group of Puritans, better known as the Pilgrim Fathers, sailed across the Atlantic
Ocean from the English port of Plymouth on a square-rigged brigantine called
The Mayflower.  
The Mayflower

It was another Mayflower which sailed to
Tenerife in 1776. Her master was Pleford Clark, an experienced seaman. She
weighed 150 tons and carried fourteen guns, like any merchant vessel of the
time, for self-defence. There were enemies around every head of land and
merchants were at the mercy of marauding pirates of all nationalities, like the
French or Turks. In fact any enemy ship could be considered a pirate. As I
suggested in earlier posts, even most respectable English captains of the
fleet, like Charles Windham, Francis Drake or John Hawkins were
labelled filthy pirates or corsairs by Spanish historians, often with good reason. 
Sailing to the Canary Islands, even in the early 19th century, was risky and dangerous. It was also tough,
with ships very often running out of food and water. A modern cruise liner will
be nudged gently against the south mole in Santa Cruz de Tenerife after
leaving Southampton in just four or five days. Eighteenth century vessels like
the Mayflower could take weeks to complete the voyage. Their square rigging meant they
depended on the convenient direction and strength of the winds to make any headway.
They often ran into rocks or uncharted sandbanks and sometimes had to seek shelter
for days on end in friendly coves until a privateer or an enemy vessel became tired of
waiting and moved on.
On her maiden voyage the Mayflower sailed
into the English Channel accompanied by three or four other merchants, all
laden with wheat and bound for the island of Tenerife. Pleford Clark had an
uneasy time with changing winds before finally beating it out of the English Channel
and heading south. By then all ships in that particular trading fleet had lost
sight of each other.  

the way south the Mayflower passed Porto Santo of the Madeiras on her starboard
beam and then, two days later, the Savage Islands, half-way between Madeira and
the Canaries. These islands have belonged to Portugal since 1438 but Spain has
recently claimed they should be classified as rocks, effectively eliminating
Portuguese sovereign rights over them, as a result of the Portuguese having
prevented Canary Island fishing vessels from fishing within coastal waters. In fact they are sparesely inhabited and in 1971 they were declared a nature reserve for their importance in the nidification of certain bird species, especially Cory’s Shearwater.

 One of the two Selvagem islands
It was a
safe and speedy voyage and they were anchored off Port Orotava, today known as Puerto de la Cruz, just twenty days
after leaving the English Channel. There were several other merchant ships
anchored off shore and Clark would have to wait in the queue. All the ships
loaded barricas or casks of
Tenerife’s famous wines destined for the inns of England and Europe. It was
towards the end of October and Mount Teide was completely white after recent
snowfalls. The little taverns or guachinches
were jolly with English sailors gulping cups of Malmsey wine and eating what the host offered as the dish of the
day. Some historians believe the word guachinche
came from the English expression “I’m watching ye” used by these early English
wine buyers when they were ready to sample the local product.  
The Orotava Valley, with Teide in the background, in the days of the Mayflower

When it was the Mayflower’s turn, Pleford
Clark began to unload his supply of wheat and to take on barrels of wine. It
was a slow process. Everything had to be ferried in and out by lancha. There were no safe coves along
the north coast of Tenerife. There were no convenient ports either, except for
Santa Cruz after the old harbour of Garachico was destroyed by the volcanic eruption
of 1706. So sailors were firmly at the mercy of the seas. In fact, being late
October, the Atlantic had begun to show its temper and the little ship was
forced to weigh anchor and to make for the open sea and wait for the
predominant north easterly wind and calmer waters. It was a common occurrence
and the Mayflower weighed anchor at least five times off Port Orotava before completing her load.
The vineyards of Tenerife, like these in La Guancha, are  once again producing exquisite wines
But the wine was a profitable business and
Tenerife’s vineyards, as Shakespeare recorded in works like The Merry Wives of
Windsor, produced the finest wines, just as they do today. The Mayflower could
not return to England without her full capacity of barrels and, on this her maiden
voyage, took six weeks to unload her wheat and to load up her 360 kegs of wine purchased
at Port Orotava. Once loaded, Pleford Clark sailed his ship  along the northwest coast as far as Garachico.
Even more famous than the Orotava Valley for its Malmsey wines, Garachico was
also where ships preferred to take on supplies of water because it was
considered the purest. 
The return voyage to England was not dull although,
due to unfavourable winds, the crew aboard the Mayflower could still see
Garachico five days after weighing anchor. Close to Madeira
the Mayflower’s lookout spotted what he considered to be an unfriendly ship
moving to intercept them from the west. It was indeed what was known as a Salley
Rover, a Moroccan corsair from Sale, a walled medieval merchant port and the
base used by the Barbary pirates. 

A Salley Rover chasing a European galleon
Sailors dreaded encountering theses small
pirate ships. They could easily outmanoeuvre the European merchant vessels and
the crews manning these small vessels had a very bloody reputation, attacking
at all cost for the smallest prize. There was no point seeking shelter in one
of the Madeira Islands because the Moroccan would simply follow the Mayflower.
Pleford Clark knew he must try to make a run for it. Although the other could
manoeuvre with ease, the Mayflower had a strong wind behind her, whereas the
pirate, heading eastwards from some hiding place in the Madeiras, appeared to
be making heavy weather of it. Indeed the Mayflower slipped past and northwards
at a good rate and the Moroccan gave up the chase and continued in a south-easterly
direction, possibly back to Sale. Their best weapon was the surprise approach
and on this occasion they had been spotted in time. From there on the voyage home was uneventful. Nevertheless Pleford Clark did have the strange pleasure of exchanging greetings with what was
known as a friendly pirate, in this
case a roaming Dutchman only interested in terrorising fat French merchants
returning to Le Havre or Bordeaux.
The Hindustan at anchor off Tenerife – painted by Thomas Luny in 1790
The Mayflower made several journeys in following years to pick up good wines from Port Orotava and Garachico. She was just one example of the many
foreign vessels that traded with these islands since the earliest days of he Spanish conquest. But there were many more, especially ships of the British East India
Company who simply used the Canary Islands to stock up with food and water
before heading south down the coast of Africa or across the Atlantic for the
spoils in the Americas. Above is a detailed 1790 painting showing the company’s
Hindustan anchored off the rocky coast of Tenerife with a small local craft in
the foreground.

(Some information was adapted from a sailor’s account – Barlow’s Journal of his Life at Sea in King’s Ships, East and West Indiamen and Other Merchantmen. 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