Canary Islands in detail


There is a delightful whiff of mystery concerning both the Canary Islands’ origins and the first inhabitants, the indigenous Guanches, subsequently banished by waves of marauding invaders. In 1821 the islands were declared a province of Spain, but the economic fallout from the Spanish Civil War and WWII plunged them into deep economic misery. It wasn't until the 1960s that the economy began to pick up with the onset of mass tourism. The rest is history, as they say.

And in the Beginning

There's a whimsical theory that the Canary Islands are the remains of the legendary sunken continent of Atlantis. The less romantic and more scientific explanation attests that the Macaronesian archipelago represents the tiniest part of massive volcanoes beneath the sea. El Teide on Tenerife is not only the highest mountain in Spain but, if measured from the ocean floor, is the third tallest volcano on the planet.

According to carbon dating of the islands' sparse archaeological finds, the earliest settlement found here dates to around 2000 BC, although earlier occupation is conceivable – and goat bones found in Fuerteventura have been dated back to 3000 BC. It is entirely possible 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 in 470 BC.

What is certain is that the expanding Roman Empire defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 BC. However, 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 the isles, penned by Pliny the Elder 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, Egyptian geographer 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.

Early (Known) Inhabitants

Tall, blond and good looking, how the Guanches actually arrived on the islands has been a question that's baffled historians for centuries. Could they be a result of lost Nordic adventurers? Or Celtic immigrants from mainland Iberia, possibly related to the Basques?

Recent analysis of DNA extracted from Guanche skulls on Gran Canaria and Tenerife instead identified the people's origins in North Africa, establishing that the Guanches were most closely related to North Africans of Berber ancestry. Similarities in Guanche place names, burial practices and rock carvings had also suggested a link with North Africa. What little is known of the extinct Guanche tongue furthermore suggests a Berber language, while the occasional instance of blue eyes and blondish hair occurs among Berbers.

As far as numbers are concerned, before the 15th-century conquest it is believed that the Guanche population numbered approximately 30,000 in Gran Canaria and Tenerife, over 4000 in La Palma, over 1000 in El Hierro and a few hundred in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.

Early Conquests

After the fall of the Roman Empire and with Europe falling into the shadows of the Dark Ages, the Canary Islands slipped off the radar for an astonishing 1000-plus years, with virtually no written record of visits here until the early 14th century, when the Genoese captain Lanzarotto (or Lancelotto) Malocello bumped into the island that would later bear his name: Lanzarote.

The conquest of the islands began in earnest in 1402 when Norman noble and adventurer Jean de Béthencourt set out from La Rochelle with a small and ill-equipped party bound for the Canary Islands. 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.

De Béthencourt’s motley crew landed first in Lanzarote, at that stage governed by mencey (king) Guardafía. There was no resistance and de Béthencourt went on to establish a fort on Fuerteventura.

That was as far as he got. Having run out of supplies, and with too few men for the enterprise, he headed for Spain to gain the backing of the Castilian crown. Fuerteventura, El Hierro and La Gomera then quickly fell under Spanish 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.

Squabbles & Stagnation

What followed hardly ranks as one of the world’s noblest colonial endeavours. Characterised by 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 Maciot also recruited them for abortive raids on the remaining three independent islands. He then capped this all off by selling his rights to the four islands (inherited from his uncle) to Portugal. Portugal only recognised 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 in the Canaries with extraordinarily little success.

The Christian Campaign Continues

In 1478 a new commander arrived with fresh forces and orders from the Spanish Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs), Fernando and Isabel, to finish the Canaries campaign once and for all. Despite being immediately attacked by a force of 2000 men at the site of modern-day Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, they carried the day and went after the guanarteme (island chief), Tenesor Semidan, in a naval attack on Galdar. Semidan was sent to Spain, converted to Christianity and returned in 1483 to convince his countrymen to give up the fight. This they did, although 20 years of battles followed which included a failed attempt to deport hundreds of islanders from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to be sold as slaves in Spain. Fortunately, locals learned of the dastardly scheme and forced the ships transporting the men to dock at Lanzarote instead.

The Final Campaigns

In May 1493, the Spanish commander Alonso Fernández 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 what was known as the first battle of Acentejo, Lugo suffered defeat by Guanche forces who had the advantage of being familiar with the mountainous terrain.

On 25 December 1494, 5000 Guanches, under the mencey 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 of a small Atlantic archipelago defended by primitive tribes. The contrast between this conquest and that on the mainland was that the Catholic Monarchs were not dealing with their traditional enemy, Islam, which boasted a culture far richer and more sophisticated than their own, but with a primitive native people who they proceeded to mercilessly exploit. This could be viewed as the world's first example of true colonialism and a subsequent blueprint for similar conquest in the Americas and elsewhere in the world.

Economic & Foreign Challenges

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, and sugar cane 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 cheaper Americas. The local economy was rescued only by the growing export demand for wine, particularly in Britain, which was produced mainly in Tenerife.

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, 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.

On a more bucolic note, in 1799 the illustrious explorer and botanist Alexander von Humboldt stopped briefly in Tenerife en route to Latin America. Apparently when he spied the Orotava Valley, he famously declared it as "the most enchanting view that eyes have ever seen". This comment and his overall praise of the islands certainly contributed to their ensuing popularity and launch as a tourist resort initially reserved for the truly elite. However, it was not until around a century later that tourism became a viable part of the local economy.

Island Divisions

Within the Canary Islands, a bitter feud developed between Gran Canaria and Tenerife over supremacy of the archipelago.

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 1927 Madrid finally decided to split the Canaries into two provinces: Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro in the west; Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote in the east, with land being distributed between the local farmers. The main crops of bananas and tomatoes were cultivated and, even today, remain a major agricultural export. More unusually, cochineal farming was introduced and became one of the most important industries, particularly in Lanzarote. This parasitic beetle feeds on the prickly pear cacti and is cultivated for its crimson dye, although the industry reduced drastically with the subsequent emergence of synthetic dyes.

Decades of Emigration

Emigration to the Americas was rife throughout the latter part of the 19th and 20th centuries, and it was not uncommon for villages to be left with virtually no young male population. The exodus continued even after the Spanish-American War (1898), when Cuba and Puerto Rico were no longer Spanish territories. Cuba was initially the most popular country, followed by Venezuela, a trend which increased considerably after the Spanish Civil War, a time of considerable economic misery with rationing, food shortages and a thriving black market. 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.

Franco’s Spain

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, including writers, artists, teachers and politicians, who all mysteriously disappeared.

The postwar economic misery of mainland Spain was shared by the islands, and many canarios continued to emigrate. During WWII, Winston Churchill developed (but never activated) a plan to invade the Canary Islands to use as a naval base in the event of Gibraltar being invaded by the Spanish mainland. At the same time exports to Europe, aside from Spain, ceased.

Tourism, ‘Nationalism’ & Shifting Demographics

When Franco decided to open up Spain’s doors to Northern European tourists by abolishing tourist visas in 1959, the Canaries benefited as much as the mainland. The scene was set for huge numbers of holidaymakers to begin pouring 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, including the bombing of a shopping mall in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in 1976. There were also bomb threats, and a bomb explosion at Gran Canaria International Airport contributed to the worst aviation disaster in history in March 1977 when two Boeing 747 airlines (one KLM and one Pan Am) were diverted to now congested Los Rodeos Airport (today's Tenerife North Airport) and collided on the runway, killing 583 people. 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 1993 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.

Immigration from Africa and other parts of the world has changed the Canaries’ population landscape drastically over the past two decades and has forced the islands to reassess their relationship with the African continent. The EU has also encouraged a growing relationship between the Canary Islands and Africa to help form a bridge between the European trading block and Africa. Since the 1990s, the Canary Islands have made cooperation with Africa a major priority, with bilateral agreements with several African nations, including Morocco, Mauritania, Cape Verde and Senegal.