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The Spanish inquisition in the Canary Islands 

Mention the Spanish Inquisition to many people and images of the ridiculous ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ sketch come to mind, when bursting into a room shouting, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” was bound to break the ice at parties, and then there was the singing and dancing Spanish Inquisition in Mel Brook’s film ‘History of The World, Part One’, complete with nuns and synchronised swimming.

Of course the Spanish Inquisition was anything but a source of fun. We think of it as a terribly cruel and sadistic organisation, and yet it has its apologists. The historian R. Trevor Davies wrote;

“Popular tradition dies so hard that it is still necessary to point out that the Spanish inquisition, judged by the standards of the time, was neither cruel nor unjust in its procedure and its penalties. In many ways it was more just and humane than almost any other tribunal in Europe.”

“And we British aren’t exactly innocent little lambs in this; the Spanish ambassador at the court of Queen Elizabeth I criticised the English inquisition for its harshness in using “a variety of terrible tortures”, on any Catholic priest who fell into its clutches.

Henry Charles Lea wrote a book entitled ‘A History of the Inquisition of Spain’ which was published in 1907, in four thick volumes that contain many references to the Canary Islands.

The first ‘official’ Tribunal of the Inquisition in the Canaries was established at La Palma in 1505, although it had been preceded by the Bishop of the Canaries who established an Episcopal Inquisition in 1499, only four years after the conquest of the island of Tenerife.

A quarrel arose between the Inquisition and the Spanish monarchy over the (profitable) patronage of Canarian churches, when the Inquisition claimed the patronage for its own benefit. The quarrel lasted for over fifty years, from 1559 to about 1611 when King Philip III took it on himself to make appointments, but since he was basically lazy and pleasure-loving, he soon backed down in the face of protests from the Inquisition.

The quarrel was revived when Inquisitors in the Canaries were accused of committing ‘excesses’ while they were collecting what were described as ‘their fruits’ from the people, and the accuracy of their financial accounts was also questioned. The Inquisition was a law unto itself, independent of the monarchy and its government, so in retaliation it prohibited the departure of any vessel from Spain bound for Tenerife, which was the focal point of all communications between the Canaries and the mainland.

With regard to the treatment meted out to victims when they fell foul of the Inquisition, conditions in prison could be appalling. Henry Charles Lea wrote;

“The prison of the Canarian Tribunal at times seems to have been equally mismanaged. An Englishman named John Hill was brought there from Ferro, June 23, 1574, with nothing but his clothes and no money. For nine months his complaints were loud and frequent; a day’s ration was sufficient for only a single meal; he begged for more bread and water, also for a mat to lie on, as he had to sleep on the ground and he could not rest for the lice and the fleas; for more than two months he prayed for a shirt to cover his nakedness and, though an order was issued, January 22nd, to give him one, it had to be repeated, February 18th.”

As late as 1792 a Spanish prisoner was only allowed to change his linen once in two weeks. He complained that the jailer or governor kept him on a diet of salt fish and as a consequence he suffered terribly from thirst. And yet other entries in the Canarian records demonstrate kindness to prisoners, so it seems that the treatment of prisoners depended on the temperament of individual officials.

Sailors, if they were heretics, in other words Protestants, or Jews or Muslims, or other heathens, were at the mercy of the Inquisition if they entered a Spanish port. At one time the frequent visits of merchant ships to the Canaries provided the Tribunal with most of its work. For example there were seventeen English sailors from a fishing boat that had been captured by a French ship and abandoned on the coast of Fuerteventura;

“… they were tried and escaped burning by conversion (to Catholicism), after which four of them … managed to escape. As this showed them to be impenitent they were prosecuted in absentia for relapse, and their effigies solemnly burnt in an auto of July 1587.”

The Tribune of the Inquisition had its own secret prison where, over a period of only six months in 1593, almost sixty men of English, German and Flemish nationalities, passed through. But the motive for imprisonment often seemed to have been the promise of impounded and forfeited loot from the cargoes of their ships, rather than the prosecution and forced conversion of heretics themselves.

There were occasional purges by the Inquisition to root out offensive literature. In 1645 the Tribune at Orotava, although it had no legal basis to do so, ordered a search for forbidden books in all houses belonging to English mer-chants. Nothing objectionable was found, but perhaps, thought Henry Charles Lea, the commissioners had been paid by the Protestant merchants not to find anything – a protection racket in other words.

The most dreaded punishment of the Spanish Inquisition was the auto-da-fe, the carrying out in public of the sentence given by the Inquisition, especially, and most notoriously, the burning of heretics. In this, victims in the Canaries actually got off lightly, for during the whole 300 years and more of the Tribunal of the Canaries only 11 people were burnt in person and 107 in effigy. This last figure included Moorish and Negro slaves who, after their enforced baptism into ‘Christianity’, had escaped and were therefore presumed to have lapsed into their former religion. This seems ridiculous to us today, but being burnt in effigy was a serious business until, towards the end of the Inquisition, effigies of sentenced heretics were burnt more to provide entertainment and to add interest at the autos.

Inspections of Inquisition Tribunals, which at first used to be regular, later were often carried out only when it was deemed necessary – most likely as a result of complaints. An inspection of the Canarian Tribunal carried out between 1595 and 1597 ended in an enormous report of 1,124 folios. This was very unusual when reports of 300-500 pages were considered large but not common.

In 1713 the Canarian Inquisition got its come-uppance when everything that it had done in archipelago was revoked, the Inquisitors were recalled and the church gave them no other appointments, so serious were their misdemeanours. Nationally, the wider conflict between the king and the Inquisition continued until, finally, the Spanish Inquisition, for ever associated with the harsh repression of freedom of thought, speech and general liberty, was abolished in 1814 by political pressure on King Ferdinand VII.