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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

​Admiral Nelson and the Canary Islands

You may remember Horatio Nelson from school history lessons as the jolly little man with the big hat and equally inflated ego; his costume goes down a treat at fancy dress parties. In pictures, Nelson is instantly recognisable as the semi-blinded, one-armed naval officer who destroyed the French and Spanish fleets; he also had a fascinating ménage à trois with the rather interesting Lady Hamilton. So what is the real story of the man whose statue dominates London’s Trafalgar Square, and how does it link with the Canary Islands?

I am often surprised to discover that these lumps of volcanic rock, known as the Canary Islands, punch well above their weight when it comes to links with famous and interesting people, as well as key moments in history; the links with Admiral Nelson are yet another example.

According to the history books, Nelson lost his right eye capturing Corsica and his right arm whilst attacking the Canary Islands. He captured six and destroyed seven of Napoleon’s ships at the Battle of the Nile, trapped Napoleon in Egypt, assaulted Copenhagen and dealt with Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleets off the coast of Spain. This defeat of the French navy stopped Napoleon’s power at sea, and with it, his dreams of world domination. Nelson is, of course, best remembered for winning one of the greatest naval battles in history, the Battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October, 1805.

The Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife was launched by Nelson on 22 July 1797, and was heavily defeated. British soldiers who succeeded in reaching the beach were riddled with bullets fired by the citizens of Santa Cruz; indeed, these citizens were so closely involved in repelling the attack that many were given honours and medals. Three days later, the remains of the British landing party withdrew under a truce, which allowed the remaining British forces to return to their ships with full military honours. Part of the truce included an undertaking not to burn the town, or make any further attacks on Tenerife or the Canary Islands. The British fleet had received a painful defeat and would never again attempt to capture Santa Cruz, yet Nelson was given a hero's welcome back in England.

The Spanish suffered 30 dead and 40 injured, whilst the British lost 250 and 128 men were wounded. Nelson had lost many men and ships and so the journey back to England was going to be a problem. In a generous act of chivalry, General Gutiérrez let Nelson borrow two Spanish ships to help the British to get home, as well as allowing the British to leave with their arms and war honours. These acts of chivalry led to a friendly exchange of letters between Nelson and Gutiérrez. However, Nelson would later comment that Tenerife had been the most horrible hell he had ever endured. Nelson's letter offering a cheese as a gratitude token is actually on display at the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo.

Nelson himself had been wounded in the arm, which resulted in partial amputation. Nelson's operation was quick and the limb was thrown overboard, despite the admiral's wish to keep it, presumably as a macabre souvenir. Or was it?

One of the parts of this story that intrigues me is that during the assault against Tenerife are claims that Nelson's arm was kept as a souvenir and later stored behind the altar in Las Palmas Cathedral in Gran Canaria. Whether there is any truth in this story seems unlikely because it would have been against Roman Catholic rules, as only the relics of saints are kept under altars. Nelson may have been a great man, but a saint he was not. Maybe his arm was an exception to the rule?

Interestingly, Canarians also regard Nelson as a great man, and the date of Nelson's attack, 25 July, is still a public holiday in Santa Cruz de Tenerife where he is described as, “The most gallant enemy we ever had."

Although some sections of my old school history book are questionable, Nelson was certainly an outstanding naval commander. However, he did say, “Kiss me, Hardy,” and Captain Thomas Hardy did kiss him, twice. Sadly though, Nelson never wore an eye patch, so do remember this minor detail the next time you hire a costume for a fancy dress party.

© Barrie Mahoney 2012

This article is part of the book 'Message in a Bottle' by Barrie Mahoney.

You can find out more about the author and 'Footprints in the Sand' by clicking here: Message in a Bottle

​Submarines and Drug Smuggling Grannies

I am not sure why, but a recent news item from Columbia set my mind racing about submarines. The story was about Colombian soldiers seizing a fully submersible drug-smuggling submarine capable of reaching the coast of Mexico, and reminded me of how determined and devious drug smugglers can be. The story is even more astonishing because previous drug-carrying vessels found in Colombia were only semi-submersible, with part of the structure always remaining above the surface. However, the submarine recently discovered could operate completely underwater, and was estimated that it could hold eight tons of drugs.

Apparently, the submarine could submerge up to three metres deep and was equipped with a five-metre periscope and had the ability to travel to the coast of Mexico without surfacing, a journey taking eight to nine days. It was a heavy investment for the drug smugglers, as the submarine had taken six to eight months to build at a cost of about 1,500,000 euros. Colombia has seized at least 32 semi-submersible vessels designed to smuggle drugs in recent years, including a dozen last year.

All this puts into context the number of pensioners who have been caught smuggling drugs from the Canary Islands in recent months. Apparently, drug smugglers prefer to recruit elderly and disabled people to carry out their drug running operations, because no-one would suspect an elderly, innocent-looking granny of carrying drugs in her bra, or that smart looking elderly gentleman of carrying a supply in his colostomy bag! Maybe a submarine is the next logical step for the determined smuggler?

Talking of submarines, the recent Wikileaks revelations suggest that the US Government approached the Spanish Government via their embassy in Madrid with the suggestion that Las Palmas could be developed as a useful port for the American fleet, and with a view to an increased US presence in Africa. In addition, it seems that there were also suggestions that the current military cooperation agreement was adjusted to include Las Palmas on the list of ports authorised to host nuclear submarines. Understandably perhaps, the Spanish government has refused to comment on such revelations.

Can you imagine nuclear subs ducking and diving off our islands? Well, maybe they do already. Finally, if you do enjoy deep sea diving or scuba diving, just be very careful where you put your flippers.

© Barrie Mahoney 2012

This article is part of the book 'Expat Survival' by Barrie Mahoney.

You can find out more about the author and 'Footprints in the Sand' by clicking here: Expat Survival

Fuerteventura and the Nazis

The Canary Island of Fuerteventura is usually associated with beautiful beaches, breath-taking scenery and plenty of wind to indulge in some of those energetic water sports. The island is also particularly popular with German and British tourists, but very little is known or discussed about the darker side of Fuerteventura’s history, involving Nazi Germany. This is the story of Villa Winter, and during my recent visit to the island, I had the opportunity to meet with and discuss aspects of the story with several local people who know the property and history well.

Villa Winter is an impressive, mysterious and very large building situated close to the village of Cofete, on the Jandia peninsular. The villa was built in a remote spot, and is accessible only on a dust track by heavy duty 4-wheel drive vehicles. Villa Winter belonged to Gustav Winter, who was a German engineer born in Germany’s Black Forest in 1893. It is thought that the villa was built in 1937, although official records appear to have been modified to 1946, for reasons that will become apparent later in this story. The villa has two floors, with a tower in the north western part of the property, and a balcony at the front.

From 1915, Gustav Winter worked for Spain on projects in Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura. In 1937, he signed a lease for the Jandia peninsular from the Conde de Santa Coloma, based in Lanzarote. That same year, Winter left the island for Germany, in order to seek funding. In 1939, local people were barred from the peninsular, which was declared a military zone, due to agreements between General Franco and Adolf Hitler.

The road to the villa, as well as the villa itself, were built by prisoners of war from the concentration camp at Tefia, which later became the island’s airport. The building has vast, dark cellars and caves stretching beneath it, and includes a large tower that looks out to sea. It is often suggested that it was built to act as a watch tower for sightings of possible aircraft landings at the nearby airfield of Jandia, as well as a beacon for submarines. Intriguingly, the tower still contains evidence of an enormous fuse box indicating that large and power-hungry equipment was used in the tower.

There is well documented evidence of submarines sited around the Canary Islands during the Second World War, and between March and July 1941 submarines visited the harbour of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria a number of times. There continues to be speculation that Fuerteventura was the home of a submarine base, and there are reports of two tunnels built under the mountains, dug into the lava tunnels of an extinct volcano that were used for U boats. Some say that there are still two complete submarines in it, which are claimed to have sunk. This suggestion was investigated by a team of experts from Austria and Spain in the 1970s, yet they lost their lives when their boat exploded during the investigation and their work remains unconfirmed.

There are many stories about Villa Winter, but one common theme is that its role was a safe house for the Nazis. At the end of the war, it is thought by many that a number of Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler, arrived on the island, where plastic surgery was undertaken to change their identities before they escaped to South America, and with Argentina being a favoured destination, since Peron was a friend and ally of Hitler.

We have been told for many years that Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, committed suicide in an underground bunker in April 1945. According to accounts and propaganda at the time, their bodies were then taken outside and burned by loyal staff before being deposited in a shallow grave. Many experts now believe the story to be untrue and was concocted between the Allies at the end of the war. It is suggested that Hitler travelled from Germany to Fuerteventura where a U boat was waiting to take him to Argentina where he ended his days.

In 1971, Gustav Winter died on the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria. Both he and his widow denied the many stories surrounding the mysterious Villa Winter until their deaths. A distant relative of Gustav Winter attempted to turn the villa into a wellness centre some years ago, but the plans failed. The villa is currently owned by a Spanish building company and will probably be eventually converted into a hotel or restaurant.

Whatever the truth is behind this mysterious building, there remain many unsolved mysteries and speculation surrounding Villa Winter, and many inconsistencies and secrecy remain.

© Barrie Mahoney 2016

This article is part of the book 'Footprints in the Sand' by Barrie Mahoney.

You can find out more about the author and 'Footprints in the Sand' by clicking here: Footprints in the Sand

​What Does a Scotsman Wear Underneath His Kilt?

It was another windy day at the airport. Nothing, particularly unusual in that, Canarian residents might say. After all, it is the continuous gentle breezes that makes Gran Canaria such an idyllic place to live. Without these breezes, the island would be far too hot a place to live, let alone to work, during the summer months.

If you are an expat, you will possibly recognise that much of our lives tends to focus around the airport. Collecting friends and family from the airport is always a great delight, although returning them is often a very different matter. At other times, for me, regular visits to the airport are necessary to collect letters and parcels, as well as to have coffee in one of the rather good coffee shops in the airport.

I am often entertained by the antics of visitors arriving and leaving the island, and a few minutes watching returning holiday-makers in those endless queues at the Thomas Cook or Thomson check-in desks often brings its own rich rewards! I am continually amazed by the way in which those calm tour representatives mostly manage to keep their tempers under control! Recently however, my attention was drawn to the check-in desk for the flight to Morocco. It was, as usual, full of chattering men and women many of whom were dressed in elegant robes. Again, as usual, they were surrounded by massive boxes containing television sets, refrigerators, microwave ovens and washing machines. Certainly it is clear that they have a more generous baggage allowance than most of us are given for flights to the UK.

My eyes fell upon an elegant middle aged man dressed in a brilliant white robe edged with gold braiding (a jellaba). It looked splendid and, in many ways, reminded me of a bride-to-be - apart from the greying hair and beard, that is! This gentleman was clearly bored and being accompanied by several other men, who looked as if they were servants or aides, strode away from his collection of boxes and headed towards the door of the airport. He rummaged inside his splendid robe, no doubt in order to locate a packet of cigarettes or his mobile phone, and lo and behold an enormous gust of wind swept around him and lifted this gentleman’s robes high above him!

Initially the gentleman looked a little embarrassed, but regaining his usual regal serenity managed to pull the offending garment once more fully around him and immediately headed for the safety of the inside of the airport - the need for a smoke now forgotten for the time being. I can now reveal the answer to the question that I am sure you have been wondering. What was he wearing beneath his glamorous robe?

Pantaloons! The gentleman was wearing baggy, flowing, purple pantaloons that looked remarkably similar to those worn by Aladdin in the pantomime, cartoon and story books. They also looked very much like a pair of curtains that I remember my Auntie Gertie having in her dining room...

So, what of the Scotsman and the kilt? Sorry, actually it was just a ruse to get you to read beneath the title! After all, ‘What does a Moroccan wear beneath his jellaba?’ sounds nowhere near as interesting as ‘What Does a Scotsman wear beneath his kilt’ does it?

© Barrie Mahoney 2011

This article is part of the book 'Living the Dream' by Barrie Mahoney.

You can find out more about the author and 'Living the Dream' by clicking here: Living the Dream

Irish Monk Discovers New Canary Island - then loses it!

Most people recognise the Canary Islands archipelago as being a cluster of eight inhabited islands. Of course, there are many more islets and rocky outcrops, which few people mention or know anything about. However, this story is about the ninth island, the ghost island, which is still being looked for…

The mysterious island of San Borondón, which is the Canarian name for an Irish monk called Saint Brendan of Clonfert, the Irish patron saint of travellers who lived around 500AD. Brendan was a monk in Tralee, County Kerry, who sailed in a small boat with 14 fellow monks into the Atlantic Ocean, in search of the New World. In true Irish fashion, best retold with a glass or two of Guinness, the story goes that Brendan met with fire hurling demons, a variety of monstrous creatures, and floating crystal columns, which were possibly icebergs; they also rescued three other monks from the inhospitable waters of the Atlantic. Eventually, they landed on an island where they found trees and a great deal of vegetation; it many ways, it was a true Garden of Eden. The monks lived on the island for six years when one day, as they were celebrating mass, the island began to move in the water, described as rather like a whale. After many trials and tribulations, Brendan eventually found his way back to Ireland with many a tale to tell over his glass of mead.

At the time, it was thought that the monks had reached the shores of North America, or possibly other Atlantic islands, such as the Canary Islands. Over time, it was thought that this new island, now named San Borondón’, was an island within the Canaries archipelago, somewhere to the west of La Gomera, El Hierro and La Palma. Other sailors attempted to reach it, but when they got close to its shores, the island became covered with mist and vanished.

San Borondón existed in the minds of many people, with detailed accounts from sailors who claimed that they had landed and explored the island before it sank once again into the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, in some early Atlantic treaties concerning the Canary Islands, there are references to “the islands of Canaria, already discovered or to be discovered”, just in case. Indeed, the Island of San Borondón is clearly referred to on several maps of the period.

In the 18th Century, tens of thousands of witnesses declared to the authorities that they had seen the ghostly island from the mountains of El Hierro. Despite further expeditions, the island would not yield its secrets. The persistence of this legend of the voyage of Saint Brendan to the Promised Land of the Saints, the Islands of Happiness and Fortune, remains to this day. It is still possible to talk to some of the residents of El Hierro, La Gomera and La Palma who claim to have seen the island briefly before it sank once again into the brilliant blue waters of the Canary Islands.

“Let the Guanche drums resound

and the conch shells blow,

for the mysterious island

is appearing in the midst of the waves:

here comes San Borondón,

showing up in the mist

like a queen

with the surf as suite…”

San Borondón – Cabrera/Santamaria

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

For more information about 'Travelling Hopefully' click here

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