Fuerteventura has had several names over the centuries, ranging from the Romans' matter-of-fact Planaria (‘Plains’, due to the island’s overall flatness), to the considerably more exciting Fuerteventura (Strong Adventure), which dates from the first European conquerors. Ruled by the Norman nobleman Jean de Béthencourt, the conquerors turned up in 1405 to find the island divided into two tribal kingdoms separated by a low 6km-long wall. The Guanche kingdom of Jandía occupied the southern peninsula, as far north as La Pared; Maxorata controlled the rest of the island.
Béthencourt established a permanent base, including a chapel, in the mountainous zone of what came to be known as Betancuria, with Santa María de Betancuria evolving as the island’s capital. The choice of location was determined by the natural water supply that is still in evidence: this is one of the lushest regions on the arid island. The mountainous location also created a measure of natural defence against those dastardly pirate raids.
New settlements spread slowly across the island and, in the 17th century, Europeans occupied El Cotillo, once the seat of the Guanche Maxorata kingdom. At this time, the Arias and Saavedra families took control of the señorío (the island government deputising for the Spanish crown). By the following century, however, officers of the island militia had established themselves as a rival power base in La Oliva. Los Coroneles (the Colonels) gradually took virtual control of the island’s affairs, enriching themselves at the expense of the hard-pressed peasantry. You can learn more about their reign by visiting their extraordinary former home: Casa de los Coroneles in La Oliva.
The militia was disbanded in 1834 and, in 1912, the island, along with others in the archipelago, was granted a degree of self-administration with the installation of the cabildo (island government).