It was May, 2013 and retired Royal Navy commander Alan Cockburn stepped out of the bar into the cool Spanish patio after ordering a sundowner. He was staying with his wife at the beautiful parador overlooking the port and town of San Sebastián on the Canary Island of La Gomera. It had been recommended as one of the finest places to spend a quiet, peaceful holiday away from the din of modern day tourism.
But this was their first evening and it was not a good start. He couldn’t believe what the lady bar attendant had just said. In fact he was quite livid. She had had the impudence to suggest that many of Britain’s admirals, especially between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, had actually been pirates. In fact the girl behind the bar had insisted. La Gomera had beaten off an attack from an English pirate exactly two hundred and seventy years ago, in May 1743.
“Serves you right for chatting up waitresses!”, his wife teased.
“She told me I will find proof of the fact inside the church down in the town”.
“Well, you’d better go and see for yourself”, replied his wife with the sweetest of smiles, hoping that might keep him occupied for an hour or so.
The origins of the church, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, date back to the 15th century when the first chapel was erected by Spanish conquerors. It is an harmonious mix of mudejar, gothic and baroque architecture. But, as local historians describe, it was rebuilt on various occasions during the 18th century as a result of attacks from English, North African and Dutch invaders.
A chapel within the church was erected to commemorate one of these raids and the consequent Spanish victory over British aggressors, and a rather faded fresco depicts what looks like three ships in the bay at San Sebastián pounding the port with cannon balls. Nobody seems sure who painted it but 19th century English traveller and author Olivia Stone referred to a local by the name of José Mesa as the artist.
The retired English officer sat down respectfully at the end of one of the simple pews close to the picture. A practicing Catholic, he was somewhat surprised to find a battle scene inside a church, but the murmur of prayer in the background made him drift deep into thought. Indeed, after a while, his eyes closed as if he too were in prayer.
The painting tells the tale. On 30th May, 1743 three sails were sighted to the north heading for La Gomera. As they came closer they appeared to be flying French ensigns. Early the following morning the ships lay at anchor off San Sebastián. At noon the French flags were lowered and replaced with their true colours.
They were two ships of the line, the Monmouth, with sixty four guns and the Medway armed with a further sixty. Accompanying them was a frigate. Their orders were to patrol Canary Island waters, to protect ships of the British merchant fleet and to hunt down those of the enemy. Leading the squadron was Captain Charles Windham, on the Monmouth. Second in command of the patrol, commanding the Medway, was Captain George Cockburn.
Captain Charles Windham
Their plan at San Sebastián was to take on water and other supplies but they had also decided to have some fun at the expense of the islanders. This implied first taking precautions by using the town’s fortifications as target practice and then sending in a landing party to negotiate. This kind of action was sometimes described as a punitive raid and shortly after raising their own ensigns Windham ordered the bombardment of the port’s three small fortresses and other strategic targets.
The bombardment continued throughout the afternoon. Cannons from the town’s fortifications returned fire but fell well short of the British ships. After a night of relative peace Windham ordered his guns to open fire again at sunrise the following morning. It was less intensive and stopped punctually at ten o-clock when a rowing boat was seen to be lowered from the Monmouth and head for the shore.
La Torre del Conde, one of the forts targeted by Windham’s guns.
A letter addressed to the town’s authority was handed over to Diego Bueno Acosta, Captain of the local militia. According to Spanish records the missive demanded they surrender their forts and supply the attacking ships with abundant quantities of wine, water, meat and other provisions. The Spaniard would have none of it, especially after having withstood such a pounding. He referred to the English demands as arrogant and unacceptable. What followed has also been reported differently by Spanish and British historians and one has to believe the version one prefers. The Spaniards say the English Admiral, a rank they incorrectly assign to Captain Windham, decided to send a fleet of rowing boats with heavily armed sailors to invade the town and that these only got as far as the beach. They were forced into a hasty and confused retreat to their anchored ships by the heroic and fierce defenders of La Gomera. British naval records never mention any such defeat. Instead, they suggest that it had been the three Spanish forts which had first opened fire on the English ships. This would have been understandable after the attempted deceit with the French ensigns, a common ruse in those days. Captain Windham’s report suggested they had decided any invasion would be impracticable, without mentioning why.
But it is common for history books from enemy countries to provide different versions and it is clear that what to one nation is a magnificent admiral to another is a filthy pirate. To Queen Elizabeth I of England, for example, Sir Francis Drake was a loyal servant. To Philip II, Spanish historians and local Canary Islanders he was a scoundrel of the seas.
It is also clear that the Canary Islands, four hundred years ago, became a strategic link between the treasure hungry kingdoms of Europe and riches in the newly discovered Americas, and were a target for such courageous officers of the fleet and marauding scavengers flying flags of the realm. They were a place to patrol in search of a fat merchant, heavy in the water with south American treasure. They were also somewhere safe to replenish water and food supplies on the way to and from the Caribbean. Therefore Captain Windham and other heroes like Drake, who attacked Santa Cruz on the island of La Palma in 1585, were not the only British seamen referred to as pirates by Canary Islanders. John Hawkins, they admit, had resident Spanish collaborators in the Canary Islands. One or two Spanish historians have even had the audacity to suggest, when not proudly remembering that they defeated the Admiral in the battle of Santa Cruz in Tenerife in 1797, that Horatio Nelson was a pirate too.
The island of La Gomera appears to have been a particularly popular target. The little port of San Sebastián was blessed with a well protected bay and sought after as a strategic base. It was from this bay that Christopher Columbus set sail with his three small caravels on his voyage of discovery to the Americas.
When Alan Cockburn joined his wife for lunch by the parador’s secluded and enchanting pool she was reading a booklet containing a brief history of the island of La Gomera.
“It says here that one of your ancestors was a pirate!” she said, looking up with one of her triumphantly mocking expressions and evidently having swallowed the first of the day’s gin and tonics.
“Yes, I know”, he replied. “But he wasn’t a pirate. None of them were. They were just doing their duty”, he countered quietly but firmly.