Lanzarote: the fulcrum of an empire

The history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas upon the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, pivots on an earlier conquest, that of Lanzarote and the Canary Islands.

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Sailing is largely dependent on ocean currents. The Canary current sweeps down from Spain and Portugal along the West African coast, until it reaches the Equatorial current and shoots off into the Atlantic all the way to South America. Lanzarote is the first island in that current’s path.

Lanzarote had long been favoured by marauding Spanish adventurers covetous of the profits procured from dyes and slaves, when, in 1402, Norman knight and ambitious conqueror, Jean de Bethencourt left La Rochelle with Gadifer de Salle and a retinue of men-at-arms. Bethencourt and Gadifer were determined to take possession of the “Fortunate Islands” on behalf of any Kingdom willing to strike a good deal. Following in the tradition of Church-sanctioned conquest, they took with them two priests, Pierre Bontier and Jen Le Verrier, who documented the conquest in a journal that would later become, The Canarian.

And in The Canarian the priests depict Lanzarote as wooded with brushwood, olives and higuerilla. There were natural springs in the foothills of the mountains. There were plains and broad valleys of tillable land. And plenty of rocks to build shelter. And a small and amenable indigenous tribe, (later known as los Conejeros, or Guanches). 

After ‘subduing’ with empty promises the tribal leader, King Guadarfia, Bethencourt sailed back to Cadiz to strike a deal with Henry III of Castile that would make him conqueror and owner of all the islands.

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Bethencourt was a greedy opportunist who knew the islands would bring ample wealth. He’d been keen to acquire the blue dye of the orchilla that clung assiduously to the malpais, and the sanguine sap of the drago trees, for use in his mills back in France.

After much betrayal, treachery and a series of attacks and counter attacks worthy of a Johnny Depp movie, King Guadarfia was a hero defeated. When Bethencourt returned with provisions, men and arms, and of course his permission by King Henry III to conquer all the Fortunate Islands in the name of Castile, Guardafia and his people were worn out and demoralised.

Bethencourt returned to a hero’s welcome. According to the priests, the natives surrendered and were duly baptised. At this point the priests claimed that all present had rejoiced, the heathens brought to salvation at last and a legitimate society born on this beleaguered land.

Of course the priests were biased. Guadarfia had no choice but convert or die.

The stage was set for a later conquest, that of the Americas. Lanzarote was the trading post. Ships laden with gold and silver and other treasures  would put in to harbour en route to Spain, and so began a new wave of piracy.

We’d know a whole lot more about Lanzarote had the island’s official records not been destroyed in 1586, when renegade Jan Janz – Dutch privateer taught by the infamous Red Beards, turned Algerian pirate, Morato Arráez – went on a bloody carnal rampage.

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Based on extensive research for The Drago Treereleased 29 September by Odyssey Books. Available at all good bookstores.
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