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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

How Did That Canary Get Its Name?

Canary Wharf By mattbuck [CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A recent picture of domestic canaries provoked a comment from a reader, who said "I was under the impression that the "Canary" part of the Canary Islands was a reference to Canines - dogs, not birds." And he's quite right. Accepted history (that may, or may not be correct) is, indeed, that the Canary Islands are named after the dogs, while the birds are named after the Canary Islands.

However, as I've mentioned here before and am bound to say again (and again), I have not yet found and, I am sure I never will find, any topic related to the history of these islands where there is one, singular version that can be proven, beyond all reasonable doubt.

What do you expect from the Fortunate Isles, The Garden of the Hesperides and / or Atlantis - depending which is your favorite myth or legend to attach to these islands. None of which can be proven, of course, but then again they can't exactly be disproven either.

Dogs have certainly been important in the Canary Islands in all known history, going right back to the pre-conquest, guanche, inhabitants. Archaeological excavations in several burial caves in Tenerife have shown that the dog was buried with his master, so it could "guide the soul to the region of the dead".

When the Mauritanian King Juba II, sent a marine expedition to the islands, between 30 and 25 BC, the discovery was described by Pliny, who wrote that the Canaries received this name "for their dogs, two of which were sent to Juba". Apparently, "Juba was very happy with his strong and intelligent dogs and when he marked the island on his map he called it the "Island of Dogs". He wrote the name on his map in Latin, "canes". (Mauritania was then part of the Roman Empire.) He probably only meant, "Look that's where my puppies came from" or, "Go here if you want a free hunting dog". 

Because, this report tells us, "Regardless of what Plinius wrote, the fact is that the island called today Gran Canaria, was inhabited by a tribe who called themselves the "canarii". They are said to have had North African, Berber origins. People started to call all islands "the Islands of Canaria", from which they were later called "Canary Islands". Again, here we are told that the name derives probably from a north African tribe (the Canarii) or possibly the Latin term Insularia Canaria meaning Island of the Dogs. Take your pick!

There is also a further opinion - from Historian, José Juan Jiménez, of the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (Museum of Nature and Man) in Tenerife - that Pliny screwed up his translation and that the Canaries, in reality, owe their name to the "cannis marinus", a species of large monk seal that populated the coasts until the 15th Century. Although the seals disappeared and the aboriginal people were wiped out, mainly through a mixture of disease and intermarriage (not the seals), the dogs have remained "man's best friend".

Perro de Presa Canario


Today's Perro de Presa Canario is originally from the Canary Islands in the 1800s, but may or may not bear any resemblance whatsoever to the original dogs of the islands.

"Its exact ancestry is unknown, but enthusiasts believe that an already established farm dog from the Canary Islands by the name of Majero bardino majorero was crossed with the Mastiffs and Old-Style Bulldogs that were brought from Europe to the Islands."

That many of those "imports" came from Britain, "The British character with their traditions to the fighting of dogs also arrived to the islands.", it should be no surprise that the fancy has gone full circle with renewed popularity among the criminal classes in the UK.

The Origin of the Presa Canario tells us that, "A few years following the conclusion of the conquest of the Canary Archipelago, reference is made in the Documents of the Municipal Council of Tenerife to their agreement of February 5, 1526, that in view of the damages produced by dogs to livestock, both small and large, the extermination of the same is ordered." Presuming those were native wild dogs and that the order was carried out, it is doubtful much of the genetics of the original dog exists, if any.

Gran Canaria's Tourist Board sum it up best in, Mysteries of the Canary Island Dog:

"The origins of the Presa Canario are as old as the legends of the Jardines Hespérides (The Garden of the Hesperides). Many stories have been told about the dogs from the Canary Islands which confuse reality and fiction and experts and historians often contradict each other when talking about the characteristics of the native dog or the role which they played in the Conquest."


Nowadays, following a recovery that began in the 1970's, modern Canary Dogs have fanciers all over the world. Having owned a possible bit of one (a mix with many similarities to this specimen), I can certainly understand why. Bright, dependable and very, very strong.

Because of links to a previous post about the disappearance of the dog symbol, I discovered two more websites devoted to these dogs, ElPresa.com - just Presa Canario and The Dogo Canario Club of America. For more information on the breed, see also, Presa Canario Canary Dogs and Canary Dog (Perro de Presa Canario).

From all this, it is easy to see why the dogs became adopted as a symbol of the islands, even, currently, being included on the islands' coat of arms (although not until the 1770's, first described by José de Viera y Clavijo), for their strength and versatility - not unlike the aboriginal inhabitants, which, assuming the Berber origins are correct, imagine a whole population of Zinédine Zidane's - and, by extension, became the protagonists in the accepted version of the history of the naming of the islands, whatever the facts.

Serinus canarius By Juan Emilio (Flickr: Canario silvestre, Serinus canarius(♂)) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We do definitely know from several references (well, maybe) that the native wild canary birds were named after the islands. The canary, common name for a familiar cage bird of the family Ploceidae (Old World finch family), descended from either the wild serin finch or from the very similar wild canary, Serinus canarius (Altantic Canary), of the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores and introduced into Europe in the late 15th or early 16th Century.

On the other hand, it is still a bit "chicken and egg", because, a little too coincidentally, the Latin verb "canere" means to sing. So were the birds named after the islands, or because they can sing, or were the islands named because the singing birds abound?

The answer is still not absolutely clear.

Canary Wharf Skyline By Diliff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

So, what has all that to do with a picture of London's Canary Wharf?

"Canary Wharf itself takes its name from the sea trade with the Canary Islands, whose name comes from the dogs (Latin canis) which the Spaniards found there, producing the linguistic coincidence of trade between the Dog Islands and the Isle of Dogs." However, just to add yet more uncertainty, another explanation for the latter denomination could be the rumour that the docklands was once the site of King Henry VIII's hunting kennels.

Nevertheless, exotic products from these islands had been unloaded on the site of the now One Canada Square or Canary Wharf Tower. A trade which began in the 16th Century when English pirates merchants had been carrying that famous Malmsey (Malvasia) wine known as Canary that was popular in England (and particularly with Shakespeare) - back from the old port of Garachico.

Was architect, Cesar Pelli, thinking of Spain's tallest mountain; Tenerife's Mount Teide, in the Canary Islands or perhaps the Guimar Pyramids when he designed Britain's tallest building; the 235 metres (771 ft) and 50 story pyramid-topped building, I wonder? Like the rest of these questions, this will probably never be definitively answered.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent, Pamela -- thank you for the article and visiting my blog at www.karlblog.com! Wonderful article!! --- Karlos

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic article. So many coincidences...I like to think the Isle of Dogs also got its name from those big dogs of the Canary Islands.

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