King Of The Canary Islands – Jean De Bethancourt

An Article By Bernie Power with The Voice Fuerteventura

Bernie Power

Betancuria was the original Capital of the island of Fuerteventura and as you wander around the old town or drive down one of the streets ‘calles’ or avenues ‘avenidas,’ reminders of Jean de Bethancourt are everywhere.

You could almost imagine you knew the man who gave his name to so much of the island and was the first and last King of the Canary Islands. However, he was not alone and had Generals with him, who were to play a forgotten part in the capture and settlement of the island.

Gadifer de la Salle 

His friend and second in command was Gadifer de la Salle, a fellow Norman from France and a soldier of the hundred years war. The other party was Berthin de Bernaval, who signed up to enrich himself only. They were given the opportunity to make an invasion on behalf of the King of Castile, Henry III. Putting up half of the cost of the venture, they set out in 1402 for Lanzarote. The natives there were used to Europeans, having been settled some 90 years earlier by the Portuguese, under the captaincy of Lancelotto Malocello; A Genoese navigator who gave the island its name, Lanzarote. Bethancourt left soon for Spain in order to ask the king for more ships and supplies and to tell him of their success and discovery of the string of islands. 


Gadifer de la Salle set off for what he called ‘Fortaventura’ or land of strong winds, a name given to the island by Mallorcan navigator Angelino Dulcert in 1339 from the two words ‘fuerte’ meaning strong and ‘ventura’ meaning wind. Although he searched for 8 days, he found no inhabitants. All six-hundred people ‘mahos’ who lived here back then, had disappeared into the mountains.

On his way back to Lanzarote he stopped off at the isle of Lobos and was amazed to see so many monk seals breeding there. They were known as Sea wolves and gave the island its name as ‘Lobos’ means wolves in Spanish. These were a useful food, source of fat and importantly their skin was very tough. It was used to make the shoes that the soldiers desperately needed. Lobos, of course, has no water source nor fuel, so they sent the boat to Lanzarote for supplies. Sadly, the monk seals did not survive the mass slaughter and can no longer be found on Lobos Island.

Berthin de Bernaval

Unfortunately, Berthin de Bernaval had taken over in Gadifer de la Salle’s absence and had managed to trick the king and twenty-four of his men, which he enslaved with the intent to sell. He captured the rescue ship, loaded up all the property and supplies, then sailed away to a nearby small island called La Graciosa, leaving Gadifer and his crew for dead. With the help of some monks and a friendly sailor, they managed to find a small boat and set off to save Gadifer and his crew just in time.

Lies, Shipwrecks & Slavery

Berthin decided he could dodge prosecution if he got back to Spain and told lots of lies, so he dumped his crew to remove any possible witnesses, and set off for Spain. There he brazenly tried to sell his slaves, before he was arrested and imprisoned. His mutinous crew fared worse, as they sailed on to Morocco and were shipwrecked; Eight died and the two survivors were captured by Arab slavers and sold.

The First Capital

Betancourt came back and had a mighty task of reorganising his new land. He brought loyal soldiers and some settlers with him and by 1404 had started the new capital of Betancuria. He lived there for 7 years before he gave all the island to his nephew, Maciot, and went back to France. Gadifer was so angry that he was not being rewarded, that he packed up and went back to France too. Only the most hardy people could survive here back then and so Spanish farmers arrived and settled in around the new town of Betancuria.