Guanche Statue
A statue of a Guanche warrior in Candelaria, Tenerife
The Canary Islands were first extensively chartered (in their entirety) by a Portuguese-funded expedition in 1341 that took 4 natives as slaves and collected samples of food and handicrafts. Previously, European accounts of the Islands had been, at best, vague. Some believe that the Canary Islands are the Fortunate Islands of Greek myth, while other even less-credible claims that the islands had been visited by Irish monks, Phoenicians and Arabs have also done the rounds. Some even claim that the islands are the last remnants of the lost continent of Atlantis.

The first credible accounts of the Canary Islands are from Pliny the Elder. The Roman learned of the Islands from the North African Roman proxy-King, Juba II, who claimed to have sent an expedition there in 40bc.

The Guanches

The indigenous people of the Island were known as Guanches and they knew their Island as Achinech, though the name that we use today comes from neighbouring La Palma. The natives of that Island knew Tenerife as Tene-Ife – Tene (White) and Ife (Mountain) referring to the snow capped peak of Mount Teide, clearly visible from La Palma.

The Europeans found the Guanches living in a near-stone age state, living as shepherds and with only the most basic knowledge of cultivation. They, for reasons unknown, had no knowledge of boats and because of this, there was no contact between the Islands. The conquerors described the natives as being Tall, Muscular and with many “blondes amongst their number”. The latter provoking much speculation over their origin, although it is now widely accepted that the Guanches were descendants of Berbers from North Africa.

European Conquest

Although the European Conquest of the Canary Islands began in 1402, Tenerife’s natives offered stiffer resistance than some of their cousins elsewhere in the archipelago. In 1491, Alonso Fernández de Lugo was commissioned by the Spanish Crown to conquer the two remaining islands not yet under Spanish control (La Palma and Tenerife). He took neighbouring La Palma first and in May 1494 landed near present Santa Cruz where he erected a wooden cross and set up base. His initial force of over 1000 men included a considerable number of Gran Canaria natives that had been converted to Christianity.
Missionaries had been in contact with several of the tribes on the Island for some time and de Lugo was able to negotiate treaties with several of the Menceys (tribal chiefs). However, the Mencey of Tauro, Bencomo, refused to submit to the foreign invaders and formed an alliance with the Menceys of Tacoronte, Tegueste, Daute and Leod.

On the 31st of May 1494, as the Spanish force pressed towards the North-West of the Island, they were ambushed at the Barranco de Acentejo. The invaders were attacked from the slopes above while their retreat was blocked by 3000 of Bencomo’s men. The Spanish suffered heavy losses, with some 4 out of 5 of the initial force killed in that Battle. De Lugo himself was injured and barely escaped Tenerife with his life. A town, La Matanza (The Slaughter) marks the site of the battle and a mural of a Guanche that commemorates the event can be seen from the road.

After selling his properties to fund a new campaign, de Lugo returned to Tenerife in 1495 and rebuilt his fortress in Santa Cruz. This time the Spanish arrived with 1000 veterans of the Granada Campaign as well as a Cavalry force. The first major victory came in November 1495, when the Guanches were defeated (and Bencomo killed) at the Battle of La Laguna. The superior military technology and Cavalry overwhelming the primitive Guanches over open ground.
On December 25th 1495, the decisive battle took place not far from the site of the Spaniards humiliating defeat of the previous year. The Guanches, weakened by their earlier defeat and because of an epidemic (probably brought by the invaders), were, this time, defeated. Another town marks the site of this battle – La Victoria de Acentejo. Bentor, by now the Mencey of Taoro following his father’s death, is said to have committed suicide upon learning of the defeat.

Although recent studies suggest that two-thirds of Canarians carry some Guanche genes, the Guanches as a distinct people disappeared in the years after the conquest. They either converted to Christianity and were assimilated into the Coloniser’s way of life, were sold into slavery or were killed. Little is known of their language or culture, although many places still bear their original Gaunche names and in recent years there has been a revival in the use of Guanche first names.

Colonisation and Plantations

After the conquest the land was divided up and settlers from across Western Europe began to arrive. Sugar became the Island’s first major export, with much of Tenerife’s native forest cleared for sugar cane plantations. Later fortified wine took over as the main export – the Canary Sack from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, when sugar prices were undercut by cheaper Latin American producers.

Banana Production

Although Bananas have been grown in Tenerife since shortly after the conquest, it was towards the end of the 19th century that Bananas became the Island’s principal Cash Crop.

Atlantic Stopover

The Canary Islands are located at a strategically important position for sailing across the Atlantic due to the steady North-easterly trade winds. While Columbus stopped in neighbouring La Gomera on his way discovering the New World in 1492, Magellan chose Tenerife as his stopover in 1519 on his voyage to circumnavigate the globe.
This strategic location has, however, also attracted some less welcome visitors; In Apil 1657, the English Admiral, Robert Blake, attacked and destroyed a Spanish Treasure fleet at Santa Cruz. Later, Nelson lost his arm when hit by grapeshot during an unsuccessful assault on Santa Cruz in July 1797.

Rivalry with Las Palmas

Santa Cruz became the first Capital of the Canary Islands when the Archipelago was made a province of Spain in 1821. This displeased the residents of Las Palmas, who eventually persuaded Madrid that the province should be divided in two in 1927 – Tenerife, El Hierro, La Gomera and La Palma to be administered as the province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura under Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.


Tourism began on the Island as long ago as the late 19th Century when well-healed Northern Europeans (many of whom were British) began to visit the fine hotels of Puerto de la Cruz. The arid south was largely ignored until the 1960s and the advent of the affordable package Sun Holiday.

Franco The Republican Government, fearing General Franco’s involvement in a possible coup, sent the young Generalissimo to the Canary Islands in February 1936. In June of that year, he met with his co-conspirators in the La Esperanza forest in Tenerife to discuss the feared military coup. On July 18th, Franco flew from Tenerife to Spanish Morocco to take command of the Spanish Legion. Thus began the Spanish Civil War.


Due to the boom and bust cycles of the cash crops and the Canary Island’s geographical susceptibility to external shocks (World Wars etc.), emigration from the Islands has been considerable since the early 18th Century. Because of historical ties, Venezuela and Cuba have been the traditional destinations. During the 1950s, it is estimated that 16,000 people left the Canary Islands clandestinely by boat attempting to reach Venezuela and that as many as a third of these perished en route.

Canary Nationalism

Franco’s oppressive regime opposed any ideas of autonomy for Spain’s diverse regions, something that may have had the unintended effect of actually stoking such ideas. The now defunct MPAIAC (Movimiento por la Autodeterminación e Independencia del Archipiélago Canario) was a separatist movement founded by Antonio Cubillo in 1964 and was responsible for several terrorist bombings, one of which contributed to the events that led to the Tenerife Airport Disaster. Following a bomb threat in Las Palmas, two 747s were diverted to the small Los Rodeos Airport (Tenerife North). 583 people were killed when the two planes collided. The MPAIAC was disbanded in 1982 following the granting of regional autonomy to the Canary Islands in August 1982. Nowadays, separatist ideas have some limited support, with political party, Coalicion Canario, becoming slightly more vocal about the issue of late.

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