Since the Guanches (the aboriginal people of the Canary Islands) did not leave any writings, we know very little of the ancient history of the Islands. It is possible that the Ancient Greeks knew of the Islands (perhaps connecting the Islands with the Legend of Atlantis), however the first real contact that we know of was with the North African part of the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder wrote a second-hand account of the Islands and recent archaeological finds have proved that there was at least some contact between the Roman Empire and the Islands (although the Romans never settled there).
Technically, the term Guanche, refers to the natives of Tenerife, although it is used commonly to describe the natives of all of the Canary Islands. They were a primitive cave-dwelling people, whose technology was limited to basic stone tools and weapons as well as basic clay pots. Since there are no metal deposits to be found on the Island, the Guanches did not have any metal tools. It is generally believed that the Guanches were of Berber origin and that they probably settled the Islands in around 500BC.
Interestingly, for an Island People, it is said that they had no knowledge of Boats or Navigation. In spite of this, the Islanders had much in common, even though there was apparently little inter-island contact. On most Islands they believed in a single god, known as Acoran in Gran Canaria and embalmed their dead for burial in Caves.
The Guanche name for Gran Canaria was Tamarán.
The Spanish Conquest
The existence of the Canary Islands had been forgotten by the Europeans during the Dark Ages and it wasn’t until the 13th Century that they were rediscovered. Several expeditions were sent to the Islands, some of which took slaves, but efforts to conquer the Islands did not begin until 1402, when the Norman, Jean de Bethencourt, conquered Lanzarote on behalf of Spain.
It was not until 1478 that the Spanish made a concerted effort to take Gran Canaria, under Juan Rejón. The conquest of Gran Canaria took 5 years and was completed by Pedro de Vera, when the native chief, Tenesor Semidan, converted to Christianity and convinced his people to surrender.
Many Guanches committed suicide rather than submit to the Spanish, those that remained were either enslaved or converted to Catholicism and assimilated into the Spanish population (at the time converting to Christianity meant that one could not be enslaved).
Colombus stopped in the Canary Islands on his way to discovering America in 1492 (at La Gomera) and the Canary Islands became a strategic stop-over in the years that followed.
The Island’s economy initially boomed when the Spanish introduced Sugar Cane to the islands and began exporting Sugar to Europe. This industry eventually faltered when cheaper imports from Latin America were introduced. The economy of Gran Canaria has been through several booms and busts since then, with cash crops such as Cochineal Dye eventually being surpassed by synthetic products or cheaper imports.
In the 19th Century, the British established a Coaling Station in Las Palmas to supply the Steam Ships of the day, but the introduction of the Diesel Engine made this business redundant.
There has always been a rivalry between the cities of Santa Cruz in Tenerife and Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. When the Canaries became a province of Spain in 1821, Santa Cruz was made the Capital, it being the most important port of the Islands at the time. However, in the years that followed, Las Palmas began to become economically more powerful due largely to the Cochineal Trade and it’s important Coaling Station. At the same time, Tenerife’s Wine Trade was in decline and the introduction of Island Cabildos (Insular Governments) in 1911 further reduced Santa Cruz power.
Finally, in 1927, the Canary Islands were divided into two provinces; La Palma, El Hierro, La Gomera and Tenerife in the west with Santa Cruz as Capital and Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria in the east with Las Palmas as Capital.
Franco launched his coup which led to the Spanish Civil War from Las Palmas in 1936 and although there was no resistance on the Island, the post-war repression was particularly harsh here.
Even though Spain was “Neutral” during the Second World, Churchill apparently had plans to take the Islands as a Naval Base and allegedly threatened Franco over the rumoured German Submarine refuelling in Fuerteventura.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s transition to democracy led to the devolution of Spain into Autonomous Communities and a revival in local customs and languages which had been repressed during the Franco Years. In 1982, the Canary Islands became an Autonomous Community within Spain with the status of Capital shared between Las Palmas and Santa Cruz.