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Canary Islands

Canary Islands Collection

History Archive - Canary Islands Collection

The Canary Islands (Canarias) are a Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean facing the western coast of Africa, between the parallels of 27°4' and 29°3'N. lat., and the meridians of 13°3' and 18°2'W. long. They consist of seven important islands and some islets. From east to west the first encountered are Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, the nearest to the African continent; then come Tenerife and Gran Canaria, while farther westward are Palma, Gomera, and Hierro (or Ferro). The total area of the islands is about 3256 square miles; their population, according to the census of 1900, was 358,564.

The country in general is mountainous and volcanic; in Tenerife the Pico de Teyde, or Peak of Tenerife, reaches the height of 12,200 feet, and towers above the other mountains which extend throughout the islands, generally from north-east to south-west. Natural caverns abound, some of them very extensive. There is no great river, but there are numerous springs and torrents.

The fauna differs little from that of Europe, with the exception of the dromedary and the thistle-finch, or canary-bird. There are extensive forests of pine and laurel, and some stems reach a gigantic height. The climate of the islands is mild and salubrious; hence they are much frequented as winter resorts.

The Canary Islands are essentially agricultural. Their soil, usually fertile, though subject to frequent droughts, produces an abundance of fruits, sugar-cane, and tobacco. The wines are exquisite, and together with the fruits, tobacco, and fish, which is good and plentiful, form the principal articles of commerce for export. Much cochineal, also, is manufactured in the islands. The most important centres of population are: Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Orotava, and La Laguna in the island of Tenerife; Las Palmas and Arracife in Gran Canaria; Santa Cruz de la Palma in the island of Palma; Quia and Valverde in that of Hierro.


The Canary Islands are located about 60 m. W. of the African coast, between 27° 40' and 29° 30' N., and between 13° 20' and 18° 10' W. Pop. (1900) 358,564; area 2807 sq. m. The Canary Islands resemble a roughly-drawn semicircle, with its convex side facing south-wards, and with the island of Hierro detached on the south-west. More precisely, they may be considered as two groups, one of which, including Teneriffe, Grand Canary, Palma, Hierro and Gomera, consists of mountain peaks, isolated and rising directly from an ocean of great depth; while the other, comprising Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and six uninhabited islets, is based on a single submarine plateau, of far less depth.

Teneriffe and Gomera, the only members of the principal group which have a common base, may be regarded as the twin peaks of one great volcanic mass. Ever since the researches of Leopold von Buch the Canary Islands have been classical ground to the student of volcanic action. Buch considered them to be representative of his "craters of elevation." In common with the other West African islands they are of volcanic origin. The lavas consist chiefly of trachytes and basalts.

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From April to October a north or north-east wind blows upon the islands, beginning about 10 a.m. and continuing until 5 or 6 p.m. In summer this wind produces a dense stratum of sea-cloud (cumuloni), 500 ft. thick, whose lower surface is about 2500 ft. above the sea at Teneriffe. This does not reach up to the mountains, which have on every side a stratum of their own, about 1000 ft. thick, the lower surface being about 3500 ft. above the level of the sea.

Between these two distinct strata there is a gap, through which persons on a vessel near the island may obtain a glimpse of the peak. The sea-cloud conceals from view the other islands, except those whose mountains pierce through it. On the south-west coasts there is no regular sea or land breeze. In winter they are occasionally visited by a hot south-east wind from Africa, which is called the Levante, and produces various disagreeable consequences on the exposed parts of the person, besides injuring the vegetation, especially on the higher grounds. Locusts have sometimes been brought by this wind.

In 1812 it is said that locusts covered some fields in Fuerteventura to the depth of 4 ft. Hurricanes, accompanied by waterspouts, sometimes cause much devastation; but, on the whole, the islands are singularly free from such visitations. The climate generally is mild, dry and healthy. On the lower grounds the temperature is equable, the daily range seldom exceeding 6° Fahr. At Santa Cruz the mean for the year is about 71°. The rainy season occurs at the same period as in southern Europe. The dry season is at the time of the trade-winds, which extend a few degrees farther north than this latitude.


The indigenous mammals of the Canary Islands are very few in number. The dog, swine, goat and sheep were alone found upon the island by the Spanish conquerors: The race of large dogs which is supposed to have given a name to the islands has been long extinct. A single skeleton has been found, which is deposited in one of the museums at Paris. The ferret, rabbit, cat, rat, mouse and two kinds of bat have become naturalized.

The ornithology is more interesting, on account at once of the birds native to the islands, and the stragglers from the African coast, which are chiefly brought over in winter, when the wind has blown for some time from the east. Among the indigenous birds are some birds of prey, as the African vulture, the falcon, the buzzard, the sparrow-hawk and the kite. There are also two species of owl, three species of sea-mew, the stockdove, quail, raven, magpie, chaffinch, goldfinch, blackcap, canary, titmouse, blackbird, house-swallow, &c.

As to the insects, mention may be made of a species of gnat or mosquito which is sometimes troublesome, especially to strangers. The list of reptiles is limited to three varieties of lizard and one species of frog.

The only fresh-water fish is the eel. Marine fishes are not numerous, the reason perhaps being that the steepness of the coast does not allow seaweed to grow in sufficient quantity to support the lower forms of marine animal life. Whales and seals are occasionally seen. The cuttle-fish is abundant, and is sought for as an article of food.


The position of mountainous islands like the Canaries, in the subtropical division of the temperate zone, is highly favourable to the development, within a small space, of plants characteristic of both warm and cold climates. Von Buch refers to five regions of vegetation in Teneriffe:—

(1) From the sea to the height of 1300 ft. This he styles the African region. The climate in the hottest parts is similar to that of Egypt. Here grow, among the introduced plants, the coffee tree, the date-palm, the sugar-cane, the banana, the orange tree, the American agave and two species of cactus; and among indigenous plants, the dragon tree on the north-west of Teneriffe. A leafless and fantastic euphorbia, E. canariensis, and a shrubby composite plant, Cacalia kleinia, give a character to the landscape about Santa Cruz.

(2) Between 1300 ft. and 2800 ft. This is the region of south European vegetation, the climate answering to that of southern France and central Italy. Here nourish vines and cereals.

(3) The region of indigenous trees, including various species of laurel, an Ardisia, Ilex, Rhamnus, Olea, Myrica, and other trees found wild also at Madeira. The clouds rest on this region during the day, and by their humidity support a vegetation amongst the trees, partly of shrubs, and partly of ferns. It extends to the height of 4000 ft.

(4) The region of the beautiful Pinus canariensis, extending to the height of 6400 ft.; here the broad-leaved trees have ceased to grow, but arborescent heaths are found throughout its whole extent, and specimens of Juniperus oxycedrus may be met with.

(5) The region of Retama (Cytisus nubigenus), a species of white-flowering and sweet-scented broom, which is found as high as 11,000 ft. At the upper edge of this region a lilac-coloured violet clings to the soil, and above there is nothing but a little lichen. The number of wild flowering plants may be estimated at 900, upwards of 270 of which are peculiar to the Canaries. The forms of vegetation must in the main be considered North African. The character of the vegetation in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, islands composed of extensive plains and low hills, with few springs, is different from that of the other islands, which are more elevated and have many springs. The wood is less abundant, and the vegetation less luxuriant.


The archipelago forms one Spanish province, of which the capital is Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the residence of the civil governor, who has under his command one of the two districts into which the archipelago is divided, this first district comprising Teneriffe, Palma, Gomera and Hierro.

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The other district includes Grand Canary, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and has at its head a sub-governor, residing in Las Palmas, on Grand Canary, who is independent of the governor except in regard to elections and municipal administration. The chief finance office is at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The court of appeal, created in 1526, is in Las Palmas. The captain-general and second commandant of the archipelago reside in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and there is a brigadier-governor of Grand Canary, residing in Las Palmas, besides eight inferior military commandants.

The province furnishes no men for the Spanish peninsular army, but its annual conscription provides men for the local territorial militia, composed of regiments of infantry, squadrons of mounted rifles and companies of garrison artillery—about 5000 men all told. The archipelago is divided into two naval districts, commanded by royal navy captains. Roman Catholicism is the official religion, and ecclesiastical law is the same as in other Spanish provinces. The convents have been suppressed, and in many cases converted to secular uses. Laguna and Las Palmas are episcopal sees, in the archbishopric of Seville.

Civil and Ecclesiastical Divisions

The Canary Islands constitute a civil province, a judicial district (audiencia), with its seat at Palmas, for the administration of justice, and a military governorship (captaincy-general). Ecclesiastically they are divided into two dioceses, suffragan of Seville, that of Tenerife, with episcopal residence at Santa Cruz, and that of Canaries, with residence at Las Palmas.

In 1906 the Diocese of Tenerife, which comprises the islands of Tenerife, Gomera, Palma, and Hierro, had a Catholic population of 171,045, with 62 parishes, 86 priests, 60 churches, and 167 chapels; while the Diocese of Canaries had a Catholic population of 83,378, 50 Protestants, 42 parishes, 103 priests, 42 churches, and 113 chapels, and comprises the Grand Canary, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote.

The courts are held at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. All ports are free, i.e. merchandise entering them is exempt from duty. The inhabitants satisfy the obligation of military service, not in the ranks of the peninsular army, but in the local territorial militia.


Owing to the richness of the volcanic soil, agriculture in the Canaries is usually very profitable. Land varies in value according to the amount of water available, but as a rule commands an extraordinarily high price. In the Terrenos de secano, or non-irrigable districts, the average price of an acre ranges from £7 to £17; in the Terrenes de riego, or irrigable land, it ranges from £100 to £250.

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Until 1853 wine was the staple product, and although even the finest brand (known as Vidonia) never equalled the best Madeira vintages, it was largely consumed abroad, especially in England. The annual value of the wine exported often exceeded £500,000. In 1853, however, the grape disease attacked the vineyards; and thenceforward the production of cochineal, which had been introduced in 1825, took the place of viticulture so completely that, twenty years later, the exports of cochineal were worth £556,000. France and England were the chief purchasers. This industry declined in the later years of the 19th century, and was supplanted by the cultivation of sugar-cane, and afterwards of bananas, tomatoes, potatoes and onions. Bananas are the most important crop. Other fruits grown in smaller quantities include oranges, figs, dates, pineapples, guavas, custard-apples and prickly pears. Tobacco-planting is encouraged by the Spanish government, and the sugar trade is maintained, despite severe competition. The grain harvest does not supply the needs of the islanders. Pigs and sheep of a small, coarse-woolled breed, are numerous; and large herds of goats wander in an almost wild state over the higher hills. Fishing is a very important industry, employing over 10,000 hands. The fleet of about 2200 boats operates along some 600 m. of the African coast, between Cape Cantin and the Arguin Bank. Shipbuilding is carried on at Las Palmas; and the minor industries include the manufacture of cloth, drawn-linen (calado) work, silk, baskets, hats, &c. A group of Indian merchants, who employ coolie labour, produce silken, jute and cotton goods, Oriental embroideries, wrought silver, brass-ware, porcelain, carved sandal-wood, &c. The United Kingdom heads the import trade in coal, textiles, hardware, iron, soap, candles and colonial products. Timber comes chiefly from North America and Scandinavia, alcohol from Cuba and the United States, wheat and flour from various British possessions, maize from Morocco and Argentina. Large quantities of miscellaneous imports are sent by Germany, Spain, France and Italy. Bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, sugar and wine are exported. The total value of the foreign trade fluctuates very greatly, and the difficulty of forming an estimate is enhanced in many years by the absence of official statistics; but imports and exports together probably amount in a normal year to about £1,000,000. The chief ports are Las Palmas and Santa Cruz, which annually accommodate about 7000 vessels of over 8,000,000 tons. In 1854 all the ports of the Canaries were practically declared free; but on the 1st of November 1904 a royal order prohibited foreign vessels from trading between one island and another. This decree deprived the outlying islands of their usual means of communication, and, in answer to a protest by the inhabitants, its operation was postponed.


The primitive populations of the Canary Islands were the Guanches, a white race, vigorous, of high stature, fair-haired and blue-eyed, and leading mostly a pastoral life. At the time of their conquest by the Europeans they used weapons and utensils of wood and stone, were clothed in skins of animals, and lived in the numerous natural grottos.

Their ornaments were of bone, sea-shells, and baked clay. They were hospitable and deeply attached to their independence. Each island was divided into separate states, ruled over by kings, who were assisted by the chiefs of the noble families and the most esteemed priests or soothsayers. They held their meetings in the open air in places specially intended for this purpose.

They were monotheists and made offerings of domestic animals, milk, and fruit to the Supreme Being. At some early date Old World peoples from Africa and Asia reached these islands and founded there permanent colonies, blending with the aboriginal stock. Their invasions are attested by archaeological remains and inscriptions; certain Numidian inscriptions on the rocks of Gran Canaria and Hierro are similar to those discovered in Africa. An Aragonese fleet explored the islands in 1330.

Another Castilian coasting expedition, sent forth by merchants of Seville and Biscay, disembarked, in 1385, in Lanzarote and vanquished the aborigines, but did not found any lasting settlement. This was not accomplished until the expedition of Jean de Bethencourt, a French nobleman, who in virtue of a mission confided to him by the King of Castile, Henry III, conquered, from 1402 to 1405, the islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gomera, and Hierro. The conquest of Gran Canaria, Palma, and Tenerife was effected during the reign of the Catholic sovereigns, from 1478 to 1495, by Diego Garcia de Herrera, Pedro de Vera, and Alonso Fernandez de Lugo, but not without heroic resistance on the part of the Guanches.

Combined action on the part of Church and State helped to Christianize and civilize the Guanches, and gave excellent results. The people abandoned their heathen practices and willingly embraced Christianity. The Catholic priest was always a brave protector of the natives against the vexations to which, in the early days of the conquest, they were occasionally exposed at the hands of their conquerors. Among the most deserving ecclesiastics in this respect is Don Juan de Frias, Bishop of Gran Canaria at the close of the fifteenth century. The Catholic sovereigns dictated wise provisional measures in order to protect the lives and farms of the aborigines, and after the conclusion of the war gave them the right to participate in the government of the islands. Owing to frequent marriages between Spaniards and Guanches, the fusion of both races was finally accomplished, and this community of affection and interest became a powerful factor in the economic prosperity of the islands.

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There is ground for supposing that the Phoenicians were not ignorant of the Canaries. The Romans learned of their existence through Juba, king of Mauretania, whose account of an expedition to the islands, made about 40 B.C., was preserved by the elder Pliny. He mentions "Canaria, so called from the multitude of dogs of great size," and "Nivaria, taking its name from perpetual snow, and covered with clouds," doubtless Teneriffe. Canaria was said to abound in palms and pine trees. Both Plutarch and Ptolemy speak of the Fortunate Islands, but from their description it is not clear whether the Canaries or one of the other island groups in the western Atlantic are meant; see Isles Of The Blest. In the 12th century the Canaries were visited by Arab navigators, and in 1334 they were rediscovered by a French vessel driven among them by a gale. A Portuguese expedition, undertaken about the same time, failed to find the archipelago, and want of means frustrated the project of conquest entertained by a grandson of Alphonso X. of Castile, named Juan de la Cerda, who had obtained a grant of the islands and had been crowned king of them at Avignon, by Pope Clement VI. Two or possibly more Spanish expeditions followed, and a monastic mission was established, but at the close of the 14th century the Guanches remained unconquered and unconverted. In 1402, however, Gadifer de la Salle and Jean de Bethencourt sailed with two vessels from Rochelle, and landed early in July on Lanzarote. The relations between these two leaders, and their respective shares in the work of conquest and exploration, have been the subject of much controversy. Between 1402 and 1404 La Salle conquered Lanzarote and part of Fuerteventura, besides exploring other islands; Bethencourt meanwhile sailed to Cadiz for reinforcements. He returned in 1404 with the title of king, which he had secured from Henry III. of Castile. La Salle, thus placed in a position of inferiority, left the islands and appealed unsuccessfully for redress at the court of Castile. In 1405 Bethencourt visited Normandy, and returned with fresh colonists who conquered Hierro. In December 1406 he left the Canaries, entrusting their government to his nephew Maciot de Bethencourt, and reserving for himself a share in any profits obtained, and the royal title. Eight years of misrule followed before Queen Catherine of Castile intervened. Maciot thereupon sold his office to her envoy, Pedro Barba de Campos; sailed to Lisbon and resold it to Prince Henry the Navigator; and a few years afterwards resold it once more to Enrique de Guzman, count of Niebla. Jean de Bethencourt, who died in 1422, bequeathed the islands to his brother Reynaud; Guzman sold them to another Spaniard named Paraza, who was forced to re-sell to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile in 1476; and Prince Henry twice endeavoured to enforce his own claims. Meanwhile the Guanches remained unconquered throughout the greater part of the archipelago. In 1479 the sovereignty of Ferdinand and Isabella over the Canaries was established by the treaty of Alcaçova, between Portugal and Castile. After much bloodshed, and with reinforcements from the mother country, the Spaniards, under Pedro de Vera, became masters of Grand Canary in 1483. Palma was conquered in 1491, and Teneriffe in 1495, by Alonzo de Lugo. The archipelago was included for administrative purposes in the captaincy-general of Andalusia until 1833, when it was made a separate province. In 1902 a movement in favour of local autonomy was repressed by Spanish troops.

For a general description of the islands, see Les Iles Canaries, by J. Pitard and L. Proust (Paris, 1909); Madeira and the Canary Islands, by A. Samler Brown, a guide for travellers and invalids, with coloured maps and plates (London, 1901); A Guide to the Canary Islands, by J. H. T. Ellerbeck (London, 1892); The Canary Islands as a Winter Resort, by J. Whitford (London, 1890, with maps and illustrations); De la Tierra Canaria, by L. and A. Millares Cubas (Madrid, 1894); and Physikalische Beschreibung der kanarischen Inseln, by L. von Buch (Berlin, 1825). Besides the interesting folio atlas of von Buch (Paris, 1836), good modern maps have been published by E. Stanford (London, 1891, 12½ English m. to 1 in.), and M. Perez y Rodriquez (Madrid, 1896–1898, 4 sheets). See also Histoire naturelle des îles Canaries, by P. Barker-Webb and S. Berthelot (Paris, 1835–1849); and "Les Îles Canaries et les parages de pêche canariens," by Dr. A. Taquin, in the B.S.R. Beige G. 26 (1902), and 27 (1903); and, for history and antiquities, the Historia general de las islas Canarias, by A. Millares Cubas, in 10 vols. (Las Palmas, 1893–1895), and Historia de la Inquisicion en las islas Canarias, by the same author (Las Palmas, 1874); Antiquites canariennes, by S. Berthelot (Paris, 1879).


1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 5. pgs. 172-174.

Eduardo de Hinojosa, Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 3 (1913)

Available Books


Image Name
Hat Seller of Grand Canary
Front Cover
Botanical Gardens, Orotava
The Canary Pine
Manto y Saya Canaries
Puerto Orotava
Realejo Alto
Almond Blossom, Valley of Orotava
Militiaman of Grand Canary
A Banana Cart
San Sebastian
San Domingo, Villa Orotava
El Sitio Del Pardo
Statices and Pride of Teneriffe
Title Page
An Old Balcony
La Paz
Natives of Fuerteventura
Convent of Sant Augustin, Icod de los Vinos
Tapadas or Walking Dress Canaries
A Spanish Garden
A Street in Puerto Orotava
Las Palmas
A Patio
Sketch Map of the Canary Islands
Title Page
Winter Dress of a Native of Lanzarote
Back Cover
The Peak, from Villa Orotava
An Old Gateway
Entrance to a Spanish Villa


Map Name
The Canary Islands, Painted and Described - Sketch Map of the Canary Islands (1911)


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