I sat on the veranda of the Hotel Santa Catalina sipping ‘un té británico’ (a British tea) and looking out on the manicured lawns that seemed to stretch down to the sea. Despite the heat in Las Palmas (a tempting 28C), the Brit in me was happy to sip on a good cuppa, even if I did have to ask for it ‘con leche fria aparte’ (with cold milk on the side).
My afternoon companion was Angie Cabrera, a local English teacher and native of the island of Gran Canaria, who has researched the history of the British in the Canary Islands (which have been part of Spain since the 15th Century) and uses it as a cultural, historical and linguistic lesson for her secondary school students.
“The hotel was built by the British,” she told me over the brim of her teacup. “British architects and everything. The Hotel Metropol in front of us as well was a British build, although it is now the council offices. The Metropol was a favourite of Agatha Christie.” I found out later the crime writer is thought to have penned more than one of her novels there.
It turns out, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, to afford the city its proper title, was the holiday destination for discerning British tourists long before the package holiday boom of the 1960s and ‘70s turned the island’s hotter, drier south into the sun-worshipping holidaymaker mecca that it is today (some 858,118 Brits visited Gran Canaria in 2017 alone). But how did this tiny island (just more than an hour top to bottom by car) off the coast of West Africa become such a hotspot for British tourists around the turn of the 20th Century?
My tea stop was just the latest part of the story Cabrera had been regaling me with all day. We started our tour down near the city’s main port, Puerto de La Luz, on Alfredo L Jones Street – or as the locals say, ‘Al-freh-doh ehleh chon-ess street’. The Mr Jones in question was not Canarian or even Spanish, but was, as his surname might suggest, born Alfred Lewis Jones in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, in 1845. What he was to do for this mid-Atlantic city, however, more than justifies this prominent epitaph. You see, while Jones’ story is virtually unknown outside of the islands, some might say that the Welshman put the Canaries on the map.
“He wasn’t the first here,” Cabrera explained. “But he’s the one who really made it happen.”