27 Jan 2017

33. History, Part 2 : Occupation to Emigration

The conquest of the Canary Islands took almost
Iluminure of the opening page of the original Le Canarien (1490)
the whole of the fifteenth century to complete. El Hierro was one of the first to be absorbed by the new order perhaps because, however wayward the princesses or brave the warriors legend will have us believe, it was a walkover for the Normans. In 1403 Gadifer de la Salle reconnoitered the island and in his chronicle, Le Canarien, he says he and his men spent 22 days here but, uncharacteristically, he mentions no skirmish with the natives. After years of slave raids by Barbary pirates, and by others from nearer home, the native population, never very numerous, must have been decimated and could have afforded no resistance to the invaders. The occupation by the first Norman settlers, then, represented an abrupt change, not transition, from prehistory to history.

Like Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, El Hierro became one of the feudal domains of the Norman adventurer, Jean de Bethencourt, who owed allegiance to the Crown of Castille. These domains changed hands several times until the abolition of the feudal system in the nineteenth century. Under this system the at best precarious economy of the island meant that the islanders, burdened by levies and tithes, must have lived in the most abject misery. The new society following the demise of the Bimbaches was for centuries based on a similar subsistence economy and it was only with the growth of the wine and spirit industry in the eighteenth century that things began to change. But only for a short while. At the middle of the nineteenth century even this collapsed and the islanders were back at square one, faced with emigration.

Gradually, emigrants to Cuba, Argentina and later Venezuela began to send small sums of money to the families left behind in order to buy from impoverished or absentee landlords the humble homes they had grown up in and the fields they had worked. Emigration peaked with the droughts of the nineteen-forties. In the late seventies we found every family on the island had a son, father or husband in Venezuela and many women had been left behind to bring up the youngsters. This period of intense emigration had profound effects on the people and the landscape. The land was parceled up, areas that were traditionally pasture were put to cultivation, the walls we see everywhere were built, as were most of the typical houses in the villages. The famous “muda” – a seasonal household transhumance – was slowly abandoned. The port of La Estaca was no longer the end of the islander’s world but a doorway to freedom and, hopefully, a better life. Customs and traditions that regulated village life gradually fell into disuse and even the islanders’ speech changed. Most importantly, the islanders’ collective memory was reset to coincide with the period of emigration, as though all that had gone before was better ignored. Perhaps it was.

This period lasting at least seventy-five years represents a change even more profound, though not as abrupt, than the initial occupation which took no more than perhaps two or three years. And, this time, it prepared the islanders for entry into the modern world.

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