Conquest of the Canaries

In the fourteenth century the islands of the Canaries were divided into fiefdoms and were ruled peacefully by Menceys, who in turn had their own tribal council to mete out judgements and enforce the laws of the land. Tenerife, for instance, had nine separate kingdoms and although there were occasional disagreements, rivalries and skirmishes on the whole they lived a peaceful existence. The majority of them lived in caves and survived off the land, farming, herding, hunting, while others built small round houses to raise their families in.

The problem for the Guanches and the Canary Islands as a whole was that strategically they were in a prime position for trade and as a way-station to the Americas. Realising this Spain made the islands a colony as early as 1483, using them as a refilling station on their way to the New World. Before this period, however, the indigenous population had to deal with invading forces first from the Portuguese and then the French.

A military expedition sent by the King of Portugal in 1341 arrived among the Seven Islands under the command of Niccoloso da Recco, principally as a fact gathering mission. Samples of gofio and several cultural artefacts were gathered and the resulting contact with the local population saw four Guanches captured, taken back to Portugal and sold as slaves.

It was not the first contact the islanders had had with outsiders but this was to set a precedent that was to bathe the near future in blood and a war that was to last a hundred years.

During the following years another expedition was sent, this time from the king of Mallorca with the intention of colonising the islands and turning the natives to the path of Christianity. It was in essence a peaceful mission, benign, and the first incursion of Christianity spread throughout several of the islands, which was to last from 1350 to 1400.

Full scale invasion came to the Canaries in 1402, though, with the landing of Jean de Bethencourt on the north side of Lanzarote. He was a Norman/ French explorer from the court of King Henry III of Castille and from this base went on the conquer Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Gomera and El Hierro with comparative ease. The invaders were not met with open arms, however, on Gran Canaria, Tenerife and La Palma, each of these islands resisting with an indomitable will and any weapons they had available.

Where the French were quipped with weapons made of iron, were armoured and well prepared for war, the Guanches only wore hides made from goats and carried lances, clubs studded with pebbles, javelins, rudimentary shields and polished battle-axes made of stone. Not a very well-balanced match by any means but the invaders didn´t reckon on the fierce determination of the islanders.

Holding the coasts proved to be an impossible task for the natives and they were slowly pushed further inland, continuing a retreating battle into the mountains. It was from these familiar surroundings that they were able to make something of a stand, hitting the invaders sporadically, never meeting them head to head but attacking them and harrying them at every opportunity.

This underground resistance was to continue none stop, with the islands being occupied but seemingly unconquerable in the long run. Still neither side were willing to admit defeat so the skirmishes raged on for years to come.

True the French had claimed large areas of the islands and even proclaimed the Canaries as their own, but the uprising and resistance continued unabated until the final decades of the 15th century. So even though they perceived themselves as victorious, the European colonies were nothing more than coastal enclaves surrounded by a hostile force that just would not give up.

The Portuguese attempted to wrest what control the French had in 1424 but didn´t attempt a full-scale invasion until 1446 where they were repelled after many bloody battles and then again in 1468. The French were determined to hold on to the islands no matter the cost in lives but the Portuguese were just as determined that they were going to oust the French no matter whose blood was shed, theirs, the enemy´s and even the Guanches caught in the crossfire.

The death of King Henry IV of Portugal in 1474 propelled the conflict into another, fiercer level as King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castille laid claim to the Guinea Coast nearby to slow the Portuguese invasion into West Africa. The response was immediate, bloody and saw the death toll rise even further as the Portuguese struggled to gain a foothold in the Canary Islands.

Virtually five years of warfare ensued until a peace treaty was signed in 1479 and the Portuguese desisted in their takeover plans and the French renounced their navigation rights in African waters. The war between the French and the Portuguese was over. Now it was the turn of Spain to try and capture the Canaries.

It was actually in 1461 that the Spanish launched a serious offensive to take over the islands but it wasn´t until 1478 that a foothold was gained in Gran Canaria by Juan Rejon. They then built a fort as their base of operations and from this beachhead Spain planned their next all out assault on the war weary Guanches.

With the sun blazing down and a stiff breeze to fill his sails on the third of May 1494, Alonso Fernanzez de Lugo landed his ships at Añaza Beach, his troops bolstered by several hundred natives from Gran Canaria who had been Christianized and had decided to support the Spanish in their crusade.

And they weren´t the only ones.

Prior to landing on the coast between Anaga and Guimar, Alonso had reached an agreement with four of the nine Menceys on the island. These four kingdoms, Guimar, Anaga, Abona and Adeje, possibly because they were indoctrinated over the years by Spanish missionaries, submitted peacefully and accepted the Spaniards with open arms.

The Great Mencey of Taoro and the island´s main king, Bencomo, refused to accept the occupation and was determined to fight the invaders to the last man. Together with the kingdoms of Daute, Icod, Tacoronte and Tegeuste they made up the richest and the most populated areas of Tenerife and formed a powerful and determined army.

Alonso Fernandez de Lugo gathered his troops on the beaches and began his march into Tenerife to subjugate the last bastion of resistance. Crossing Aguere Valley he arrived at the North shore, encountering not one of Bencomo´s men along the way. As he continued his confidence and arrogance grew, believing that the ignorant savages had retreated and were even now cowering in their caves and so, unsuspectingly, his guard down, he proceeded into Taoro, the very heartland of the resistance.

Pausing in the ravine of Acentejo(pouring waters), Alonso heard a mighty roar erupt from the surrounding slopes. Scores of his men fell, screaming in agony as spears rained down seemingly from everywhere, piercing hearts, throats and killing them instantly.

The day of bloodletting had begun.