History of Gran Canaria

Mother Earth Travel > Spain > Gran Canaria > History

Since ancient times, nomadic travellers and others have dreamt of and talked about the Canary Islands. The Jardín de las Hespérides, Islas Afortunadas and Cumbres de la Atlántida are just some of the names they have received throughout history, dating back to when the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs first came.

The former inhabitants of Gran Canaria, the Tamaran, came from the nearby African coast. Historians appear to be in agreement that these inhabitants were Berber in origin and reached the islands at different times. The economy was centred around agriculture and politically, at the time of the Conquest, they were divided into two guanartematos or kingdoms, Gáldar and Telde, ruled by a leader, known as the guanarteme. They also had a developed system of religious beliefs, with a high priest called a faycán who was blood related to the guanarteme. A clear example of these beliefs is the site at Cuatro Puertas.

Apart from the presence of the Balearic monks who settled along the coast before the Conquest (and several episodes of pillage and Castilian incursions), it was not until 1478, with the foundation of the city El Real de las Palmas by the conquistador Juan Rejón that the conquest and domination the island began. It was precisely at this time that the island took on the name Gran Canaria, in homage to the brave inhabitants who defended their freedom.

With the foundation of the city at the mouth of the Guiniguada riverbank, the small town, now the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, started to grow on both sides of the river, creating new districts like Vegueta and Triana. Here the colonial architectural style which would later be exported to the New Worldwas developed, as well as religious and military buildings of great character, like the cathedral, the Palacio Episcopal, the Castillo de Mata or La Luz Castle, the Casas Consistoriales and even Plaza Santa Ana.

The influx of settlers on land colonised by the Catholic Monarchs resulted in a division of land throughout the 16th century. Thus, families from the peninsula started to occupy land and build cities, which in many cases were erected near or on top of primitive villages, like Telde or Gáldar.

From this moment on, agriculture and farming were at the heart of life on the island. The farming of single crops, sugar cane first and later vineyards, created an economy dependant on external forces; at the same time, subsistence farming was continually getting poorer and there was incipient trade in the city of Las Palmas. The latter was boosted at the end of the 19th century by the construction of the Puerto de la Luz and the decisive presence of powerful Englishmen in the city.

Previously, the city of Las Palmas had grown towards the area of La Isleta from the original site next to the Guiniguada. The traffic of the port set the foundations for a new city, and after the first commercial travellers came the tourist boom of the 1960s. Tourism, Gran Canaria's last monoculture after tomatoes and bananas, now in full decline, would be responsible for the last upheaval of the landscape and the lifestyle on the island.

The millions of tourists each year, overwhelmingly Northern European and German, who visit places like Maspalomas or Las Canteras, have ended up making this island a huge display case. They have managed to convert the island, from whence people had traditionally emigrated to countries like Cuba or Venezuela, to a promised land for thousands of Spanish, European, South American, and African immigrants. Gran Canaria has become a real melting pot of races, language and religions and this, is one of the island's main attractions.