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ETHNONYMS: Canary Islanders, Guanches


Identification. The Canary Islands were known in the past as the Fortunatae Insulae and Hesperis. There is some Disagreement on the origin of the name "Canaries," but generally it is thought to come from the Latin word canis, because of the large number of dogs that lived in the islands. Since their conquest by Spain in the fifteenth century, the islands have belonged to Spain, and since 1982 they have been an autonomous community in the Spanish state.

Location. The archipelago is located between 27° and 29° N and 13° and 18° W, and it belongs to the Macaronesian Region, which also includes Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Azores. The islands are of volcanic origin, though at one time some believed that they formed part of the submerged continent of Atlantis. There are seven main islands (Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro, La Palma, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote) and several smaller islands with a total area of 7,541 square kilometers, spread over an ocean surface of 100,000 square kilometers off the coast of northwest Africa. The climate is characterized by alternating subtropical anticyclones, which produce a stable weather pattern with few storms. The prevailing climate is determined by the trade winds, which produce mild temperatures, although on occasion the islands experience the effects of Saharan and polar winds. The annual average temperature is 20° C on the coast. Despite the steady climate, the islands have a complex Ecology, with various microclimates found even on the same island.

Demography. The Canarian population numbered more than 1,600,000 in 1990. The core population consists of People descended from indigenous inhabitants and the Spanish conquerors. To this basic nucleus later European immigrants were added, mainly from Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, England, and France. The demographic evolution of the Islands is linked strongly to their economic history and emigration to America. Canarian emigrants settled in several South American countries and the United States, but mainly in Cuba and, more recently, in Venezuela, where people of Canarian origin number more than 500,000. In these Countries Canarians are called isleños (islanders).

linguistic Affiliation. Canarians speak Spanish, but the pronunciation is considerably different than Castilian Spanish. The lexicon includes words taken from the indigenous languagesespecially place names and names of Individualsas well as Portuguese and English.

History and Cultural Relations

The islands were colonized by Berber groups from northwest Africa. The indigenous inhabitants were called guanches, although this label correctly applies only to Tenerife. After being conquered by the Spanish in the fifteenth century, the natives were assimilated quickly. The Canarians today are a homogeneous and well-defined ethnic group who stress their differences from the Spanish, whom they call peninsulares or, more pejoratively, godos. The islands were of major strategic importance during European expansion and their harbors were of value in the trading routes between Europe and America. Since 1852 the islands have had free ports that serve to increase the volume of commercial traffic. Although historic movements for independence have existed, the desire for political sovereignty generally takes the form of a desire for political autonomy. After the democratization of Spain in 1977, the Canary Islands received autonomous status in 1982. In recent times, conflicts over political and economic power in the archipelago have been continuous between Gran Canaria and Tenerife, the most important islands. All national political parties are represented throughout the Islands, although the local parties have strong support and demonstrate the strong insular identities that characterize Canarian society.


Indigenous settlements were usually located in ravines, which provided caves for habitation. After the Spanish conquest, settlers went to the windward sides where water was more abundant and the soil more fertile. Pirate incursions from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries required that the main villages be located inland. During the eighteenth Century, an economic crisis and the necessity of increasing agricultural lands led to the clearing of large areas of forest and to the dispersal of settlements. More agricultural land was needed to feed the local population and to provide products for export. In the cities, and especially in the ports, a powerful commercial class composed of the families of old settlers and European immigrants began to emerge. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the growing of bananas, tomatoes, and potatoes for export to Europe increased. More recently, since the 1960s, the Canarian economy has been orientated toward tourism, causing wholesale urbanization on much of the coastal land formerly used for agriculture. At the same time, the local population moved inland. Also, during the last twenty years a strong internal migratory movement has led to the depopulation of the peripheral islands and an overpopulation of Gran Canaria and Tenerife, mainly in the capitals where trade and industry are important.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The indigenous inhabitants had a subsistence economy based on agriculture and pastoralism. With the arrival of European settlers most of the population began to work in agriculture for export. At the same time, subsistence agriculture remained important as a source of food such as cereal grains, maize, and potatoes. In the cities and villages, people made agricultural implements, textiles, etc. for sale. Today, much land formerly given to Subsistence agriculture is being abandoned as farmers seek work in the tourism and construction sectors. Nevertheless, several traditional crops persist through part-time agriculture in which reciprocal work is very important.

Industrial Arts. Many traditional industries have disappeared in the last few decades. Those still surviving include textile production by women, mainly silk, embroidery, and calados (openwork). Pottery, basketry, and other types of handicrafts formerly linked to agriculture and household needs survive as part of the tourist trade.

Trade. The economic history of the islands has been linked to international trade owing to the position of the Islands in the commercial routes between Europe and America. The most productive crops were always for export, with the actual crops grown changing in response to demands from the European countries. The first important crop was sugarcane but it failed as an export crop because of competition from sugarcane exported from the Antilles. Sugarcane was replaced by wine, which was exported to Europe and America until the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, cochineal insect cultivation for the production of dyes was wide-spread, but when anilines (synthetic organic dyes) were discovered cochineal production was discontinued. During the first decades of the twentieth century, bananas, tomatoes, and potatoes were the major crops for export. More recently, flowers and green vegetables exported to Europe have become important.

Limited local industrial development has always necessitated a dependence on imported manufactures. Since 1852 the Canary Islands have had a free-port system that has favored the open character of the islands' economy, but this system has also led to economic dependence and the growing influence of British trade. Until 1936 the British owned many local businesses, banks, insurance companies, etc. At the same time, they began banana export and created the first tourist facilities. After World War I, the Canary Islands lost their place in the international banana market and slowly became part of the Spanish economy. Actually, a special Economic arrangement recognizes some commercial peculiarities of the islands in spite of their integration in the European Community.

Division of Labor. Socioeconomic changes during the last thirty years have brought women into the labor market. Traditionally, women were confined to agriculture and to the household. Cooking and child rearing continue to be primarily female activities, but in urban areas men play a larger role in domestic tasks. Until the 1960s, most Canarians worked in agriculture, but today more than 80 percent of the working population is linked, in some way, to tourism. Native peoples also hold some positions in the island and state governments, though Spaniards hold most of these positions. Similarly, most of the executive positions in the major tourist companies are held by Spaniards and other Europeans.

Land Tenure. Immediately following the Spanish Conquest, the lands were redistributed through a system (repartimientos ) that gave large tracts to those involved in the military expeditions. Therefore, until the nineteenth century, only a few families owned agricultural land. Following the medieval system of "shared property," the peasants worked the land, paying their rent with a part of the crops, mainly cereals. Beginning in 1812 many peasants gained control of land, leading to the development of many small- and medium-sized farms. During the 1980s there were more than 70,000 farms, each with more than 6 square kilometers of land. The more profitable ones are mainly on the coast and grow crops for export. Farms devoted to local trade are located in the midlands and highlands.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Kinship is traced bilaterally. Kin relations also extend to the descendants of relatives and to godsons. Kin terms follow the Eskimo system, with much use of terms for fictive kin.

Marriage. Historically, local and insular intermarriage was common, especially in the interior. The heavy maritime traffic on the coast reduced the incidence of endogamous Marriage in the harbor cities. Marriages were formed between families of similar social status. Marriages between people of different social status or with an important difference in age were prevented by public defamation of the couple. The incest taboo extended to first cousins. Postmarital residence is neolocal and uxorilocal. The role of the mother-in-law is considerable. One popular saying also states that "if you marry a daughter you gain a son, but if you marry a son you lose both." Wedding ceremonies mainly follow the Catholic rite, but civil marriages have increased in number in recent years. Wedding celebrations take place in public establishments, and this practice has popularized the use of "wedding lists" in businesses with gifts given at marriage.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the most common form, although in rural areas three-generation stem families are still found.

Inheritance. Inheritance is legally regulated. In rural areas the house and lands are divided in equal parts among heirs. Domestic items are inherited by the unmarried daughter who lived with the parents until their deaths. Among shepherds, livestock is inherited by the youngest son.

Socialization. Formal education is required for all children between 5 and 16 years of age. In the cities children also attend kindergarten at age 4.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In the past, networks of bilateral kin in the village associations linked individuals of different Social classes through religious and/or work ties (hermandades and cofradías ). Neighboring associations often organize Several social activities. Also important are the Carnival associations, in which men and women of all ages take part. Political Organization. The Canary Islands are divided into two provinces in the Spanish political system, with the entire archipelago forming an autonomous community. Political activity centers on the political parties. The provinces take part in the Spanish parliament and senate. The Canarian parliament is elected by insular electoral districts, and this parliament elects the Canarian government. The government of each island is the cabildo, a traditional institution that also has a role in relations with the state government. Actually, cabildos have lost some of their importance as government institutions, but they are still important in the coordination of insular investments. Traditionally, political clients were significant, and through this system wealthy men had a large network of social and political contacts.

Social Control. Deferential behavior in relation to elders is especially important. A son must ask for his father's blessing as a sign of respect and submission. Inappropriate behaviors, mainly those associated with drunkenness, may lead to ostracism and a loss of public respect.

Conflict. Disputes about boundaries or properties were the most common conflicts in the rural areas. Different types of conflicts between bordering villages were also frequent, although they were generally expressed in the fiestas and sport competitions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Canarians are mostly Catholics. Devotion to the Virgins is considerable. Each Island has a virgin as patron saint and islands make periodic pilgrimages to their sanctuaries. These pilgrimages are also important demonstrations of each island's identity; each Village also celebrates its patron saint's day. The church continues to play a major role in organizing this festival, although the event becomes more secular in nature each year. Baptism, marriage, and death are celebrated following the Catholic rite. In recent years, small groups have begun following other Christian rites. Although the state claims to be nondenominational, religious education is common in both public and private schools.

Religious Practitioners. In the past the Catholic church occupied an important place not only in the religious sphere but also in the social and economic aspects of Canarian Society. The loss of church lands and the secularization of public life have now weakened its influence in these areas. Priests receive a subvention from the state, but they also receive gifts and donations from the people.

Arts. Traditional arts focused mainly on the manufacture of domestic implements. Religious painting and sculpture were common until the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, painting inspired by the indigenous culture and traditional rural life has been a noteworthy development.

Medicine. The National Health Institute and private medicine provide services to the entire population. In the country and peripheral areas of the cities people often go to folk healers who rely on a variety of local plants. Although physicians enjoy a high social status, the healer (curandero ) enjoys some recognition for curing certain diseases. For example, for afflictions called mal de ojo (evil eye)thought to affect mainly children and domestic animalsinsolación (sunstroke), and herpes, people go to the healer, believing the source of the affliction can be removed from the body.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs about life after death follow Catholic tradition. Death is publicly commemorated, and family and community take part in funerals. Traditionally, when a person died, the relativesespecially the womenmourned for one year after the death. Regularly, one month later and one year later people celebrated the death in order to perpetuate the memory of the deceased and to ensure rest for his or her spirit. All Souls' Day is commemorated by almost the entire population, all of whom go to the cemeteries to bring flowers and to clean the tombs.


Afonso, Leoncio (1984). Geografia de Canarias. Tenerife: Interinsular Canaria.

Fernández Annesto, Felipe (1982). The Canary Islands after the Conquest: The Making of a Colonial Society in the Early sixteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Galván Tudela, Alberto (1987). Islas Canarias: Una aproximación antropológico-social. Barcelona: Anthropos.

Mercer, John (1980). The Canary Islanders: Their Prehistory, Conquest, and Survival. London: Rex Collings.