Jun 06

‘Bite Size’ histories of Lanzarote Chapter 5: Industrial Evolution

‘Bite Size’ Histories of Lanzarote
Chapter 5: Industrial Evolution


‘What did the people do here before the tourists came?’ It’s a frequent and understandable question, given that the vast majority of the population is dependent, directly or indirectly on tourism. But, this island seems to have a history of having one major industry at a time.
In pre-Hispanic times the people had little choice but to be self-sufficient. Growing and gathering food, plus hunting and fishing, making their homes and all their own clothes, tools, weapons, musical instruments etc. along with keeping an eye out for the marauding pirates, no doubt kept them pretty busy.
The only ‘exports’ were orchilla, a plant valuable in the dye industry, and slaves, both of which were stolen from the island by the pirates.

In the 15th century the arrival of the Spanish created whole new areas of work. Fine houses were built and furnished by the colonists, agriculture expanded and the cultivation of sugar was a major industry. Christopher Columbus apparently took Canarian sugar plants on his second voyage to the West Indies, in 1493. Cheap labour and ideal growing conditions enabled the West Indies to corner the market!
It appears that discovering America isn’t all he has to answer for! I don’t suppose you could sue for loss of earnings in those days.

Fortunately the wine industry took off and took over. Some historians think that the Romans may have brought vines here over 1,000 years ago, and that the name ‘Malvasía,’ (Malmsey wine in English) comes from ‘Monembasia,’ the region of Greece from which the local grape originated. Others disagree and suggest that the vines came to the Canaries, around the end of the 15th century, from Crete.

la Geria, the wine growing reegion of Lanzarote

la Geria, the wine growing region of Lanzarote

Incidentally the method of cultivation of the vines on Lanzarote is unique. The vines are planted in individual holes and covered with volcanic material, picon, which protects the soil from the sun and retains moisture. A semicircular wall of volcanic rock, which protects the vine from the wind, surrounds each hole. These are called ‘Zocos,’ and their symmetrical arrangement on the slopes of the volcanoes is a work of art in itself, and that’s ‘official’; The wine route through La Geria is catalogued in the New York Museum of Modern Art, as ‘Engineering without Engineers.’

‘Canary wine,’ and ‘Malmsey,’ are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, and as Poet Laureate he was paid £100 and a tun (268 gallons) of Canary wine per year. Walter Scott and the French author, Voltaire also praised Canary wines in their works.

The oldest bodega still producing wine on Lanzarote

The oldest bodega still producing wine on Lanzarote

Unfortunately ‘fashion’ was as important in the past as it is now. In the 17th century Charles II of England set the trend for the rise of sherry as the ‘in’ drink, and so the popularity of Canary wines declined.

The biggest blow to the industry came with mildew, which destroyed many of the plants in the late 18th century but prior to this the Canary vines had provided stock for many South American vineyards in Chile, Peru and Argentina.
Today Lanzarote produces between half a million and three million litres of wine per year, approximately 2/3 white and 1/3 red with a small amount of rosé and, since 1993, home grown ‘champagne’.

Another product, less famous than the wines, exported in the 16th century was barilla, a plant used in the manufacture of caustic soda, by the soap industry.



The destruction of some of the most fertile land on Lanzarote, due to the volcanic eruptions of 1730 – 1736 contributed to a severe period of food shortage and poverty. King Carlos III of Spain instigated an 18th century version of ‘Job Creation’.

Castillo San José built in the 18th century on the orders of the King of Spain.. Known a 'Forteleza del Hambre'its construction frovided employment for the starving population

Castillo San José built in the 18th century on the orders of the King of Spain.. Known as ‘Forteleza del Hambre’

He ordered the building of Castillo San José to provide work for the starving population. The castle was completed in 1779 and known as ‘Forteleza del Hambre,’ (Fortress of Hunger.) For a long time it was a storage depot for gunpowder, but thankfully survived any dangers of explosive accident! César Manrique converted it into a museum of modern art, in 1976.

Temporary Exhibit at the Modern Art Museun of castillo San Jose, a fantastic piece by Liverpool Artist Tony Cragg

Temporary Exhibit at the Modern Art Museun of Castillo San Jose (2014), a fantastic piece by Liverpool Artist Tony Cragg

In the 19th century salt production was important. Sea salt was collected by process of evaporation at numerous salinas (salt works) around the island.

Las Salinas de Janubio

Las Salinas de Janubio

One of the best preserved, Las Salinas de Janubio, employed over 200 people in its heyday. Much of the salt was used in the fishing industry, to preserve the catch but the development of refrigeration knocked the bottom out of that!

Restored windmill. These pumped the sea water up to the salt pans where the water evaporated and the salt was collected.

Restored windmill. These pumped the sea water up to the salt pans where the water evaporated and the salt was collected.

Agriculture was also important in the 19th century, particularly around the central areas of the island. The cochineal industry, producing the red colouring from the cochineal beetle, ‘farmed’ on the cacti, was important in the latter part. But, with the development of synthetic dyes, once again an industry was lost to ‘progress.’ With the modern trend towards preferring natural products however, some think that cochineal may yet enjoy a revival.

he prickly pear cactus was importted from Sout America to enable the development of the cohineal business.

The prickly pear cactus was imported from South America to enable the development of the cochineal industry.

The Spanish Civil War, 1936 – 1939, affected the island as a province of Spain. Young men, including one of Lanzarote’s favourite sons, César Manrique, were conscripted. The post -1939 period saw increased traffic in trade with Europe and the 1960s produced political and economic changes and the start of the tourist boom which brings us to the modern day. Tourism is without a doubt the lifeblood of the island at this stage in its history, and presumably will be for some time yet. But, evidence and reminders of the past are all around us and seem to be saying ‘As one door closes another opens.’

Sun on rock.The Arrivals lounge, Lanzarote airport

Sunlight on rocks.The Arrivals lounge, Lanzarote airport


To read the series from Part 1 click here

Written by Sue Almond

Photographs by Sue Almond


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


    • Harry Dunn on June 6, 2014 at 8:33 pm
    • Reply

    Another piece of fascinating Lanzarote history which illustrates the many goings on in the 15th to 17th centuries. For those who may have read negative reports of the Island over the recent years only a visit will extinguish them. I remember eating the best fish ever in a restaurant right by the ocean at El Golfo. No menu, only the catch landed that day. Amazing meal. My family talk of that experience today. Thanks Sue for another smashing blog.

    • Angela on March 14, 2016 at 12:05 pm
    • Reply

    How good to see an accurate portrayal of Lanzarote’s past.

    1. Thank you Angela, I value your opinion. Sue

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