I wouldn’t mind betting that you have, in the past, spent a holiday, or maybe even multiple holidays in the Canary Islands. And I’m sure you had a wonderful time. But you may well have looked up to those soaring peaks and across the volcanic soil and wondered about how it all came into being. How were the islands themselves shaped, and who were the first people to set foot on them? Well, if it’s Canary Islands’ history you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.
To get you started and introduce you to the stories of this fascinating archipelago, we thought we’d share a few interesting, quirky facts about the history of the Canary Islands, including their geology and their social and cultural histories.
If this whets your appetite, then there’s no better way of finding out more about the Canary Islands’ history and culture than planning your very own voyage of discovery.
Canary Islands’ history: fun facts
These facts will be fantastic for impressing your family or travel buddies with over dinner on your next trip to the Canaries.
1. The Canary Isles weren’t named after the birds…
… but the birds were named after the islands. If you’ve been asking yourself after which animals are the Canary Islands named, then you’ll be interested to know that the name for the islands actually came from the Latin term for the island, Insula Canaria, meaning ‘Island of the Dogs’.
The jury is still out on exactly where that name came from, but many people think it’s a result of the large population of ‘sea dogs’, as the Romans called them, living on the island at the time, which were actually monk seals. These days, these seals can’t be found on the Canary Islands anymore, as they’re critically endangered.
On the other hand, there is a legend that the first inhabitants of these islands once worshipped dogs, so some of the earliest visitors named the people ‘the ones with dogs’.
2. Canarian people have been inhabiting these islands for at least 3000 years
And on the subject of the Canary Islands indigenous people, they were called the Guanches. It’s been confirmed that they were genetically similar to the Berber people that lived on the North African mainland, and that they made it to the archipelago as far back as 1000 BCE, or maybe earlier.
Interestingly, they were the only native people to have lived in this region before the Europeans showed up, as it seems that the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira were uninhabited.
The Guanches were, over the years, assimilated into the general population, but many of their customs and traditions have survived.
The Spanish finally claimed the 7 Canary Islands in the 15th century
Before the Spanish conquered the islands, they had been visited by an expedition from Mauritania, the king of which recounted the story to Pliny the Elder. That was how the Romans learned of the existence of the ‘Islands of the Dogs’.
The Arabs landed and traded on Gran Canaria in 999, and over the 13th and 14th centuries, they would be visited by Genoese, Majorcan, Portuguese and French sailors.
French and Portuguese forces occupied several of the islands, but they were handed over to the Spanish in a treaty in the 15th century, and the Spanish would have control of all the islands by the time the 16th century rolled around, using them as their base for their explorations to the west.
3. Fascinating facts about the Canary Islands: they’re far closer to Africa than Spain
If you look at a map, you might be surprised by just how close the Canary Islands are to the African mainland. They sit on the African tectonic plate. They’re so close that the eastern-most islands are only just over 100km from the African coast, whereas mainland Spain is 1,056km away.
In fact, it’s widely believed that the sand that makes up the incredible Corralejo sand dunes on the island of Fuerteventura was blown here from the Sahara. That’s been proved not to be the case, but it still makes a great story, and the dunes are a spectacular sight to behold.
4. Geology of the Canary Islands: Mount Teide is the third-largest volcano in the world
The majority of the Canary Islands were all formed by ancient volcanic activity, but some are far less ancient than others. The oldest of the islands are Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, the eastern-most islands.
From there the chain stretches westwards with the islands gradually getting younger as you move to Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro.
Mount Teide, or El Teide, on Tenerife, is the third-largest volcano in the world and Spain’s highest peak, 3,718m high.
It’s only La Palma and El Hierro that are still above the hotspot that forged these dramatic islands. Cumbre Vieja on La Palma is the most active volcano in the archipelago, having erupted in 1949 and 1971, but they’re closely monitored, so it’s quite safe to enjoy a holiday on these more out of the way, lesser known, slightly different Canary Islands.
5. Canary Islands’ culture: the famous whistling language
On the subject of the quietest Canary Islands, not overrun with crowds of tourists, La Gomera is a gem of an island that’s famous for a special reason.
The local population developed a whistling language, known as Silbo Gomero, as a means of communication across the ravines and valleys. It’s still taught in schools, used for announcements, and has been awarded UNESCO status as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
This language already existed before the arrival of the Spanish settlers, and although it has been adapted to blend it with Spanish, it’s still very much a part of the original culture of the islands.
There’s so much more to discover about the Canary archipelago
Whether you’re fascinated by geology or you’re a bit of a culture-vulture, there are huge amounts for you to uncover when it comes to the Canary Islands’ history.
Dive right in and discover the landscape, get to know the people and sample the cuisine, and we’re sure you’ll be back for more.