Opening illustration from the Egerton manuscript of Le Canarien, depicting the departure of the De la Salle and Bethencourt expedition
(British Library, Egerton 2709 ms., 2r; Wikimedia Commons)
Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

Canaries (Fortunate Islands)

Late medieval Europe’s renegotiation of its geo-spatial, anthropological, and political parameters was particularly stimulated by its encounters with the Canary Islands during the Biblical three-score-years-and-ten that separated the plague of 1348 and the conclusion of the Council of Constance in 1418.  The re-discovery of the archipelago, which was known to the classical world as the Fortunate Islands or “Isles of the Blest,” had only recently been accomplished: according to Petrarch’s report in a passage from the De Vita Solitaria (written around 1346): “within our father’s memory an armed Genoese fleet arrived there.”  By the first decades of the fifteenth century, several generations of explorations, mappings and expeditions of conquest and conversion effectively transformed the ineffable “isles of the Blest” of the classical - medieval world into to a historical destination called the Canary Islands, which became the point of departure for the early modern history of Europe’s discovery, conquest and colonization of the world.

The impact of the rediscovery of the Canaries on European identity in geo-spatial terms is reflected by developments in the cartography of the archipelago between the middle of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century.  The islands occupied a key position in all the genres of cartographical representation that characterized the period, ranging from late medieval mappaemundi, to portolan charts of the fourteenth century, to the mappings associated with Ptolemy’s Geography, which was reintroduced to Europe at the beginning of the fifteenth.  The anthropological encounter in the islands between the Europeans and the Canarians, the first of medieval Europeans with a Neolithic society, was no less important than the global shift in the geo-spatial paradigm set in motion by the rediscovery.  An especially resonant chapter in the Renaissance “discovery of man” was written in the Canaries, and no less than the founders of humanism were among the earliest observers: Francis Petrarch (1304-1374) in the De Vita Solitaria, and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in the De Canaria, provided early (and contrasting) views of the indigenous peoples of the archipelago.  The political dimension of the early encounters with the Canaries followed from their unique geographical and anthropological position in the Atlantic Mediterranean.  Although Pope Clement VI’s investiture of Luis de la Cerda with the “principality of Fortunia” in a ceremony witnessed by Petrarch in Avignon in 1344 did not lead to any conquests or conversions in the islands, it raised for the papacy and for Europe the question of the status of the infidel inhabitants of the islands and of political dominion over them.  An important debate concerning questions of sovereignty over the islands of the archipelago and its peoples will emerge during the fifteenth century in connection with subsequent campaigns of conquest and conversion in the Canaries that anticipates most if not all of the significant elements of the later debate about American Indians. 

The Christian conquest and conversion of the islands was successfully undertaken for the first time at the beginning of the fifteenth century by an expedition led by Gadifer de la Salle (c.1340- 1415) and Jean de Béthencourt (1360-1422).  The crusaders (a status officially granted them by Pope Benedict XIII in 1403) started out from La Rochelle in May 1402 under the auspices of the King of France.  But Béthencourt subsequently sought aid and patronage of the King of Castile who was nearer to hand and, much to de la Salle’s dismay, had himself named “Lord of the Isles of Canaries.”  In fact, competing versions of Le Canarien have come down to us, an extraordinary chivalric chronicle that recounts the establishment of the first European colonies in Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro.  The British Library manuscript (Egerton 2709) presents de la Salle’s plaintive perspective on events up to the time of his departure from the islands in 1404, while the later recension (Bibliotèque Municipale de Rouen ms mm 128) privileges Béthencourt’s point of view.  Both versions deserve to be better known, for taken together they offer the opportunity to observe many of the tensions, stresses and contradictions that arose not only between the expedition’s two protagonists, but also between the chivalric ideology and literary codes that inspired them and the historical reality of the conquest and colonization of the “isles of the blest.”