Jean de Béthencourt

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Jean de Béthencourt

c. 1360-c. 1422

French Explorer

Known as "the Conqueror of the Canaries," Jean de Béthencourt claimed the Canary Islands for Spain. His 1402 expedition, which he undertook with Gadifer de La Salle, was the opening chapter in a series of voyages southward and westward that would ultimately take the mariners of Spain and Portugal to sub-Saharan Africa, India, and the New World.

At that time people believed that the Canaries represented the edge of the known world—and indeed the islands, situated in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern coast of Africa some 823 miles (1,324 km) from the southwestern coast of Spain—were just that. The ancient Greeks and Romans had known them variously as the Garden of Hesperides, the Elysian Fields, and the Fortunate Isles, and during the Middle Ages sailors from the Arab world, as well as France and the Iberian peninsula, had visited the islands. There they had found a Stone Age people known as the guanches, who practiced very basic agriculture and herding but used sophisticated Egyptian-style embalming techniques.

Béthencourt himself was neither Spanish nor—though he hailed from France—purely French: he was a descendant of the same Norman stock that had produced William the Conqueror. On a crusade in Tunis in 1390, he met French soldier Gadifer de La Salle (fl. c. 1340-1415). Together the two men developed the idea of an expedition to the Canaries, and Béthencourt pledged his finances to pay for the voyage.

The two men and their crew set sail from La Rochelle, France, on May 1, 1402. They arrived in the Canaries in June, and though they had little trouble subduing the natives, they soon found themselves in need of supplies. Therefore both agreed that Béthencourt should go to Spain and seek help. France, to its detriment, took little interest in exploration during those early years.

Béthencourt returned 18 months later, having received the financial support he needed from King Henry III of Castile. During the preceding centuries, Castile had been emerging as one of the dominant powers among the various Christian principalities of the Iberian peninsula, and would eventually join forces with Aragon to unite all of Spain. No doubt Henry saw the Canary expedition as a means of flexing Castilian muscle, and he even obtained a bull from the antipope Benedict XIII recognizing the Canaries as the property of Castile.

Henry also bestowed on Béthencourt the title "King of the Canary Islands," which did not sit well with Gadifer. The latter had spent the preceding year and a half exploring, and consolidating European control over, the islands. Now he was so incensed he demanded that Béthencourt go with him back to the king, who would arbitrate the matter. Henry decided in Béthencourt's favor, and Gadifer went home to France.

The recognition Béthencourt has received as "Conqueror of the Canaries" is thus not entirely deserved. He later used Norman peasants from France to colonize the islands, but even this idea had been Gadifer's. In 1406 he placed his nephew, Maciot de Béthencourt, in charge of the islands, and returned to France.


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Jean de Béthencourt

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