Today is Día de Canarias (Canary Islands Day), celebrating the founding of first autonomous parliament of the islands, even though they are still part of Spain. Spain in the post-Franco era was divided into a number of autonomous regions, which have some independence from the federal government in Madrid, but are still, nonetheless, part of the nation as a whole.
The Canary Islands (Islas Canarias) are an archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of Morocco at the closest point. The Canaries are among the outermost regions (OMR) of the European Union proper. It is also one of the eight regions with special consideration of historical nationality recognized as such by the Spanish Government. The seven main islands are (from largest to smallest in area) Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. The archipelago includes much smaller islands and islets: La Graciosa, Alegranza, Isla de Lobos, Montaña Clara, Roque del Oeste and Roque del Este. In ancient times, the island chain was often referred to as “the Fortunate Isles.” The Canary Islands are the most southerly region of Spain and the largest and most populated archipelago of the Macaronesia region. Historically, the Canary Islands have been considered a bridge between Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
The islands may have been visited by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Carthaginians. King Juba II, Caesar Augustus’s Numidian protégé, is credited with discovering the islands for the Western world. According to Pliny the Elder, Juba found the islands uninhabited, but found “a small temple of stone” and “some traces of buildings.” Juba dispatched a naval contingent to re-open the dye production facility at Mogador in what is now western Morocco in the early 1st century CE. That same naval force was subsequently sent on an exploration of the Canary Islands, using Mogador as their mission base. The Romans named the individual islands Ninguaria or Nivaria (Tenerife), Canaria (Gran Canaria), Pluvialia or Invale (Lanzarote), Ombrion (La Palma), Planasia (Fuerteventura), Iunonia or Junonia (El Hierro) and Capraria (La Gomera).
When Europeans began to explore the islands in the late Middle Ages, they encountered several indigenous peoples living there. Although the prehistory of the settlement of the Canary Islands is still unclear, linguistic and genetic analyses seem to indicate that at least some of these inhabitants shared a common origin with the Berbers of Tamazgha. The pre-colonial inhabitants came to be known collectively as the Guanches, although Guanches had been the name for only the indigenous inhabitants of Tenerife. From the 14th century onward, numerous visits were made by sailors from Majorca, Portugal and Genoa. Lancelotto Malocello settled on Lanzarote in 1312. The Majorcans established a mission with a bishop in the islands that lasted from 1350 to 1400.
In 1402, the Castilian conquest of the islands began, with the expedition of French explorers Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle, nobles and vassals of Henry III of Castile, to Lanzarote. From there, they conquered Fuerteventura (1405) and El Hierro. Béthencourt received the title King of the Canary Islands, but still recognized King Henry III as his overlord.
Béthencourt also established a base on the island of La Gomera, but it would be many years before the island was truly conquered. The indigenous peoples of La Gomera, and of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and La Palma, resisted the Castilian invaders for almost a century. In 1448 Maciot de Béthencourt sold the lordship of Lanzarote to Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, an action that was not accepted by the natives nor by the Castilians. Despite Pope Nicholas V ruling that the Canary Islands were under Portuguese control, a crisis swelled to a revolt which lasted until 1459 with the final expulsion of the Portuguese. In 1479, Portugal and Castile signed the Treaty of Alcáçovas. The treaty settled disputes between Castile and Portugal over the control of the Atlantic, in which Castilian control of the Canary Islands was recognised but which also confirmed Portuguese possession of the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde islands, and gave them rights to lands discovered and to be discovered, and any other island which might be found and conquered from the Canary Islands beyond toward Guinea.
The Castilians continued to dominate the islands, but due to the topography and the resistance of the native Guanches, they did not achieve complete control until 1495, when Tenerife and La Palma were finally subdued by Alonso Fernández de Lugo. After that, the Canaries were incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile. 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. In this era, the first institutions of colonial government were founded. Gran Canaria, a colony of the Crown of Castile since 6th March 1480 (from 1556, of Spain), and Tenerife, a Spanish colony since 1495, each had its own governor.
The cities of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria became a stopping point for the Spanish conquerors, traders, and missionaries on their way to the New World. This trade route brought great prosperity to some of the social sectors of the islands. The islands became quite wealthy and soon were attracting merchants and adventurers from all over Europe. 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.
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 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 25th July. The British were repulsed, losing almost 400 men. It was during this battle that Nelson lost his right arm.
The sugar-based economy of the islands faced stiff competition from Spain’s American colonies. Low prices in the sugar market in the 19th century caused severe recessions on the islands. A new cash crop, cochineal (cochinilla), came into cultivation during this time, saving the islands’ economy. During this time the Canarian-American trade was developed, in which Canarian products such as cochineal, sugarcane and rum were sold in American ports, such as Veracruz, Campeche, La Guaira and Havana among others.
By the end of the 18th century, Canary Islanders had already emigrated to Spanish American territories, such as Havana, Veracruz, Santo Domingo, San Antonio, Texas and St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Economic difficulties spurred mass emigration, primarily to the Americas, during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Between 1840 and 1890 as many as 40,000 Canary Islanders emigrated to Venezuela alone. Also, thousands of Canarians moved to Puerto Rico where the Spanish monarchy felt that Canarians would adapt to island life better than other immigrants from the mainland of Spain. Deeply entrenched traditions, such as the Mascaras Festival in the town of Hatillo, Puerto Rico, are an example of Canarian culture still preserved in Puerto Rico. Similarly, many thousands of Canarians emigrated to the shores of Cuba.
The cuisine of the Canary Islands had a major impact on the cuisines of a number of Latin American countries, such that now, dishes that originated in the Canaries are thought of as typically Cuban, Puerto Rican, etc. Mojo, for example, a sauce served with many dishes, made mainly of oil, garlic, vinegar, salt, red pepper, thyme, cumin, coriander and other spices, is universal in most of Latin America (under different names), but originated in the Canaries.
Conejo en salmorejo (marinated rabbit) is perhaps the signature dish of the Canary Islands.
Conejo en Salmorejo
1 whole fresh rabbit, cut in 8 pieces
6 garlic cloves, peeled
½ tbsp thyme
1 tbsp hot paprika powder
½ tbsp ground cumin or cumin seeds
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
½ cup olive oil
5 tbsp red wine vinegar
5 tbsp dry white wine
2 bay leaves, crumbled
Chop the rabbit’s liver (and kidneys if you have them). Heat a little olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, and sauté the liver and kidneys for a few minutes. Take the pan off the heat.
Put the garlic, crumbled bay leaves, dried thyme, cumin and hot paprika in a blender, seasoned to taste with salt. (Traditionally a mortar and pestle are used). Pulse into a wet paste. Add the white wine, 4 tbsp of olive oil and the red vinegar. Blend again. Add the bell pepper to the blender together with the rabbit liver (and kidneys). Blend into a smooth red paste. Check the seasoning and add extra salt, vinegar or hot paprika to taste if necessary.
Pour the salmorejo marinade into a zip top bag with the chopped rabbit. Close the top leaving a small opening. Expel all the air from the bag and close it completely. Make sure the marinade is distributed evenly, and lay the bag flat on a tray. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours (preferably overnight).
Pour a little olive oil into a large skillet, place it over medium-high heat. Remove the rabbit from the marinade and add it to the hot oil. Sauté the rabbit on all sides until golden. Turn the heat down and add the salmorejo marinade to the rabbit in the pan.
Cover the pan and simmer the rabbit for 20 to 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and adjust it as needed. Serve hot, straight from the skillet.