The Guanches

The next time you are laying on your sun-bed, and lapping-up the glorious sunshine, whilst supping on your latest bottle of cheap Spanish beer -or maybe taking your final puff of a duty-free cigarette, I want you to spare a thought for the ancestors of Tenerife -namely the ‘Guanches’, the initial inhabitants of the Canary Islands, who first discovered these paradise volcanoes eons ago -and who fought mercilessly to keep them. Only then can you thank the Spanish Conquistadors for conquering the islands -and their subsequent descendants for turning them into some of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet -and a place on Earth where one can simply wind down and relax without a care in the world, whilst watching the sun set over yet-another glorious, crimson horizon. But before you do any of that, just take a short journey with me back to where it all began -to the World of the Guanches.

The Guanches (native term Guanchinet -which literally means ‘Native person of Tenerife’) were the Berber aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands, who migrated to the archipelago around three-thousand years ago. The name ‘Guanche’ applied to the indigenous populations of all of the seven Canary Islands, those living in Tenerife being the most important and powerful. At the time of the Guanches arrival (around 1,000 B.C.) all of the other islands in the Macaronesian region (The Azores, Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands and the Savage Islands) were all uninhabited by humans. The Guanches lived in relative isolation for almost two-and-a-half thousand years, before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 14th century A.D., although there are various records of several other visitors to the islands during this time.

A Mauritanian expedition to the archipelago in 50 B.C. apparently reported finding ‘Ruins of great buildings’, but no inhabitants, possibly suggesting that the Guanches were not the only inhabitants at that time -and from the second half of the 8th century the islands may well have been visited by Portuguese, Genoese and Castilian sailing-ships over the next 500 years, although records to suggest their arrival on the islands are somewhat conspicuous by their absence? However, there is a book which was written by and Arab geographer back in AD 1150, about an expedition by a family of Andalucian seafarers from Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon, which gives an account of their arrival in the Canary Islands, along with a small insight into the Guanche population.

An extract from this (one-and-only) book reads as follows:  “After reaching an area of ‘sticky and stinking waters’, the Mugharrarin (the adventurer’s) moved back and first reached an uninhabited island (Madeira or Hierro) where they found ‘a huge quantity of sheep, which its meat was bitter and inedible’ and then ‘continued southward’ and reached another island where they were soon surrounded by barks, and brought to ‘a village whose inhabitants were often fair-haired, with long and flaxen hair’. Among the villagers, one did speak Arabic, and asked them where they came from. Then the king of the village ordered them to bring them back to the continent where they were surprised to be welcomed by Berbers”.

Tenerife was originally segregated into ‘9’ kingdoms, each one ruled by a separate king. However, the ‘Mencey’ was the ultimate ruler of all the kingdoms. Like all the ancient tribes of yesteryear, the Guanches were involved in sacrificial slaughter ceremonies, both animal and human alike, as offerings to their various gods, such as Chaxiraxi -the Goddess Mother, and Magec -the God of the Sun. The Guanches also believed in powerful demons, the main demon of Tenerife being called ‘Guayota’, who supposedly lived at the summit of Mount Teide. There were also less-powerful demons, called ‘Tibicenas’, which took the form of wild, black woolly dogs, that supposedly lived in caves in the mountains, only to emerge after dark, where they would viciously attack both livestock and humans.

Mummification was practiced throughout the Canary Islands -especially in Tenerife, where the corpses were either embalmed in a resinous substance, or wrapped in goat-skins or sheepskins, before being deposited into virtually inaccessible caves, or the bodies were simply buried in the hills. Numerous mummies have been found over the years, and many are displayed in the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre in Santa Cruz. Also, in 1933 the largest necropolis in the Canary Islands was discovered in Uchova (San Miguel de Abona, Tenerife) which had originally contained over ’60’ mummies, but unfortunately the cemetery had been completely looted some years earlier!

La Palma was the only island where the elderly were left to die on their own. After bidding a sad farewell to their family, the person in question was then duly carried to the sepulchral cave, before being abandoned with nothing-more than a bowl of milk -how sad! In 1402 the Castilian conquest of the islands began with an attack on Fuerteventura and Lanzarote -an overthrow of these two islands being par-for-the-course, as the majority of its inhabitants were already suffering from chronic starvation, and therefore they had no other option but to surrender to the invaders. However, the other five islands defended their territories to the last, El Hierro and the Bimbache tribes being the first to fall, with La Gomera, Gran Canaria and La Palma soon following suit. On 31st May 1494 the first Battle of Acentajo (aptly nicknamed ‘The Slaughter’) took place on the island of Tenerife, where the Guanches cleverly ambushed the Castilians in one of the valleys, subsequently slaughtering eighty percent of their soldiers in one fell swoop.

However, six months later, on November 14th 1494, Alonso Fernandez de Lugo, the leader of the first expedition -and one of the few remaining survivors of the Battle of Acentajo, returned with a vengeance, by firstly defeating the Guanches at the Battle of Aguere (also known as The Battle of San Cristobal de La Laguna) within 48 hours, before winning the second Battle of Acentejo (this time in only ‘3’ hours) on Christmas Day that same year. And so ended the rule of the Guanches in the Canary Islands, but hopefully all of the holiday-makers, tourists, travellers, back-packers, ex-pats and residents alike, who have read this very small summary, will fully-appreciate how lucky we all are to have at our disposal the countless delights that this wonderful island of Tenerife -along with its neighbouring counterparts, of course, have to offer. I rest my case.