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The Canaries in an Empire

8 October 2021

An opinion piece by in today’s Jornada by Raúl Zibechi on the La Palma volcano eruption and it’s effects on both the local economy and on the woes of “tropical paradises” in general (too damn many tourists with too much money) brought to mind Alan Taylor’s 2001 “American Colonies”. Taylor looked at the creation of the United States not just as the story of the English colonies moving westward, but of all the colonial policies of all the imperial powers that once held territory in what is now the United States (including the United States itself in Hawai’i). What Zibechi’s column had to do with Taylor (and United States history) was his somewhat passing reference to the difference between British and Spanish colonialism, based on the two countries first “overseas” colonies. Ireland for the English, the Canaries for Spain.

Both nations, in their drive to dominate and exploit their possessions turned to cultural and physical genocide, there was a distinction WITH a difference. The English, especially in the north, sought to replace the indigenous Irish… the pioneering “settler state”. The Spanish did erradicate the native Canarians (the Guanches) more by accident and ineptitude than design.

Where the Irish had immunity to the usual Euroasian diseases, the Guances had no such protection. As it is, given all we know about the native Guanches is that they were extremely big people by the standards of the time, the Spanish were at a loss, and geniunely bothered by the massive and rapid decline in the Guanche population. After all, they’d hoped to make slaves (another route to quick extinction of a population) or at least productive workers out of the natives. Preferably Catholic (at least, sorta Catholic).

The “conquest” of the Canaries, came about a century before the conquest of Mexico, which came about 400 centuries before there was anything like a decent understanding of germs and how they spread. While it doesn’t exactly let the Conquistors off the hook for setting off the American holocaust (reducing the native population of the Americas by up to 90% over the next century). but it was deliberate, as was — a century and a half later — the English realized infected clothing and blankets could be a useful tool in solving their “native problem”. Native massacres (that is, massacres OF natives) were less common, and less acceptable by the Spaniards than by the English, and the later United States, that not only accepted, but encouraged, them.

THe Canarians, having the misfortune to leve in a popular tourist destination, have to put up with tourists eager to “enjoy”” the various thrill of watching people’s homes and possessions consumed by a volcano (Reuters photo).

The English sought to replace the local population with their own expendibles (in the Americas, the less desiderable religious minorities and criminals) while just enough elites to command and control. The Spanish only sent out those needed for administrative tasks, although individuals in both Empires would emigrate hoping to better their economic condition, or to escape their past.

It might be tempting to imagine an alternative history in which there weren’t empires, but it would be fruitless, and foolish to assume the cultures in places like the Canaries, or Ireland, or the Americas would not have changed over the centuries, even if left alone. They weren’t. When it came to imposing themselves on the Americas, the English did a much more thorough job of wiping out the original cultures, whereas in Latin America, as much for demographic reasons as anything, the cultures of the “mother country” have been assimilated by the native population.

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