The islands were named Canaria (Latin canis, dog) because of the descriptions of the large numbers of wild dogs roaming the islands, first reported by the Roman scholar Pliny. The bird canary was named after the islands.
The native population of the Canary Islands were the Guanches, a white race, vigorous, of high stature, fair-haired and blue-eyed, and leading mostly a pastoral life. At the time of their conquest by the Europeans they used weapons and utensils of wood and stone, were clothed in skins of animals, and lived in the numerous natural grottos. Their ornaments were of bone, sea-shells, and baked clay. They were hospitable and deeply attached to their independence. Each island was divided into separate states, ruled over by kings, who were assisted by the chiefs of the noble families and the most esteemed priests or soothsayers.
The Canaries were mentioned by Pliny around 40 A.D., and were often rediscovered in the following centuries. An Aragonese fleet explored the islands in 1330. They were claimed by Portugal in 1341, the year of the region's first historical volcanic eruption (a somewhat questionable report of activity somewhere on Tenerife), but were awarded to Spain by the Pope 3 years later. Another Castilian coasting expedition, sent forth by merchants of Seville and Biscay, disembarked, in 1385, in Lanzarote and vanquished the aborigines, but did not found any lasting settlement.
They were settled in 1402 and conquest of the indigenous Guanches population was complete by 1496. Jean de Béthencourt, a French nobleman, who in virtue of a mission confided to him by the King of Castile, Henry III, conquered, from 1402 to 1405, the islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gomera, and Hierro. The conquest of Gran Canaria, Palma, and Tenerife was effected during the reign of the Catholic sovereigns, from 1478 to 1495, by Diego Garcia de Herrera, Pedro de Vera, and Alonso Fernandez de Lugo, but not without heroic resistance on the part of the Guanches.
By 1495, the islands had fallen to Spanish rule. The town of Santa Cruz, on La Palma, became a stopping point for the Spanish conquerors, traders, and missionaries on their way to the New World.
The islands became very wealthy and soon attracted merchants and adventurers from all over Europe. Magnificent palaces and churches were built on La Palma during this busy, prosperous period. Of particular interest to visitors is the Church of El Salvador, one of the island's finest examples of the architecture of the 1500s.
The Canaries now have the largest population in the region and, as part of Spain, claim Pico de Teide as the nation's highest point. The economy is based on tourism and tropical agriculture (banana, tobacco) for exportation to Europe and the Americas. They receive about 10 million tourists per year. Ecologists are concerned that the resources, especially in the drier islands, are being overexploited.
* A portion of the text is based on the public domain print version of the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia.
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