We can’t pinpoint the date of the discovery of the islands now known as the Canaries, but we can say with certainty that they were known, or at least postulated about, in ancient times. In his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, Plato (428–348 BC) spoke of Atlantis, a continent sunk deep into the ocean floor in a great cataclysm that left only the peaks of its highest mountains above the water. Whether Plato believed in the lost continent’s existence or had more allegorical intentions remains a matter of conjecture. In the centuries since Plato’s death, those convinced of the existence of Atlantis have maintained that Macronesia (the Canary Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira) constitutes the visible remains of the lost continent.
Legend also has it that one of the 12 labours of Hercules was to go to the end of the world and bring back golden apples guarded by the Hesperides (daughters of evening), offspring of Hesperis and Atlas, the latter a Titan in Greek and Roman mythology who gave his name to the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas mountain ranges in Morocco. Hercules supposedly had to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the modern Strait of Gibraltar) to reach the paradisiacal home of these maidens. Hercules carried out his task and returned from what many later thought could only have been the Canary Islands – about the only place to fit the ancients’ description.
Classical writer Homer identified the islands as Elysium, a place where the righteous spent their afterlife. For all their storytelling, there is no concrete evidence that either the Phoenicians or Greeks ever landed on the Canaries. It is entirely possible, however, that early reconnaissance of the North African Atlantic coast by the Phoenicians and their successors, the Carthaginians, took at least a peek at the easternmost islands of the archipelago. Some historians believe a Phoenician expedition landed on the islands in the 12th century BC, and that the Carthaginian Hanno turned up there in 470 BC.
The expanding Roman Empire defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 BC, but the Romans appear not to have been overly keen to investigate the fabled islands, which they knew as the Insulae Fortunatae (Fortunate Isles). A century-and-a-half later, shortly after the birth of Christ, the Romans received vaguely reliable reports on them, penned by Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) and based upon accounts of an expedition carried out around 40 BC by Juba II, a client king in Roman North Africa. In AD 150, Ptolemy fairly accurately located the islands’ position with a little dead reckoning, tracing an imaginary meridian line marking the end of the known world through El Hierro.
The origin of the islands’ first inhabitants has long been a source of mystery, with theories being volleyed about for decades but none accepted as definitive. Everyone agrees that the Canary Islands had no indigenous population and that they’ve been inhabited since before the birth of Christ. So the people living here had to come from somewhere. But the question was, where?
The Spanish conquistadors’ tales of Tinerfeños being tall, blonde and blue-eyed fostered many convoluted theories about how Celtic immigrants from mainland Iberia, possibly even related to the Basques, somehow made their way to the island. More fancifully, some saw a drop of Nordic blood in them – did Norse raiding parties land here in the 8th or 9th centuries?
Recently, however, historians using archaeological, cultural and linguistic studies have thrown out these theories in favour of a simpler, if more boring, one. Spotting similarities between the dwellings, burial practices and rock carvings of the various ancient tribes living in the Canaries and the Libyan-Berber peoples of North Africa, they’ve concluded that the original inhabitants of the islands came from the Maghrib, the area spanning from present-day Tunisia to Morocco. Place names and the handful of words from the Canary Islands’ languages (or dialects) that have come down to us bear a striking resemblance to Berber tribal languages. Also, the occasional case of blue eyes and blondish hair occurs among the Berbers too.
Studies from the University of La Laguna in Tenerife have proposed that as the Romans conquered northern Africa from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD they exiled some people groups to the Canaries. This would explain why the tribes had no knowledge of seafaring; they were inland peoples. If the Romans exiled them soon after arriving in the territory, the people would have had no opportunity to learn Latin script or Roman building techniques. And if the Romans never visited the islands again it was perhaps because they saw no reward worthy of such a long, difficult journey.
Carbon dating of the sparse archaeological finds has pushed back the known date of the earliest settlement to around 200 BC, although earlier occupation is conceivable. For a long time, learned observers maintained that the islands were first inhabited by Cro-Magnon man, the Neolithic predecessor of modern Homo sapiens. Such conclusions have emerged from the comparison of ancient skulls of indigenous inhabitants with Cro-Magnon remains discovered around the Mediterranean. Historians wrinkle their noses at the idea now, but if the theory were proved true (which seems unlikely) it would throw the doors of speculation wide open, since Cro-Magnon man came onto the scene as long as 40,000 years ago.
Exactly when, and in what number, people occupied the islands remains a mystery. What seems clear, however, is that they came from several north African tribes. One of them may have been the Canarii tribe, which could explain the islands’ present name. Certainly, by the time European swashbucklers started nosing around the islands in the Middle Ages, they were peopled by a variety of tribes.
Virtually no written record remains of visits to the Fortunate Isles until the 14th century. The first vaguely tenable account of a European landing comes in the late 13th or early 14th century when the Genoese captain Lanzarotto (or Lancelotto) Malocello bumped into the island that would later bear his name: Lanzarote. From then on, slavers, dreamers searching for the Río de Oro (the River of Gold route for the legendary African gold trade, which many thought spilled into the Atlantic at about the same latitude as the islands) and missionaries bent on spreading the Word all made excursions to the islands.
Of these missions, the most important and influential was the Italian-led and Portuguese-backed expedition of 1341. Three caravels (two- or three-masted sailing ships) charted a course around all seven islands and took note of even the tiniest islets: the Canary Islands were finally, and more or less accurately, on the map.
On 1 May 1402, Jean de Béthencourt, lord of Granville in Normandy (France) and something of an adventurer, set out from La Rochelle with a small and ill-equipped party bound for the Canary Islands. The avowed aim, as the priests brought along for the ride would testify, was to convert the heathen islanders. Uppermost in de Béthencourt’s mind was more likely the hope of glory and a fast franc. With his partner, Gadifer de la Salle, he may have hoped to use the Canaries as a launch pad for exploration of the African coast in search of the Río de Oro. That project never got off the ground, and the buccaneers decided to take over the islands instead. So commenced a lengthy and inglorious chapter of invasion, treachery and bungling. Many Guanches would lose their lives or be sold into slavery in the coming century, with the remainder destined to be swallowed up by the invading society.
That was as far as he got. Having run out of supplies, and with too few men for the enterprise, he headed for Spain, where he aimed to obtain the backing of the Castilian crown. What had started as a private French enterprise now became a Spanish imperialist adventure.
De Béthencourt returned in 1404 with ships, men and money. Fuerteventura, El Hierro and La Gomera quickly fell under his control. Appointed lord of the four islands by the Spanish king, Enrique III, de Béthencourt encouraged the settlement of farmers from his Norman homeland and began to pull in the profits. In 1406 he returned for good to Normandy, leaving his nephew Maciot in charge of his Atlantic possessions.
What followed was scarcely one of the world’s grandest colonial undertakings. Characterised by continued squabbling and occasional revolt among the colonists, the European presence did nothing for the increasingly oppressed islanders in the years following de Béthencourt’s departure.
The islanders were heavily taxed and many were sold into slavery; Maciot also recruited them for abortive raids on the remaining three independent islands. He then capped it all off by selling to Portugal his rights – inherited from his uncle – to the four islands. This move prompted a tiff with Spain, which was eventually awarded rights to the islands by Pope Eugene V. Low-key rivalry continued for years, with Portugal only recognising Spanish control of the Canaries in 1479 under the Treaty of Alcáçovas. In return, Spain agreed that Portugal could have the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira.
Maciot died in self-imposed exile in Madeira in 1452. A string of minor Spanish nobles proceeded to run the show, all eager to sell their rights to the islands almost as soon as they had acquired them.
Numerous commanders undertook the business of attacking the other islands with extraordinarily little success. Guillén Peraza died in an attempt to assault La Palma in 1443. In 1464 Peraza’s brother-in-law Diego de Herrera, the appointed lord of La Gomera, attempted a landing on Gran Canaria and another landing near present-day Santa Cruz de Tenerife. By 1466 he had managed to sign a trade treaty with the Canarios, and won permission to build a defensive turret in Gando Bay.
In 1478 a new commander arrived with fresh forces (including, for the first time, a small cavalry unit) and orders from the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Fernando and Isabel, to finish the Canaries campaign once and for all. Juan Rejón landed and dug in at the site of modern Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. He was immediately attacked by a force of 2000 men under Doramas, guanarteme (island chief) of the island’s Telde kingdom. Rejón carried the day but fell victim to internal intrigue by making an enemy of the spiritual head of the conquered territories, Canon Juan Bermúdez, accusing him of incompetence.
The investigator sent from Spain, Pedro de Algaba, sided with Bermúdez and had Rejón transported to the mainland in chains. But, once there, Rejón convinced the Spanish authorities that he’d been unjustly treated and was given carte blanche to return to the Canaries to re-establish his control. One of his first acts was to have Algaba, his erstwhile accuser, arrested and executed. However, this act of vengeance proved his final undoing, as Queen Isabel believed the punishment unwarranted and had Rejón replaced by Pedro de Vera.
De Vera continued the campaign and had the good fortune to capture the island’s other guanarteme, Tenesor Semidan (known as Don Fernando Guanarteme after his baptism), in an attack on Gáldar by sea. Tenesor Semidan was sent to Spain, converted to Christianity and returned in 1483 to convince his countrymen to give up the fight. This they did and de Vera subsequently suggested that some might like to sign up for an assault on Tenerife. Duly embarked, de Vera committed the umpteenth act of treachery that had marked the long years of conquest: he packed them off to be sold as slaves in Spain. But the Canarios learnt of this and forced the ships transporting them to dock at Lanzarote.
After the frightful suppression of a revolt on La Gomera in 1488, de Vera was relieved of his post as captain-general of the conquest.
De Vera’s successor was Galician Alonso Fernández de Lugo, who in 1491 received a royal commission to conquer La Palma and Tenerife. He began in La Palma in November and by May of the following year had the island under control. This he achieved partly by negotiation, though the last mencey (Guanche king) of La Palma, Tanausú, and his men maintained resistance in the virtually impregnable crater of the Caldera de Taburiente. Only by enticing him out for talks on 3 May and then ambushing him could de Lugo defeat his last adversary on the island. For La Palma, the war was over.
Tenerife provided the toughest resistance to the Spaniards. In May 1493 de Lugo landed on Tenerife, together with 1000 infantry soldiers and a cavalry of 150, among them Guanches from Gran Canaria and La Gomera.
In the ensuing months the Spaniards fortified their positions and attempted talks with several of the nine menceys, managing to win over those of Güímar and Anaga. Bencomo, mencey of Tahoro and sworn enemy of the invaders, was sure of the support of at least three other menceys, while the remaining three wavered.
In the spring of the following year, de Lugo sent a column westwards. This proved a disaster. Bencomo was waiting in ambush in the Barranco de Acentejo ravine. The Spanish force was decimated at a place now called La Matanza de Acentejo (Slaughter of Acentejo). De Lugo then thought better of the whole operation and left Tenerife.
By the end of the year he was back to engage in the second major battle of the campaign – at La Laguna on 14 November 1494. Here he had greater success, but the Guanches were far from defeated and de Lugo fell back to Santa Cruz. At the beginning of the New Year a plague known as the modorra began to ravage the island. It hardly seemed to affect the Spaniards but soon took a serious toll on the Guanches.
On 25 December 1494, 5000 Guanches under Bencomo were routed in the second battle of the Acentejo. The spot, only a few kilometres south of La Matanza, is still called La Victoria (Victory) today. By the following July, when de Lugo marched into the Valle de la Orotava to confront Bencomo’s successor, Bentor, the diseased and demoralised Guanches were in no state to resist. Bentor surrendered and the conquest was complete. Pockets of resistance took two years to mop up, and Bentor eventually committed suicide.
Four years after the fall of Granada and the reunification of Christian Spain, the Catholic monarchs could now celebrate one of the country’s first imperial exploits – the subjugation in only 94 years of a small Atlantic archipelago defended by Neolithic tribes. Even so, the Spaniards had some difficulty in fully controlling the Guanches. Many refused to settle in the towns established by the colonists, preferring to live their traditional lives out of reach of the authorities.
Nevertheless, the Guanches were destined to disappear. Although open hostilities had ceased, the conquistadors continued shipping them as slaves to Spain. Remaining Guanches were converted en masse to Christianity, taking on Christian names and the surnames of their new Spanish godfathers.
Some of the slaves would be freed and permitted to return to the islands. Although the bulk of them were dispossessed of their land, they soon began to assimilate with the colonisers. Within a century, their language had all but disappeared: except for a handful of words, all that comes down to us today are the islands’ many Guanche place names.
From the early 16th century, Gran Canaria and Tenerife in particular attracted a steady stream of settlers from Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and even Britain. Each island had its own local authority, or cabildo insular, although increasingly they were overshadowed by the Royal Court of Appeal, established in Las Palmas in 1526. Sugar cane had been introduced from the Portuguese island of Madeira, and soon sugar became the Canaries’ main export.
The ‘discovery’ of the New World in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who called in to the archipelago several times en route to the Americas, proved a mixed blessing. It brought much passing transatlantic trade but also led to sugar production being diverted to the Americas, where the cane could be grown and processed more cheaply. The local economy was rescued only by the growing export demand for wine, produced mainly in Tenerife. Vino seco (dry wine), which Shakespeare called Canary Sack, was much appreciated in Britain.
Poorer islands, especially Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, remained backwaters, their impoverished inhabitants making a living from smuggling and piracy off the Moroccan coast – the latter activity part of a tit-for-tat game played out with the Moroccans for centuries.
Spain’s control of the islands did not go completely unchallenged. The most spectacular success went to Admiral Robert Blake, one of Oliver Cromwell’s three ‘generals at sea’. In 1657, a year after war had broken out between England and Spain, Blake annihilated a Spanish treasure fleet (at the cost of only one ship) at Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
British harassment culminated in 1797 with Admiral Horatio Nelson’s attack on Santa Cruz. Sent there to intercept yet another treasure shipment, he not only failed to storm the town but lost his right arm in the fighting.
When the Canaries were declared a province of Spain in 1821, Santa Cruz de Tenerife was made the capital. Bickering between the two main islands remained heated and Las Palmas frequently demanded that the province be split in two. The idea was briefly but unsuccessfully put into practice in the 1840s.
In the 1930s, as the left and the right in mainland Spain became increasingly militant, fears of a coup grew. In March 1936 the government decided to ‘transfer’ General Franco, a veteran of Spain’s wars in Morocco and beloved of the tough Spanish Foreign Legion, to the Canary Islands.
Suspicions that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the government were well-founded; when the pro-coup garrisons of Melilla (Spanish North Africa) rose prematurely on 17 July, Franco was ready. Having seized control of the islands virtually without a struggle (the pro-Republican commander of the Las Palmas garrison died in mysterious circumstances on 14 July), Franco flew to Morocco on 19 July. Although there was virtually no fighting on the islands, the Nationalists wasted no time in rounding up anyone vaguely suspected of harbouring Republican sympathies.
The postwar economic misery of mainland Spain was shared by the islands, and again many Canarios opted to emigrate. In the 1950s the situation was so desperate that 16,000 migrated clandestinely, mainly to Venezuela, even though by then that country had closed its doors to further immigration. One-third of those who attempted to flee perished in the ocean crossings.
When Franco decided to open up Spain’s doors to northern European tourists the Canaries benefited as much as the mainland. Millions of holidaymakers now pour into the islands year-round.
Always a fringe phenomenon, Canaries nationalism started to resurface in opposition to Franco. MPAIC (Movimiento para la Autodeterminación e Independencia del Archipiélago Canario), founded in 1963 by Antonio Cubillo to promote secession from Spain, embarked on a terrorist campaign in the late 1970s. Dodging Spanish authorities, Cubillo fled to Algeria in the 1960s, but in 1985 he was allowed to return to Spain.
In 1978 a new constitution was passed in Madrid with devolution as one of its central pillars. Thus the Canary Islands became a comunidad autónoma (autonomous region) in August 1982, yet they remained divided into two provinces.
The main force in Canary Islands politics since its first regional election victory in 1995 has been the Coalición Canaria (CC). Although not bent on independence from Spain (which would be unlikely), the CC nevertheless puts the interests of the islands before national considerations. Fringe groups, however, do push for independence, and while those supporting independence are in the minority, they are gaining strength.
Immigration from Africa and other parts of the world has changed the Canaries’ population landscape drastically over the past decade and has forced the islands to reassess their relationship with the continent. Over the past 10 years the islands have made cooperation with Africa a major priority, investing around €17 million in education, health and infrastructure in Africa, especially in transport and communication links with the continent.
The past few years have also seen a struggle between intense development and concerted efforts to preserve the islands’ natural resources and beauty. Political groups, islanders and ecologists are in constant discussions about the best way to combine the archipelago’s dependence on tourism, and the perceived need for more hotels, ports and golf courses, with the pressing need to conserve water resources, combat marine pollution and prevent development from infringing on the flora and fauna that have made the islands a nature lover’s paradise.