Recent archaeological discoveries indicate that the island was populated from at least 1000 BC and that this population had at least minimal contact with the Phoenicians and Romans.
Analysis of pollen found in sediments from this time has revealed that Lanzarote had a much more substantial vegetal cover when the first people arrived. From this we can speculate that the introduction of pastoral animals and cereal farming by the first inhabitants had a profound effect on the Island’s environment.
These first inhabitants more than likely came from North Africa (Berbers) and genetic studies as well as the few known fragments of their language support this theory. However, many mysteries about the aboriginal population remain unsolved, the biggest perhaps being that although all of the major Canary Islands were inhabited at the time of the European conquest, the islanders had no knowledge of navigation. The question that historians ask is whether the Guanches arrived by their own accord of were taken to the islands by force.
Guanches and Majos
The term Guanche originally referred to the natives of Tenerife, but has since come to apply to the aboriginal population of the Canary Islands in general. The name “Majo” refers specifically to the aboriginal inhabitants of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. The island that we call Lanzarote was known to the Majos as Titerogakaet or Titeroigatra – Rose-coloured-Hill.
Said to have been in a “stone age” state when the European explorers arrived, they had some knowledge of pottery, no knowledge of metals and lived in the most rudimentary of stone dwellings or caves. Their agriculture was basic, though they cultivated barley – from which they made gofio (a type of course flour) – and kept goats, sheep and pigs. They also fished, collected shellfish and gathered any wild fruits or vegetables present on the island. The chronicle of Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle’s expedition in 1402 (Le Canarien) describes the society as polygamous, with each woman taking three husbands. It is thought that this custom may have been a consequence of female infanticide, practised to limit the population on an arid island with extremely limited resources.
The legend of Princesa Ico, tells of the Lanzarote Mencey (Chief or King), Zonzamas, offering the hospitalidad de lecho (an invite to sleep with his wife) to the Castillian privateer, Ruiz de Avendaño, in 1377. Princesa Ico, the fair-skinned mother of the last Mencey of Lanzarote (Guardafia), is said to have been the product of this encounter.
The Genoese navigator, Lancelotto Malocello, is credited with the rediscovery of the Canary Islands in 1312 and the island first appeared on a European map (the Dulcert Atlas) in 1339 under the name “Ínsula de Lançarote Mallucellus” (island of Lancelotto Malocello), later shortened to “Lanzarote”. The late 14th century saw several more European expeditions to the island – usually with the express purpose of capturing slaves or collecting Orchilla (a lichen used to make dye).
Although Lancelotto Malocello spent some time on the island and even had a fortress built near modern-day Teguise, the definitive conquest of Lanzarote (and the Canary Islands) began with the expedition of the Norman privateers, Juan de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle. In 1402 they landed and set up base at the Costa del Rubicón near modern-day Playa Blanca. The written account of their adventure describes an extremely depopulated island with just 300 natives left. The invaders, who came prepared for battle, found instead that Guardafia, the last mencey and son of Princesa Ico, was more than willing to sign a non-aggression and friendship pact with the invaders in return for protection against the marauding pirates and slavers. After a brief and failed attempt to conquer Fuerteventura, Jean de Bethencourt left to seek the backing and reinforcements of Enrique III of Castille leaving Gadifer de la Salle in charge in his absence. However, during this absence, a power struggle broke out between his commanders (Berthin de Berneval and de la Salle) that drew in the locals leaders and broke down into a bloody conflict. When Bethencourt returned with the financial and military backing of Castille in 1404, he soon put down the revolt. Guardafia and his followers, knowing that they were defeated, submitted to the invaders and were later baptised (and thus brought under European control).
Later, Jean de Bethencourt would hand over control of the islands to his nephew, Maciot de Bethencourt, before returning to hid native France. Maciot went on to marry the Guanche Princess, Teguise, and to found the town of the same name (on the site of an aboriginal settlement). By all accounts, Maciot was a bit of a loose cannon and tyrant – he had to be forcefully restrained by Castille and went on to try to sell the Islands to several suitors (he had no legal basis to do this since his uncle was still alive), this in turn led to a dispute between Spain and Portugal over control of the Islands. This issue of sovereignty remained disputed until 1479 with the treaty of Alcacovas granting the islands to Spain (Castille).
Under the control of Spanish appointed nobility (beginning with the Herrera family), many slaves were taken from North Africa to augment the now depopulated island. It was these slaves that dug the terraces on the hillsides (with the help of the dromedaries that were introduced at the same time). The descendants of Diego de Herrera and Ines Peraza remained in control until 1812 when the old parochial system was replaced by municipalities.
Perhaps angered by the taking of slaves from the African coast, Moorish pirates such as Tabac Arráez and Morato Arráez attacked Lanzarote to take slaves of their own during the 16th century. It wasn’t just the Moorish Corsairs that the locals had to worry about either, with attacks from English pirates and privateers, including one incursion by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1616.
The devastating and near-continuous volcanic eruptions of 1730-1736 destroyed the best farmland on the island along with some 26 villages and hamlets. When the eruptions finally subsided, around 200km2 (or a quarter of Lanzarote’s surface) was buried under lava. The smaller eruptions of 1824 produced three more volcanic cones and lasted for three months. While these eruptions devastated the best farmland on the island, they also made the modern wine industry possible by depositing large quantities of lapilli in the La Geria valley.
The Constitution of Cadiz of 1812 abolished the feudal system and the Canaries became a province of Spain with Santa Cruz de Tenerife as the capital. In 1852 the law of free ports granted the islands immunity from customs and excise duties.
Half a century later in 1927, the Archipelago was divided into two provinces: Tenerife and Las Palmas. Lanzarote along with Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura falls under the administration of the province of Las Palmas, with Las Palmas as capital. In 1982 the Canary Islands were declared an Autonomous Region of Spain – celebrated annually on the 30th of May (Dia de Canarias).
The opening of the Fariones Hotel in Puerto del Carmen in 1966 and the opening of the passenger terminal at Lanzarote Airport four years later marked the beginning of modern tourism in Lanzarote.
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