On the morning of 5th May 1706, at 3.00 am, thunder bellowed across Tenerife’s northern sky and a blood red horizon spewed grey smoke splintered with orange embers. By the time dawn broke over the Italian style mansions that lined the streets of Garachico, the town’s wealthy merchants, its priests, nuns, bankers, artists and beggars had just twelve hours to gather their most prized possessions and flee. By nightfall the town would be engulfed in lava from an eruption of Montaña Negro and over the next nine days, 384 neighbourhoods would be lost and the port which had been the town’s source of unrivalled wealth would be destroyed; for Garachico, the good times were about to turn bad.
Three hundred years after that fateful event, in May 2006, Garachico will play host to political, scientific and technical specialists from across the globe; ‘GARAVOLCAN 2006’ aims to bring together the world’s expertise to work to reduce the risk from further volcanic activity and will look particularly at island volcanoes.
Experts from every discipline of vulcanology will join those responsible for civil order and protection to learn from history and from each other about effective early warning systems and emergency evacuation plans.
Over the course of five days in May, within the cloistered serenity and stately atmosphere of the former San Francisco Convent, the cognoscente from Italy, the UK, Tokyo, Japan, Portugal and the USA will converge on Garachico, making it briefly the centre of world attention, not for the first time in its history.
Blessed with a natural harbour deep enough to allow trade vessels from the New World, Europe and Africa to weigh anchor, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were Garachico’s Golden Days. Trading sugar, leather, wine, tar and silk for fine fabrics from England and France, works of art from Flanders, gold and silver from America, spices from the Far East and slaves from Africa; the Canary Islands were the commercial gateway between Europe and the New World and Garachico was their gate keeper.
Attracted by trade opportunities, the rich and powerful of Europe built vast mansions in the town, many with their own lookout towers above them from which merchants could keep vigil over the Atlantic for the approach of pirates. As news of Garachico’s fabulous lifestyle spread, artists, musicians, bankers and religious orders flocked to its shores and by 1688 the town was the wealthiest and the third most populated on the island. There was even reputedly a street constructed entirely of marble which was closed to all except those wealthy enough to live on it. On Fridays, the poor of the town were allowed to traverse it to beg for alms before being once more outlawed from its smooth, cold surface.
Against All Odds
The motto on Garachico’s coat of arms reads Glorioso en su Adversidad which translates as ‘Glorious in its Adversity’ and 2006 sees the four hundredth anniversary of yet another disaster which befell the beleaguered citizens of Garachico. In 1601 the bubonic plague arrived on two ships bringing cargo from the Spanish mainland. Over the next five years it devastated the town and surrounding areas, taking thousands of lives and bringing trade to its knees, finally abating in 1606.
But Nature had more in her store of surprises for Garachico that century; in December 1645 heavy rains dislodged great swathes of earth from the cliffs behind the town and a landslide of sludge destroyed more than 80 houses in the town and sank 14 ships that were anchored in the harbour; over a hundred people lost their lives and the economic ruin was severe. As if having to deal with the elements wasn’t enough, in 1659 a plague of African locusts destroyed the town’s crops lending a biblical aspect to the whole sorry century which refused to leave before it had once again wreaked havoc on the prosperous but fated Garachico; in 1692 and again in 1697, great fires rampaged through the narrow streets and timbered houses of the town claiming a hundred and nine dwellings in total and razing the San Agustino convent to the ground.
Considered to be one of the most catastrophic communities in the world, each time fate dealt Garachico a blow, its inhabitants responded by re-building and re-investing, always determined to recover what they had painstakingly built up. Today that spirit of determination continues; the lava that destroyed the harbour in 1706 has been carved and hewn into El Caletón; a series of natural rock pools spanned by bridges and walkways, some of the pools are shallow and child friendly, others deep, shimmering turquoise in the sun and all of them teeming with a rainbow of tropical fish. The pools are a Mecca for local families and for coach loads of visitors from across the island bringing a new source of wealth to indomitable Garachico.
As part of its ongoing centenary celebrations, in October 2006 Garachico will once again play host to the world when it stages the Conference of Social and Natural Catastrophes, bringing together eye witness accounts from survivors of the Hiroshima Bomb in 1945 and the 9/11 bombings in New York as well as the Mayors of San Francisco and of New Orleans in order to hear first hand what it feels like to be a part of a natural or social disaster of that magnitude and how it must have felt for their forefathers who lived through the 1601-1606 plague and the1706 eruption.
When the increase in seismic activity in Tenerife last year gave out its order of places most likely to be affected in the event of a Teide eruption, guess who occupied the number 1 hot spot? With the second half of the quotation from which the town’s motto is taken reading; ‘resignado en su destino’ or ‘resigned to its destiny’, ‘GARAVOLCAN 2006’ is clearly aimed at stacking the deck in favour of the little town with the brave heart.
· GARAVOLCAN 2006 runs from 22nd to 26th May 2006 in the former Convento de San Francisco
· The Catástrofes Naturales y Sociedad Conference runs from 16th to 19th October 2006 in the former Convento de San Francisco
· From 5th May 2006 onwards, the town plans a series of events and expositions to mark its Centenary Year; amongst them are:
An exhibition entitled “The Canary Islands, Volcanoes in the Ocean”
A musical extravaganza entitled “Garachico, the Epilogue of Misfortune”
A concert by the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra
Street paintings depicting Garachico in 1700
Details and timings of all events will be available from the CIT office on Calle Estaban de Ponte from the middle of April 2006.