news from the island
Trading Places

Sunday April 8, 2007

Trading Places

How did the Lanzaroteños make a living before the advent of mass-market tourism in the 1970´s?

Since the conquest of the islands by the Spanish in the 1400´s Lanzarote´s economic history has revolved around attempts to create a dominant export crop. As the new island rulers believed that this strategy would attract overseas capital and investment and so provide economic stability.

Over the centuries this has resulted in a number of different and often unique crops holding sway for a period. And then giving way to other products as political and economic circumstances shifted.

Purple Reign

The first manifestation of this economic strategy was the re-introduction of the cultivation of Orchilla or Rocella during the 1500s. A lichen indigenous to both Lanzarote and Fuerteventura that grows well on sea-facing cliff walls, such as those at El Risco de Famara.

In pre-Spanish times Orchilla had been much prized by Phoenician traders as it could be used to produce an excellent purple coloured dye. Now, the pigment from the lichen also held value in European trading circles as it could be used to create purple paint. A factor that resulted in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura being dubbed the Purple Islands throughout this period.

Along with wine production, Orchilla cultivation and export dominated the economic landscape on Lanzarote throughout the 1600´s. However production began to decline during the 18th century due to the collusion of a number of factors, such as the six-year volcanic eruption starting in 1730 and similarly combustible relations between England and Spain. Which consequently damaged trading links between the two nations.

Volcanic Vines

Wines from Lanzarote were praised in plays by no less eminent an Englishman than William Shakespeare . But that may well have had something to do with the fact that the poet laureate was then enjoying an annual allowance of 268 gallons of the stuff from the Crown.

Either way, references to Malvaisa wine - also known at the time as malmsey or sack - crop up regularly in some of the bards best known works. For example in Henry IV :

But I faith, you have drunk too much Canaries and that´s a marvelous searching wine

Canarian Malvaisa wine was a prestigious drink. Bottles graced the top tables of kings and queens across Europe. It was widely regarded by the cognoscenti as the nectar of the gods.

This was because medieval palates favoured sweet tasting drinks with a strong bouquet. Partly because sugar was a luxury item but also to counter the taste of salt, the prevalent preservative of the time.

Malvaisa fitted the bill perfectly and this sweet, aromatic wine was to prove especially popular in England, the major market for exports.

However, this trade diminished in the eighteenth century as political tensions between England and Spain resulted in Portuguese wine enjoying a more privileged status.

As a result most English wine merchants were evicted from the Canaries and the final death knell for the industry was sounded in the 1850´s when the vines were decimated by a fungus which all but ended mass production.

Read more about Lanzarote wines

Soap Star

During the 18th and 19th century large swathes of hillsides in the north of the island were given over to the cultivation of a plant called Barrilla, better known as the Ice Plant.

Barrilla was valued as it was used in the manufacture of soaps and for a time, along with cochineal (see below) it became a major export product and helped fuel the growth of Arrecife as the island's commercial capital.

Farmers would cultivate barrilla on the northern side of hills and volcanoes as this would ensure that the plants received a greater amount of moisture from overnight clouds sweeping in from the North. Often carving out gravity defying terracing to facilitate intensive cultivation.

These terraces can still be seen today in areas such as the Valle de Temisa in Tabayesco and in and around Los Valles.

Beetle Juice

Exports from Lanzarote then became dominated by the trade in cochineal, a scarlet dyestuff obtained from the dried bodies of the cocchus beetle that breeds on the tunera, or prickly pear cacti.

This dye played a significant role in the development of the English textile industry during the industrial revolution and was also used to colour the redcoats of British soldiers.

Emigrants returning from Mexico in the early 19th century had witnessed how the beetle could be crushed and used to create a rich dyestuff and as a result the tunera cactus was imported and heavily planted on Lanzarote. Especially in the areas around Mala and Guatiza, where fields of the cactus are still evident today.

Cochineal production - in part funded by English merchants - began to peak during the 1850's, contributing to the growing importance of Arrecife, which became the island's official capital in 1852. As the port became the main gateway for the export of tons of the product to Britain.

Sadly though this period of prosperity wasn't going to run, as once William Henry Perkin discovered the first aniline, or synthetic dye stuff, in 1856 the market for natural dyes slowly began to fade. As a result both price and demand declined sharply.

Although some stimulus was provided by the fact that cochineal had waterproofing qualities which artificial dyes lacked, the contribution of cochineal to Lanzarote´s overseas earnings was all but washed out.

View information about the Cactus Garden

Back to Features
blog comments powered by Disqus