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The Canary Islands before the tourists came 

Since the 1960’s the economy of the Canary Islands has been increasingly and heavily dependent upon tourism, a large percentage of which is British, but long, long before then the British Isles were the main trading partners for products of the islands.

In 1489, several years before the conquest, in 1496, of Tenerife, trade between the Canary Islands and England was authorised by the Treaty of Medina del Campo on behalf of the ‘Catholic Kings’ of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. However, the treaty was not implemented until 1519, at a time when their successor, Charles V, was trying to influence Henry VIII of England into becoming his ally against France, and a company was formed in Bristol to trade with the Canaries, the Azores and Malta. This led to the establishment of regular sea-trading routes and ‘factories’, or trading stations, in the islands by British traders and their agents. One such agent was Thomas Nichols, who arrived in the Canaries about 1554 to spend seven years as agent for several London merchants, who, on his return to England, wrote a description of the islands.

A demand had been created for the main Canarian products of sugar and wine. The English started in wine production themselves on El Hierro, which was exported to the Spanish Indies and British colonies in America. This Canarian wine was called malvaisa, or, as it was referred to by Shakespeare, amongst others, malmsey wine. However, the relations with England were not always harmoniously commercial. English pirate attacks on the Spanish navy began in 1540 and continued with the likes of Drake and Hawkins. With the growth of Protestantism during the 16th century formal political relationships with Spain deteriorated, especially during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and hostilities continued but, nevertheless, trade between England and the Canary Islands went on unabated.

One hundred years later, in the middle of the seventeenth century when trade with the Americas was increasing and the main trading partners for the Canaries were England, Holland, Scotland, France and the city of Hamburg, these vulnerable and tempting islands were suffering from constant attacks by foreigners. Trouble in Canarian waters came especially during the puritan English Common-wealth under the Oliver Cromwell, who regarded Catholicism as all that was unholy and was therefore a natural and justifiable enemy.

Then in 1660, on the accession of Charles II of England and Scotland, peace with Spain returned and this had beneficial effects on the Canaries. The Compana de Canaria was formed, and an old Act of 1633 was reaffirmed to the great benefit especially of Garachico, which was then at the heart of the wine trade. However, the company created a monopoly of labour and price control, a system that was open to abuse. The people of Garachico resented the system so strongly that they attacked the English warehouses in July 1666, broke the wine barrels and poured away the wine. This event, known as the ‘Wine Spill’, is commemorated by a statue in Garachico. The English traders were expelled the following year and the company was dissolved, which led to the paralysis of the wine trade. There was a brief recovery but the English gradually moved their business over to Portuguese wines, the main trade being between England and Barbados with wine from Madeira. Now the balance of trade was to the detriment of the Canaries, and the last 25 years of the century saw political relations again becoming more fractious.

At the beginning of the 18th century the major part of Spanish trade, including slaves, was with England and despite the Spanish War of Succession (1702-1713), in which England was one of the protagoniosts, the Canaries were granted a royal licence from Philip V to trade with England. Around the time of the start of war the Canary Islands were experiencing an increase in population but otherwise, as far as the Islands were concerned, the 18th century began badly, with volcanic eruptions in May 1706 that destroyed the port of Garachico and much fertile land, followed by a succession of disasters – a hurricane in 1723, a famine and a plague in 1748, then the failure of the wheat crop in 1749, and so on. The ‘Fortunate Islands’ were not so fortunate about that time.

The intermittent state of war between Spain and Britain was renewed in 1739 with the ‘War of Jenkin’s Ear’ that ended in 1748, after which Britain replaced Austria as Spain’s major enemy, and yet amicable trade was revived. In the middle years of the century the balance of trade between Britain and the Canaries was once again firmly in England’s favour, the Canarians were importing more from England than they exported. Their exports were wine, ‘dragon’s blood’, orchil (a lichen for dyes) and hides, while the imports were linen, woollen tapestries, rolls of wool, wax, cordage, wood and food products. But in general, no matter what the political relations were, trade between England and the Canaries was carried on throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, albeit with the occasional interruption by pirates.

During the 19th century the wine and cochineal exports continued. The trade in cochineal was small yet still important, but at the International Exhibition held in London in 1862 artificial dyes as alternatives were displayed that forced down the price of cochineal by almost half. Tobacco growing and processing on the Cuban model was tried in Tenerife that became a lifeline, although it proved to be no substitute. But then, later in the century, with the advent of steamships and the possibility of exporting fresh, delicate fruits, i.e. bananas and tomatoes, with Britain being the main customer (as well as the main investor), the Canarian economy was greatly boosted into the 20th century. Tinned food also became viable and the local fishing industry expanded, along with its associated canning industry, but then the world wide economic slump of 1929 followed by the Spanish Civil War halved the exports. There then followed a period of belt-tightening and self-sufficiency for the archipelago, before finally, in the 1960’s, someone invented package holidays and the rest is history.