The Isle Where Columbus Dallied

A Genoese sailor of modest means, Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in his native Italy) was born in 1451. He went to sea early and was something of a dreamer. Fascinated by Marco Polo’s travels in the Orient, he decided early on that it must be possible to reach the east by heading west into the sunset. After years of doors being slammed in his face, Spain's Reyes Católicos, Fernando and Isabel, finally gave him their patronage in 1492.

On 3 August 1492, at the head of three small caravels – the Santa María, the Pinta and the Niña – Columbus weighed anchor in Palos de la Frontera, Huelva (Andalucía), on the Spanish mainland. But before heading across the Atlantic, he stopped off at La Gomera for last-minute provisions, unwittingly giving the island its biggest claim to fame. As well as fruit and animals, it’s claimed he stocked up on local goat’s cheese for the journey – one of La Gomera’s star products to this day.

Columbus set sail on 6 September, a day now celebrated in San Sebastián with the Fiestas Colombinas. His ships didn’t see land until 12 October, just as provisions and the sailors’ patience were nearing their ends. The expedition ‘discovered’ several Caribbean islands on this trip and returned to Spain in March 1493.

Columbus made three later voyages, but died alone in Valladolid, Spain, in 1506, still convinced he’d found a new route to the Orient rather than America.

The Cruelty of Governors Hernán Peraza & Pedro de Vera

In 1477, governor Hernán Peraza the younger was put in charge of La Gomera by his parents, nobleman Diego García de Herrera and Inés Peraza de las Casas, and quickly became hated for his cruel treatment of the islanders. When, in 1488, he broke a pact of friendship with one of the local tribes and, openly cheating on his wife, began cavorting with Iballa, fiancée of one of the island’s most powerful men, the gomeros rebelled. They surprised Peraza during one of his clandestine meetings with Iballa and killed him with a dart, communicating the news via Silbo all over the island. They then proceeded to attack the Spaniards in Villa de las Palmas, the precursor to modern-day San Sebastián, and Peraza’s deceived wife Beatriz de Bobadilla barricaded herself inside the Torre del Conde, where she waited until help arrived.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there. ‘Help’ showed up in the form of Pedro de Vera, governor of Gran Canaria and one of the cruellest figures in Canarian history. His ruthlessness was bloodcurdling. According to one account, de Vera ordered the execution of all gomero males above the age of 15; islanders were hanged, impaled, decapitated or drowned. Women were parcelled out to militiamen, and many children were sold as slaves. To complete the job, de Vera also ordered the execution of about 300 gomeros living on Gran Canaria.

Silbo: La Gomera's Whistling Language

The first time you hear Silbo Gomero you might think you’re listening to two birds having a conversation. Alternately chirpy and melodic, shrill and deeply resonating, this ancient whistling language really is as lovely as birdsong. Silbo, once a dying art, but now being brought back to life, is steeped in history and boasts a complex vocabulary of more than 4000 whistled words that can be heard from miles away.

In pre-Hispanic La Gomera, Silbo developed as the perfect tool for sending messages back and forth across the island’s rugged terrain. In ideal conditions, it could be heard up to 4km away, saving islanders from struggling up hill and down dale just to deliver a message to a neighbour. At first, it was probably used as an emergency signal, but over time a full language developed. While other forms of whistled communications have existed in pockets of Greece, Turkey, China and Mexico, none is as developed as Silbo Gomero. Its sounds replace Spanish language with two whistled vowels and four consonants and were traditionally learnt in a family environment, resulting in different accents between various areas.

Modern conveniences and emigration from the island had all but killed the language, but in the past few years Silbo has gone from being La Gomera’s near-forgotten heritage to being its prime cultural selling point. Silbo has been a mandatory school subject on the island since 1999, and in 2009 another lifeline was thrown to the language after it was inscribed on the Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This inclusion allows more money to be pumped into the promotion of the language and is a big morale boost for silbadores, though some have expressed concern that Silbo could eventually end up becoming a tourism cliché.