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Canarian Emigration in the 16th Century

Alcázar de Colón (Columbus Fortress), Plaza de la HispanidadSanto Domingo

The conquest and colonization of the central Canary Islands, including Tenerife, runs parallel to the Discovery of America. The discovery and colonization of the Antilles by Columbus turned the Canary Islands into a privileged setting and due to their position and the action of the trade winds, the islands became the obligatory stop during passage to the Indies.

Asian plants such as sugar cane and banana from the islands would be taken to the Indies. Technicians from the Canary Islands worked in the first mill of the New Continent in Santo Domingo. (Sugar cane was introduced to Hispaniola by settlers from the Canary Islands, and the first sugar mill in the New World was established in 1516.) The African yam would penetrate the Caribbean area soon afterwards. The same would happen with the pig, goat, dog and sheep, which, brought from the islands, would spread throughout the Antilles.

The Canary Islands were, therefore, an intermediary in the spread of plants and animals on both sides of the ocean. The potato, brought from South America, would quickly acclimatise on the islands, and exports to Europe were known shortly afterwards. Together with maize, the potato would transform island agriculture, becoming the quintessential food for the lower classes of society. The first written mention of the potato is a receipt for delivery dated 28 Nov 1567 between Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Antwerp.

Canary Islanders would participate in the conquest as expert guides. Between 1492 and 1506 at least 12 of the largest expeditions made a stopover in La Gomera or Tenerife, among them the biggest names of the conquest such as Christopher Columbus, Alonso de Ojeda, Amerigo Vespucci, Pedrarias (Pedro Arias Dávila), Juan de la Cosa, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón or Nicolás de Ovando. The Canary Islands had the privilege of trading with the Indies since the beginning of the colonization of the New World. A Royal Order of 1511 simply specifies that Canarians can depart with only the authorization of the ship's captain.

In this way, Canarians or residents in the Canary Islands became an integral part of the conquest and colonization expeditions, such as that of Pedro de Mendoza in the founding of Buenos Aires in 1535 or that of Pedro Fernández de Lugo for the conquest of Santa Marta in Colombia and others. However, we cannot speak of Canarian emigration in the strict sense, but rather as a basis for moving to the New World without the severe controls of the Sevillian monopoly. In the 16th century Santo Domingo first and Havana later were the main destinations. Slowly, a migratory movement of merchants and farmers would develop.

Manuel Hernández González, Professor of American History, University of La Laguna

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