Gran Canaria has an intriguing mix of nationalities and ethnic cultures, particularly in the capital, Las Palmas. This is nothing new. The island has historically been home to waves of settlers who have all had a deep and lingering impact.
The first human settlers to arrive, possibly as far back as 1000 BC, were the Guanches, who were most probably migrants from North Africa and who named the island Tamarán after the date palms (tamar) found here. In 1478, despite some plucky resistance, the Guanches’ culture was largely obliterated by the Spanish. Gran Canaria was soon colonised by a ragtag assortment of adventurers and landless hopefuls from as far away as Galicia, Andalucía, Portugal, Italy, France, the Low Countries and even Britain and Ireland.
Las Palmas subsequently became the seat of the Canary Islands’ bishopric and royal court, as well as a way station en route to the Americas. The economy was further boosted by sugar exports and transatlantic trade. As demand for the Canary Islands’ sugar fell and the fortunes of wine grew, however, the island declined before its main rival and superior vine-grower, Tenerife.
Many Canarians subsequently emigrated to South America, initiating a strong affinity between the two cultures that is still in evidence today. It was not until the late 19th century, however, that Gran Canaria recovered its position; the importance of the island as a refuelling port for steamships resulted in investment from foreign merchants, including the British.
It’s an investment that continues to this day, only now in the form of tourism. The package-holiday boom of the mid-20th century brought a lasting prosperity to the island. However, the fortunes of Gran Canaria are dependent on the influx of foreign visitors, and the environmental price of tourism has been costly.