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The Canary Islands: 1402-1496

In May 1402 a small expedition sails from the French port of La Rochelle. It is led by Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de La Salle. They first met in 1390, fighting against Muslims in north Africa, and they have served together at courts of the royal family in France. Their destination now is the Canary Islands, where they hope to come into their own estate.

They immediately win possession of Lanzarote. After a few weeks Béthencourt sails to Spain to bring reinforcements against the Guanches. He is away for eighteen months. When he returns, Gadifer is surprised to discover that his friend Béthencourt has a new title. He has persuaded Henry III of Castile to create him king of the Canaries.


Gadifer is not amused. During his friend's absence at court, he has spent eighteen months safeguarding the new settlement. But he limits his protest (swayed perhaps by the size of Béthencourt's reinforcements) to an appeal to the king of Castile. When Henry III confirms the original appointment, Gadifer returns to France.

Béthencourt soon follows him, entrusting the rule of his new kingdom to a nephew. Subsequent decades are complicated by a Portuguese expedition to seize the islands in 1425. The Portuguese occupy Gomera. But in a treaty signed in 1480, at Alcáçovas, Portugal cedes the Canaries to Spain in return for reciprocal gains on the African mainland.


As yet the three most populous islands are still in the hands of the aboriginal Guanches. Spain now sets about suppressing them. The Guanches put up a sturdy resistance, but Grand Canary is brought under Spanish control in 1483, La Palma in 1491 and Tenerife in 1496. By then the islands have found a new role as a staging post in the Atlantic crossing. The house where Columbus stayed on his first voyage is today a tourist attraction in Gomera.

Over the years the surviving Guanches vanish as a group, merging with the settler population from Spain. But it is said that traces of their tall Cro-Magnon ancestors can still be seen in some of the islands' people.


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