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Antiquity and early Europeans

Together with the islands of La Gomera and La Palma, El Hierro is one of the youngest islands of the archipelago with an age of about 2 million years.

Around 3000 years ago, writers such as Homer already spoke of the 'islands of the blessed'. Between 1100 and 800 B.C., the Canary Islands were discovered by the Phoenicians, coming from present-day Cadiz, and the Carthaginians. The oldest discoveries date back to 500-200 B.C. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy knew for sure: the world ended at El Hierro.


The original inhabitants of El Hierro were the Bimbachs, not to be confused with the Guanches of the other Canary Islands. The Bimbachs were probably also descended from Berber tribes from North Africa, but hard evidence for this is still lacking. They were a peaceful people who lived from fishing and lived in caves. In the area of El Julán, prehistoric inscriptions were discovered in 1870 on the rock walls, of which 'Los Lettreros' (letters) are the most important. They have not been deciphered to date.

In 1312 AD Lancelotto Malocello entered the island of Lanzarote and founded the settlement of Teguise. In 1402, the Norman Jean de Béthencourt conquered Lanzarote for the Castilian crown and thus received the title of "King of the Canary Islands".

In the desolate Bahia de Naos, west of La Restinga, De Béthencourt set foot on El Hierro in 1403. From there he attacked the small number of Bimbachs, the original inhabitants of El Hierro, who were well hidden in the mountains. He lured the Bimbach leader Armiche out of hiding in order to start peace negotiations. Armiche came to the Spanish in good faith, but was soon thrown into prison with his entire retinue and later taken away as slaves by Norman and Castilian settlers. It was also at this time that a feudal system was introduced, which would last until the middle of the 19th century.

The people of Lanzarote revolted against De Béthencourt, but the latter crushed the revolt with the help of his governor, Gadifer de la Salle. King Guadarfia was baptised and the chapel of the Rubicón fortress became the first episcopal seat in the Canary Islands. In 1414, De Béthencourt donated the Canary Islands to the Iberian Count of Niebla.

From 1440, the Canary Islands were ruled by the Peraza people in a heavy-handed manner and this period was marked by many rebellions.

El Hierro definitively Spanish territory

In the period 1433-1479, the Spaniards and the Portuguese fought over the Canary Islands. In 1479, the archipelago was granted to Spain in the Treaty of Alcáçovas and Portugal was allowed to annex the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira. In the last decades of the 15th century, all Canary Islands were conquered successively: in 1483 Gran Canaria, in 1488 La Gomera, in 1495 Tenerife and in 1496 La Palma. The Guanches were practically extinct everywhere by the middle of the 16th century. In this century the Canary Islands became a major exporter of sugar, which was grown on large sugar cane plantations.

In 1634, French geographers chose Punta de Orchilla, the westernmost tip of El Hierro and thus Europe, for the location of the prime meridian, which was, however, shifted to Greenwich in 1883.

Meanwhile, the sugar industry had collapsed due to cheap sugar from South America.

In the 17th century people switched to the production of wine, but for various reasons wine production and export declined steadily at the end of the 18th century. The first university of the Canary Islands was founded on Tenerife in 1744.

In 1797 the Canary Islands were attacked for the last time by Admiral Horatio Nelson, who in that year attacked Santa Cruz de Tenerife. In the 19th century carmine, a natural dye from the cochineal louse, became an important export item.

In the same century the government in Madrid declared El Hierro a place of exile. Especially intellectuals and politicians who had fallen into disgrace were sent to the island. Some exiles managed to escape to South America, where they supported the revolutionary liberation movements.

Canary Islands province and free trade zone

In 1821, the Canary Islands became a province of Spain, with Santa Cruz de Tenerife as its capital. This led to a flare-up in rivalry between the archipelago's two largest islands, Gran Canaria and Tenerife. In 1836, the feudal system was abolished on La Gomera and on other islands.

In 1852, Queen Isabella II declared the entire Canary archipelago a free trade zone. When Spain lost its last colonies, the Canary Islands suffered economically because a whole market was lost. In 1902, Spanish troops put down rebellions by local independence movements. Tenerife had become so dominant that in 1911 it was decided to do something about it and give each individual island its own administration.

In 1927 the rivalry between Gran Canaria and Tenerife flared up again to such an extent that the archipelago was permanently divided into two provinces: a western province with El Hierro, Tenerife, La Gomera and La Palma, and an eastern province with Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.

Meanwhile, the production of cochineal had completely collapsed and many inhabitants of the Canary Islands emigrated to South America. The next export product was the Canary Island banana, introduced in 1855. The First World War dealt a big blow to international trade and banana exports fell by 80%, which also led to a wave of emigration.


In 1931, the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed, but in 1936, General Franco seized power in the Canary Islands and unleashed the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War, however, brought only economic malaise and political isolation. The island countries did not escape the acts of war either. For example, mass executions took place in the Barranco del Infierno on Tenerife. At that time, the Canary Islands were the poorest area in Spain.

From 1960 onwards, tourism increased and rapidly replaced agriculture as the main source of livelihood. After the death of General Franco in 1975, there was more political openness and tourism also experienced a boom.

Canary Islands autonomous and rise of mass tourism

In August 1982, the Canary Islands were granted autonomous status along with several other Spanish provinces, and in 1986, despite joining the European Union, the archipelago retained its separate status as a free trade zone. The status of capital was divided between Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. In Santa Cruz are the headquarters of the Canarian Parliament, and half of all departments and ministries. Las Palmas is the seat of the government's executive council, the courts and the other departments and ministries.

Currently, about 80% of the income of the islands comes from mass tourism. However, the economy of the smaller islands like El Hierro still relies on agriculture and fishing. El Hierro was put on the list of biosphere reserves by Unesco in January 2000.

See also the history of Spain.


Evers, K. / Canarische Eilanden : Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro, La Palma, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote

Leibl, M. / Gomera & Hierro
Van Reemst

Lipps, S. / Wandelgids La Gomera en El Hierro

Murphy, P. / Canarische Eilanden

Renouf, N. / Canarische Eilanden

Rochford, N. / Wegwijzer voor La Palma en El Hierro : een landschapsgids
Sunflower Books

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info