Canarian Guanche

History of the Canary Islands


Formed by huge volcanic forces an estimated 30 million years ago, the Canary Islands history is shrouded in mystery.

Even the origin of their collective name is still in debate: some say they are named after the Latin canere – to sing, in reference to canaries, (native to the islands), others claim the root is canus – dog, (the islands used to be home to large dogs apparently), or perhaps the Canarii tribe of Morocco gave the islands their name. Who knows? It is a debate which will surely continue.

The original inhabitants of the Canary Islands were a race known as the Guanches, a name derived from guan, meaning man or people, and achinch, meaning White Mountain in an obvious reference to Tenerife’s snow-capped Mount Teide.

Mount Teide in Snow

The natives lived a Stone Age existence of shepherding and very rudimentary agriculture. They buried their dead and, in the case of chieftains, mummified, much like the ancient Egyptians.

The origins of these Canarian indigenous people have been, and indeed still are the subject of many a long debate. Numerous theories have been put forward throughout the last century, achieving varying degrees of acceptance.

The first settlers evidence suggests, must have arrived by sea, and archaeology suggests that when they did so, not only did they import domestic animals such as goats, sheep, pigs and dogs but also cereals such as wheat, barley and lentils.

They also had a set of well defined socio-cultural practices that seem to have originated and been in use for a long period of time elsewhere.

Although the maritime currents surrounding the Canary Islands flow in a south-westerly and westerly direction (leading boats away into the Atlantic Ocean), there is also enough evidence to prove that various Mediterranean civilisations in antiquity did know of the islands’ existence.

Already the Greeks and Romans were reporting on this archipelago of volcanic origins, and they called it the Happy Islands, Garden of the Hesperides and Atlantida.

The indigenous population of the Canary Islands did not therefore develop in complete isolation, and some historians even believe that the legendary continent Atlantis was located here.

In 1402, the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands began, with the expedition of Juan de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle to the island of Lanzarote, Norman nobles who were vassals of Henry III of Castile.

From there, he conquered Fuerteventura and Hierro. Béthencourt received the title King of the Canary Islands, but recognised King Henry III as his overlord.

Béthencourt also established a base on the island of Gomera, but it would be many years before the island was truly conquered. The people of Gomera, as well as the Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and La Palma people, resisted the Spanish invaders for almost a century.

In 1496 the Canary Islands became part of the Spanish kingdom, and subsequently Christopher Columbus rested at La Gomera before venturing into the unknown, westwards in search of the Indies.

Before long the Canary Islands were to become the vital link in transatlantic crossings, a welcome sanctuary before the voyages to Europe, Africa and the American continent. Last century, as trade and travel increased, the first hotels began to open in Tenerife. Since then commerce and leisure have spread and have continued to do so until today.

Spain’s control of the Canary Islands did not go unchallenged. First Moroccan troops occupied Lanzarote in 1569 and 1586, and then Sir Francis Drake tried a little gunboat diplomacy off Las Palmas in 1595. A Dutch fleet reduced Las Palmas to rubble in 1599, and then in 1657 the Brits under Admiral Robert Blake defeated the Spanish at Tenerife. The score: Spanish treasure fleet annihilated, British lose one ship.

Spain managed to hang on though, and the Canaries were declared a province of Spain in 1821. Santa Cruz de Tenerife was declared the official capital, adding fuel to the already low-level bickering between Tenerife and Gran Canaria. The inhabitants of Gran Canaria demanded that the province be split into two, which it was for a short and unsuccessful period in the 1840s.

The rivalry between the elites of the cities of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas for the capital-ship of the islands would lead to the division of the archipelago in two provinces in 1927, though this has not lain to rest the rivalry between these two cities, which continues to this day.

In 1936, Francisco Franco travelled to the Canary Islands as General Commandant. From the Canaries, he launched the military uprising of July 17. He quickly took control of the archipelago, with the exception of a few focal points of resistance on the island of La Palma and in the town of Vallehermoso, on Gomera island. Despite the fact that there was never a proper war in the islands, they were one of the places where the post-war repression was most severe.

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill prepared plans for the British seizure of the Canary Islands as a naval base, in the event of Gibraltar being invaded from the Spanish mainland.

Opposition to Franco’s regime did not begin to organise until the late 1950s, and after Franco’s death and the installation of a democratic constitutional monarchy, a bill of autonomy was put forth for the Canary Islands which, was approved in 1982. In 1983, the first autonomous elections were held, and were won by the Spanish socialist party.

Tenerife Forum does what it can to source information that its readers may find interesting about the Canaries and will continue to provide updates on these topics.

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