The Castillo de San Gabriel in Arrecife is one of Lanzarote’s oldest fortresses, and is currently home to the Arrecife History Museum. But few of the thousands of tourists who walk along the stone bridge to the offshore island know that they are visiting the final resting place of two Englishmen who were buried there two centuries ago.
The first of these early expats was George Hart, described as an “educated and affable Englishman” by local historian José Luis García Pérez. Hart was a journalist for a newspaper in London whose writings managed to upset the Prince Regent – who would later become George IV.
Known for his dissolute and exorbitantly lavish lifestyle, (which included the then-novel idea of seaside holidays) the Prince Regent was a powerful enemy to make, and as a result of his criticism, George Hart was banished to Lanzarote.
He did not live long here, contracting a tumour of the neck from which he died shortly afterwards. As a protestant, he was officially classified as a “heretic” in a Spain (where the Spanish Inquisition was coming to its end) and this is the reason why he was buried in the sands of the isle of San Gabriel. Some years later, in 1840, the Tenerife newspaper El Isleño wrote
“Perhaps one day the people of Lanzarote will regret having buried the learned journalist like an animal.”
The same resting place awaited Thomas J. James, a 20-year-old merchant who arrived on Lanzarote in 1814. At first, James exported barrilla (soda ash), a highly alkaline product used in soap manufacture which was produced by the burning of saltwort. This activity was Lanzarote’s main industry at the time (the real name of Playa Chica in Puerto Del Carmen is Pila de la Barrilla, reflecting the fact that saltwort was stored and dried there before being burned).
However, the industrial development of chemical alkalis destroyed the soda ash industry after 1830, bringing poverty to the island and forcing the Englishman to seek alternative employment. In 1837 he was granted a licence by the Ayuntamiento of Arrecife to practice as a doctor – an activity he had been carrying out unofficially for many years.
He is recorded as making many visits to the village of Los Valles, where smallpox had broken out, and providing medicine and money to those afflicted by the disease. After the departure of Arrecife’s official doctor, José Bethancourt, in 1834 Thomas James was awarded this official title and practiced as a doctor from his home on Calle Fajardo, Arrecife, until his death in the mid-19th century. He never married.
Once again, as a protestant he was not permitted to be buried alongside other British expats who had either been Catholics in the first place or had converted. His remains joined those of George Hart beneath the sands of the little island off the shore of Arrecife.