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Canary Islands History: From Myths to Modernity

Visiting the Canary Islands and not knowing their history. It’s like seeing your landscapes on postcards. Let’s talk about the history of the Canarian people.

The Canary Islands History record is mystical, mythological, complex and simple at the same time, once all theories are thoroughly examined. Part of the problem in understanding the early history of the Canary Islands is the fact that, until discovery of the new world, there was little reason for either Mediterranean or North African civilizations to explore as far west as the islands known now as the Canaries.

Complicating ancient history of the islands are the legends surrounding the mythical continent of Atlantis, rumored to have been positioned out side the Pillars of Hercules, now known as the straights of Gibraltar.

Guanche Sculpture.

The writings of Plato convinced later historians that a group of islands, now known as Macronesia, was all that remained of Atlantis. The islands making up Macronesia are the Canaries, Cape Verde, Madeira and the Azores. Ancient Greek legends had the islands as the location of trials and tribulations of the fabled Hercules and perhaps as the location of rest or retirement for the Gods of Greece.

Hercule’s Legend

Legend has it that Hercules had to go past the Pillars of Hercules to reach the home of the Hesperides, evening’s daughters, to bring back apples made of gold. After returning successfully, legend recants that this feat, known as one of the twelve labors of Hercules, could have only taken place on the islands now known as the Canary Islands.

Various other theories about the Canary Islands History had groups from as far north as the Nordic countries to tribes in Northern Africa being responsible for the first settlements.

The truth is that the history of the Canary Islands, up until their conquest in the 15th century, is only now being revealed by new exploration of the few archeological sites known to exist. Some descendents of the ‘original’ settlers had light hair and blue eyes, thus the idea that Nordic explorers had been first to discover the Canaries.

Norman conquest.

The recent excavation studies have revealed many ties to inland Berber tribes of Northern Africa, which also have genetic ties, albeit infrequent, to light colored hair and blue eyes. One of the Berber tribes with this genetic predisposition was known as the Canarii, a possible connection to the modern name of the islands. Once the islands were conquered, the history is written, documented and easier to discern and understand.

Italian and Portuguese Expeditions

In the 14th century, Italian and Portuguese expeditions landed on the islands with missionary’s intent on the spread of Christianity. They had heard of the islands in tales from men who had been searching for a mythical river of gold, rumored to flow out of Africa and into what is now known as the Atlantic Ocean, at about the same latitude as the Canary Islands.

These expeditions each contained groups with different reasons for making the trip. The missionaries had their religious reasons while the sailors and their crews wanted to make the islands a base for exploration of the western coast of Africa.

Support of these expeditions eventually lost financial backing from Italy and Portugal. It did not take long to see attempts to conquer the islands become supported by the Spanish crown.

La Laguna, Tenerife.

It took the Southern European conquerors almost one hundred years to complete the conquest of the Canary Islands, enslaving most of the inhabitants they battled during that time. Once word of the discovery of the new world spread, a constant stream of European settlers arrived to settle on the Canaries hoping to make money in the supply of ships headed to the New World.

For a time, less attention was paid to the West coast of Africa, as all eyes were looking westward to the new areas in the West. The natural trade winds made the Canaries a natural rest and resupply point for all ships heading west from Europe towards the Americas.

In time, the need for labor in the islands of the Caribbean would cause eyes to turn, for a time, east to the coast of Africa for a source of slave labor. This was labor to work the sugar fields and eventually end up working the cotton and tobacco fields of colonial America.

Canary Islands towards modernity

As occurred later in the American colonies, various groups of settlers took hold on different islands. Eventually, inter island competition took place, occasionally becoming brutal and bloody. These rivalries continued back and forth over the next four hundred years until in the 20th century the Canaries were separated into two separate entities. The first attempt to split the islands into two groups failed in the mid 1800s.

In the early 1930s, General Franco of Spain decided open the Canaries to European travelers and the Canary Islands gained much from the hordes of European vacation and holiday travelers to the tropical islands. During this time of change, nationalism on the islands began a rebirth.

From the 1950′s until the end of the 1970s, it was quite open and vocal. Eventually Spain granted the islands the status of being an autonomous region. Even gaining this measure of self-government the Canaries stayed divided into two regions that distrusted one another.

Since the start of the 1980s, the Canaries have still strived to be completely separate from Spain but a large amount of immigration from Africa, that eventually included large amounts of capital investment, had kept the islands busy with a different focus.

While the old governmental separations still exist, a different battle between those who want to preserve the natural beauty of the islands and those caught in the gains possible from intense investment and development.


Now, old political opponents that realize the importance of preserving natural resources are allied to make sure the need to provide facilities for a growing number of tourist activity does not result in destruction of the beauty and resources of the islands.

There are serious concerns about supplies of fresh water and pollution in the oceans that surround the islands. The need to provide hotels and accommodations for visitors that love the plants and animals of the islands is accepted.

The challenge is to meet those needs but not beyond a point, that destroys the things that make the Canary Islands a paradise for visitors that love nature. This struggle will define the Canary Islands History in the future.

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