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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Travellers Chronicles Reveal Invisible History of Canary Islands Women

The chronicles of the travellers who visited the Canary Islands in the centuries XVIII and XIX have been helping investigators to uncover details of the daily life the women of the archipelago, who had surprised the foreigners with their beauty, but also by their ignorance, poverty and superstitions.

University professor and investigator in History of Education at the University of La Laguna, Teresa González, has investigated texts written by Elizabeth Murray, Piazzi Smyth, Olivia Stone, Verneau, Berthelot, Humboldt and others, to publish a book, "Las mujeres canarias en las crónicas de viajeros" (Canary Islands women in chronicles of travellers).

Outsiders' accounts have been an essential source of information about Canary Islands women in centuries past, about whom there are scarcely any historical accounts, because the past of the women of the islands is invisible: hidden.

González says it was interesting to observe how the travellers analysed Canarians from their European viewpoint. They value but also underestimate and, in some cases, ridicule the behavior of the islanders.

These travellers were mostly British, German and French and were of a "cultured class", with money, which made them look from a "position of superiority", analysing the island population as living in extreme poverty and intellectual misery.

The chroniclers described people who were rough, but because they had been kept far away from knowledge. They particularly noticed that better off women were kept inside, infrequently going out into the street, unless accompanied.

Many of the travellers visiting La Laguna, La Orotava and Garachico in Tenerife, as well as Gran Canaria and Lanzaorte, spoke of empty streets and silence.

They also described scenes with peasant women laden with fruit and milk who went to market in groups, engaged in animated conversations, accompanied by children.

English chronicler, Whitford's attention was drawn by the belief in witches, ghosts, apparitions and even curses, superstitions, which until recently pervaded among country women.

(From my personal experience, I'd counter that these beliefs and rituals still exist in various, mostly, rural pockets.)

Many also spoke of the moral order and in this respect, Brown confirmed that the morality of Canarian women was quite elevated, for instance if they were married they were almost always faithful, even when their husbands emigrated and they were left alone for a number of years. Single girls rarely had more than one boyfriend.

For Pegot-Ogier, the women of the Canary Islands were "uncultured, ignorant, had much less knowledge of the outside world than the men and were incapable of being the center of attention, despite their beauty".

Some travellers also spoke of how misery drove many island women to prostitute themselves in exchange for a few coins, mainly those who did not have a man to look after them. And there are stories of how women offered themselves to sailors or a group of thirty girls, accompanied by their old mothers, who begged insistently for "the favour of an intimate conversation".

La belleza y la miseria de las canarias sorprendía a los viajeros del siglo XVIII y XIX

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