La Palma History - Canary Islands

Until the conquest of the island by the Spanish at the end of the fifteenth century, La Palma was inhabited by the Benahoaritas a pastoral people stemming from North Africa who grazed their goats on the coast in winter and in the mountains in summer. The Caldera de Taburiente was a communal grazing area, and it remained so almost until modern times.

But back to the Benahoaritas. These shepherds wore animal skins, lived in caves and hut settlements and had no knowledge of either writing, metal working or navigation. They worshipped gods of nature and were brave warriors- even the women. Tanausú, the last king of the Benahoaritas, who had made the Caldera into his strong hold, put up such bitter resistance against the Spanish conquerors that he could only be defeated by a trickery.

Once the island had been subjugated by the Crown of Castile in 1493, the conquistadores laid out enormous sugar-cane plantations in the lower part of the Ariadne Valley ( Los Llanos de Ariadne, Tazacorte) and in the northeast (San Andrés y Sauces). The haciendas in the west were irrigated with the water canalised out of the Caldera, those in the east by the Marcos y Cordero springs ( Los Tilos).

At the same time, La Palma lay on the route to recently discovered America. The island capital of Santa Cruz de La Palma developed into a bridge between the Old World and the New. In the sixteenth century its harbour became the third most important in the Spanish Empire, after Antwerp and Seville, and at first Spanish, Flemish, English and Portuguese merchants settled there. Sugar export brought them great wealth which they invested in Flemish art.

By the seventeenth century however the dream was already over. The sugar market crashed. Santa Cruz de La Palma lost its commercial supremacy and La Palma turned into the peaceful island it is today. The island went on living from export farming : after sugar came wine, silk, embroided, cigars and dye from the cochineal beetle, all of which brought the big land owners and merchants short term profits. Various natural disasters and economic crises eventully forced the island to its knees, however. The rural population became impoverished and islanders had to try their luck emigrating to Cuba and Venezuela. Those who survived the crossing and managed to achieve wealth and prosperity on the other side of the ocean returned with considerable culture in their back pockets.

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