The Forgotten Story of the Canary Islanders

It's the month of October, which means another Columbus Day where we recognize the European discovery of the Americas by the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus.  However, for his detractors, Columbus is not a hero, but rather a villain who inaugurated the rape, murder and plunder of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World.

While Columbus is an easy target on whom to pin the blame for all that followed, what is often overlooked is that his story, though clearly an important one, is just one part of the larger story of the European voyages of discovery that sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th century.  When Columbus first encountered the inhabitants of the islands he discovered in late 1492 in what are today the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, the Spanish monarchy in whose service he sailed already had a template for dealing with indigenous peoples that involved subjugation.

After Columbus departed from Palos in Spain on August 3, 1492, he did not immediately sail out into the unknown.  His first destination was the Canary Islands, a chain of seven islands in the Atlantic approximately 100 kilometers west of the Moroccan coastline, where he could take advantage of the trade winds. The Canary Islands were claimed by and in the process of being conquered by the Spanish.  These islands, believed to be the islands referred to in antiquity as the Fortunate Isles, began to be visited by European navigators since the 14th century, who found them to be inhabited by a race of people known to us as the Guanches.

The origin of the Guanches has been the subject of much debate, though the consensus is that they are related to North African Berbers.  Some descriptions of them from the Age of Discovery tell of tall men with blond hair and blue eyes.  It is believed that their presence in the island chain dates to roughly the 5th century BCE, though no one is sure under what circumstances they arrived there. By the time Europeans began to visit the Canaries regularly in the 14th century, they noted that the Guanches did not seem to have any knowledge of seamanship.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that a Carthaginian expedition lost to history attempted to colonize the islands and that over time communications with Carthage were cut off and their descendants forgot how to navigate the seas and even how to build ships for sailing between the seven islands.  They must have forgotten a lot of things, as the medieval Europeans found them living at what we would call today a Stone Age level of technology.

Beginning in 1402, the Kingdom of Castile, which by the time of Columbus would be unified by the marriage of its queen Isabella to King Ferdinand of Aragon to form the Kingdom of Spain, began the military conquest of the Canary Islands.  In Rivers Of Gold, Hugh Thomas writes of the Guanches that "They had no horses, and Castilian cavalry terrified them.  They had many languages and were ruled by numerous independent kinglets.  They fought well with stones and sticks, but their numbers were already falling because of contact with European diseases."

As late as Columbus's visit in August of 1492, the Guanches were still holding out in several of the islands, and their conquest was not fully completed until 1496.  From Rivers Of Gold, "The Canary Islands became a source of wealth for Castile.  Numerous Canary Islanders had been kidnapped since the 1450s and sold as slaves in Andalusia."  Sugar mills were established on the island, and of course missionaries sent to convert the natives to Christianity.  Over time, the Guanches ceased to exist as a distinct people, though today there are still people who are descended from Guanches ancestors who intermarried with Europeans.

When we look in horror today at the destruction the Spanish perpetrated in the Americas during the age of the Conquistadors, it is clear that what happened was not an aberration nor policies that were made up on the fly, but rather was a continuation of what they had already been doing in the Canary Islands over the course of the previous hundred years.  



The Forgotten Story of the Canary Islanders