How Lanzarote Became Spanish

Prior to 1402 several European sailors had visited The Canary Islands, describing the local Guanche inhabitants as friendly and accommodating. During the 1300’s, the islands were plagued by pirates, who would come ashore to rape and pillage, while the inhabitants did their best to hide in the tunnels of Cueva de los Verdes.

In 1402 Juan Bethencourt, an ambitious Norman nobleman, put together a plan to conquer the island for Spain. He set sail from La Rochelle in France in May of that year, calling at Vivero, La Coruna and finally Cadiz to take on wood and water. Bethencourt had embarked two native speakers in order to act as interpreters once he reached the islands.

Eight days after departing, the crew spotted Alegranza, Montaña Clara and La Graciosa, before Lanzarote came into view. They tried to land in the north of Lanzarote, but the waves and rocky coastline made it impossible, so in the end, they anchored off Alegranza, which was uninhabited to plan their attack on the larger island. Once the weather had calmed down, they set off once again and made landfall in Lanzarote.

They were expecting a fight, but in fact they were greeted peacefully by The Guanches, who offered gifts and friendship. Having been attacked by pirates so often, they saw in Bethencourt and his men the opportunity for protection. Delighted with the peaceful reception, Bethencourt offered the protection of the kingdom of Spain to the Guanches, who gratefully accepted.

One of the first tasks for the newly arrived Spaniards was to build a fortress, between what is now Playa Blanca and Papagayo, and it was named Rubicon – this is now the site of Marina Rubicon.

Bethencourt then set sail with some of his men to Fuerteventura, but the trip proved to be a disaster. With a lack of men, and food becoming scarce, many left behind on Lanzarote mutinied, and surveying the chaos on his return, he made the decision to return to Spain for more men and food. While he was in Spain, The King made him Governor of the islands, and funded a return trip for Bethencourt.

In the meantime, however, a power struggle broke out in Lanzarote, between Gadifa, whom Bethencourt had left in charge, and an officer called Berthin. Guanches became involved and took one side or the other, and finally a huge battle was fought, leaving many dead.

In 1404, Bethencourt returned with a much stronger army, and took Lanzarote’s “King” Guardarfia, and his ten closest advisors prisoner, at which point the people of Lanzarote surrendered and laid their weapons aside. Guardarfia was baptised into the Christian faith and given the Spanish name Luis.  Lanzarote, the first Canary Island to be conquered, was now under the direct control of Spain, with Bethencourt as governor.

He settled on the town of Teguise as the headquarters for his new government, building the original Canarian parliament building there, as well as the impressive castle which still remains on the hill overlooking the town.

With Lanzarote conquered and an administrative headquarters in Teguise his attention turned to conquering the other Canary Islands. He managed to take Fuerteventura in 1408, but it would be almost a hundred years before his successors finally took control of all of the islands.