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The Canary Islands (Islas Canarias), Atlantic Ocean

July 11th, 2006 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places

The Canary Islands /kʰəˈnæɹɪ ˈʔaɪ̯ləndz/ (Spanish Islas Canarias /ˈiz.lɑs.kɑˈnɑrĭɑs/) are an archipelago of the Kingdom of Spain consisting of seven islands of volcanic origin in the Atlantic Ocean. They are located off the north-western coast of Africa (Morocco and the Western Sahara). They form an autonomous community of Spain. The name derives probably from a north African tribe (the Canarii) or possibly the Latin term Insularia Canaria meaning Island of the Dogs, a name applied originally only to the island of Gran Canaria. It is thought that the dense population of an endemic breed of large and fierce dogs was the characteristic that most struck the few ancient Romans who established contact with the islands by the sea.

Pre-colonial times

The Canary Islands have been known since antiquity. The peak of Teide on Tenerife can be seen on clear days from the African coast. It is possible that the islands were among those visited by the Carthaginian captain Hanno the Navigator in his voyage of exploration along the African coast. It has also been suggested that the islands were visited by the Phoenicians seeking the precious red dye extracted from the orchilla, if the Canaries are considered to be The Purple Isles, alternatively identified with the Hesperides. Although there is no evidence that Romans actually settled, in 1964 a Roman amphora was discovered in waters off Lanzarote. Discoveries made in the 1990s have demonstrated in more secure detail that the Romans traded with the indigenous inhabitants. Excavations of a prehistoric settlement of El Bebedero on Lanzarote, made by a team under Pablo Atoche Peña of the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Juan Ángel Paz Peralta of the Universidad de Zaragoza, yielded about a hundred Roman potsherds, nine pieces of metal, and one piece of glass at the site, in strata dated between the first and fourth centuries A.D. Analysis of the clay indicated origins in Campania, Hispania Baetica and the province of Africa (modern Tunisia).

Legendary islands in the Western Ocean that recur in European traditions are often linked with the Canaries, even the legendary voyage of Saint Brendan.

During the Middle Ages, the islands were visited by the Arabs for commercial purposes. From the 14th century onward numerous visits were made by sailors from Mallorca, Portugal, and Genoa. Lancelotto Malocello settled on the island of Lanzarote in 1312. The Mayorcans established a mission with a bishop in the islands that lasted from 1350 to 1400. It is from this mission that the various paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary that are currently venerated in the island were preserved.

At the time of their discovery by Europeans, the Canary Islands were inhabited by a variety of indigenous communities. The pre-colonial population of the Canaries is generically referred to as Guanches, although, strictly speaking, Guanches were originally the inhabitants of Tenerife. According to the chronicles, the inhabitants of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote were referred to as Maxos, Gran Canaria was inhabited by the Canarii, El Hierro by the Bimbaches, La Palma by the Auaritas and La Gomera by the Gomeros. Despite the fact that inter-insular relations among the indigenous communities cannot be conclusively denied, evidence does seem to suggest that the interaction was relatively low and each island was populated by its own distinct socio-cultural groups.

The origins of these Canarian indigenous people have been - and indeed still are - the subject of long debates. Numerous theories have been put forward throughout the last century, achieving varying degrees of acceptance. As we are dealing with a group of islands, the first settlers must evidently have arrived by sea, and archaeology suggests that, when they did so, they imported, not only domestic animals such as goats, sheep, pigs and dogs and cereals such as wheat, barley and lentils, but also a set of well defined socio-cultural practices that seem to have originated and been in use for a long period of time elsewhere. Although the maritime currents surrounding the Canaries flow in a south-westerly and westerly direction (thus leading boats away into the Atlantic Ocean), there is enough evidence to prove that various Mediterranean civilisations in antiquity did know of the islands' existence and established contact with them (mainly Romans, Greeks and Phoenicians). The indigenous population of the Canaries, therefore, did not develop in complete isolation. In fact, as of the 14th century, European disembarkations of Genovese, Castilian and Portuguese missionaries and pirates on Canarian shores became relatively common and the prehispanic populations were subjected to a long, continuous process of Westernisation before the colonisations.

Today, archaeological and ethnographic studies have led most scholars to accept the view that the pre-colonial population of the Canaries were descendants of North African Berber tribes who lived in the Atlas region and started arriving in the Canaries by sea c. 1000 BC. Two main problems remain to be solved in this field, though. First, there is no archaeological or historical evidence to prove that either the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains or the Canarian pre-colonial population had any knowledge or made any use whatsoever of navigation techniques. This is particularly problematic considering that only the peak of Tenerife is visible from the African coast on the very clearest of days and the currents around the islands tend to lead the boats southwest and west, past the archipelago and into the Atlantic Ocean.

The second problem concerns absolute dating. Despite the fact that most scholars would now agree that the earliest reliable dates can be traced back to c. 1000 BC, different absolute dating technologies such as 14C and thermoluminscence have provided the most variable results. Poor methodological practices in the past and an insufficient number of absolute datings carried out throughout the archipelago are mostly responsible for this sort of inconsistency and lack of information.

There still exists, however, a relatively large variety of theories regarding the origin of prehispanic Canarians. For instance, a group of scholars (mainly from the University of La Laguna, in Tenerife) are presently defending the theory that the origins of the Canarian populations are Punic-Phoenician. Álvarez Delgado, on the other hand, argues that the Canaries were uninhabited until 100 AD, when they were gradually discovered by Greek and Roman sailors. In the second half of the first century AD, Juba II abandoned North African prisoners on the islands, who eventually became the prehispanic Canarians. The fact that the first inhabitants were abandoned prisoners thus explains, according to Álvarez Delgado, their lack of navigation skills.

Although denied by certain scholars (cf. Abreu Galindo 1977: 297), specialisation of labour and a hierarchy system seem to have governed the social structures of the Canarian precolonial populations. In Tenerife the highest figure was known as the Mencey, although, by the time the first Spanish incursions in the Canaries took place, Tenerife had already been divided into nine menceyatos (i.e. separate regions of the island controlled by its own Mencey), namely Anaga, Tegueste, Tacoronte, Taoro, Icod, Daute, Adeje, Abona and Güimar. Despite the fact that all Menceys were independent and absolute owners of their territory within the island, it was the Mencey of Taoro who acted, according to the chronicles, as primus inter pares. Gran Canaria, on the other hand, appears to have been divided into two guanartematos (i.e. functionally, politically and structurally differentiated regions): Telde and Gáldar, each governed by a Guanarteme.

Influenced by cultural materialist and cultural ecologist approaches, numerous studies of precolonial Canarian social structures have emphasised the importance of the availability of natural resources on the islands, the different degrees of access to them and the varying forms of subsistence strategies in use by the different populations. Thus most scholars have tended to adopt a clear-cut distinction between the agriculturalist and the pastoralist societies and ways of life in the Canaries (cf. Diego Cuscoy 1963: 44; González Antón & Tejera Gaspar 1990: 78).

The religious and cosmological beliefs of the indigenous Canarians have proven to be a particularly problematic field of the islands' archaeological and historical studies. Remarkably little archaeological evidence is available because indigenous Canarian people often performed their religious practices in places marked by particular striking geographical features or types of vegetation, although certain sites containing architectonic remains have been identified as sanctuaries.

The Spanish conquest

In 1402, the conquest of the islands began, with the expedition of Juan de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle to the island of Lanzarote, Norman nobles who were vassals of Henry III of Castile. From there, they conquered Fuerteventura and Hierro. Béthencourt received the title King of the Canary Islands, but recognised King Henry III as his overlord.

Béthencourt also established a base on the island of Gomera, but it would be many years before the island was truly conquered. The people of Gomera, as well as the Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and La Palma people, resisted the Spanish invaders for almost a century. Between 1448 and 1459, there was a crisis between Castile and Portugal over control of the islands, when Maciot de Bethencourt sold the lordship of Lanzarote to Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator, an action that was not accepted by the natives or the Castilian residents of the island, who initiated a revolt and expelled the Portuguese.

The Spanish continued to dominate the islands, but due to the topography and the resistance of the native Guanches, the conquest was not completed until 1495, when the conquest of Tenerife and La Palma was completed by Alonso Fernández de Lugo, after which the Canaries were incorporated into the Castilian kingdom.

After the conquest, the Spanish imposed a new economic model based on single-crop cultivation— first, sugar cane, then wine, an important trade item with England. In this era, the first institutions of government were founded. Both Gran Canaria, since 6 March 1480 a colony of Castile (from 1556 of Spain), and Tenerife, a Spanish colony since 1495, had separate governors.

The towns of Santa Cruz and Las Palmas, became a stopping point for the Spanish conquerors, traders, and missionaries on their way to the New World. This trade route brought great prosperity to some of the social sectors of the islands. The islands became quite wealthy and soon were attracting merchants and adventurers from all over Europe. Magnificent palaces and churches were built on the island of La Palma during this busy, prosperous period. Of particular interest to visitors is the Church of El Salvador, one of the island's finest examples of the architecture of the 1500s.


Because of the crises of single-crop cultivation in the 18th century and onward, the independence of Spain's American colonies in the 19th century caused severe recessions on the islands. A new cash crop, cochineal (cochinilla), came into cultivation during this time, saving the island's economy.

During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, owing to economic crises in the archipelago, a series of emigrations took place, primarily for the Americas.

During the Spanish-American war of 1898, the islands were fortified, the Spanish fearing an American assault upon the islands, although this never happened.

Early 20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century, the English introduced a new cash-crop, the banana, the export of which was controlled by companies such as Fyffes.

The rivalry between the elites of the cities of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas for the capital of the islands would lead to the division of the archipelago into two provinces in 1927, though this has not laid to rest the rivalry between the two cities, which continues to this day.

During the time of the Second Spanish Republic, workers' movements with marxist and anarchist ideologies began to develop, led by figures such as Jose Miguel Perez and Guillermo Ascanio. However, outside of a few municipalities, these organisations were a minority.

The Franco regime

In 1936, Francisco Franco travelled to the Canaries as General Commandant. From the Canaries, he launched the military uprising of July 17. He quickly took control of the archipelago, with the exception of a few focal points of resistance on the island of La Palma and in the town of Vallehermoso, on Gomera island. Despite the fact that there was never a proper war in the islands, they were one of the places where the post-war repression was most severe.

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill prepared plans for the British seizure of the Canary Islands as a naval base, in the event of Gibraltar being invaded from the Spanish mainland.

Opposition to Franco's regime did not begin to organise until the late 1950s, which saw the formation of groups such as the Communist Party of Spain and various nationalist, leftist, and independence-terrorist movements, such as the Free Canaries Movement and the MPAIAC.


After Franco's death and the installation of a democratic constitutional monarchy, a bill of autonomy was put forth for the Canaries which was approved in 1982. In 1983, the first autonomous elections were held, and were won by the Spanish socialist party, PSOE. The current ruling party is the Canarian Coalition.

The Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands consists of two provinces, Las Palmas and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, whose capitals (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife) are co-capitals of the autonomous community. Each of the seven major islands is ruled by an assembly named cabildo insular.

The international boundary of the Canaries is the subject of dispute between Spain and Morocco. Morocco does not agree that the laws regarding territorial limits allow Spain to claim for itself sea-bed boundaries based on the territory of the Canaries, because the Canary Islands are autonomous. The boundary is relevant for possible seabed oil deposits and other ocean resource exploitation. Morocco therefore does not formally agree to the territorial boundary; it rejected a 2002 unilateral Spanish proposal. [1] Morocco has also made some vague historical claims to the Canary Islands themselves, but these claims have not been formally pursued.


The economy is based primarily on tourism, which makes up 32% of the GDP. The Canaries receive about 10 million tourists per year. Construction makes up nearly 20% of the GDP and tropical agriculture, primarily bananas and tobacco, are grown for export to Europe and the Americas. Ecologists are concerned that the resources, especially in the more arid islands, are being overexploited but there are still many agricultural resources like tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cochineal, sugarcane, grapes, vines, dates, oranges, lemons, figs, wheat, barley, corn, apricots, peaches and almonds.

The economy is € 25 billion (2001 Gross Domestic Product figures). This is two times the size of Costa Rica's economy and one-third that of Venezuela. The islands experienced continuous growth during a 20 year period, up until 2001, at a rate of approximately 5% annually. This growth was fueled mainly by huge amounts of Foreign Direct Investment, mostly to develop tourism real estate (hotels and apartments), and European Funds (near 11 billion euro in the period from 2000 to 2007), since the Canary Islands are labelled Region Objective 1 (eligible for euro structural funds).

The combination of high mountains, proximity to Europe, and clean air has made the Roque de los Muchachos peak (on La Palma island) a leading location for telescopes like the Grantecan.

The islands are outside European Union customs territory, though politically within the EU. The ISO 3166-1 α-2 code IC is reserved for representing them in customs affairs. Goods subject to Spanish customs and excise duties and Value Added Tax (VAT), such as tobacco or electronic goods, are therefore significantly cheaper in the Canaries. The islands do not have a separate Internet country code from the rest of Spain. The currency is the euro.

Canarian time is WET, one hour less than that of mainland Spain and the same as that of London.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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