Canary Islands After the conquest and the introduction of slavery

After the conquest, the Castilians imposed a new economic model, based on single-crop cultivation: first sugarcane; then wine, an important item of trade with England. Gran Canaria was conquered by the Crown of Castile on 6 March 1480, and Tenerife was conquered in 1496, and each had its own governor. There has been speculation that the abundance of Roccella tinctoria on the Canary Islands offered a profit motive for Jean de Béthencourt during his conquest of the islands. Lichen has been used for centuries to make dyes. This includes royal purple colours derived from roccella tinctoria, also known as orseille.

The objective of the Spanish Crown to convert the islands into a powerhouse of cultivation required a much larger labour force. This was attained through a brutal practice of enslavement, not only of indigenous Canarians but large numbers of Africans who were forcibly taken from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Whilst the first slave plantations in the Atlantic region were across Madeira, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands, it was only the Canary Islands which had an indigenous population and were therefore invaded rather than newly occupied.

This agriculture industry was largely based on sugarcane and the Castilians converted large swaths of the landscape for sugarcane production, and the processing and manufacturing of sugar, facilitated by enslaved labourers. The cities of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria became a stopping point for the Spanish traders, as well as conquistadors, and missionaries on their way to the New World. This trade route brought great wealth to the Castilian social sectors of the islands and soon were attracting merchants and adventurers from all over Europe. As the wealth grew, enslaved African workers were also forced into demeaning domestic roles for the rich Castilians on the islands such as servants in their houses. Research on the skeletons of some of these enslaved workers from the burial site of Finca Clavijo on Gran Canaria have showed that ‘all of the adults buried in Finca Clavijo undertook extensive physical activity that involved significant stress on the spine and appendicular skeleton’ that result from relentless hard labour, akin to the physical abnormalities found with enslaved peoples from other sugarcane plantations around the world. These findings of the physical strain that the enslaved at Finca Clavijo were subjected to in order to provide wealth for the Spanish elite has inspired a poem by British writer Ralph Hoyte, entitled Close to the Bone.

The method of forcibly relocating Africans to the Canary Islands in order to provide intensive labour, the first time this had been attempted, was looked at favourably by other European powers and was the inspiration behind the Transatlantic Slave Trade whereby around 12 million Africans were taken from their homelands in order to enter forced labour as plantation workers and domestic servants in the Americas over a period of 400 years.

As a result of the huge wealth generated by enslaved labour, magnificent palaces and churches were built on La Palma during this busy, prosperous period. The Church of El Salvador survives as one of the island’s finest examples of the architecture of the 16th century. Civilian architecture survives in forms such as Casas de los Sánchez-Ochando or Casa Quintana.

The Canaries’ wealth invited attacks by pirates and privateers. Ottoman Turkish admiral and privateer Kemal Reis ventured into the Canaries in 1501, while Murat Reis the Elder captured Lanzarote in 1585.

The most severe attack took place in 1599, during the Dutch Revolt. A Dutch fleet of 74 ships and 12,000 men, commanded by Pieter van der Does, attacked the capital Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (the city had 3,500 of Gran Canaria’s 8,545 inhabitants). The Dutch attacked the Castillo de la Luz, which guarded the harbor. The Canarians evacuated civilians from the city, and the Castillo surrendered (but not the city). The Dutch moved inland, but Canarian cavalry drove them back to Tamaraceite, near the city.

The Dutch then laid siege to the city, demanding the surrender of all its wealth. They received 12 sheep and 3 calves. Furious, the Dutch sent 4,000 soldiers to attack the Council of the Canaries, who were sheltering in the village of Santa Brígida. 300 Canarian soldiers ambushed the Dutch in the village of Monte Lentiscal, killing 150 and forcing the rest to retreat. The Dutch concentrated on Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, attempting to burn it down. The Dutch pillaged Maspalomas, on the southern coast of Gran Canaria, San Sebastián on La Gomera, and Santa Cruz on La Palma, but eventually gave up the siege of Las Palmas and withdrew.

In 1618 the Barbary pirates from North Africa attacked Lanzarote and La Gomera taking 1000 captives to be sold as slaves. Another noteworthy attack occurred in 1797, when Santa Cruz de Tenerife was attacked by a British fleet under Horatio Nelson on 25 July. The British were repulsed, losing almost 400 men. It was during this battle that Nelson lost his right arm.

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