Africa and the Canary Islands

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The geographic frontier between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa is well defined by the Strait of Gibraltar. However, the cultural and religious frontier between those geographical areas has not always been so clear. For five centuries (the eighth to the twelfth centuries) Muslim invaders from North Africa ruled more than half the territory that now defines Spain and Portugal. Thereafter the Christian kingdoms in Portugal and Spain took advantage of factional strife in Al-Andalusas the Muslims called their Iberian landsto make rapid territorial gains. Once the great cities of Cordoba (Cordova) and Seville fell to Christian troops in 1236 and 1248, respectively, Castilian armies pushed southward against the remnant of Muslim territories.

The final assault against the Nasrid kingdom of Granada in 1492 completed the Spanish Reconquista. Thereafter the "Catholic monarchs" Ferdinand of Aragón (ruled Castile 14741504; ruled Aragón 14791516) and Isabella of Castile (ruled Castile 14741504; ruled Aragón 14791504) established several strongholds on North African shores, forming a new frontier against the kingdom of Morocco and the Ottoman regencies set up in Algiers and Tunis. In geopolitical terms the most dynamic forces were driving from north to south instead of from south to north, as they had in medieval times. Nonetheless, despite the differences in religion and economic outlook that divided the peoples on opposite sides of the frontier, they should be considered as parts of the same complex Mediterranean civilization, as Ferdinand Braudel so eloquently argued. Scholars have traced the divergent history of the eastern Mediterranean (the Maghreb) and the western (the Iberian Peninsula), so a few centuries later Latin Catholics and Sunni Muslims living at opposite ends of the Mediterranean seemed to have little in common.

Regardless of scholarly controversies about the matter, it seems obvious to most observers that the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragón in 1479 and the overseas discoveries from 1492 on impelled Spanish naval and commercial interests to establish several strongholds along the northern coast of modern Maghreb: Melilla in 1497; Oran, Bejaïa (Bougie), and Tripoli in the first decade of the sixteenth century; and finally Ceuta, which had been in Portuguese hands since 1415, in 1580. Thereafter for the rest of the early modern period these and other forts along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of North Africa formed a Christian frontier against Islam.

Exerting an attraction for kings, sailors, and adventurers from both Spain and Portugal, these strongholds also might have served as springboards for further conquests into Africa but for several historical developments. First, the development of Spain's American colonies and Portugal's Asian colonies exhausted most of the energy and resources they had available for overseas development. Second, the strong resistance of local peoples and their Muslim leaders thwarted Christian attempts to capture substantial territory in the Maghreb. The disastrous defeat of Portuguese forces at the battle of Al-Qasr (Al-Kasr Al-Kabir) in 1578 proved to be a powerful deterrent to Iberian ambitions across the Strait of Gibraltar for the rest of the early modern period. Those ambitions were only renewed in the halcyon days of empire building in the late nineteenth century.

The military conquest and administrative inclusion of the Canary Islands within the crown of Castile took place over the course of the fifteenth centuryin other words, as Iberian mariners and adventurers explored into the western Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean with royal backing. Although such adventures became possible during the last two centuries of the Christian Reconquest of the peninsula from the Muslims, it was by no means easy due to the remoteness of the Canary Islands from mainland Europe and the strong resistance of the native Canarians (Guanches). Eventually, as Iberian colonies were settled on each of the seven islands, a new society began to evolve but largely in a random and unplanned manner. Although precise statistics do not exist, many scholars think that most of the native population succumbed to European diseases and warfare and that those remaining inter-married with their conquerors. For all practical purposes they ceased to exist as a distinct group. By the end of the sixteenth century the whole Canarian archipelago probably held about fifty thousand people.

From the late fifteenth century to 1821 the Canaries underwent a process of increasing assimilation into Spanish political and cultural norms, despite periodic attacks from North Africa and from Dutch and English privateers and pirates in the seventeenth century. By the early twenty-first century the Canary Islands still formed part of the Spanish state, included in the 1978 constitution. Ceuta and Melilla were the last remnants of Spain's colonial presence in North Africa. They were also part of the Spanish state, their position defined by the 1978 constitution and by negotiations in the 1980s.

See also Colonialism ; Exploration ; Ferdinand of Aragón ; Isabella of Castile ; Spain .


Béthencourt Massieu, Antonio de, et al., eds. Historia de Canarias. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1995.

Braudel, Ferdinand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. 2 vols. Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds. New York, 1972. First French edition, Paris, 1949.

Clancy-Smith, Julia, ed. "North Africa, Islam, and the Mediterranean World." Special issue. Journal of North African Studies 6, no. 1 (Spring 2001).

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. The Canary Islands after the Conquest: The Making of a Colonial Society in the Early Sixteenth Century. Oxford and New York, 1982.

Hess, Andrew C. The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth Century Ibero-African Frontier. Chicago, 1978.

Morales Lezcano, Víctor. Las fronteras de la Península Ibérica en los siglos XVIII y XIX: Esbozo histórico de algunos conflictos Franco-Hispano-Magrebíes. Madrid, 2000.

VÍctor Morales Lezcano