Politics and history on the Canaries: a chat with Sebastien Bano
One very cold night last week I called the Canary Islands, where the Banos have lived for several years now. As he sat enjoying another balmy Canarian morning, Sebastien described some of the peculiar politics and history of his adopted home. I've long wanted to interview Sebastien about the Canaries, because I'm interested in the differences and similarities between their history and the history of the cold southern archipelago on which I dwell.]
Sebastien: The Canaries are geologically very much a part of Africa, and are of course physically much closer to that continent than to Europe. The vast majority of Canarians, though, have white skins. After the descendants of Iberian, the descendants of white Latin American (with different waves of Venezuelans and Cubans of different types, usually white or occasionally “mestizo”, in the last decades) comprise one of the largest groups. The Canaries and Venezuela have actually had a long and warm relationship - at times of turmoil in one place, refugees have taken shelter in the other.
I live with my family on La Palma, one of the less developed islands, where agriculture is more important to the economy than tourism. Bananas are particularly important. Like many tropical islands divided by a mountain, La Palma has a wet sheltered side and a dry, leeward side. You drive through a tunnel in our mountain and emerge in a different country. I live on the dry side of the island, where the original thermophile woodland has been replaced by exotic species. It was a classical tropical-subtropical forest, dominated by dragon trees, palm trees, wild pistacio, marmulano...only a few pieces of this ancient forest exist today. Plants which were restricted to cliff faces in ancient times, like the cactus, are now much more widespread...on the wet side of the island large tracts of rainforest are still found... Scott: The archaeologist Patrick Vinton Kirch wrote a very fine book called The Wet and the Dry about the French-administered island of Futuna in Western Polynesia. Futuna has a wet, irrigated side and a dry side, and traditionally these two areas were organised into different chiefdoms. Kirch shows how the different natural environments led to different social structures and cultures - the dry chiefdom was very hierarchical and warlike, while the wealthier wet chiefdom was more egalitarian and inward-looking. Kirch's conclusions, which he tries to generalise across much of Polynesia, fly in the face of Wiffogels' hydraulic hypothesis, and Marx's concept of an Asiatic Mode of Production. Both Marx and Wittfogel thought that irrigation led to greater social complexity and to authoritarianism -
Sebastien: There are many parts of French Polynesia, and Polynesia in general, which I wish I could visit. I have fantasised about going to Rapa Iti, and to the Chathams! On La Palma the system of irrigation is quite modern and efficient: water is directed from the highland to both sides of the island. There are of course arguments about how the water should be distributed - we have four acres of land, where we grow many fruits, and we must lobby for our share...
There are noticeable differences between the wet and dry zones of La Palma. The wet side of the island has many ornamental gardens, and is almost devoid of litter - our side, by contrast, is much messier, and less immediately attractive. This island resisted Franco's takeover during what is called the 'Red Week', but decades of his rule appear to have changed the consciousness of many residents...
Scott: What sort of changes did the Franco period bring to the Canaries?
Sebastien: One of the most important of the many negative effects of Francoism on the Canaries was the erosion of the sense of Macaronesian identity. Macaronesia is the name of the region which comprises the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands, the Azores, and Madeira. These islands were all settled by the Spanish or the Portugese, or by both, and there were close connections between them for centuries. I have visited, studied and lived in different parts of Macaronesia, and it is easy for me to see all sorts of similarities between these places - there is a common style of agriculture, a common style of architecture, and the same native flora (and to a lesser degree) fauna. There are also linguistic connections. For example, people here call maize (“maiz” in Spanish) “millo” which is the Portuguese name for it. Chickpeas are called “arveja” instead of “garbanzos”, which again comes from the Portuguese “ervilha” (pronounced er-vi-ya). “Cachimba”, for a pipe (“pipa” in Spanish), again comes from the Portuguese “cachimbo”...
It goes without saying that these strong cultural links were accompanied by marriages and mixed lines of descent. After the Spanish, the Portuguese come second in terms of their impact on the genetic and cultural makeup of Canarians. This is why I said “descendants of Iberians” after your first question, rather than simply “descendants of Spanish”. Many family names confirm it: Acosta, Castro, Abreu, Brito, Marrero, are all distinctive Portuguese names, though they are sometimes considered in the Canary as “typically Canarian” (as they are obviously not Spanish).
I'm not sure what the exact causes of the erosion of Macaronesian identity were. Was the emnity between Franco and the Portugese dictator Salazar a factor? Was a decline in communications and trade between different parts of Macaronesia important?
I am not saying that there aren't differences between the regions, or sub-regions, of Macaronesia. Cape-Verde, for instance, is quite distinct in the sense that its inhabitants are mostly creole, with a brown skin, having both African and Portuguese origin...The Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited before the arrival of Europeans, while the Canaries had an indigenous people, the Guanches -
Scott: It seems extraordinary that islands so close to Europe, not to mention Africa, avoided settlement for so long -
Sebastien: It is extraordinary! It is hard to believe that the Chatham Islands, those very isolated and bleak land masses so close to the bottom of the world, may have been settled before the Azores, a warm and fertile set of islands midway between two huge and heavily populated continents! But the Azores are guarded by very dangerous sea currents. Aquatechnology did not allow their conquest until the fifteenth century...
Back to the subject of Canarian identity. During Franco's long rule the Canaries were isolated from the rest of Macaronesia. Links forged by centuries of trade and friendship were severed. Only recently direct flights and maritime routes have been been opened again to Madeira. Unfortunately, most of the people who go there are either the learned Canarian upper class, or tourists. During the Franco era all but a small minority of Canarians began to identify as a distinct people, rather than as part of a larger society. And they began to look back to the distant past, and to appropriate the identity of the Guanches, the indigenous people of their islands.
Scott: Could you tell us a little bit about the Guanche people?
Sebastien: The Guanches were related to the Berber peoples, and probably settled the Canaries from that part of the world two or three thousand years ago. Like the Basques, in nearby South-Western Europe, the Berbers lived in Northern Africa before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. They survive in large numbers in North Africa, and have long suffered oppression at the hands of governments dominated by Arabs. Some say the situation is better today, but I can't honestly tell from myself...
The Canaries were settled in the fifteen century - well before the Enlightenment made Europeans - some Europeans, anyway - aware of the humanity of non-European peoples. The Guanche people were subdued by a series of wars, and also fell victim in large numbers to exotic diseases. They were effectively extinct within a couple of hundred years. There was interbreeding with the Spanish settlers, of course, but the Guanche language and the cultural practices were largely lost, even on relatively remote islands like La Palma.
It is important to be clear that Guanche culture was lost. History offers many examples of minorities who suffered oppression for centuries (sometimes even for thousands of years) yet survived. In the Canaries all was lost, apart from what was documented by observers and scholars. The Canaries population is in key respects a Catholic Latin community. Their music, their arts in general, their architecture are typically Hispano-Portuguese (or shall I say northern Macaronesian, because it also includes other influences - from Flanders, from Normandy, from other places - which give it its specificity?)
In the second half of the twentieth century, some Canarians started to identify themselves as Guanche or African. They began to give their children Guanche names, which is in fact quite a nice practice, I think. Some had more political motivations, and began to use Guanche symbols on their flags, and some even travelled to North Africa, where they met with Berber nationalists. In the 1970s self-proclaimed Guanche nationalists launched a number of terrorist attacks in the Canaries. The worst air disaster in history, the collision of two 747s at Tenerife in 1977, occurred after a group calling itself the Guanche Armed Forces phoned in a bomb threat to an airport. Today the claim to a Guanche identity is a cornerstone of the ideology of the Canarian nationalist parties. These groups advocate independence for the Canaries and claims that the supposed descendants of the Guanche should have more rights than Canarians of merely Iberian descent.
Scott: The sort of reinvention of identity that you are describing has occurred often in different parts of the world. Some of my ancestors came from the Protestant community in Northern Ireland - they were, in all likelihood, the descendants of Gaelic-speaking Scots who came to Ulster when the English were consolidating their control of the province, but they identified not as Celts but as English. In fact, they thought themselves more English than the English!
How do we deal with this sort of cultural confusion? If we accept that culture is something fluid, and that people have a certain amount of choice over their cultural identity, then do we have to allow Ulster Protestants to be English, and Canarian nationalists to be Guanche? Does their historically dubious claim to an identity become, over time, legitimate, if it is repeated often enough, with enough conviction?
Sebastien: The problem is that people claim to be Guanche, hence Berber, but the Berber peoples have a very distinct culture, cosmology and set of languages. I have Berber friends, and I know Canarians who claim to be Guanche. The two groups have little (in fact nothing) in common...and it would be dishonest to pretend that this is the fault of a colonial domination...
People can forget about their culture, the central government can make them forget about their identity, but some roots always remain alive! The proof is in all the words, the music, the architecture, the plants, and so on. The problem is that the Canarian culture is not Guanche/Benahoare, but Macaronesian/Hispano-Portuguese!
Only names of rocks, mountains and (recently) those given to streets, companies, and so on, are Guanche...This is anecdotical evidence, I know, but I think it is significant. Most Canarians have simply forgotten where they mainly come from. But even if the ancient cultural common“wealth” shared with Madeira and consorts is ignored, it's still here! Everywhere! And it is a delightful, magnificent heritage, I can tell you.
Scott: In a sense, then, the would-be Guanches of today aren't trying hard enough?
Sebastien: Culture is about more than what name you give your child. Imagine someone who only went to church for weddings and funerals and yet stood up and claimed to an authority on theological matters, and you'll have some sense of the confusion on the Canaries...
Here's another analogy: imagine if the Pakeha of the Chatham Islands suddenly began to claim to be Moriori, and to use this claim to try to separate from the rest of New Zealand. Would you accept such a distortion of history?
Scott: In many parts of the world, separatist movements have tended to find their politics on the left. Why has Canarian nationalism taken a right-wing trajectory? How close is the Canarian Coalition to the right-wing parties of Spain?
Sebastien: Xenophobia is the root of the problem. Nationalist parties are not necessarily on good terms with the European right. The Popular Party, which is main opposition party in Spain, has little time for the myth of Guanche nationalism. They are committed to the maintenance of the Spanish state. Some of their supporters, here on La Palma as well as elsewhere, look back to the days of Franco, who hated separatism and regionalism and even banned languages like Basque and Catalan, as a time of unity and stability...And there are also partisans of the Popular Party who are not nostalgic for Franco but still defend the unity of the nation.
Scott: So two myths are colliding, the myth of a unified Spain and the myth of a Guanche nation?
Sebastien: One prejudice is confronting another prejudice. Though I am definitely on the side of Spanish unity. I'm not keen about division, I fear that with such an ideology, we may all end with minuscule territories, fighting county against county, like during the Middle Ages. And even inside these tiny small territories, there would be fights between one clan and another. The “good old times” were hell. Learning to live in a society requires the acceptance of some differences. As long as there is no abuse, of course. I hate cultural disdain for minorities...even democratic countries could do better in order to save local cultures. In France, for example, the Occitan identity diminishes a little more every day, and on peninsular Spain it is sad to see the Asturian, Aragonese, and other cultures vanishing. But maintaining a language and an identity (which requires the help of the national government) does not necessarily mean segregation, independence nor any violent rejecton of all that is related to the dominant culture. Is Cervantes responsible for the mess made by some conquistadors? Would loving Catalan culture mean detesting Castillan heritage? No way!
Every part of Macaronesia has lost its bonds with the others...and here, as elsewhere, people adopt a consumerist way of life, lose their rich, exceptional heritage and, on top of that, venture into misleading myths. To come back to the Canarian political situation, it is interesting to note that the Socialist Party, which is in power in Madrid, lost many regions during last spring's elections, and yet won effective control of the local government of the Canary autonomous region by taking part in a coalition with the main (but relatively moderate) nationalist party.
Scott: Are there some non-political reasons for the adoption of what we might call the neo-Guanche identity? Are some of the Canarians who claim today to be Guanche in search of a greater sense of belonging? Are they in the game for existential rather than political reasons?
Perhaps a comparison can be made between the neo-Guanche and the so-called Lia Pootah people, who claim to be the descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginals who hid in the interior of their homeland and avoided deportation to Flinders Island in the 1830s. Historians believe that all of Tasmania's surviving Aborginals had been removed to Flinders by 1833, and doubt that any 'lost tribe' could have existed unnoticed in the forests and mountains for decades. For their part, the descendants of the Aboriginal communities established on Flinders after the deportations say that they are the only indigenous Tasmanians. Yet the Lia Pootah people insist on their identity as Aboriginals, and respond angrily to anyone who doubts their claims...
Sebastien: We all need roots. Perhaps we need roots more than ever at a time when a globalised capitalism is in crisis. I had a Spanish father and a French mother, and spent part of my youth in France and part in Spain. In France many people saw me as Spanish, and in Spain some saw me as French! But I would like to think I can be French and Spanish! And I feel a close connection to New Zealand. As you know I spent long periods in New Zealand in 1996 and again in 2008: perhaps if I had been able to settle in New Zealand permanently with my family then I would have begun to identify as a Kiwi.
I am not opposed to people having roots - I just object to the distortion of history and to those cultural identities which imply the marginalisation of other cultures...
One of the reasons I am enthusiastic about the Macaronesian identity is that it does not rely upon appeals to bloodlines and on the exclusion of immigrant communities. I recently talked with a man, a white Canary Islander, who had visited the Cape Verde Islands, where most of the population has brown skin and speaks a Portugese Creole. He told me "I thought those people were foreigners, but they are quite like me, though their skins are darker". I like that attitude.