26 Jan 2016

Springs, Vegetables and Pirates

Most historical villages and towns in the western Canaries are at a considerable height above sea level, usually somewhere between 1200 and 1800 feet. El Hierro is no exception.Often they seem to follow the spring-line and this is undoubtedly true for the other western islands. But not for El Hierro. The few springs we have are only so in name: just bits of seasonally damp ground or the slowly dripping roof of rock in some overhang or cave. Perhaps for this reason, the island’s two earliest villages, Las Montañetas and La Albarada, both long-abandoned and in ruins, were within easy walking distance from El Garoé, our miraculous distilling tree, at a comparable altitude.

You may ask what, then, people did in other villages until the relatively recent advent of municipal supply forty years ago. Water for household use was rainwater collected from roofs and stored in underground cisterns lined first with wood and later with lime. 30 cubic metres per household per year.

Another reason is that the climate at these altitudes is better for settlement. It is cooler and damper and it rains more, and more regularly. This is clearly more congenial than the hot, dry coast to the agricultural settlers from northern and western Iberia. Significantly, Las Montañetas, with the island’s first Town Hall, provided the vegetables and La Albarada the meat for the island’s early settlers.
If you’re observant, you’ll notice that at least some villages must have grown on the sites of Bimbape settlements ( Bimbape: the name of the prehispanic inhabitants – more about these in a later post). But then why did they choose the site?

In my opinion the most important reason in either pre- or post-conquest times was safety. History books tell us with great relish about the attacks by more or less official pirates like Drake, Jambe de Bois, Van der Does, even Nelson. The less spectacular but almost constant and deadly incursions by pirates from the Barbary Coast of north Africa are never mentioned. You would think at first sight that an insignificant island like El Hierro had little to offer in the way of loot. But not so. Like all the other islands it was inhabited by people and slaves were the pirates’ most lucrative prize

Gadifer de la Salle, a god-fearing military man from France, visited El Hierro in 1402. In the chronicle of his voyage (Le Canarien) it would seem 400 aborigins of the island were taken captive that year but this figure is more likely to refer to La Palma. He himself, however, found it natural to capture four women and a boy while he was here. Such prizes would be sold on the European market – how otherwise would there have been interpreters at his service? After the conquest of the island in 1405 the European, Christian settlers taken by corsairs would have been sold on the Barbary Coast White Slave Market to Ottoman buyers. This trade continued into the nineteenth century.

It seems logical then to locate your villages some way from the coast, at a defendable height from which you can see advancing marauders. The villagers of La Albarada are said to have bound their cockerels’ beaks with horsehair so that the fowls’ crowing would not give their position away at night – that’s how serious their fear was! (Here, incidentally, cocks crow at night as well.)

The capital of El HIerro, Valverde, cradled between foothills at 1800 feet above sea level. You can see the breakers near the airport in the centre of the photo. On the horizon, La Gomera and further still the pale silhouette of Tenerife.