Apr 19

‘Bite Size’ Histories of Lanzarote Chapter 2: Dirty Doings

  ‘Bite Size’ Histories of Lanzarote

Chapter 2:

‘Dirty Doings,’ or ‘An everyday tale of history folk.’



View from Femes towards where Juan de Betancort landed on Lanzarote

View from Femes towards where Juan de Betancort landed on Lanzarote


Juan de Béthancourt landed in Lanzarote in 1402. He came ashore between Papagayo and Playa Blanca, part of what is now Yaiza Municipality (Yaiza being the name of a pre-Hispanic Princess) and was greeted, by King Guadarfia wearing a goatskin cloak and a crown decorated with shells. Guadarfía offered him friendship and asked him for protection from the pirates who used to raid the island and capture the natives, selling them into slavery. Peaceful conquest seemed to be the order of the day, and Juan set off back to Spain to report in, and swear allegiance to Henry III, leaving his deputy, Gadifer de la Salle in charge.

King Guardafia (Statues can be seen in the Musea deloMonumento del Campesino)

King Guardafia (Statues can be seen in the Museo del Monumento del Campesino)


I don’t know what the rates of pay were for ‘other ranks’ in those days, but some of them seemed to feel they had been short-changed in the pillaging and looting departments.
Gadifer must have been having a day off, or he was doing a recce of Fuerteventura, under the guise of a spot of seal hunting, over on Lobos. A disgruntled bunch, led by Bertin de Berneval, pinched his boat and marooned him there without water.
Obviously figuring he was well out of the way the rebel Europeans set about capturing the locals, intending to trade them as slaves!
Guadarfía and the Majos took exception to this, as you would, and fought back, killing several Europeans and taking to the hills.

Returning to find the ‘peaceful conquest’ in ruins, Gadifer was not best pleased by the  turn of events, (and probably not looking forward to explaining it to the boss on his return!) He was approached by an ambitious Majo, Afche (or Achen) who offered to help him to track down Guadarfia and his followers, in return for being elevated to Guadarfía’s throne, and they made a pact.

Guadarfía was captured and imprisoned but Afche then attacked the Europeans. I guess they either reneged on their promise to make him king or he wasn’t into power sharing.
Guadarfia escaped in the ensuing chaos and his first priority was to find the traitor Afche, and take issue with his treason and attempted regicide! He was burned alive for his treachery.

When Juan de Béthancourt returned, after a two-year absence, he found that he had to begin to subdue the islanders, who had initially been friendly to him!
There was fierce fighting, but at the end of the day, the Spanish soldiers did have the superior weapons, and that sort of things does make a difference. Gadifer proposed putting all the native men to death and was only dissuaded by the priests, who thought this was a bit extreme. They decided on a rapid, mass conversion to Christianity, to save the lives of the local populace. Guadarfía surrendered, after putting up a damned good show, on 27th February 1404, and was baptised ‘Luis.’

Juan de Béthancourt set about the conquest of the rest of his ‘kingdom.’ (He was awarded the title King of the Canary Islands by Pope Innocent VII as you may recall from Chapter One.)
Fuerteventura was conquered, after fierce resistance in 1405.
El Hierro, was ruled by King Armiche who was assured by Béthancourt, on his arrival on the island, that he came in peace. But Armiche was tricked and as soon as he approached the visitors he was nabbed! Once the king had been taken prisoner the land and slaves were divided between 120 colonists.
We are told that we should judge history by the moral standards of the day and not our own, but I can’t help feeling that this was a very sneaky way to go about things!

After the partial conquest of La Gomera, Juan de Béthancourt eventually retired to France, leaving his nephew Maciot de Béthancourt in full control.

La Gomera was a very different kettle of fish to El Hierro. The land was divided into four kingdoms and only two submitted to Béthancourt. The other two resisted him, and later Maciot, and it was eighty years after the first colonists arrived before they submitted peacefully. In other words La Gomera was never wholly ‘conquered.’

I have a theory that this was partly due to silbo.
What’s silbo? It is an amazing whistling language, which goes back to ancient times, with which the islanders communicate over vast distances. La Gomera is full of barrancos, or ravines, and they are a pain in the butt if you forget to tell your mate something important, like ‘Bring home a couple of goats for the weekend, we’re having company.’
The rest of us would have no option but to gird our loins and trek off up and down the barrancos till we found him. But, to the silbo speaker, or whistler, a knuckle in the mouth is all it takes to send a message, over four kilometres. We are not talking a few signals here. We are ‘talking’ a complete language, with all the flexibility of speech to an experienced silbo user.
Imagine the advantage to the locals when Béthancourt and his lads were chasing them all over the island: all the benefits of a mobile phone, with no worries about the poor signal areas, or the batteries running out!

Incidentally silbo was recently in danger of being lost, for ever, but a few years ago it was made compulsory in schools and the children are now entering silbo competitions and proudly aiming to become champion silbadores.

I digress! Back to Lanzarote:
Maciot was, initially, a benevolent ruler and was accepted by the people. Things improved to the extent that the Majos and their Spanish conquerors co-existed and inter-acted much as equals. Inter-marriage was accepted at the highest level. In fact, Maciot de Béthancourt married the daughter of Guadarfia, Princess Teguise. (When he moved his capital inland, he named the town, previously called Acatifé, after her and Teguise remained the capital of the island until 1847.)

But, you know what they say – ‘Power corrupts,’ and it appears that Maciot got above himself, becoming increasingly tyrannical until he was denounced to the Crown of Castile, by the Bishop of Rubicón, and ‘deposed.’ (‘Denuncias’ have obviously been a feature of the island’s system from early times!)
But that’s another story


The BBC also covered this



Written by Sue Almond

Photographs by Sue Almond

Category: Lanzarote, Journalism. Tags: Articles, Story telling, Lanzarote


Skip to comment form

    • Harry Dunn on April 20, 2014 at 12:23 pm
    • Reply

    Another tranche of fascinating tales from earliest times in Lanzarote. Stories of murder,betrayal and general mayhem are beautifully and wittily told by Lanzarote resident Sue Almond.
    If you are one of the six million visitors to this lovely and very friendly Island each year then I thoroughly recommend you take a few minutes to read Sue’s ‘Bite Size’ Histories of Lanzarote. I only wish my teachers had made pillaging and looting sound so much fun.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your second historical ‘Bite’ Sue and look forward very much to the next chapter. Oh,and I’m brushing up on my whistling technique just in case I get stranded on a visit to La Gomera!
    All best wishes,

    • Ray Targett on April 20, 2014 at 7:37 pm
    • Reply

    That was a really enjoyable read, full of historical fact, delivered in a serious but at times amusing manner. The story of the whistling language I found fascinating, Maybe I could write a poem about it one day, but then again maybe not, any suggestions to words that could rhyme with silbo gratefully accepted, as none spring to mind at the moment!

    Well, Sue, many thanks for the history lesson, as I must admit that for someone who has spent an inordinate length of time, off and on, in the Canary Islands, my local knowledge is of a shockingly poor standard! However I would make one observation, strictly a personal opinion on my part you understand, it would appear that political misdemeanours have survived from those long ago times and are still practised with a gay abandon in these parts, or maybe that is par for the course! Anyway, a jolly good read. Thank you.


    1. Thanks for the comments Ray.There are several more chapters! Sue

    • Marion on April 20, 2014 at 8:33 pm
    • Reply

    Hello Sue
    I’m just starting out with my writing life. I hope to produce something as well researched and as interesting as ‘Bite size’ Histories of Lanzarote. Most enjoyable.

    1. Thank you Marion. There’s more to come! Best of luck with your writing. Where are you based? You could do a lot worse than join a writing group if there is one near you, or if not, start one! Sue

  1. What a brilliant piece of Canary Island History. Interesting to note that not all of the conquerors were intent on using violence and superior weaponry to dominate. That peaceful co-existence was for some at least a preferred alternative. And what about that video? Sibo is fascinating. I’d love to know how they do it. If only to be prepared for the moment when solar winds wipe out all of the communication satellites!

    1. Thanks for the comment Bill. I always said that I was looking for a man with a donkey and the technology to go with it, for just such an eventuality! Chapter 3 will be out on 07 May 2014. One and two have gone down really well so I am very pleased. Sue

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.