camels

About the arrival of the camels in the Canary Islands

It could be thought that, because of the geographical proximity of the African coast, camels existed on the Canary Islands before the Spanish conquest, which took place during the 15th century.

Nevertheless, the historic descriptions about the life and costums of the native inhabitants of the islands don’t mention those animals and some even doubt or deny their existence. Curiously, the camel, being such a peculiar and different-looking animal, never appears in the illustrations that show us the life and costums of the natives of the islands before the conquest.

Being the conquest practically finished, the Spanish historians inform us about the incursions of Diego Garcia de Herrera, Lord of the Canary Islands, into the coast of Africa late in the 15th century. After the conquest, he made the first expeditions or “raids” from the Canary Islands into the African coast having, among others, the goal of populating the islands. For that purpose he “robbed people and cattle”. Though Pedro Agustin del Castillo doesn’t specify in his second book “Historical and Geographical Description of the Canary Islands” with what type of cattle he returned to Lanzarote, we can conclude that it is possible that he returned, among other animals, with camels because “of the abundance with which they were raised….”.

Antonio Rumeau de Armas says in his book “The Canaries and the Atlantic” (1947-1950), book I, chapter II “Canarian – African Relations”: “The sometimes peaceful, sometimes hostile relations between the Canaries and Berbería de Poniente were never interrupted during the 16th century…”, therefore we can suppose that also during this century captured camels were brought to the islands.

Agustín Millares Torres, in his book “General History of the Canary Islands” referring to the incursions of Garcia Herrera and his heirs, gives us the following account that confirms the above said: “That was the beginning of this long series of unexpected ambushes and attacks that during three centuries alternatively drenched the coast of Berberia and the defenceless islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura with blood, open grounds for the heroic deeds of the Herreras and Saavedras, that there encountered slaves with whom they increased their small population and rich booty consisting of grains, camels, sheep and horses …”. Taking into account these historical references, we can conclude that the first camels were brought to the Canaries between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, being the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura the first to have them and from there they were distributed to the rest of the islands.

From that time onwards until our days, camels have been part of the Canarian history.

The Canaries, after the conquest, begin to be visited by all expeditions to the New World and to be their starting point. The ships choose the islands as a place for resting and to finish equipping themselves for their journey to America.

Francisco Morales Padrón says in his study “The Canaries and America”: “It’s the period of the 16th century in which the contribution of the islands is invaluable, above all as the origin of colonization from where a series of key products for the future American economy, sugar cane, wine, bananas,…, depart. The islands at first provide food supplies and certain plants and animals (pigs, chicken, goats and even camels), some of which were to become very important.”

Indeed, Morales Padrón continues saying: ”The conquerors / colonists of Peru, as in the case of grapevine, considered it possible to adapt camels to the landscape of the viceroyalty.” The deserts and the climatic conditions of the coast, where it never rains, made them think, without doubt, that the camel would adapt and therefore, captain Juan de la Reinaga imported them successfully from the Canary Islands because the animals didn’t die but multiplied and even became wild animals in the archbishopric of Lima, according to Bernabé Cobos.

Continuing with the subject of the introduction of those animals from the Canary Islands into the New World, the author Oliver Lubrich in his book “Egyptians Everywhere” refers to the following account written by the doctor of natural sciences Alexander Humboldt (1764 – 1859) about the transfer of individual elements of the Orient to America: ”Through the Canary Islands, camels were introduced in the American continent. The sugar cane equally reached the Antilles from the Canaries.

Some camels were used for the transport of sugar cane, therefore it was an imported good from the Orient destined to transport another good of the same origin. Because the few camels existing in America died quickly, the Spaniards used the oppressed natives as transport beasts to substitute the camels.” Starting from such observations, Humboldt develops a complete logistical, economical and at the same time humanitarian and political program, for which he demands the massive introduction of camels in America.

The camels not only arrived in America departing from the Canaries for the first time.

N.E. Phillipson describes in his work “Camels in Australia” (1895) the arrival of the first camel in that continent in the following way: ”The governor of South Australia Gawler wrote to the commissioner of the colony suggesting that camels should be introduced in the dry areas of the north of Adelaide. The suggestion of the governor was taken into consideration and in two months, half a dozen camels were loaded onto a steamship of the Appoline line in Tenerife (the biggest of the Canary Islands). Only one camel survived the journey, arriving at the harbour of Adelaide on the 12th of October 1840. Nobody knows what happened to that first Australian camel.

Years later, in 1846, the brothers Phillips, that emigrated from England to Australia, imported nine camels from the Canary Islands. Those animals where bought by John Horrocks, who was the first to use them to explore the northern part of South Australia”.

The islands not only supplied camels for the colonization of the New World, but at the same time they were used as transport animals by the Canarian militias on the islands during the uncountable attacks that they suffered from European invaders for centuries.

There are many stories in his book “The Canaries and the Atlantic, Piracy and Naval Attacks” (1947) in which Antonio Rumeau de Armas mentions those animals, a real help for the troops in so many military adventures.

In 1596 Francis Drake attacks Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. When the enemy was beaten, cheers broke out among the Canarians when they saw the fleet leaving “and that, even without knowing with whom they had fought”. “The governor then sent new orders to open the communal granary, taking out the sponge cake that was kept there that, together with the wine that was given by the bishop and the food that the officer could find, was transported in wagons and on rows of camels to the bays of Santa Catalina and Santa Ana so that they could refresh the troops.”

Years later, in 1599, van der Does lands and conquers the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

The exodus of the island’s authorities into the interior of the island is described by Rumeau de Armas in this way: “The governor of the island and his judges, carrying with them the archives of the court and some clothes loaded on camels, easily reached the road of San Roque in the direction towards Santa Brigida, coming across in their journey captain Pedro de Serpa, whom they helped carrying the artillery because he was on the road dragging with his men, by hand and by wagon, the heavy artillery pieces that had been rescued. The camels were partially liberated from their load to make room for the canons and together they continued their way to the agreed place.”

Some days later, “the encounter of mount Lentiscal” between the Spanish and the Dutch troops took place, being this battle the beginning of the end of Van der Does’s conquest. This memorable and historic deed of the Canarians made the invaders begin to evacuate the city. It can be said that in those decisive hours the island of Gran Canaria was saved for Spain.

On other occasions, camels were used as mobile cover by the militias of the islands with sometimes positive, sometimes negative results for the troops.

Rumeau de Armas describes two attacks of English pirate ships during the second half of the 18th century. The first one took place on the island of Fuerteventura in October 1740: “The English, that had lost some of their valour after the arrival of the governor with reinforcements, didn’t want to hear anything about a ransom and retreated to a higher place, where they placed themselves in battle order. At that moment the majoreros (the inhabitants of Fuerteventura) decided to attack them and, walking behind 40 camels used as a mobile cover, they succeeded in sawing panic among the British troops.

At first, these resisted shooting a salvo of gunfire that caused casualties among the attackers, but it was totally impossible to repeat the salvo for a second time because the camels, frightened, totally broke the formation and the English had to run away in all directions, many of them leaving behind their arms and baggage.”

Years later, in 1762, on the islands of Lanzarote, two English pirate ships appeared in front of the harbour of Naos: “ The inhabitants of the islands, that had already prepared themselves to resist them, tried to repeat the same tactic that the majoreros had used in 1740, placing a row of camels as a shield, behind which about 500 militiamen moved. But the result was quite different this time, because after the first salvo the camels retreated wildly towards the inhabitants of the islands, who had to run away to save themselves.”

At the time when camels were exported to the New World and used by the islands´ militias, they were mainly used as transport animals and for agricultural tasks until the first decades of the 20th century.

Historically, there were more camels on the eastern islands, maybe because of their drier climate and the more arid landscape, where camels have their natural habitat.

The camels in the present time

The progressive abandonment of agriculture and new means of transport led to the nearly total extinction of the camels on the Canaries during the first half of the 20th century, being tourism the activity that changed the sad destiny of these animals. Since the sixties of the past century until today they have become part of the most typical pictures of the islands’ landscape.

In 1985 the Government of the Canaries, conscious of the progressive decrease of this type of cattle that has been part of the history of the islands since the 15th century, published in the Official Gazette of the Canaries the law of the 6th of November about the promotion of the breeding of camels on the Canaries. Article I says: ”The goal of this law is to create an official register of all companies in the territory of the Autonomous Community of the Canary islands.”

We can state that, nowadays, practically all companies in the Canaries dealing with camels are concentrated on tourism. The camels are used as a traditional way of transport for guided visits of tourists to the national parks and natural reservations, avoiding in this way the uncontrolled use of those reservations by visitors and the introduction of other ways of transport that could damage the environment.

Among those, the company of Juan Francisco Jiménez Ramirez on the island of Gran Canaria has to be highlighted. With over 150 camels, it is the most important one on the Canary Islands. Besides being practically the only exporter of camels into other European countries and the world, it uses an important part of its camels to show tourists the special natural reservation of the Dunes of Maspalomas, using the paths signposted by its governing body, and to help in the task of cleaning the inner areas of the dune system.

Rubén Naranjo tells us in his book “Maspalomas, Natural Space” that camels have already been a part of this natural landscape of around 400 acres since the 16th century. This theory is further strengthened by the fact that in the old maps of the area some locations are identified by the name of these animals: “Hoya de la camella” (valley of the female camel), “Altos de la Camella” (heights of the female camel) and so on.

The book “Maspalomas Before Yesterday”, edited by the city council of San Bartolomé de Tirajana in 1998, refers to them in the following way: “The camel was and still is a very characteristic image of Maspalomas. Guided by the skilful and expert camel guide, it was a irreplaceable animal, that was held in high esteem in the area. Later, when the important development of the tourist activities made agriculture less important, the camel and its guide became a touristic image of Maspalomas, crossing the area of the dunes and the oasis like in an image of the Orient’s deserts. After all, the camel became the best complement for the image of the palm groves and dunes of Maspalomas. And in this way, after the patient work in agricultural tasks, it became a service for tourists and visitors who were eager to visit such exotic areas on the back of a dromedary, led, as before, by the skill of the camel guide.”

Juan Francisco Jiménez Ramirez’s stock farm in Gran Canaria, like other companies, such as the one of the National Park of Timanfaya in Lanzarote, in Fuerteventura and some smaller ones in Tenerife, help to keep the camels in the vivid memory of all Canarians and to make them a cultural reference of the islands for their own inhabitants and for tourists who visit them.

    Iván del Castillo y Benítez de Lugo

    Las Palmas 2003


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Last updated 01 May 2004