X.—Some account of the Island of Teneriffe and its Inhabitants, at the time of the Spanish Conquest;
taken from the "History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Canary Islands, by George Glas;
and the "Histoire Naturelle des iles Canaries," by Barker Webb and Sabin Berthollet.

By Miss Haigh.

[Communicated by Sir John Lubbock, Bart.]

[Read March 10th, 1868.]

[Extracted from Transactions of the Ethnological Society, vol. 7 (1869), pp. 107-14.]

This island was named Thenerife, or the White Mountain, by the natives of Palma: "Thener," in their language, signifying a mountain, and "lie," white, the Peak of Teneriffe being always covered with snow. This name has been continued by the Spaniards ever since; but the natives called it Chineche, and themselves Vincheai.

According to tradition, the whole island had formerly been under the rule of one sovereign, but at the death of Tinerfe the Great (about a hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards) his nine sons divided it into as many independent principalities, the chief of each of which bore the title of Mencey, or lord. Of these nine Menceys, the chief of the province of Tahoro was considered the most important, and bore the additional title of "Quebehi," or majesty.

The name Tahoro seems to be a corruption of the word Tagoror, by which was signified the place where the Guanches assembled to hold counsel, to execute justice, and to celebrate their great feasts. Bach Mencey had his own especial Tagoror, but the most important deliberations were always held in the great Tagoror of Aurotapala, in the dominion of the Mencey of Tahoro. At the coronation or installation of a new Mencey, the Tagoror was adorned with branches of palm, the ground was strewn with flowers, and crowds of people came from all the neighbouring valleys to be present at the ceremony. The Mencey was seated upon a stone, cut into the form of a chair and covered with skins: one of his nearest relations then presented to him a sacred relic—the bone of the right arm of the chief of the reigning family. This was regarded with the greatest veneration, and was always kept in a leather case.

This the Mencey kissed, and then raising it above his head, pronounced the oath of installation: "I swear by the bone of him who has worn this crown to follow his example, and to make my subjects happy." Then the chiefs in order of seniority [p.108] took the bone from the hands of the Mencey, and placed it in turn upon their shoulders, saying, "We swear by the day of thy coronation, to be the defenders of thee and of thy race."

Viera says that it was not upon the royal arm bone that these oaths were taken, but upon the skull of one of the ancient princes.

After this ceremony the Mencey, crowned with laurel and flowers, invited all present to share the feast, and games and dances were carried on by torchlight through the night. In time of war, hostilities were suspended, in order that nothing might interrupt the festival, of which all the expenses were defrayed by the Mencey.

Justice was administered and punishments were inflicted in the Tagoror. Robbers were beaten with the staff of the prince, whose duty it was afterwards to see that the wounds thus caused were properly dressed; children who had insulted their parents were stoned; murderers were put to death: and adulterers buried alive. Women were treated with great respect; the law ordained that if a man met one in the road, he must stand aside till she had passed, without speaking to her. The Guanches were not permitted to have more than one wife at a time, but they might divorce her when they pleased, and marry another.

There was an order of hereditary nobility, named Sigones. The tradition of their origin was this— "At the beginning of the world God created a certain number of men and women, and gave to them the flocks that were necessary for their subsistence. Afterwards he created some others, to whom he gave nothing. When they demanded their share, God said to them, 'Serve the others, and they will give you what you need.' This was the origin of masters and servants—in other words of nobles and common people." In this order of nobility the Menceys, as entirely princes, held the first rank; next to them were the Archimenceys, or members of the royal family; then the Sigones, who were the great vassals of the Menceys, commanded in times of war, and had places in the Tagoror or tribunal of justice. The Achicaxna, or mass of the people, were serfs, who cultivated the land, and attended to the flocks of the princes. All the land of the island belonged to the Menceys, who gave it to their subjects at pleasure; but these gifts were only temporary, as at the death of the possessor the land reverted to the Mencey.

The inhabitants of Teneriffe lived principally in the caves, which are very numerous, among the volcanic mountains. In the winter they preferred those situated near the coast; but in the summer those in the higher parts of the interior of the [p.109] island, whence they could enjoy the fresh air of the hills. Many of these caverns still exist: some of them appear to have been almost entirely excavated by the hand of man. Of these, the largest are in the district of Guimar, and are called by the people "Cuevas de los reyes." They are all situated along the site of the same ravine: some of them are divided into several square apartments, of which the principal only communicates with the external air; the others seem to have been used as sleeping chambers or storehouses for provisions. Benches have been cut in the rocks all round the principal room, and there are also deep niches, made to contain vessels of milk or water.

Viera says that the Guanches had also houses built of stone, and thatched with straw or fern. They were very ingenious in constructing fences of reeds, ropes and nets of rushes, and baskets, mats, and bags of the leaves of the palm tree. Their other utensils were vases of clay or of hard wood, needles of fish bone, and thread made of the sinews of animals. They made beads of a reddish brown earth, which were pierced and strung together for necklaces. They excelled greatly in tanning, and in all that relates to the preparation of leather, of which most of their garments were made. The men wore cloaks of goat's skin, dressed and softened in butter; those of the women were longer, with petticoats of the same stuff underneath. These were often dyed of very brilliant colours, and were quite equal to the best morocco leather of the present day. They do not appear to have had any money, as the artisans were paid for their labour in flesh, barley, or roots. They had no iron or other metal, and instead of instruments made of these, they used a black hard stone sharpened and made fit for killing sheep, cutting and working timber, etc.; these they called Tavonas.

They had often disputes about their flocks and pastures, which frequently ended in wars. Their offensive weapons were the mace or "magado," axes, of which the cutting part was made of obsidian; long spears called "anepa," made of wood hardened in the fire and very sharp; javelins, which they threw with great skill; and a sort of dart called the "banot," which was much dreaded, as its barbs were easily detached, so as to remain in the wound when the handle had been withdrawn. They began a battle with showers of stones, thrown from slings, before they fought hand to hand. They had shields made of the bark of the dragon tree; but they were accustomed to fight almost naked, with the "tamarck," or cloak wrapped round the left arm.

"When an enemy approached, they alarmed the country by raising a thick smoke, or by whistling, which was repeated [p.110] from one to another. This latter method is still in use among the people of Teneriffe, and may be heard at an almost incredible distance.

The Guanches were very neat and cleanly: they washed whenever they arose from sleep, when they sat down to eat, and after they had eaten. After eating they did not drink for the space of half an hour, as they thought that drinking cold water immediately after eating warm victuals spoiled their teeth.

Their food was the flesh of goats and sheep; kids and wild rabbits were regarded as great dainties—these they ate alone, and not like the Europeans with the addition of bread and roots. The meat was either boiled or baked in a hole in the ground, above which a fire was lighted. Their repasts always concluded with "gofio." This was made of barley toasted, then pounded between two stones, and mixed with a little water. They sometimes added to it milk or the juice of the palm, or of the "mocain." "Gofio" was used in all the Canary islands at the time of the Conquest, and it forms a principal part of the food of the lower classes at the present day.

They cultivated several different sorts of fruit trees; especially date palm, fig trees, the "vicacaro," the fruit of which is not unlike the fig; the arbutus, of which the berries are much larger and sweeter than those of the European species; and the "mocan" (Visnea Mocanera), which they prized most of all, as they made a sort of drink of the fermented juice. This was called Chacerquen; and from the mocan they also extracted an astringent liquor, which they used for dressing wounds.

The sea all around Teneriffe abounds with fish, and the Guanches had several modes of catching them: they waded into the water carrying torches, and harpooned the fish which were dazzled by the light, and sometimes they threw the juice of the Euphorbia piscatoria into the pools left among the rocks by the retreating tide: this had the effect of stupefying the fish, so that they were easily caught; and they were afterwards soaked in fresh water to take away the bitter taste. They fished also with nets and with the line; but they had no boats, and Berthelot says that they were unable to swim. This seems very strange, amongst a people so active and so fond of athletic exercise; and it is the more surprising, as the inhabitants of the other islands could swim, and those of Grand Canary were said to be able to drive shoals of small fish ashore. None of the inhabitants of any of the seven Canary islands had any boats, canoes, or any means of communication with any other island. All authorities seem to agree in saying this, and it is most extraordinary, as from each island one or more of the others is [p.111] visible; and their language, though, differing in each island, was sufficiently alike for the inhabitants to be mutually intelligible when they were brought into communication with each other at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The language of Teneriffe varied more than any of the others; but it had many words in common with that of Grand Canary, and Berthelot gives a list of words, chiefly names of articles in common use, that were alike in all the islands. Both Berthelot and Glas consider that the language spoken in the Canary Islands is like the Shillha or Schellouk, a dialect of the Berber; but the list of words that they give in support of this opinion is too long to quote.

The people of Teneriffe worshipped one God, whom they called by names which signify the Sustainer of the Heaven and the Earth: the Great, the Sublime, the Sustainer of all. They did not worship idols, and had no image of the Deity. I cannot find any mention of priests or religious orders among them; in Grand Canary there was a "Faycan" who seems to have been a sort of high priest, and there were also sacred virgins called "Harinaguadas," who officiated on great occasions, processions, etc.; but the only rite or ceremony in Teneriffe to which I can find any allusion is this, that "when children were born they were washed all over with water by women set apart for that office, who were virgins and were never allowed to marry." (Glas, p. 148.) They had a custom that when one person went to the house of another, he did not attempt to enter in, but sat on a stone at the door, and either whistled or sang till some one came out and desired him to enter. Whoever did not observe this ceremony, but entered into another person's house without being invited, was liable to punishment, as they reckoned it a very great offence.

Almost all great feasts and public rejoicings were concluded with wrestling matches and sham fights, which took place upon a raised platform, arranged so that the combatants might be easily seen by the whole multitude. At each end of this arena were placed two large flat stones about two feet long: beside these stones the two champions who were about to fight were posted, each armed with a certain number of pebbles, a long lance, and an axe of sharp stone. Without moving his feet from the place he had taken, each tried to parry the stones flung by the other, and so active were their movements and so quick their eyes that they seldom failed to do so. After this preliminary skirmish, they went into the centre of the arena and fought with axe and lance till one of the combatants was disabled, or till the chief of the Sigones interposed, and ended the battle by calling out the words "gama, gama" (enough, enough).


Their wars were generally respecting the boundaries of their land and pastures; the women attended upon these occasions, and, in case any of the men were killed, carried off the dead and interred them in caves. When any person died they preserved the body in this manner; first, they carried it to a cave and stretched it on a flat stone, opened it and took out the bowels; then twice a day they washed the porous parts of the body with salt and water; afterwards they anointed it with a composition of sheep's butter mixed with a powder made of the dust of decayed pine trees, and a sort of brushwood called "Bressos," together with powdered pumice stone, and then dried it in the sun for fifteen days, during which time the relations of the dead sang his praises and abandoned themselves to grief. When the body was thoroughly dried, and had become very light, it was wrapped in sheep skins or goat skins, girded tight with long leather thongs, and carried to one of the sepulchral grottoes, generally situated in the most inaccessible parts of the island.

The bodies were either upright against the sides of the cavern, or side by side upon a kind of scaffolding made of branches of juniper, mocan, or other incorruptible wood. The Mencey could be buried only in the cave of his ancestors, in which the bodies were so disposed as to be recognisable. Particular persons were set apart for the office of embalming, each sex performing it for those of their own. The bodies were cut open with knives made of sharp pieces of obsidian; these were called "Tavonas," and were also used in surgery.

About twenty sepulchral caves are said to have existed in Teneriffe; some of these have been discovered, but at long intervals, and generally by accident, as the entrances were carefully concealed. A large one, containing more than a thousand mummies, was discovered in the district of Gruimar in 1770. One in the neighbourhood of Tacoronte was found accidentally by some orchilla gatherers about the beginning of this century, and most of the mummies in European museums have been brought from one or the other of these catacombs. Another was discovered in the interior of the island during the summer of 1867 by two goatherds, but unfortunately these men, out of mere ignorance and mischief, broke and destroyed everything, rolled the mummies down the hill side, and burnt the wooden scaffolding upon which they were laid, and the "walking sticks," which were probably the "tezzezes" or "magados" mentioned before. Their account (I do not know how far it may relied upon) was that in the outer cave the mummies were all laid upon pieces of wood, some side by side, and some one above the other; [p.113] and that in a small inner cave they found three mummies placed apart from the others—a man, a woman, and a child—but everything was destroyed and broken, and only a few fragments of no particular interest could be collected, and saved from the general wreck.

Observations made upon the mummies found in the other caverns seem to prove that the Guanches had different modes of embalming; varying according to the rank and wealth of the individual. Some bodies are found wrapped in as many as six envelopes, while others are merely sewn in a single goatskin. These skins are tanned, and appear to have been damp when wrapped round the corpse, as they retain their shape even after the destruction of the body around which they had been folded. Some of these leathern shrouds are beautifully tanned, made in several pieces, and sewn together with the greatest neatness; the thongs that bind them together are made of the same material, and are sometimes fastened with a hook made of bone or of goat's horn. They are all of a reddish brown colour.

The sex of the mummies is indicated by the men having their arms extended straight by their sides, while those of the women are crossed in front. Among the mummies found in the grotto of Tacoronte, was one of an old woman, which had been dried in a sitting posture, like that of the Peruvian corpses. The head was covered with a hood, and was in good preservation; the cheek bones were high and projecting, the forehead narrow and wrinkled, the nose small, and the mouth wide.

In general the Guanche mummies are found in perfectly good preservation; the flesh has become of a brownish colour, but the form almost unchanged; the teeth are always perfect, and extremely white; the eyebrows and features are quite distinguishable; the hair remains upon the head and the beard upon the chin. Many individuals have very long hair, of a light shade of brown, almost approaching to red. The inhabitants of the northern part of the island were said to have been of a much fairer complexion than the others. A number of the little beads made of baked clay, of which the Guanches used to make necklaces, have been found in the sepulchre, but except these and the "walking sticks," I cannot find any mention of implements being buried with the bodies.

The Guanches do not appear to have been by any means exterminated, but rather to have become gradually mixed with and absorbed by the conquering race. In the districts of Guimar, Candelaria, Fasnea, and other parts of the south of the island, Guanche customs and Guanche blood have their principal stronghold. The names of many of the families, the popular dances, the manner of procuring fire, of milking goats, of [p.114] preparing butter and cheese, and of grinding corn, are all the same as those of the ancient inhabitants. The earthenware vases made at Candelaria are the same as the ancient "ganigo." The mode of fishing by poisoning the waters left in pools by the retreating tide is still in use, and the plant used for the purpose retains its ancient name. Many people still inhabit caverns, divided into compartments by slight walls made of reeds; they have large flocks of goats and sheep, and the shepherds still excel in throwing stones at a mark; they can catch the goats upon the steepest hill sides, and carry a long staff like the ancient "tezzezes", which they use as a leaping pole. The wrestling matches are still carried on as they used to be, but now they are presided over by the alcalde and the priest of the parish, who, like the ancient "Sigones," interpose their authority to settle disputes and terminate the combat. Finally, I may mention that a very popular doctor in Santa Cruz, and a servant of the Governor, said to be the tallest man in the island, came from the districts above mentioned, and are both of Gnanche descent.