A. B. (Alfred Burdon) Ellis.

West African islands online

. (page 12 of 22)
Online LibraryA. B. (Alfred Burdon) EllisWest African islands → online text (page 12 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of the Canarians, vrho were assembled at the supposed
impregnable mountain fastness of Ansite, were induced
to surrender; and their young leader and an old
warrior, filled with despair, threw themselves over
a precipice and were dashed to pieces on the rocks.

It is difficult, even after the lapse of four
centuries, to read, without a shudder, of the
horrors committed by the Spaniards in these islands.
In Gomera, the Governor, Hernando Peraza,
was, in revenge for an outrage committed by
him on a Gomcran girl, attacked and killed by


her relatives. Upon this, the natives, conscious that
the Spaniards would exact a terrible vengeance, rose
in arms ; and, after a fruitless attack on the citadel
of Gomera, during which their leader was killed, shut
themselves up in a fastness of the mountains, named
Garagonohe. Pedro de Vera, the then Governor of
Grand Canary, being informed of these occurrences,
hastened to Gomera with reinforcements ; and, imme-
diately on his arrival, issued proclamations command-
ing all the Gomerans, on pain of death, to come to
the church at the town of Gomera, to be present at
the funeral obsequies of Hernando Peraza. Those of
the natives who had taken no part in the rising,
having nothing to fear, came on the appointed day,
and were all made prisoners. Most of them were
sentenced to be banished, and a number of these,
who were being transported to Lanzarote, were
thrown overboard on the passage, by order of Alonzo
de Cota. Vera then marched against the insurgents
at Garagonohe, and at length induced them, by a
promise that he would do them no harm, to surrender.
Having thus got them into his hands, he brought
them to Gomera, where he condemned to death all
the males of the provinces of Agare and Orone who
were above fifteen years of age. This sentence was
carried out with great barbarity ; some of the
unhappy wretches being hanged, others drowned, and


a large number torn asunder Ly liorscs. Of the
remaining captives, the hands and feet of several
hundred men were cut off, and the wives and chiklren
of all those who had been put to death were sold
for slaves. After these atrocities Vera returned to
Grand Canary, where, being informed that the
Gomerans who were in that island expressed approval
of the action of their countrymen in murdering
Hernando Peraza, saying that they were prepared
to do the same to any Spaniard who might dishonour
their wives or daughters, he ordered all the Gomerans
residing in Grand Canary to be arrested in one night.
This was done, and about two hundred men, women,
and children were seized. The men were put to
death, the women and children sold for slaves.

Various theories have been given birth to con-
cerning the origin of the people who inhabited the
Canary Islands at the time of the Spanish conquests.
The islands appear to have been peopled by two
different tribes, namely, the Guauches in TenerifTe,
and a second tribe, whose name has not been handed
down to posterity, in all the other islands of the
group, Tlie Guanches spoke a language that was
entirely distinct from that spoken in the other
islands, where one tongue, with slight dialectic
variations, prevailed. The inhabitants of Teneriffe
were li*^ liter in colour, and had fairer hair than the


other islanders, whom Edris, the Mohammedan histo-
rian, describes as being of a reddish colour, with thin
and long hair, and the women of great beauty. The
wonderful similarity between the habits of the
Guanches and the other inhabitants, however, seems
to show that both were derived from the same stock.
Both inhabited cave dwellings, embalmed their dead,
used the javelin in warfare, and wore tunics and head-
coverings of dressed goat-skin. Neither of them could
work in metals, and their weapons were made of
pitch-pine, hardened by fire, although, like the
Aztecs, they had knives made of obsidian, with
which they slaughtered their sheep and cattle, and
cut and worked timber. As for the religions of the
two tribes, the pious Spaniards were in such haste
to extinguish any superstitions that did not agree
with their own, that there is no record of them
preserved sufhcient for forming a just comparison.

Some writers have endeavoured to prove that
the islanders were the ubiquitous lost ten tribes of
Israel, and others that the islands were peopled by
Norsemen, driven southward by storms. Instead,
however, of going so far as Asia Minor or Scandi-
navia to look for the ancestry of the inhabitants
of the Canaries, it seems more natural to turn to
the neighbouring coast of Africa, over which the
Sultan of Morocco claims, but does not exercise,


sway. Ccape Negro, in the island of Fuerteventura,
is only fifty-two miles as the crow flies from Cape
Blanco, on the African coast ; and, in clear weather,
the island can be distinctly seen from the continent.
Nothing is more probable than that during the
successive convulsions in Mauritania, which trans-
ferred that country from the Eomans to the Vandals,
from the Vandals to the Greeks, and from the Greeks
to the Arabs, some of the inhabitants sought an
asylum in these islands, from which the ancient port
of Asiffi was not far distant. The strange similitude
between the customs of the Canary Islanders and
those of the inhabitants of Northern Africa lends
additional support to this supposition. Pottery and
household utensils have been found in the cave
catacombs of the Canaries, similar to those now
in use in Morocco and Algeria ; and, when
preparing their mummies, the islanders opened
the body at the side, as did the Egyptians, wdth
the same kind of sharp stone that was used in
Egypt. Gqfio, the staple article of food in the
Canaries, is almost identical with the hous-hous of
the Berbers ; and the Moors to this day fatten their
daughters with milk before giving them in marriage,
as did the Canary Islanders. But the strongest
proof lies in the remarkably large number of words
common to the dialects of the Canary Islands, with


tlie exception of TenerifFe, and tlie language of the
Shillha tribe of Berbers ; which, taken with the
colour of the inhabitants, seems to establish beyond
doubt that they were descendants of the fair-haired
Berbers. That the islands were so peopled before
the Arab wave of conquest swept over Northern
Africa, is evident from the fact of there being no
trace of Mohammedanism in the ceremonies or beliefs
of the islanders ; and there is a tradition in the
Canaries, still extant, that when Africa was a Roman
province, some of the inhabitants of Mauritania,
having rebelled, were put on board vessels, supplied
with grain and cattle, and shipped to the Canary
Islands as a punishment.

Embalmed bodies of this singular people are
frequently discovered, even at the present day, by
the peasantry in the remoter and more sparsely
populated districts of the islands. The celebrated
cavern of the Barranca de Herque, in Teneriflfe,
contained several thousand corpses, most of which
were used by the peasants as fuel, although several
which were rescued from this fate are now to be
seen in the museum at Santa Cruz. These mummies
have hair of a reddish-brown colour; the men are
laid out with their hands close to their sides, and
the women with the arms crossed on the breast.
Some, too, have been found with the body doubled


up into a sitting posture. When discovered, the
bodies are invariably found swathed in wrappers
of dressed goat-skins, tied with leathern thongs,
which the peasants esteem so highly that they at
once take them for their own use ; and, such is the
wonderful dryness of the climate, that both the
mummies and the goat-skin garments frequently
found with them are quite clean and fresh, although
several centuries old. The islanders used to employ
a particular class of persons who were set apart for
the process of embalming ; women only l)eing per-
mitted to prepare the corpses of those of their own
sex, and men only those of males. The method
appears to have been simple. After being disem-
bowelled, the body was washed carefully for several
days, and sprinkled with the dust of resinous trees
and pumice. After being a short time under this
treatment, it became perfectly dry, and was then
swathed and put away in the family mausoleum.

Some of the later Spanish writers have asserted
that the islanders had anticipated the Malthusian
doctrine, and, to keep down the price of food, did
not allow any woman to bear more than one child,
all after the first-born being put to death. The
origin of this story may be traced to a general
agreement arrived at by tlie inhabitants of Grand
Canary, during a long and severe famine which


occiirred shortly before tlie arrival of the Spaniards,
to kill all the female children that might afterwards
be born, except the first-born. The famine was,
however, as usual, immediately succeeded by a
pestilence, which is stated to have carried off two-
thirds of the inhabitants ; and, there being no longer
any reason for the practice of infanticide, it was
at once discontinued. As for the fable that poly-
andry flourished in these islands, each wife being
allowed by law three husbands, who enjoyed her
society in rotation for a month at a time, it seems
to have no foundation of any kind. .

The loathinsj with which the Canarians resrarded
the trade of a butcher is curious. None but the
dregs of the people could follow this pursuit, which
was considered so shameful that no butcher was
allowed to enter a house, touch any property, or
keep company with any one not of his own trade.
If a butcher required anything, he was obliged to
point at what he wanted with a long pole, standing
some distance off: but, as a set-off ao-ainst this
general opprobrium, the natives were obliged to
supply the butchers with food and everything they
required. They do not appear to have carried
their detestation of butchery so far as to become

Canaries do not cost much more in Grand


Canary than they do in England, but this need
not be a matter for surprise, for labour is cheap,
and educatino: canaries is not that kind of hard
work which is offensive to the dignity of a Spaniard.
Most people seem to imagine that the canary is a
song-bird by nature, but nothing could be further
from the truth. The canary in its wild state can
utter no sound more melodious than a shrill chirp,
somethino- similar to that of our common house-


sparrow ; and the song with which he favours us
when he becomes educated is not even an improve-
ment of his own tune, but an entirely new com-
position. AVild canaries, when first trapped, are
placed in cages near those of birds already trained
to sing ; and, when they have become resigned to
their confinement, they soon commence to try to
imitate their educated fellow- captives. They do not
of course learn the song at once. They try a few
notes at first, and then attempt higher flights. In
fact they work very hard at it, and it is pitiful to
see how downcast they seem at their frequent
stumbles and failures. Time after time they will
go back to correct a mistake, and then, when they
have at last mastered the difficulty, they sing it
over and over again, filled with a proud joy.

It seems to me that this bird has been sadly
neglected by the Christian moralist. The ant and


the bee have been so often used to point a moral
that the repetition has grown monotonous ; besides,
those insects only labour with the intention of
making; themselves comfortable homes, and storing-
up food for their own future delectation. In fact
they are actuated by selfishness, whereas the labour
of the canary is purely unselfish, and, in addition,
what a magnificent moral example of the results
of perseverance he ofiers ! Eeally some divine ought
to take this matter up, and do the bird justice.

There being always a large stock of trained
canaries on hand, the teaching of wild birds is now
a matter of no difficulty ; but it would be curious
to inquire who first discovered the remarkable
aptitude for mimicry possessed by them, and from
what bird the original trained canary learned his



Doraraas — The Cave Village of Atalaya — Pleasant Society — The
Piilex — Epidemics — Sanitation — Sau Isidro Labradoi' — A
Curious Service — The Image of Teror — An Optical Illusion —
The Miraculous Island of St. Brandan — Veracious Testimony.

In the interior of the Island of Grand Canary there
are no towns or even laro-e villaixes, but numerous
small hamlets, embowered in verdure, nestle down
beside the green terrace gardens in the fertile valleys.
The hills are rugged and steep, and the scenery wild
and picturesque, but the absence of foliage renders
the sameness of the local colouring monotonous; for
the lower slopes are destitute of trees and the upper
totally barren, not even grass growing upon their
rocky faces. There is, however, one mountain which
forms an exception to the general rule, and which
appears to have escaped the ravages of the axe in the
early days of the Spanish colonisation. It is about
six miles from the city of Las Palmas, and is called


the Mountain of Doramas, from the name of a warlike
Canarian chieftain, who was one of the principal
leaders in the battle of Guinigada, and who after-
wards made his name a terror to the Spaniards by his
perpetual surprises and ambuscades.

During one of the attempts of the Spaniards to
open up the island, a party of infantry and cavalry
penetrated as far as this mountain, on which Doramas
happened to be with a few followers. Observing
the approach of his enemies, he sent a messenger to
challenge any one of them to single combat, which
challenge was accepted by a cavalier named Juan de
Hoces. The struggle took place upon a level shoulder
of the mountain, where all the advantage lay upon
the side of the Spaniard ; since he had room to
manage his horse, was clad in complete armour,
and armed with lance ,and targe, while the bold
chieftain carried nothing but his darts of hardened
pitch-pine, and had no covering more defensive than
his goat-skin tunic. The great personal strength of
Doramas, however, and an unerring aim, gained
him the victory, for he hurled his first dart so
truly and with such force, that it went through
the Spaniard's shield and coat of mail, and, piercing
him to the heart, struck him from the saddle, in
the presence of the two opposing parties. The
leader of the Spanish detachment, Pedro de Vera,


the autlior of the massacres of Gomera, who, what-
ever his crimes may have been, did not lack courage,
seeing the fall of his champion, himself spurred
forward to meet Doramas, who prepared to engage
him. Receiving the first dart upon his target, from
which it glanced, and stooping down so that the
second whistled harmlessly over his head, Pedro de
Vera closed with the chief before he had time to
throw a third missile ; and, piercing him in the
side with his lance, threw him to the ground
mortally wounded. The natives, enraged at the
fall of their leader, rushed upon the Spaniards, and
a desperate conflict ensued, in which the former
were compelled to retreat. Doramas, who died
soon after the termination of the skirmish, was
buried on the top of the mountain, and a circle of
stones is still shown as the spot where the most
valiant of the Canarians rests. The mountain is
covered with chestnut and pine, through which
numerous limpid streams, fringed with rare ferns
and wild flowers of brilliant hues, leap and sparkle
over their stony beds on their way down to the
valleys beneath. The lulling plash of the broken
water, the rustle of the branches of the trees in
the balmy mountain air, the soft coo of the ring-
dove, and the occasional sharp detonation of the
pine bark cracking under the ardent rays of the


sun, are the only sounds tliat break the stillness
of this cool and umbrageous solitude, which forms
such a delio-htful contrast to the sun-scorched and
bare mountain sides that environ it.

One of the most curious places in Grand Canary
is the cave village of Atalaya. It is a circular, bowl-
like valley with steep sides, and is evidently the
crater of some extinct volcano. In the basaltic
sides of this valley are hundreds of caves, some
large and some small, arranged in regular tiers one
above the other. These caves, which were formerly
inhabited by the Canarians, are now the homes of
a colony of Spaniards of very unprepossessing ap-
pearance, and who ostensibly earn a living by the
manufacture of pottery, while really gaining a live-
lihood by means far from unquestionable. It is a
curious sight to see the unkempt and half-clad
children playing about the gloomy entrances of
these caverns, and in the interior to catch a glimpse
of a sparkle of a fire, a few poor household utensils
and articles of furniture, with sturdy amazons
engaged in their daily avocations; but it is not
wise to visit this place except in parties of some
strength, for these people possess a very unenviable

In spite of warnings, I was once foolish enough
to visit the village alone, because I could not find


any one willing to accompany me ; and, tliougli I
cot back to Las Palmas safe and sound, it was more
due to good fortune than to good judgment. No
sooner had I ridden into the valley than I was
assailed by scores of huge dogs, which flew out of the
caves yelping and baying, with blood-shot eyes and
bristling hair, and surrounded me, snapping and
snarling, as if they had had nothing to eat for days,
and were anxious to commence dining. These
domestic pets would prove very disagreeable to a
man on foot, and, as it was, I had some difficulty
in protecting my legs from their threatening jaws.
The noise made by these animals at once brought
out their owners, who thought perhaps that the
gendarmes had at last come down upon them ; but
seeing only one man, and that a foreigner, they
drove away their pets with volleys of large stones,
and, to the number of two or three dozen, came
towards me. For villainous countenances it would
be difficult to surpass those of the gentlemen who
now surrounded me ; and their ragged clothes, their
coarse and tangled hair, and their general appear-
ance of dirt and ruffianism, did not lessen their
repulsive aspect. They at once began begging, and
that not in the servile manner of the beggar of the
town, who requests you for the love of God to
present him with half a real or a real, but with


mocking laughter and defiant glances. Two of
them seized the bridle of my horse, while the
others, crowding round, reiterated their demands
for money with half-concealed threats and meaning
gestures, one of these brigands drawing the blade
of his knife across his throat in a significant manner.
I had no weapon of any description with me; even
if I had had one it would have been madness to
resist ; I was in their power, and I had to comply.
I had a good many of the worthless copper coins
of the place in my pockets, and taking a handful
of these and some small English silver money, I
threw them over the head of my horse on to the
stones. A general scramble ensued ; the two men
who held my reins, not wishing to lose their share
of the spoil, let go their hold, and I was free.
Without losing a moment, I turned sharp round
and went down the stony path at full gallop, being
saluted with a shower of stones and a volley of
execrations as the courteous adieu of these polished
gentry ; who, no doubt, had not anticipated parting
with me until they had pillaged me entirely.

Next time I went to see this curious village,
I made one of a party of eight, and we had no
unpleasantness of any kind. The dogs came at
us and were dispersed by volleys of stones as before ;
but the men did not come to us. We saw them


slouching about their Ccaves and basking in the sun,
but they apparently confined their personal demands
for money to smaller parties, and only sent down
the younger and more attractive of their female
kind to try and wheedle small coins out of us.

On my return to Las Palmas after my first
visit to Atalaya, I found that I had inadvertently
brought away with me many living souvenirs of my
contact with the so-called potters. I do not like
the agile pulex, not only on account of his irritating
habits, but because I consider him to be the personi-
fication of insjratitude. For months and months a
Spaniard may take care of him, provide him with
food and shelter, and make a constant companion
of him ; yet, directly an Englishman comes in his
way, the ungrateful insect wdll desert his benefactor
without a word, and strike up an intimate acquaint-
ance with the \vell-fed stranorer. In Ens^land, it
is not considered polite to talk about this ' active
little creature in public, but in these islands, it is
as common a topic of conversation with the inhabi-
tants as the weather is with us, and it is a subject
which much interests everybody. In fact the islanders
are great practical entomologists, and they have
unrivalled opportunities for studying their science.
Not only does the 2^i(/e.r occupy an honourable
position in the social life of these people, but it is


even referred to with honest pride in amorous
ballads and poems ; and no lover is ever certain
that his suit will be favourably received, until he
has been invited to join in the chase of the lady's
humble but constant companions.

I should imagine that the habits of the inhabi-
tants of these islands were such as to make epidemics
take to them very kindly, for they are certainly
not of the opinion that cleanliness is next to godli-
ness ; or, at all events, they do not act as if they
held that opinion ; while, as for sanitation, no Canary-
islander could even explain what the word meant.
Once, in trying to introduce the cultivation of
tobacco from Cuba, they introduced some yellow-
fever ; the former did not do at all well, but the
latter succeeded beyond the worst expectations.
In 1811, the date of the last outbreak in Teneriffe,
the yellow-fever carried off every fifth person of
the population of Port Orotava. The last epidemic
occurred in Grand Canary in 1851, when an out-
break of cholera decimated the island. None of
these visitations, however, have made the people
careful as to the purity of the water they drink ;
nor has it led them to abandon the patriarchal
custom of throwinef out animal and vcQ-etable refuse
into the streets, in the lower parts of the towns.

In the inland villages the peasantry seem to


regard the mountain streams, upon the banks of
which their houses stand, more in the liglit of natural
sewers and laundry works than as affording a pure
water suj^ply. Sometimes three or four villages
are watered by one stream, and the people of the
one that is the nearest to the sea have the advanta2:e
of having their drinking water impregnated with
all the offal, soap used by washerwomen, and filth
of the villages above. But they do not mind, for
they know nothing of the danger they are running.
And it is not probable that they will become more
enlightened for some tim.e to come, for the priests
are well aware that the ignorance of the peasantry
is the best possible security for the tenure of their
sway ; and they are very careful to screen their
flocks from any knowledge of modern scientific dis-
coveries, describing cholera, yellow-fever, typhus,
and such scourges as visitations sent by an offended
Providence, because some ceremony or rite has been
neirlected or omitted. The climate, however, is so
wonderfully healthy, that but very little evil ensues,
and this is particularly the case with Grand Canary.
The summer heats there arc rarely more intense
than those of England, while, in the winter months, the
temperature might be compared to that of May.
In fact, except when the wind blows from the
neifi^hbouring Sahara, and parches up the land with


its hot and stifling breath, the weather in Grand
Canary is always charming ; and these Harmattan
winds, as they are called further down the African
coast, neither occur frequently nor last long.

Grand Canary being a Spanish possession, j^es^as

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryA. B. (Alfred Burdon) EllisWest African islands → online text (page 12 of 22)