Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de La Salle Colonize the Canary Islands for Spain

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Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de La Salle Colonize the Canary Islands for Spain


Located off the coast of western Africa, the Canary Islands are characterized by such stunning variations in geography and climate that visitors sometimes describe them as "a continent in miniature." Overall temperatures are pleasant, and annual rainfall is low, creating a dry climate unusual for a region where nothing is very far from the sea. Thus tourism is a thriving industry in the Canaries, which have belonged to Spain since their conquest in the early fifteenth century. The outside world has known about the Canaries since ancient times, but the islands remained in the possession of their Berber inhabitants for centuries before the 1402 arrival of Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de La Salle—an event that, as it turned out, marked the beginning of European colonialism.


Consisting of numerous islands that together comprise 2,807 square miles (7,270 square km) of land surface, the Canaries are located off the coast of southern Morocco. The easternmost of the islands is just 67 miles (108 km) from the African mainland. The islands' volcanic origins are evident even today: at Fire Mountain on the eastern isle of Lanzarote, the underground heat is so intense that in some places it is possible to grill meat simply by placing it over a hole in the ground.

La Palma in the west, where a volcanic crater formed as recently as 1971, has the greatest altitude-to-area ratio of any place on Earth: the island is a veritable skyscraper in the middle of the Atlantic. Indeed, the five islands that make up the western group of the Canaries—Tenerife, Gran Canaria, La Palma, Gomera, and Ferro or Hierro—are simply mountains rising from the ocean floor, and Teide Peak on Tenerife is, at 12,198 feet (3,718 m), the tallest mountain on Spanish soil. The eastern group consists of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and six tiny islets, all of which straddle the Canary Ridge plateau along the ocean floor.

The climate of the Canaries is highly variable across space but equable over time. The enormous height differences between the mountain peaks and the nearby beaches create extremes of warmth and coldness, and patterns of wind and tide influence variations in humidity. The northern or windward side of the islands benefits from the action of breezes against the high mountains, creating condensation and resultant moisture. Thus while much of the north is green and lush, the southern islands have deserts; in fact, on La Gomera trees tend to be damp on the windward side and dry on the leeward.

Despite these wide differences in climate on different parts of the islands, temperatures in the inhabited areas are surprisingly uniform. On a typical afternoon in August at the port of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, for instance, the temperature is 79° F (21° C), whereas in January it is only 9° F (5° C) cooler. Rainfall, most of which occurs in November and December, averages only about 10 inches or 250 millimeters annually, though on the windward side of the islands it may be as great as 30 inches (750 mm) a year.

Its pleasant climate, combined with the variations in climatological regions and their resulting variation in plant life—the Canaries have been called a "botanist's paradise"—certainly explain the islands' appeal to modern tourists. These factors may also, however, explain how it was that the original inhabitants, who apparently came from the African mainland, forgot the art of sailing: few people want to leave the Canaries once they have arrived.

The original Canarians came to be known as Guanches, though that term more properly applies to the people on the western part of the islands, while those on the east were called Canarios. According to research conducted by Earnest A. Hooton (1887-1954) and others, it appears that the Guanches had their origins among the Cro-Magnon of southern or possibly central Europe, from whence they migrated to northern Africa. Linguistically the Guanches were linked to the Berber peoples of western North Africa, which they left probably as a result of the once-lush Sahara region's drying between c. 2000 and c. 600 b.c. Their physical appearance, however, demonstrated their European origins: though their skin was brown, their eyes were blue or gray, and their hair blondish. Many of the present-day Canaries share these physical characteristics, though the Spanish colonists rendered the Guanches themselves extinct as an ethnic group.

At the time of the Europeans' arrival in 1402, the Guanches were still at a Neolithic, or New Stone Age, level of technological development. Herding and rudimentary fruit-growing provided their means of subsistence, and they clothed themselves in tunics of leather or plaited reeds. Their knowledge of sophisticated embalming techniques, however, suggests exposure to an advanced civilization, presumably that of the Egyptians; unlike the Egyptians, and certainly unlike most uncivilized peoples, they practiced a monotheistic religion. Furthermore, they utilized a form of writing, with alphabet-like characters that have yet to be translated.

European knowledge of the Canaries dates at least to the time of Juba II (c. 50 b.c.-c. a.d. 24), king of Mauritania in North Africa, whose expedition to the islands first alerted Romans to their existence. It appears that the Greeks, however, also knew of the Canaries, which they associated in various legends with the sunken continent of Atlantis; the Elysian Fields of eternal bliss; or the Gardens of Hesperides, where Heracles (or Hercules) was sent to retrieve a golden apple from a tree guarded by a dragon. Ancient geographers regarded the island of Hierro (Ferro) as the western edge of the world, and reckoned all longitude from it. Historian and biographer Plutarch (a.d. 46?-c. 120) dubbed the Canaries "the Fortunate Isles," a name by which the ancients knew them. As for the name "Canary," it comes from the writings of Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 a.d.), and has nothing to do with birds: rather, Pliny noted "the multitude of dogs"—canes in Latin—"of great size" who lived on the islands.

The medieval period largely wiped away European knowledge of the Canaries. An Arab expedition landed on Gran Canaria in 999, but only with the arrival of Genoese mariners in 1325 did Europeans become reacquainted with the islands. Even then, knowledge of them was not widespread, and thus the Canaries were still a land waiting—at least, in the view of the Europeans who seized it—to be conquered.


It is one of the great ironies of history that many of the most famous explorers did not come from the countries under whose flag they sailed. This was true both of Spain's most famous explorer, the Italian Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), and of its first, the Frenchmen Jean de Béthencourt (c. 1360-1422) and Gadifer de La Salle (fl. c. 1340-1415). Indeed, Béthencourt was not even, strictly speaking, French: a Norman, he was a descendant of the Vikings who gave their name to the Normandy region of France after they invaded it late in the ninth century. Béthencourt and Gadifer were adventurers—the latter had won acclaim as a soldier during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) against the English—and met on a crusade against the Muslim stronghold at Tunis in North Africa in 1390. The two struck up a friendship, and in time hatched a plan of making an expedition to the Canaries, an undertaking Béthencourt promised to finance.

They and their crew set sail from La Rochelle, France, on May 1, 1402, and arrived in the Canaries the following month. Not long afterward, Béthencourt, his own resources exhausted, returned to Europe for financing. He sought royal help, though not from his own king—France would not take an interest in exploration for some two centuries—but from Henry III (r. 1390-1406) in Spain.

The latter ruled Castile, most powerful of the Christian kingdoms that had long been engaged in a war to wrest the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims who had controlled it for nearly seven centuries. By 1402 the Christians were well on their way to complete victory, and as Spanish confidence grew, so did Spain's interest in the outside world. Henry had sent ambassadors as far away as the court of Tamerlane or Timur the Lame (1336-1405) in Persia, and thus when Béthencourt came to Henry with a proposal for the financing of an expedition to the Canaries, he found a ready audience.

Henry, in fact, declared Béthencourt "king of the Canary Islands," and the antipope Benedict XIII issued a papal bull bestowing his blessings on the Spanish conquest of the Canaries. The elevation of Béthencourt to a king, albeit a vassal, understandably angered Gadifer, who learned of the fact upon Béthencourt's return to the Canaries some 18 months after his departure. By then Gadifer had undertaken much of the difficult work of subduing the islands from his base on Gomera, overpowering the technologically primitive Guanches and putting Norman peasants to work as colonists. Gadifer demanded that Béthencourt go with him to seek arbitration from Henry III, who—again, not surprisingly—decided in Béthencourt's favor.

Gadifer went home to France, and presumably the two conquerors never saw one another again. Béthencourt himself did not remain long in the Canaries: after adopting the use of Norman colonists as pioneered by Gadifer, he placed his nephew, Maciot de Béthencourt, in charge of the islands, and in 1406 returned to France. There he died 16 years later.

By the time of Béthencourt's death, the Canaries had become the site of a colonial struggle—in fact, the first in a series of such conflicts among modern European nations, engagements that would culminate in World War I five centuries later. In this case the combatants were Spain and the second emerging European colonial power, Portugal. The latter invaded the islands in 1420, and in 1425 began half a century of dominance over the Canaries. Meanwhile Spain in 1469 united under the dual monarchy of Aragon's Ferdinand II (1452-1516) and Castile's Isabella I (1451—1504), who fought a four-year war with Portugal beginning in 1475. Included among the terms of a 1479 treaty was Portuguese recognition of Spanish sovereignty over the Canaries. Seventeen years later, in 1496, the Spanish destroyed the last Guanche stronghold.

When Columbus set out on his first voyage to the New World, he stopped at the Canaries, where his ships underwent repairs and took on provisions. Columbus would use the Canaries as a launchpad for his other three voyages, and the islands became an important staging point for other explorers. In 1584, for instance, English settlers passed by them on their way to the founding of the Roanoke Island colony in Virginia. In 1936 the islands became a staging-point of quite a different kind, when Generalissimo Francisco Franco used them as the initial base for his Nationalist revolt in the Spanish Civil War.


Further Reading


Abreu de Galindo, Juan de, and Captain George Glas. The History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Canary Islands: Translated from a Spanish Manuscript, Lately Found in the Island of Palma, With an Enquiry into the Origin of the Ancient Inhabitants, to Which Is Added a Description of the Canary Islands, Including the Modern History of the Inhabitants, and an Account of Their Manners, Customs, and Trade, translated by George Glas. Dublin: D. Chamberlaine, 1767.

Bontier, Pierre and Jean Le Verrier. The Canarian; or, Book of the Conquest and Conversion of the Canarians in the Year 1402, by Messire Jean de Béthencourt, Kt., Composed by Pierre Bontier and Jean Le Verrier. Translated and edited by Richard Henry Major. New York: B. Franklin, 1969.

Hooton, Earnest Albert. The Ancient Inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Harvard University, 1925.

Internet Sites

"The Canary Islands: The Fortunate Islands."

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Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de La Salle Colonize the Canary Islands for Spain

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