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Are The Canary Islands Part of Spain?

A flight to Spain from the UK is only about 2 hours… so why is it 3 – 4 hours to fly to the Canary islands? Are the Canary Islands a part of Spain, even though they are 2 hours away and located somewhere off the coast of Africa? 

Fuerteventura lies just off the coast of Africa

Fuerteventura is an all-year round holiday island, which attracts people 12 months a year, due to its sunny climate. Even during the Winter months, when people in mainland Spain are reaching for their warmer clothes, we are still walking around in shorts and T Shirts and enjoying a relaxing sunbathe on the beach. This is due to Fuerteventura’s location and it’s proximity to Africa. So, why is it a part of Spain and Europe, rather than Africa?

Fuerteventura's Rugged Coastline

Many new visitors heading to Fuerteventura ask the same questions. They also wonder why the food, music, dancing, language and general feel of the place is so different to what they are used to in the Costa’s? So I thought it would be nice to give you a brief overview of who has visited here before and help to explain why The Canary Islands still fall under Spanish rule. 

Who Were The First Visitors?

Over the centuries the Islands have been visited by many people. It is believed that an Aboriginal-like people known as The Guanches were the first, however, if you look at some of the recorded evidence, in some areas even that is in dispute. What we do know is that the islands were visited by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Carthaginians. According to the Pliny the Elder, who was 1st century AD Roman author and philosopher, the islands were uninhabited when Hanno the Navigator and the Carthaginians arrived. Yet, they still witnessed ruins of great buildings which suggests that people had lived on the islands even before the Guanches.

Guise and Ayose – The Tribal Kings Of Fuerteventura

Did King Juba Discover The Canary Islands?

Augustus’s protégé aka King Juba is credited as being the first to discover the islands for the Western world. He did this when he sent ships overseas to reopen a dye production area which was situated in western Morocco, known as Mogador. En route they came across the Canary Islands and decided to explore them, whilst using Mogador as a base. Recent archaeological excavations carried out on the island of Los Lobos, an islet situated just off the coast of Corralejo, Fuerteventura revealed evidence of Roman occupation as well as evidence of ships loading and unloading and many shells, which are known to have been the raw material used to produce the precious purple dye that they we after.

The Islet of Los Lobos ( The Island of Wolves )

The Romans and The Canary Islands

The first names that we have for The Canary Islands comes from the Romans. They named each island individually. The names they gave them as follows; 

  • Ninguaria or Nivaria (Tenerife)
  • Canaria (Gran Canaria)
  • Pluvialia or Invale (Lanzarote)
  • Ombrion (La Palma)
  • Planasia (Fuerteventura)
  • Iunonia or Junonia (El Hierro) 
  • Capraria (La Gomera).

Enter The Europeans

When the Europeans arrived, they encountered several indigenous populations living across the islands. The way in which they lived was described as Neolithic in nature as many of the local inhabitants at that time lived in caved communities. Although the actual history is still unclear, linguistics and genetic analyses indicate that at least some of the inhabitants shared a common origin with the Berbers of northern Africa. From then on, the original tribal people were known collectively as The Guanches. However, this name really only applies to the Guanches from Tenerife, as genetics have shown that not all the islands were inhabited by exactly the same people and that they varied from island to island. 

The Guanches

Christopher Columbus and The Curious Lands

As ship building improved and people’s curiosity for far off lands and riches grew, more and more people began to make regular visits to the islands. These included sailors and missionaries from Majorca, Portugal and Genoa. The most famous of which is Christopher Columbus, who in 1492, stopped off in The Canaries in order to get supplies, before setting sail on his epic adventure across the Atlantic to try to discover the New World, or, as we now call them, The Americas. 

The Crown and Colonisation

Many different crowns have attempted to colonise the islands and the first dates back to a Portuguese expedition 1336. But the one that is really remembered happened in 1402 and is known as the Castilian conquest. This expedition was led by the French explorers Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle, who were nobles and vassals of Henry III of Castile (Spain). The first island conquered was Lanzarote, followed three years later by Fuerteventura and El Hierro.

Fuerteventura’s First Capital – Betancuria

Jean de Béthencourt was a French explorer who was responsible for the expedition to the Canaries. It was funded and controlled by King Henry III of Castile and although Betancourt was given the title as King of the Canary Islands, he and the islands still remained under King Henry III’s reign and control. He sacked the local Chieftains in Fuerteventura in 1405 and took control of the island. He created the islands first capital and gave it his name “Betancuria’. He then went on to colonise El Hierro and other islands too. 

Fuerteventura’s First Capital – Betancuria


Betancourt established a base on La Gomera, but it took many years before the island and its neighbouring islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and La Palma were overcome. In 1448, his nephew, Maciot de Béthencourt, sold the lordship of Lanzarote to Portugal’s Prince, known as Henry the Navigator (an action that was not accepted by the Castilian s or the natives). Pope Nicholas V ruled that The Canaries were under Portuguese control but as Castile refused to accept it, what followed was a revolt that lasted almost ten years.

The Treaty Of Alcáçovas 

In 1479, Portugal and Castile signed the Treaty of Alcáçovas. This treaty settled the disputes regarding the control over the Atlantic. Castile remained in control of The Canary Islands and the Portuguese gained control over the Azores, Madeira, the Cape Verde islands as well as any additional lands yet to be discovered between The Canaries and Guinea. The Castilian’s continued to dominate the islands, but due to the topography and native Guanche resistance, domination was not achieved until 1495. Tenerife and La Palma were finally subdued by Alonso Fernández de Lugo and The Canaries were incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile.

Princes, Pirates & Privateers

After the conquest, the Castilian s imposed new economic models, based on single-crop cultivation. This included sugar cane and wine, both of which were exported to England. During this time the first institutions of colonial government were also founded. Gran Canaria became a colony of Castile on March 6, 1480, and Tenerife in 1495. Both had separate governors. The Canaries became a stopping point for the Spanish conquerors, traders, and missionaries on their way to the New World, which in turn bought prosperity, religion and adventurers from all over Europe. Unfortunately this new-found wealth also attracted pirates, privateers, slave traders and other crowns who wanted to expand their empires. 

Lord Nelson’s Arm – Lost in Tenerife

Over the next few centuries there were many bloody battles fought over the different islands. Including a battle in 1797, which has become famous because of one man, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. During The Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the British were defeated and lost almost 400 men, whilst under Nelson’s command. Lord Nelson did manage to escape with his life, but did lose his right arm in the fight and was forced to return to England to recuperate. 

So, even though many people have tried to capture, other throw and recolonise the Canary islands over the centuries, Castile, or what is now known more colloquially as Spain, is still its rightful owner. And although you won’t see Flamenco dancers or sombrero hats, or hear they “Th’Th’Th” Spanish language that you are used to in the Costas, you will get to enjoy some delicious Spanish style foods, infused with a little South American flair and hear a rather more gravelly accent than you are used to, but they will both be delivered by warm, kind, hospitable people who have called the Canaries home for centuries and could very well be related to the original settlers on the islands, from all those years ago. 


Any Comments or Questions? Drop me a line below. 


Thanks 


The Ed