The first culture to be extinguished as a result of European imperialism was that of the Guanches, the light-skinned indigenous population of the Canary Islands. In 1402, the Kingdom of Castile sent a small band of mercenaries to the island of Lanzarote. They built a fortress, captured the ruler of one of the smaller islands and forced a military surrender, followed by Christian baptism for the subjugated population. After this smooth beginning, things became more difficult for the Spanish, and it took them more than 90 years to conquer all seven islands. Despite being armed only with javelins and rocks, the Guanches' knowledge of the mountainous terrain and their determination to hang onto their land and way of life made them formidable opponents. Eventually the plague achieved what horses, cannon, armour and muskets could not, and on Christmas Day 1495 the last of the Guanches surrendered on Tenerife, where resistance had been fiercest. The remaining insurgents were hunted down from the hills, their traditional dress was outlawed and they were sold as slaves or put to work on one of the new sugar plantations. In the slave markets of Cadiz and Seville the Guanches were prized for their strength and agility, and reports of their doomed courage in battles against the Europeans made them ideal candidates for the part of the first savages to be ennobled by their defeat.
LRB 23 July 2009 | PDF Download