History of Tenerife

Pre-Conquest History

Whilst there is much speculation and a lot of supposition about the history of Tenerife before the Castilian* conquest of the 15th Century, very little is known for sure. What is known is that the islands were inhabited by an aboriginal race known as the Guanches.

DNA and linguist analysis suggests that the Guanches were descendents of Berber tribes in North Africa. The Guanches immigrated to the islands some time between 1000 BC and 100 BC, though by the time of the Castilian conquest they had subsequently lost all knowledge of shipbuilding.

The Guanche lived a stone-age existence, wearing clothes made from goat’s skin or woven from plant fibres. They made rough pottery and fashioned ornaments and necklaces of wood, bones and shells.

The Guanches lived predominantly in the mountains and made their homes in natural or artificial caves, where this was not possible they built small round-houses and according to the Castilian conquistadores, practiced crude fortification. The Guanches had their own primitive religion and worshiped multiple pagan gods. Achamán (literally, ‘of the skies’) was the principal deity. The goddess Chaxiraxi (Sun Mother), who was worshipped during times of drought. And Guayota, a malignant deity who supposedly sent demons known as Tibicenas, represented by black dogs to do his bidding. Guayota was believed to inhabit the peak of Teide, known as Echeyde, or hell.

*The kingdoms of Castile and Aragon merged to form a unified Kingdom of Spain in the 16th Century. Castilian Conquest of Tenerife

At the time of Castilian conquest, Tenerife was divided into nine small kingdoms known as Menceyatos, each was ruled by a King, or Mencey. It’s important to recognise that not all of the Menceyatos resisted the Conquest. The Menceys of Anaga, Güímar, Abona and Adeje, sided with the conquistadores on the promise of richer lands in the north, whilst the Menceys of Tegueste, Tacoronte, Taoro, Icoden and Daute, put up a strong fight against the invading forces which were led by Alonso Fernández de Lugo.

Alonso Fernández de Lugo initially had force of over 1000 troops. However, he met with stiff resistance and the Castilian troops were beaten by 3300 Guanche warriors lead by the Mencey Bencomo and his half brother Tinguaro at the first battle of Acentejo in May 1494.

The resistance delayed the conquest for several months. Nevertheless Fernández de Lugo gathered more seasoned troops and defeat for the Guanches followed at the battle of Aguere later than same year. The battle took place near modern day La Laguna, 1200 infantry and 70 knights of the crown of Castile together with 600 Guanche allies defeated Bencomo's army of 6000 Guanche warriors. Bencomo was believed to have been slain during this battle.

The second battle of Acentejo followed soon after with the Guanches being led by Bencomo's son Bentor, but they were soon routed suffering some 1500 casualties to just a handful on the part of the crown of Castile. Whilst this was far from the last skirmish between the conquistadors and the natives, it was the decisive victory and effectively completed the Castilian conquest of the Island.

After the conquest, many of the natives were forced into slavery, particularly those from the menceyatos that resisted the invasion. But across the island many succumbed to diseases like flu and smallpox, to which due to their years of isolation the Guanches had little immunity to. Pockets of Guanche resistance remained in the mountains over the next 60-100 years, but gradually the natives were assimilated into the new social-economic system.

In the following century, Tenerife was settled by peoples from across the growing Spanish Empire and agriculture & trade became central to the island’s economy.

Large tracks of the pine forests were cleared to make way for sugar cane plantations, later tobacco, tomatoes and bananas became important cash-crops. The island also produced wine and cochineal, a food dye produced from a beetle of the same name. In the 16th and 17th Centuries the island became an important stop over point for voyages to the new world, but it also attracted some unwelcome visitors, namely the British who in 1797, attempted to invade the island.

The British attack was lead by none other than Admiral Horatio Nelson, who launched an unsuccessful assault on Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The battle was fierce and the many casualties on both sides, but the British were defeated†. Nelson famously lost his right arm to cannon fire whilst trying to disembark on the Paso Alto coast.

†One could say the British have since successfully invaded the island in the form of package holiday makers and there are now several unofficial, yet predominantly British enclaves on the south and west coast, including Callao Salvaje, Torviscas and Puerto Santiago.

Modern History and Tourism

It wasn’t until the 1890’s that tourism began on any scale. Preferring the northern towns of Puerto de la Cruz and Santa Cruz, your typical 19th Century tourist was not your “bucket-and-spade” type who’d just booked a package deal with Thomas Cook. These were the wealthy gentry who’d arrive on the island by tall-ship or steam ship, often for the purpose of convalescing in more temperate climes.

Whilst Tenerife North Airport opened to the public in 1946, the social upheaval following the Spanish Civil war and World War II, left Spain, now under the fascist rule of General Fransciso Franco, isolated.

Mass tourism began in the late 1960s, but the floodgates really opened following the restoration of Spanish democracy in 1976. Visitors continued to flock to the northern parts of the island until the opening of the second airport (Tenerife South) in 1978, which in turn lead to the expansion of the southern coastal resorts of Los Cristianos, Playa de Las Americas and Costa Adeje during the 1980s and 1990s.

Today the local economy is heavily focused on the tourism sector, with the traditional agricultural and fishing industries now accounting for less than 10 of GDP.

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