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Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The other epidemic that changed the history of the conquest of the Canary Islands

Depiction of the First Battle of Acentejo by Gumersindo Robayna / Public domain

That coronavirus is not the only epidemic that the Canary Islands have suffered is somewhat evident, but few know which was the first. At the end of the 15th Century, in the midst of the the conquest of the island of Tenerife by the Castilians, the Guanches suffered a terrible epidemic with symptoms similar to the flu, refered to as "drowsiness" that killed, 25% of the aboriginal population, facilitating the taking of the island.

With rudimentary means - wooden-tipped spears and stones - compared to their rival's weapons, the knowledge of the terrain allowed the Guanches to defeat the Castilian troops in the first of the Acentejo battles in the spring of 1494. But the joy would not last long, as nature had prepared a setback for them: the spread of an epidemic that struck from the autumn of 1494 to the winter of 1495, especially to the menceyatos of Taoro, Tegueste, Tacoronte and Anaga, although it also came to other more isolated areas of the island.

The historian José de Viera y Clavijo referred to this epidemic in the 18th century as that "from which so many Guanches died", explaining that it consisted of "malignant fevers or acute pleurisy that ended in a poisonous dream that we call drowsiness."

Several centuries later, thanks to the director of the Archaeological Museum of Tenerife, Conrado Rodríguez-Maffiotte, we know that this pathology was presented by very acute respiratory symptoms in "virgin terrain", that is territory whose population has no defense against the virus or bacteria, something that, without a vaccine, compares with the defenselessness that exists today against Covid-19.

The epidemic arrived with the conquerors and it was precisely this contact, not only between the Guanches and the Castilians, but between the Aborigines themselves - since it was a time of war - which favored the spread of the epidemic, ending the lives of five thousand of the twenty thousand Guanches who lived in Tenerife.

Most historians agree that "the drowsiness" was one of the final determinants of the conquest of the island - and being the last to be taken, therefore, it is also the conquest of the Canary Islands - by the Spanish, who saw in this epidemic "a miraculous act sent by God, who had put himself on his side to defeat the aborigines."

La modorra: La gripe que mató al 25% de guanches en la conquista de Tenerife
La otra epidemia que cambió la historia de la conquista de Canarias
What became of the Guanches?

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