History of the Canary Islands

In his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, Plato (428–348 BC) spoke of “Atlantis” - a continent which catastrophically sunk deep into the ocean floor in a great cataclysmic event that left only the peaks of its highest mountains above the water. In the centuries since Plato’s death, those convinced of the existence of Atlantis have maintained that Macronesia (the Canary Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira) constitutes the visible remains of the lost continent.

Legend also has it that one of the 12 labourers of Hercules was to go to the end of the world and bring back golden apples guarded by the Hesperides (daughters of evening), offspring of Hesperis and Atlas, the latter a Titan in Greek and Roman mythology who gave his name to the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas mountain ranges in Morocco. Hercules supposedly had to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the modern Strait of Gibraltar) to reach the paradisiacal home of these maidens. Hercules carried out his task and returned from what many later thought could only have been the Canary Islands – about the only place to fit the ancients’ description.

The origin of the islands’ first inhabitants has long been a source of mystery, with theories being volleyed about for decades but none accepted as definitive.

Virtually no written record remains of visits to the “Fortunate Isles” until the 14th century. The first vaguely tenable account of a European landing comes in the late 13th or early 14th century when the Genoese captain Lanzarotto (or Lancelotto) Malocello bumped into the island that would later bear his name: Lanzarote.

History of the Canary Islands

European conquest of the islands began in the early 15th Century and on 25th December 1494, 5000 Guanches (the first known inhabitants of the islands) under the command of Bencomo were routed in the second battle of the Acentejo. The spot, only a few kilometres south of La Matanza, is still called La Victoria (Victory) today. By the following July, when de Lugo marched into the Valle de la Orotava to confront Bencomo’s successor, Bentor, the diseased and demoralised Guanches were in no state to resist. Bentor surrendered and the conquest by the Spaniards was complete. Pockets of resistance took two years to mop up, and Bentor eventually committed suicide.

From the early 16th century, Gran Canaria and Tenerife in particular attracted a steady stream of settlers from Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and even Britain. Each island had its own local authority, or cabildo insular, although increasingly they were overshadowed by the Royal Court of Appeal, established in Las Palmas in 1526. Sugar cane had been introduced from the Portuguese island of Madeira, and soon sugar became the Canaries’ main export.

The ‘discovery’ of the New World in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who called in to the archipelago several times en route to the Americas, proved a mixed blessing. It brought much passing transatlantic trade but also led to sugar production being diverted to the Americas, where the cane could be grown and processed more cheaply. The local economy was rescued only by the growing export demand for wine, produced mainly in Tenerife. Vino seco (dry wine), which Shakespeare called Canary Sack, was much appreciated in Britain.

Nowadays, tourism is the Canary’s main economic income. When Franco decided to open up Spain’s doors to northern European tourists the Canaries benefited as much as the mainland. Millions of holidaymakers now pour into the islands year-round.