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The History of La Palma

The Canary islands were known in antiquity as the Western edge of the known world. Homer referred to the Islands of the Blest, lying westward of Maurusia (modern-day Morocco) (see extract from Strabo). The Canaries have also been associated with Plato's description of the island of Atlantis (see extract), though most modern historians discount this suggestion.

It is likely that the first people to discover the Canaries were early Phoenician explorers, originating from Sidon and Tyre in modern-day Lebanon. Herodotus claims that a Phoenician expedition circumnavigated Africa in the 6th century BC (see extract). Carthage, a north-African Phoenician colony, sent a colonising expedition of 30,000 people to the west of Africa in about 425 BC (see extract from Hanno). Phoenician coins are claimed to have been found as far afield as the Azores. Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Africa to South America via the Canary Islands in the Ra, a boat made of papyrus, in order to prove that the journey was possible for ancient mariners.

Around 120 AD, Marinus of Tyre wrote that the habitable world was bounded on the west by the Fortunate Islands. The status of the Fortunate Islands as the western edge of the known world was more formally established when Claudius Ptolemy (AD 90 - 168), following Marinus, adopted the Fortunate Islands as the prime meridian for his Geographia. This was the most famous classical map of the world, unsurpassed for almost 1500 years. The Canaries continued to be widely used as the prime meridian for maps of the world until well into the 19th century - for example, Louis XIII decreed that EL Hierro be used as prime meridian on all French maps in 1634, and this continued until about 1800. Dutch maps of the period used the peak of El Teide on Tenerife as their prime meridian. (see for example this 18th century English engraving).

The Romans are known to have explored the Canary Islands. The most complete classical account of the Canaries is by Pliny the Elder (see extract), taken from a description of an expedition sent by Juba II, governor of the Roman protectorate of Mauretania (modern-day Morocco) from about 29 BC to 20 AD. The islands were found to be uninhabited at the time of this expedition, though Junonia (the Roman name for La Palma) did have a 'small temple built of a single stone', presumably evidence of earlier inhabitants or explorers.

During the middle ages the Canaries become more myth than reality. They figure for example in the search by St Brendan (c. AD 484 - 578) for paradise, which he assumed to be an island in the Atlantic Ocean (map).

Around the end of the 13th century, the Canaries were rediscovered by a Genoese fleet under Lancelot Malocello. A detailed survey was made by Nicoloso de Recco of Genoa in 1341. A papal bull of 1433 awarded rights over the Canaries to Henry the Navigator of Portugal, but this decision was reversed in 1436, when another papal bull awarded these rights to the crown of Castile. In the Alcovas treaty of 1479, Portugal recognised the rights of the Castilians to the Canaries, in return for Castilian recognition of Portugese sovereignty over Fez and Guinea.

At the time of the rediscovery of the Canaries they were inhabited by an indigenous people called the 'Guanches'. We know from cultural similarities that the Guanches were Berbers from the mountains of Northwest Africa. How they reached the Canaries has been the subject of much speculation, particularly since at the time of the rediscovery they apparently had no knowledge of seafaring techniques - surprising for a people living on a small island with other nearby islands clearly visible.

There is evidence for two distinct Guanche racial types , usually referred to as 'Cro-Magnoid' and 'Mediterranean'. Pottery remnants suggest there were up to four distinct waves of colonisation, whilst carbon dating techniques suggest that the first colonists arrived during the first millenium BC.

The Guanches named their island Benahoare, and divided it into 12 kingdoms, each with its own ruler (see map, list). Estimates of the Guanche population at the time of the conquest range from 1,200 to over 4,000.

The Guanches lived in caves, such as those at Belmacho near Mazo , and at Zarza in Garafía . They mummified their dead. The Gaunche religion appears to have centred around stone pyramids, and the Roque Idafe in the Caldera de Taburiente. The legacy of the Guanches includes carvings of geometrical forms and hand-made decorated pottery. Reproductions of these pots are still made, in the artesania El Molino in Mazo

The conquest of the Canaries took from 1402, when Juan de Bethencourt landed on Lanzarote, to 1496, when Tenerife fell to Alonso Fernandez de Lugo. The conquest of La Palma started on the 29th of September of 1492, with the landing on the beaches of Tazacorte by Fernandez de Lugo, and finished on the 3rd of May of the following year. The last king of Benahoare to submit himself to the invaders was the legendary Tanausu, who ruled the Kingdom of Acero (Caldera de Taburiente). After two failed attempts by the Castilian conquistadors to penetrate La Caldera to defeat him, Fernandez de Lugo sent a man called Juan de Palma, a relative of Tanausu already converted to christianity, to establish a truce. Tanausu agreed, but Fernandez de Lugo broke the agreement, and Tanausu was captured in an ambush. Tanausu was taken away into slavery, but refused to eat after leaving the island, and died without seeing land again.

After the conquest, Alonso Fernandez de Lugo was appointed the first governor of Tenerife and La Palma. Since he had been personally responsible for financing the conquest, he was endowed by the crown with powers rather more extensive than the governors of the other islands. These powers included the disposition of slaves, the right to control entry and exit from the islands, to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction, and to appoint and dismiss judicial deputies.

The richness of the island resulted in immigration not just from Castille, but also of Portugese, Italians, Catalans, Basques and other northern Europeans. Indeed, Fernandez de Lugo was accused at successive judicial enquiries of favouring Genoese and Portugese above native Castilian. The period of immigration was intense but relatively short-lived - after the 1520s immigration almost ceased, until the eighteenth century.

For an impression of La Palma in the period following the conquest, see this map produced by Leonardi Torriani, an Italian engineer who toured the Canaries fron 1587 to 1593 on an inspection of the islands fortifications.

Despite the large number of immigrants, the Guanches did not disappear, being assimilated rather than exterminated. Gaspar Frutuoso writing at the end of the 16th century described the population of La Palma as being evenly divided between Castilian, Portugese and indigenous peoples. He reported these elements of the population as already being largely interbred, indistinguishable in faith and custom, and coexisting as equals.

The principal produce in pre-conquest days were dye-stuffs and shells. Of particular importance was orchil, a moss-like dye-stuff. Wheat was introduced during the 15th century, but towards the end of the century sugar became the dominant export. Apiculture thrived alongside the sugar industry, producing both honey and beeswax.

From the beginning of the 16th century the sugar industry was the basis of a commercial boom. Shipbuilding enterprises were established and Santa Cruz de La Palma's port developed sea connections with Europe and America. The primary interest of foreign merchants was the export of sugar in return for the import of cloth. Hakluyt described the trade by Nicholas Thorne of Bristol in 1526, who exchanged sugar, orchil and goatskins for cloth 'both coarse and fine, broad and narrow, of divers sorts and colours'.

La Palma figured prominently in this boom. One of the largest holdings in the Canaries was the estate held from 1513 by the Welzers, a German banking family, which included all the waters of the Tazacorte valley. Sugar was being produced for export from La Palma in 1515 by the English merchant Thomas Malliard, in partnership with the Genoese Francesco Spinola, at a refinery at Rio de Los Sauces.

The Canaries became strategically important as a stopping point on the route to the newly-discovered Americas. Christopher Columbus stopped at the Canaries (but not La Palma) to restock before crossing the Atlantic for the first time, and later mariners followed the same pattern. The transatlantic sailings were known as the 'carrera de Indias'. From early spring ships would leave Sevilla and follow the clockwise pattern of the prevailing Atlantic trade winds down to the Canaries, and thence across through the islands of the Lesser Antilles into the Southern Caribbean - see the 'Secret Instruction for Navigation between Spain and the Isle of Santo Domingo', published in 1526 by the Casa de Contratacion, the body established in 1503 to regulate the transatlantic trade.

The prosperity of the Canaries attracted famous pirates and corsairs of the time, particularly the French Jambe de Bois (Peg-Leg) who sacked Santa Cruz de La Palma in 1553. Most of the older buildings that can now be seen in Santa Cruz date from the subsequent rebuilding of the city. In 1585 Santa Cruz was attacked by an armada of 24 ships commanded by the English pirate Francis Drake, resulting in the destruction of the harbour fort.

The expansion of the Brazilian sugar industry in the last quarter of the sixteenth century dramatically reduced the demand for Canarian sugar. Wine replaced sugar as the principal export. Of particular importance was the production of Malvasia, a sweet dessert wine.

Malvasia wine remained a major source of income throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the wine being exported to Britain and the American colonies. The position of the Canaries on the route to the Americas made commerce with the colonies particularly attractive.

The Canarian economy was affected throughout much of this period by trade restrictions imposed by the Casa de Contratacion in Sevilla, which was responsible for overseeing the crown monopoly on trade with the American colonies. For example, in 1610 exports from the Canaries were limited to a total of 1000 tons, of which 300 was from La Palma. The destination of these exports was also restricted. In 1613 the total was reduced to 600 tons and in 1627 to 700. Regulations introduced in 1678 required 5 families to emigrate to America for every 100 tons of exports.

A more liberal regime was introduced by Charles III in the second half of the 18th century. Trade was liberalised from 1778 onwards, and produce included cotton, tobacco and silk. During the 18th century the port of Santa Cruz was regarded as the third largest of the empire, after Antwerp and Sevilla. (see 'Civitas Palmaria', an 18th century watercolour of Santa Cruz).

Portugese and Madeiran wines provided strong competition to Malvasia throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The wine trade with England slumped at the beginning of the 19th century, with the introduction of port wine to the English market.

The wine trade was replaced around 1825 by the growing of cochineal, a cactus parasite used as a food colouring, which became an important source of income. However, this industry was hit by the introduction of artificial colourings in the 1870s, resulting in widespread hardship.

The production of sugar cane reappeared, and around 1880 a rudimentary tourist industry started. At the turn of the century the first banana plants appeared. The resulting prosperity was however to be short-lived, due to the effects of world war 1 on foreign trade.

Economic hardship during the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century resulted in high levels of emigration, Cuba being the preferred destination up to the 1930s, and Venezuala subsequently. Many Canarians retain strong family links with Cuba and Venezuala.

The Canarian economy continued to be dominated by agriculture until the early 1960s. Liberalisation introduced by the Franco regime from 1960 onwards allowed an economic revival, based on bananas, annual exports of which exceed 130 million kilograms, plus other produce, forestry and tobacco. Most important of all was the growth of the tourist industry, from 73,240 tourists in 1960 to over 2 million tourists in 1975.

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Last modified: 13 December 2010