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Canary Connections :: Sir Francis Drake

Saturday November 10, 2007

Canary Connections :: Sir Francis Drake

There´s no denying the popularity of the Canary Islands with British tourists. But the links between the Canaries and the UK go back much further than just the 1970´s, when the new concept of package holidays started bringing the British to the islands in droves. As some of the most prominent figures in English history have connections with the Canaries - including such eminents as William Shakespeare, Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill and Sir Francis Drake.

Island Trading Post

The strategic position of the Canaries as a bridge between the Old world and the New - and the rivalry between England and Spain for trading and territorial supremacy made clashes in the Canaries almost inevitable.

Back in the 16th Century Spain was very much in the ascendancy. And the Spanish crown was the richest and most powerful monarchy in Europe. Thanks in no small part to their discovery of the New World and their colonization of most of the American continent from as far as Lake Michigan in the north down to Buenos Aires in the south.

The conquests created a number of lucrative new sources of income for the Spanish crown, most especially in the form of vast deposits of silver and gold unearthed in the Inca lands of what is today Peru.

Pieces Of Eight

These precious metals were used to create the coinage that was the basis of most of Europe´s medieval monetary system (for example, the most common Spanish coin of the day was the 8-reales piece, or pieces of eight, which eventually came to be referred to as the peso).

Spain had little in the way of industry domestically and relied heavily on imports from other European nations. The discovery of the Americas and these valuable mineral deposits meant that the Spanish Crown was now able to virtually print their own money providing them with an unlimited source of gold and silver coins.

Unsurprisingly the monarchy sought to protect this new source of wealth and created a policy, which dictated that their new colonies could trade solely with Spanish merchant ships. Which transported and traded goods such as tools, food and domestic animals as well as sugar cane and wines from the Canaries in return for gold and silver.

Treasure Fleets

By the 1570´s Spain had established a number of these treasure fleets which basically shuttled foodstuffs and manufactured goods from Europe and precious minerals back from the Americas. All sailing via the Canaries.

So creating a highly profitable monopoly, which was obviously unpopular with other European countries such as France and England. With both nations desiring a slice of the action.

Neither France nor England was in a position to wage open war against Spain at this time. So rather than risk official hostilities the English (and French) instead encouraged private ships - privateers - to sack and steal treasure from the Spanish wherever possible. Whether in the form of Inca silver returning from the New World or goods on route from the Old.

Privateers and Pirates

The rewards for these privateers were enormous. As they were officially sanctioned to retain a portion of whatever they could get their hands on for themselves. Whilst redistributing the bulk of their haul to the English monarch, Elizabeth I. So attracting naval adventurers such as Sir Francis Drake, who began conducting what basically amounted to a one-man private war with Spain from 1573 onwards 

The Canaries position as one apex of a triangular sea route between the Americas and Europe created a hitherto unknown level of affluence and prosperity on the islands. And much of Drake´s pirating was conducted in around the waters surrounding Lanzarote, Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Where both vessels and settlements on land would be subject to attack.

Lanzarote Under Attack

This campaign reached a violent crescendo between 1585 and 1587 as Drake worked his way down from mainland ports such as Vigo in Galicia to concentrate his efforts in the Canaries once again, and particularly on the port of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria and along the coastline of Lanzarote. Before returning to English waters to help repel the advance of the Spanish armada in 1588.

Such was the impact of these incursions that the Spanish King, Felipe II, felt compelled to militarize the Canaries. Authorizing the sale of slaves seized from West Africa to finance the further fortification of the port at Las Palmas. As well as the rebuilding in stone of the castle and lookout point which sits atop Mount Guanapay, overlooking Teguise, the islands capital at that time.

Drake returned again to test these new defences at Las Palmas in 1595, a year before his death. Only to be successfully repulsed by the Spanish defenders. But four years later a Dutch pirate, Van der Droes, succeeded where Drake had failed. Invading the city, sacking its treasures and razing it to the ground.

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