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Conquest Was Not the End: the continuous history of the Indigenous People of the Canary Islands.

June 6, 2010

The Indigenous people of the Canary Islands weren’t completely ‘wiped out’ by the Spaniards in the 15th century but have in fact survived until today- but this story is not the one being told. By Barry Lord.

Alonso Fernandez de Lugo presenting the native kings of Tenerife to Ferdinand and Isabella. Image in the interior of the ''ayuntamiento'' of San Cristobal de La Laguna, Tenerife

The Canary Islands are named for the Canari, a Berber nation in the north Atlas mountains (now in Morocco) whom the Roman historian Pliny the Elder described as the original inhabitants of the islands. Pliny was right, because white people from Africa with Berber linguistic characteristics were the people whom the Spaniards discovered when they invaded the islands, beginning in 1402. The conquest took most of the century, concluding in 1496 in Tenerife, where the fighting was hardest and longest. The Spanish troops were well trained in killing, having been transferred from the killing fields of Flanders. At the end of the Canarian fighting many went on to further slaughter in the Americas — due to the currents and winds the Canaries were the usual first stop for voyages from Spain to the Americas, including the first voyage of Columbus.

The lifestyle of the guanches, as the indigenous people were called, is classified as “neolithic”, but it was a relatively advanced neolithic culture with pottery and fishing boats, agriculture and herds of pigs, goats and sheep. They were also fierce warriors, against each other as well as the Spaniards. Spanish losses are said to have been proportionately far greater than in the Indies.

For a history or archaeology museum, there are two ways to present the story of the Canaries, as one of discontinuity, or one of continuity:

— discontinuity leads to a disjointed chronological presentation — first there were the indigenous people, then there was the conquest, and after that the history that leads to ‘us’ begins.

— continuity on the contrary asserts the reality that ‘they’ are ‘us’: the fact is that the guanches remained after the conquest, especially the women and children, so that DNA analysis today indicates that 70% of Canarians carry a distinctive sign of the original people in their chromosomes.

The museums at present tell a discontinuous story: to begin with, archaeology of the guanches is presented with natural history, separated from two history museums that begin with the conquest. So the guanches may be mildly interesting, but appear to have nothing to do with ‘us’.

Consider how much more lively would be the visitors’ interest — of residents, students and tourists — if the story were retold to show the continuity of the population and the culture. The conquest went on to Mexico, and there the continuity is more evident in all aspects of the culture, a fusion of the indigenous with the Spanish culture despite the savagery of the Spanish troops. The Church of course preceded the soldiers and mediated the continuity in both places — first the cross, then the gun. Yet the continuity is finally the real story to be told, the real lesson to be learned.

In Canada John Ralston Saul in his book A Fair Country has recently told us that “Canada is a Métis nation”, pointing to the very different relationship with the First Nations prior to the attempt to assimilate them by stealing their children and putting them in schools run by the Church after Confederation. So here too the fundamental story is one of continuity, which we have so much difficulty admitting, learning and telling in our museums. To say we are a Métis nation asserts our continuity. As Saul said in his lecture tour about the book, the comment he heard from his listeners in question periods most often was “I always thought that, but I never said it.”

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Barry Lord

About The Author

Barry Lord is the author of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) and Co-President of Lord Cultural Resources.

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