By Enrique Galvan-Alvarez
The Canary Islands are an archipelago off the north-west coast of Africa. The island closest to the African continent is within one-hundred kilometres of the Moroccan coast, while the distance between the northernmost Canarian islet and the Spanish mainland is more than 900 kilometres. The archipelago consists of seven major islands and a number of minor, mostly uninhabited, islets. The population is currently concentrated on the islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria.
Nowadays, the population of the Islands is above two-million, of which about three-quarters are Canarian. The islands are, politically, a part of Spain, despite having their own distinct fiscal regime and semi-independent institutions. Canarians, regardless of their ancestry, are nowadays considered full Spanish citizens. This however obscures the complex history and sense of identity that emerges from the geography, colonial past and migrant networks of the Canary Islands. Though in the contemporary imagination the Canaries are a mass tourist destination linked to beach tourism and package holidays, the Islands’ history is deeply enmeshed in colonial histories and resistance movements that shaped the history of the Atlantic.
Unlike the other archipelagos of the region (Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde), the Canary Islands were inhabited before the European ‘discovery’ and conquest of the 15th century. They are, after all, the closest to the African mainland and seemed to have been populated about one or two millennia before the European Conquest, depending on the island. These initial Amazigh, or Berber, settlers from north Africa had been neither Christianized nor Islamized and their culture emerged from the proto-Berber matrix with marginal Egyptian, Carthaginian and Roman influences. Indigenous Canarians were also called Guanches and their skin colour and features seemed to have been very similar to those of their new colonial masters: the only recently Christian peoples of Southern Europe, in particular of the Iberian Peninsula.
The conquest of the seven islands spanned almost a century (1402-1496) and was met with fierce resistance in at least four of the seven islands. In 1496, the Canaries were officially brought under Castilian sovereignty, though challenges to European/Spanish rule continued. This coincided with the beginning of the Spanish colonial expansion in the Americas and the Canaries, and the resistance of their original inhabitants, can be said to have been a blueprint and a laboratory for Spanish imperial conquest elsewhere. However, the Islands were also on the route to America and quickly developed a very important relation with the newly conquered territories across the Atlantic. Canarians, both of indigenous and European descent, were present in some of Columbus’ journeys. The flow of people from the Canaries to America was constant from the late 15th century to the middle of the 20th century.
Though some Canarians, especially those of European descent, were considered fellow Spanish by the conquerors of the Americas, Canarians, by and large, did not become assimilated or regarded as Spanish in the New World. The Canaries were not quite considered part of the Old World but neither were they entirely seen as the New World. The social and ethnic make-up of early colonial Canarian society resembled that of the Americas. A large contingent of the indigenous population mixed with European settlers from Spain, Portugal, Normandy and Genoa, who in turn introduced black African slaves and North African indentured labourers. Although the Islands were legally speaking part of the kingdom of Castile, Canarians were not seen as naturally Spanish or European, but as hybrid subjects, neither fully Spanish nor fully colonial or American. This led to the formation of distinct Canarian and Canarian-descendant communities across the Americas, who were characterised as ‘marginal whites’, below the ‘fully white’ Spanish elite but above Native Americans and African slaves.
The continued migration of Canarians to the Americas, due to the small size and poverty of the Islands and their subaltern position in colonial societies, created a singularly rebellious underclass. The first challenges to the Spanish imperial establishment came in the late 18th century from the Canarians of Venezuela, whose experience of oppression prompted them to seek to oust or replace the Spanish and Creole elite. Leaders such as Francisco de Miranda and Simón Bolívar were of Canarian ancestry and their projects are haunted by a powerful sense of in-betweenness which is typical of Canarian consciousness. Canarians and Canarian descendants also played a key role in the Cuban and Puerto Rican struggles for independence, as they made up a large section of the impoverished white peasantry and small business class. The iconic leader of Cuban independence, José Martí, had a Canarian mother and was acutely aware of the colonial condition of both Canarians and Cubans.
Through their contribution to various struggles, Canarians also aspired to lose their own stigmatized sense of identity. Canarian consciousness is based on colonial mimicry and desire; in the same way that they struggled, and failed, to be recognized by their Spanish colonial masters as equals, Canarians also joined the Latin American independence struggles wishing to shed their ‘white marginality’ and emerge as hybrid and empowered American subjects. Being Canarian was often associated with being part of a shameful underclass and thus Canarian rebelliousness was consequently expressed as a desire to relinquish Canarian identity.
Secundino Delgado, the first Canarian known to have articulated a Canarian national consciousness, reclaimed this subaltern space. Delgado was a Canarian migrant to the US, Cuba and Venezuela, whose life embodies the transatlantic networks of resistance of the late 19th century, which brought together the transnational anarchist movement and anti-colonial struggles (Cuba, Philippines). Delgado approached his involvement in the trade union and anarchist movements as a Canary islander, which for him involved a racialized, hybrid and subaltern subjectivity. His life reflects not only how the 19th century anarchist imagination informs Canarian consciousness, but also reveals the many connections between Canarian and American history, woven through the routes of the Canarian diaspora.
The last large migration of Canarians towards the Americas took place in the 1950s and had Venezuela as its target. Since then, Canarians have started, for the first time in their history, to migrate to Europe. Although most have settled in Spain, relatively small Canarian communities can be found in the UK, Germany and Sweden. In Europe, Canarians seem to self-identify or be identified as Spanish, except within Spain where they are still perceived as in-between subjects and are often mistaken for Latin Americans. Despite this fact and the many instances of casual racism experienced by Canarians in the Spanish mainland, they have not formed a distinctly separate underclass. Canarians have overwhelmingly mixed with mainland Spaniards and today can be found in some positions of power and influence. Like their predecessors in the Americas, second generation Canarians in Europe quickly adopted the identity of their host countries, while keeping a distant connection to their native or ancestral land.
A small minority of Canarian emigrants and descendants have also returned to the Islands from the 1960s onwards. As living conditions worsened in Latin America and at the same time improved on the Islands with the boom of tourism, many American-born Canarian descendants sought Spanish passports so that they could settle back in the land of their ancestors. They have further Americanized the Islands and have helped to complicate and enrich a society that by the late 20th century had become, after centuries of mixing, a tight-knit mono-ethnic group.
Despite their invisibility in popular and academic discourse, Canarians represent a peculiar example of a transnational and migrant community that is as old as modern European imperialism. To Northern Europeans they appear Spanish, to the Spanish they are colonial or Latin American voices, to Latin Americans they present an ambivalent image, neither entirely alien nor fully local. In countries like Uruguay or Cuba, even to this day, the terms ‘canario’ or ‘isleño’ are used as slurs for uneducated peasants, which confirms the survival of their socio-ethnic identity as an underclass.
Through their many migrations, however, Canarian communities have succeeded to bargain power and negotiate their sense of dispossession into a deeply pragmatic and ambivalent attitude, something expressed through rebellion and sometimes through strategic accommodation.
Enrique Galvan-Alvarez is a lecturer at Universidad Internacional de La Rioja-UNIR and has written extensively about (post)colonial histories and narratives. He has published a monograph on modern Indian fiction and its connections to the pre-modern and pre-colonial, along with many journal articles and book chapters on Tibetan-English literature, postcolonial nation building and the construction of identity narratives to either legitimate or resist the state in Japan, Syria and the Canary Islands. He is the author of ‘Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Canarian Imagination: the Missing Flag’, published in History Workshop Journal issue 83.