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Pirates and Tenerife - Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Honey Rum
It was a brave new world, a palm fringed paradise with a near perfect climate at the crossroads of the world; its bustling ports full of ships laden with treasures from newly discovered lands. A frontier society where fortunes were waiting to be made by merchants with an eye for business and pioneers seeking a new life; however, the potential for ‘getting rich quick’ attracted less salubrious characters including marauding miscreants, in other words…pirates.

Long before Cap’n Jack Sparrow was ‘yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum-ing’ it around the Caribbean, scurvy seadogs were honing their piratical skills in the seas around the Fortunate Isles, better known today as the Canary Islands.

Pirate Empire

For centuries the North African Barbary States terrorised Mediterranean and West African seas; corsairs like Barbarossa (Redbeard) struck fear into coastal settlements, sacking towns and kidnapping islanders. In the early days of Spanish colonisation, smaller islands like Lanzarote were easy pickings, whilst Tenerife largely escaped attention due to its reputation of being populated by ferocious savages.
The fiercest Corsairs were called ‘renegados’, Europeans who embraced the Barbary way of life; the most successful, ironically, Murat Rais-‘King of the Seas’, was formerly a Dutch settler from Lanzarote called Jan Janszoon. Taken prisoner during a raid in the early 17th century, he was seduced by the Corsairs’ lifestyle and profitable ways, converting to piracy with such relish that he even pillaged the towns he had once called home.

Pirates Ahoy

By the 16th century the Canaries were prime pirate hunting grounds; unpopulated inlets were ideal bases for pirate cruisers waiting to pray on galleons, filled with jewels and gold, returning from the New World via Canarian ports. Even the legendary Canary Island of San Borondón got in on the act with some pirates insisting that they used its mythical bays to keep their ships hidden from the Spanish fleet. Presumably, like the ‘Isla de Muerte’ of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ infamy, it could only be found by those with a compass that didn’t point to North.

Pirate attacks intensified on Tenerife, coastal communities moved inland and fortifications like those at Garachico, Adeje and Los Realejos were built to strengthen defences, but not all precautions were successful. Françoise Le Clerc, ‘Peg Leg’, ransacked Santa Cruz de la Palma in 1553, burning much of it to the ground before crossing the Atlantic to replicate his dastardly deeds in the Caribbean.

Heroes or villains?

Although some pirates behaved in true villainous fashion, cutting off prisoner’s lips and forcing them to eat them, the 16th century saw the emergence of a new breed called ‘privateers’. These ‘legitimised’ pirates sailed under protection of a ‘marque’, a document from their governments authorising them to capture ships from hostile nations; in reality, their actions were no different from other pirates.
One accomplished privateer was John Hawkins. A master diplomat, Hawkins adjusted his persona to suit situations as required and, during trading voyages to Tenerife, used his skills to establish commercial partnerships with influential merchants in Adeje and Abona. In 1562, using Tenerife as a base, with a young relative called Francis Drake under his command, he sailed for Guinea, attacking Portuguese ships, pillaging towns and capturing 300 Africans. He continued to the West Indies where, blatantly flouting Spanish legislation, he threatened to raze settlements to the ground unless colonial landowners relieved him of his human cargo for a tidy sum; all in all it was a financially lucrative venture which earned him the inglorious title of England’s first slave trader.
After a second successful voyage in 1564, pressure from Queen Elizabeth I forced Hawkins to suspend his illegal maritime activities. However, in 1566, unable to resist the lure of the lucre, he sent Drake and another relative, John Lovell, to Tenerife in his place. Lovell, a staunch protestant, lacked Hawkins’ diplomacy and delighted in offending his catholic hosts; at one point threatening to burn the statue of the virgin of Candelaria and barbeque a goat on the flames. Lovell’s bullish attitude resulted in the mission failing disastrously.
Hawkins retired from privateering, taking control of rebuilding the British navy. Drake, of course, went on to be knighted after circumnavigating the globe, every so often revisiting his old stomping ground to attack San Sebastian, Las Palmas and even his former business partner’s town of Adeje. In 1588 Hawkins and Drake reunited, famously defeating the Spanish Armada, for which Hawkins was also knighted; not all pirates ended their careers dangling on the end of a hangman’s rope.

A working class hero

Whilst none of these heinous villains and calculating profiteers fit the swashbuckling rogue of childhood fantasies, there is one who comes close; a Dutchman named Laurens de Graff. During the mid 17th century de Graff was captured by the Spanish, sold to a banana plantation on Tenerife, and then as a slave on a galley, from which he escaped. For twenty five years he exacted revenge, swashbuckling his way around the Spanish Main, holding colonial towns to ransom, winning daring sea battles and outwitting the world’s great seafaring nations. Although a pirate in every sense, he was also a man of honour who followed a strict code and treated hostages with respect, on occasion clashing cutlasses with more unscrupulous comrades to stop them from torturing prisoners and molesting female captives. Although de Graff was as successful as pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, his adventures were less well documented. Some historians believe that, because he was of mixed race, landowners, afraid of the affect it might have on their slaves, suppressed news of the exploits of the escaped slave, turned buccaneer.

No hiding place

With pirate incursions making trading between Europe and The Indies a nightmare, merchants lobbied governments to eradicate the pirate threat once and for all. In a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper, Woodes Rogers, a privateer who had plundered ships out of the port of Puerto de la Cruz and achieved fame by rescuing a marooned sailor, Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration behind Robinson Crusoe, was commissioned to rid the Caribbean of the pirate menace. In the Atlantic, the British, Spanish, French and Americans tackled the Barbary Corsairs. By 1830 the golden age of piracy was over and trade routes between the Canary Islands and the Americas were finally free from the pirate reign which had plagued them for almost five centuries.

One last bit of mischief

The fate of many of those scurrilous old sea dogs has been lost in the murky mists of time, but at least one of them, Amaro Pargo chose to settle down near Candelaria on Tenerife. It was rumoured that, in true pirate fashion, he had hidden his ill gotten treasures somewhere in the area. Pargo fuelled these rumours by commenting enigmatically every now and again that he could see his treasure from the windows of his house.
Nobody dare try to find it whilst he was alive, but after his death there was an ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ free for all. Needless to say, nobody ever found Amaro’s treasure and it’s now believed that the treasure he was referring to was, in fact, the sea.

Nowadays, there’s no need to keep a sharp eye on the horizon for black flags and scallywags; but with Cap’n Jack Sparrow capturing the imagination of a new generation of would-be swashbucklers, pirates may be long gone, but they’re definitely not forgotten.

The lonely fort of San Fernando on Tenerife's north west coast
San Felipe castle in Puerto de la Cruz
La Rambla de Castro, once home to noblemen; rich pickings for pirates
Casa Fuerte in Adeje; once a favourite haunt of Sir Francis Drake
Some old ships in Tenerife's harbours conjure up a swashbuckling past

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