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The Canary Islanders of Louisiana
 

The archipelago of the Canaries consists of seven main islands, having a total area of less than 6 percent of the size of Louisiana, lying about sixty-five miles west of Morocco in Northern Africa. They were formed as a result of volcanic activity. It is a rugged, mountainous terrain, and plains are almost nonexistent. Lack of water is a serious problem. The westernmost islands receive the most rain, while the two islands closest to the Sahara Desert and lower in elevation have some deserts. The higher elevations on some of the western islands have pleasant temperatures, and crops of wheat, barley, potatoes, dates, chestnuts, bananas, sugarcane and other subtropical plants can be grown.

The ancient natives of the Canary Islands were the Guanches, who lived in a Stone Age way of life. The language is related to the ancient idioms of North Africa, but has disappeared except for a few words. The Guanches never developed writing and did not know the use of boats in the fifteenth century. They lived a pastoral life, caring for their goats, sheep, and pigs. Some of them lived in huts, but the majority lived in caves. Adults dressed in skins or grasses sewn together, while the younger people went about naked. They developed a system of government that included judges, laws, and kings. The Gaunche weapons were mainly sticks, spears, and stones. Their religion consisted of belief in a single god, and they carefully buried their dead after embalming the bodies.

The origin of the Guanches has mystified scholars. The earliest Gaunche inhabitants have been described as robust, fair skinned, and handsome. Recent studies classify the people into two groups called Cro-Magnon and Mediterranean. The Cro-Magnon type is described as broad-faced, robust, long headed and fairer than the Mediterranean type. The Mediterranean type is described as long faced, delicate, and having a short, broad skull. Evidence points to Northwest Africa as the origination point for the Gaunches, sometime between 2500 and 1000 BC.

Stories about the Canaries circulated around the Mediterranean before the times of the Romans. King Juba II of Mauretania who reigned between 25BC and AD 25 sent an expedition to investigate the islands. They found no human but encountered ferocious dogs. King Juba named the islands for the dogs, canine in Latin being canaria. The well-known songbirds derive their name from the islands rather than giving it to them.

After the collapse of the Roman era, the islands disappeared from recorded history for nearly a thousand year. The Genoese arrived in 1291, followed by the Portuguese in 1341, and the Majorcans in 1342. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the Europeans often sacked and enslaved the natives. Gaunches were sold as slaves before 1400 in Seville and Valencia and though the fifteenth century. The Spanish crown of Fernando and Isabella finally defeated the remaining Guanches and the Canaries came under Spanish control. Spanish names, religion, and customs were forced upon the Gaunche. Spanish nobles seized the best agricultural lands, treating the Gaunches in the most barbaric manner, coercing them into serfdom. Economic conditions deteriorated. The native tenant farmers and their families were starving.

War erupted in the English colonies of North America in 1776. Spain's vast Louisiana colony in 1763 had only approximately eleven thousand people, less than half of whom were white. England seized several Spanish boats on Lake Ponchartrain in May 1777. In August 1777, the Spanish Crown commanded the governor and commandant general of the Canary Islands to enlist seven hundred men for service in Louisiana. Emigration to Louisiana offered to the islanders opportunity to escape the deplorable conditions in which they lived. More than three hundred inhabitants of Gomera chose to leave for Louisiana. The recruits appear to have come from five of the seven islands: Hierro and Fuertenventura yielded no volunteers.

The immigrant soldiers needed to be between 17 and 36 years of age, at least five feet one-half inch tall, robust and without noticeable imperfections or vice. Preference was given to married men. The wives, children, and close relatives of the recruits would be transported to Louisiana at royal expense. Eight ships transported the 2,010 Islenos from the Canaries. The last ship, El Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, departed on May 31, 1779, but was detained in Havana because the Governor of Havana did not think Louisiana was a safe place due to proximity of the British troops at Baton Rouge. Many of these Islenos never finished the journey to Louisiana. Copies of the passenger lists of the eight ships are in the books referenced.

Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Galvez welcomed the first group of Canary Islanders in November 1778. He decided to employ all the immigrant-recruits as settlers only, because of the impossibility of keeping the married recruits in the regiments with their large families. He established the first community, Valenzuela, on Bayou Lafourche, just past Donaldsonville. Today, this is the site of Belle Alliance plantation, and there is an historical marker marking this site as Valenzuela. Galveztown was established on the banks of Bayou Manchac where it joins the Amite River, and as a buffer to the British who controlled the area north of Bayou Manchac. Barataria was established on the west side of the Mississippi River below New Orleans and Terre-aux Boeufs on the east bank. The settlements at Galvez and Barataria both failed because of continuous flooding. The Islenos in St. Bernard parish quickly adapted to the area and increased their income by fishing and trapping in addition to farming. The Islenos in Ascension and Assumption parishes settled down to farming, the main crop being sugar cane. Many Canary Islanders' descendants today still live in the Bayou Lafourche and St. Bernard areas.

The land grants were supposed to consist of approximately three arpents of bayou front (576 feet) by 40 deep (7,680 feet), but the grants were irregular in size, due to the curving of the bayou. The government supplied them well, sometimes lavishly. Some of them received a cart and two horses valued at 125 pesos. One example, a family numbering seven persons received: 150 ounces of cloth, 30 ounces of printed linen, 4 hats, 10 plain and 4 silk handkerchiefs, 6 pairs of stockings, 16 ounces of cloth of white thread, 4 needle cases, 8 thimbles, 1,000 pins and needles, 3 fusils (flintlocks), 3 pounds of gunpowder, 4 shaving razors, 5 axes, 8 hoes, 2 shovels, 10 ounces of Limburg cloth, 2 1/2 pesos in coin per person, 20 pesos for the purchase of a mare, and a number of other items. The government built the colonists at Galvez wooden houses, 16 x 32 feet, with a gallery on one side.

Sugar cane was brought from the Canary Islands and introduced into Louisiana agriculture. Canary Illanders have labored in the sugar industry continuously and have had a large part in making the industry the success it is today.

Islenos have distinguished themselves in the War of 1812, Civil War, and WWI and WWII. Although, many remained clannish and aloof from outsiders until the early 1900's, most have since valued education and many have served honorably in governmental positions. All Isleno descendants should be proud of their unique heritage.

Sources:
Canary Island Migration by Sidney Villere
The Canary Islanders of Louisiana by Gilbert C. Din.

 
 

 

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