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Are the Canary Islands named after birds?

Updated on June 19, 2010

Islas de Canarias

The Canaries are made up of seven small islands situated roughly about 80 kilometres off the North-West coast of Africa and have been a popular holiday destination for European tourists since the 1960s.

The most popular islands are Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. The others, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro have barely been touched by tourism, although they are all relatively close to each other. La Gomera can easily be seen from the beach at Playa de Las Americas on the South Western side of Tenerife, and from certain vantage points you can see La Palma and El Hierro way out in the distance. From the Southern tip of the island on a clear day, the mountains of Gran Canaria can be seen rising from the Atlantic Ocean some 50km to the east. Lanzarote is the Northermost island and can't be seen from Tenerife.

The archipelago was initially known as 'Insula Canaria' meaning 'Island of the Dogs', which is shown in the coat of arms. There is some mystery surrounding these 'dogs' as some say they were a breed of wild vicious animals, while others think that the name comes from the Monk Seals, also known as Sea dogs, which were present on the islands at that time. Another theory is that as the Guanches, the name meaning 'white men', who were the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, were dog-worshippers, the name being derived from the Latin word 'Canaan' meaning 'The ones who worship dogs'

Over hundreds of years the islands suffered several violent invasions from European conquerors and as a result they lost their own identity. It is believed that the Portuguese were the first to land on the island of Canaria -as it was then known- in 1336, then in 1402 Jean de Bathencourt seized power and became the recognised king of the Canary Islands.

The islands became a common route to the new world by Spanish conquerors and traders and soon became quite wealthy. Roman Catholicism became the accepted religion and vast churches and palaces were erected across the islands. The church of El Salvador on La Palma is a fine example of 16th century Spanish architecture.

The British came along in the 18th century and attacked Santa Cruz in the North of Tenerife. and on the 25th July 1797 Lord Nelson fought and lost this battle, along with his right arm and four hundred men.

The 19th century saw a great recession hit the islands. The economy was based mainly on growing and trading sugar, but now that so much was being shipped over from the Indies and the Americas, they had to look for another source of income and began cultivating Cochineal, which did actually save the economy.

At the beginning of the 20th century the British introduced the banana crop to the Canaries and the economy started to boom again, then with the emergence of commercial flights the tourism industry took off. Builders from all over Europe invested money into buying land and building hotels and holiday complexes across the islands that had the most potential.

The islands attract millions of visitors from mainly Europe and mainland Spain every year, mainly to Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. Although they are similar in many ways, they are all unique. Tenerife has the climate of a mini continent, with its magnificent centrepiece Mt. Tiede- a living volcano, which is the highest mountain in Spain and the third largest volcano in the world; Gran Canaria, with its wonderful sand dunes and vibrant cosmopolitan night life; Lanzarote, showing the world the magnificent works of its famous architect Cesar Manrique, along with the beautifully scenic lava fields of the Timanfaya nationa park, and Fuerteventura, a surfers paradise, boasting some of the best beaches on the planet!

The smaller less popular islands deserve a mention because they too have something to offer the more discerning traveler. Although they are not as highly geared for tourism as their sisters, they all have a unique quality. Their rugged pine clad ravines and crystal clear waters make them an unspoiled haven for anyone wanting an escape from the norm. There's not a karaoke bar in sight and they are just how one would expect a sub-tropical paradise to be, natural,warm and beautiful.


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      Sheila Crosby 7 years ago

      Thanks, I enjoyed that.

      I live on La Palma and the Spanish invasion was disastrous for the original inhabitants. The Spanish took all the best land and treated the locals as little better than slaves. As near as I can tell, they thought God would be really pleased with them for this wholesale murder and theft, because they were bringing the poor benighted natives into the bosom of the Holy Mother Church.

      By the way, there are two Karaoke bars on La Palma, but they're not obligatory, thank goodness.

    • lucieanne profile image

      lucieanne 7 years ago from Boston United Kingdom

      Thanks for your comment Pamela. It's so sad that the small island communities couldn't be left to do their own trading with the world without the big powers coming along and destroying what they had and taking it for themselves. Greed is one of the deadly sins and is the route of all evil. It's sickening to think that it will still be going on in hundreds of years to come, if the world survives that long. I've been studying the Incan and Mayan history and culture for a while now, and they suffered at the hands of the Europeans in the same way. It's still happening now. When will they ever learn?

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 7 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      I really enjoyed learning from your article. I always thought these islands were named Canary Islands due to a canary population. (I love birds.) Thanks for a great history lesson. Hawaii's history is different, but there is one similarity. Sugar. In fact, the Hawaiians might still have a sovereign nation if not for white men who wanted to build their own kingdom built on a sugar industry. Hawaii was taken illegally into the United States more than a century ago. I can understand some of the feelings the local and indigenous people here have for the way things are now. Many of their ancestors lost their lives due to the introduction of disease and most of the remaining ones lost their livelihoods back then when the men of the American Continent stepped up. Hawaii was taken over by the United States illegally and the Hawaiian Queen was jailed so that rich men could become richer through building a sugar industry.

      The Canary Islands are fascinating. I wish I was a traveler, but at least I have my arm chair. Great writing!

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      lisa 7 years ago

      very good. x

    • lucieanne profile image

      lucieanne 7 years ago from Boston United Kingdom

      Photos courtesy of wikemedia