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Canary Islands - History

Canary Islands History

The islands are estimated to be 30 million years old, relatively young by geological standards. Their existence was known, or at least postulated, in ancient times.

Carbon dating has placed the earliest settlement at around 200 BC, although earlier settlement is possible. It was long suggested that Cro-Magnon, the Paleolithic predecessor to Homo sapiens, first inhabited the Canaries, although that is not now generally thought to be the case. One clue, apart from the ancient skulls of the original inhabitants, is the conquering Europeans' 15th-century descriptions of locals. Mainly on Tenerife, they found tall and powerfully built people with blue eyes and long fair hair. These people called themselves Guanches, from guan, 'man', and che or achinch meaning 'white mountain', in reference to the snow-capped Teide volcano. Suggestions for the origins of the Guanches have ranged from Celtic immigrants from mainland Spain or Portugal, to Norse invaders, supplying a possible explanation for the blonde hair and blue eyes. Berber immigrants from nearby Saharan Africa almost certainly inhabited some of the eastern islands, and place names bear a striking resemblance to Berber tribal languages. Occasionally blue eyes and fair hair crop up among the Berbers as well, so the Guanches' origin is still open to question.

By the time the Europeans began looking around the islands in the Middle Ages, they were inhabited by a variety of tribes often hostile to one another. Tenerife alone was divided into no fewer than nine tiny fiefdoms. The Guanches relied on limited farming, herding, hunting and gathering, and the majority of them lived in caves. The first vaguely reliable account of a landing by Europeans comes in the late 13th or early 14th century, when the Genoese captain Lanzarotto Malocello came across the island that would later bear a version of his name: Lanzarote. A host of dreamers looking for the legendary Río de Oro (River of Gold) that many thought flowed into the Atlantic at about the same latitude as the Canaries, missionaries bent on rescuing souls, and slavers looking to fill their holds passed by or came to stay, but it took a Portuguese-Italian mission of 1341 to finally put the Canaries on the map.

The first Europeans to attempt to conquer the Guanches were Normans from France in 1402, and the final campaigns more or less ended in 1495 under a Galician soldier of fortune. The century saw massacres, warfare and Guanches sold off wholesale into slavery, and within another century their language had all but disappeared, and the survivors had intermarried with the invaders, converted to Christianity and taken Spanish names.

Spain's control of the islands did not go unchallenged. First Moroccan troops occupied Lanzarote in 1569 and 1586, then Sir Francis Drake tried a little gunboat diplomacy off Las Palmas in 1595. A Dutch fleet reduced Las Palmas to rubble in 1599, 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. Several agricultural commodities followed boom-bust cycles on the islands: sugar cane, wine and then cochineal for making dyes all had their day, followed by bananas and to a lesser extent tomatoes and potatoes.

The WWI British maritime blockade of Europe destroyed the banana trade, and Canarios voted with their feet and fled the poverty at home in droves for a new life in Latin America.

The short period of hope that followed WWI was dashed when Spain fell into the chaos of civil war in 1936. In March of that year, the Spanish Republic transferred General Franco to the Canaries, under the (well founded) suspicion that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the government. Franco seized the islands in July then flew to Morocco to continue the fight, leaving the Nationalists to round up Republican sympathisers in the islands.

The Canaries suffered from the same post-war misery as Spain, and again thousands fled, although this time clandestinely and mainly to Venezuela. In the 1950s 16,000 left the country; a third of those who attempted the journey perished in leaky boats. By the early 60s, Franco decided to throw the country's doors open to sun-starved tourists. The latest and greatest boom - and the one that transformed the economy so miraculously and parts of the islands, well, less so - began. Millions of sun-seeking hedonists now flock to the islands annually.

Having been granted the status of a comunidad autónoma (autonomous region) in 1982, in recent times the Canaries have been leveraging their political strength. The Coalición Canaria played a large role in the right wing Partido Popular's win at the general elections in 1996. They have lent their support to the government under the condition that consideration be given first and foremost to their needs, putting the interests of the islands before any national considerations.

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