Post-classical history

Canary Islands

The Canary Islands (Sp. Islas Canarias) are a group of islands off the western coast of North Africa, which were the target for expeditions with commercial or crusading character from the late thirteenth century onward, until they were incorporated into the Crown of Castile at the end of the fifteenth century.

In classical times the Fortunatae Insulae (“Fortunate Islands”), as they were named, were known to the Romans, albeit imperfectly. Nonetheless, archaeological finds seem to support the idea of some kind of Roman presence and even of Phoenician colonial outposts. These colonies would have established contact with the native population (the Guanches), which must have reached the islands coming from Late Neolithic North Africa around the middle of the first millennium B.C. The Arabs paid little attention to the archipelago, and even some Muslim authors thought that it was uninhabited; only Italian interest in navigation down the western African coast from the late thirteenth century onward brought these islands onto the map of the Mediterranean commerce, particularly for slaves, the sap of the dragon-tree (Dracaena draco), and archil (orchil). Around 1336 the Genoese Lancelloto Malocello reached the most eastern island, Lanzarote, to which he gave his own name.

In the second half of the fourteenth century, Catalans and Mallorcans controlled the expeditions to the Canary Islands, which began to have also a missionary character. Italian and Aragonese voyages gave way at the end of that century to Castilian and Portuguese interest in the islands, a shift that showed the increasing political weight of the Atlantic powers. It was a French nobleman from Normandy, Jean de Bethencourt, who in 1402 launched an expedition to conquer an archipelago that was well depicted in contemporary portolan charts. The Age of Rediscovery gave way to the Age of Lordship. The conqueror became a vassal of King Henry III of Castile and obtained a papal indulgence for those participating in the campaign, but soon he lost interest in the three islands he had occupied (Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and Hierro) and transferred lordship to his nephew Maciot, who ceded it to the Andalusian count of Niebla in 1418. From that time until the Castilian Crown stepped in (1477), these three islands, plus the right of conquest over the other four (Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Palma, and Gomera), were in the hands of the Andalusian noble houses of Las Casas and Peraza. In these decades firm control was established only over Gomera.

The rest of the islands were only conquered after Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile decided in 1477 to take the Canary Islands under their control in the midst of the civil war against Juana la Beltraneja. The end of that war also put an end to Portuguese claims to that Atlantic region. The Treaty of Alcaçovas-Toledo (1479) fixed zones of influence in the Atlantic; the Canary Islands were assigned to Castile, and Madeira and the Azores to Portugal. In 1483 Gran Canaria was finally subdued after strong resistance. The need for safe Atlantic bases for the exploratory voyages of Christopher Columbus quickened the efforts of the Castilian Crown for complete control of the archipelago; in 1492-1493 La Palma was occupied, and in 1494-1496 so was Tenerife.

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