The Cruelty of Governor Hernán Peraza

Governor Hernán Peraza the younger had long been hated for his cruel treatment of the islanders. When, in 1488, he broke a pact of friendship with one of the Gomero tribes and, openly cheating on his wife, began cavorting with Yballa, a local beauty and fiancée of one of the island’s most powerful men, the natives rebelled. They surprised Peraza during one of his clandestine meetings with Yballa and killed him with a dart, communicating the news via Silbo (whistle) all over the island. They then proceeded to attack the Spaniards in Villa de las Palmas, the precursor to modern San Sebastián, and Peraza’s deceived wife (the famed beauty Beatriz de Bobadilla) barricaded herself in 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 gomeran males above the age of 15, and in an orgy of wanton violence, islanders were hanged, impaled, decapitated or drowned. Some had their hands and feet lopped off beforehand, just for good measure. The women were parcelled out to the militiamen, and many of the children were sold as slaves. To complete the job, de Vera also ordered the execution of about 300 gomeros living on Gran Canaria.

Silbo: Gomero's Whistling Language

The first time you hear Silbo Gomero you might think that 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 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, Silbo 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.

Modern conveniences have 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 2000, and in 2009 another lifeline was thrown to the language after it was inscribed on the Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This inclusion will allow more money to be pumped into the promotion of the language and is a big morale boost for silbadores.