The Marks Left by Pirates on Lanzarote
It’s the 16th century. The world is a Risk board and a small island, 100 kilometres off the coast of Africa and right on the route to the Americas, was strategically placed to win the game. Pirates, traders and privateers all used it as their larder. Today we will be climbing the cliffs and visiting the forts of Lanzarote to uncover the memories.
The day breaks on the coast of Los Ancones. The air is filled with the smell of saltpetre. The sun blends into a spectacle that starts with gold, turns red and ends with purple before melting into black.
Right in this place, but a long time ago – one night in May over 400 years ago – three thousand men aboard thirty-six galleys landed in the darkness. Their mission: to capture slaves and to haul away any valuable object.
Caught by surprise, the island’s militias, made up of men between 17 and 60 years old with little military training, could do little. The Berbers entered Teguise, the capital of Lanzarote at that time, under cover of fire and iron. They stole religious art to sell and set fire to the buildings. They took lives and tools, and burned all the documents from the archives.
The people, armed only with sticks and stones, fled in fear and looked for hiding places. Many ran to the Cueva de los Verdes and crouched in the hollows of the volcanic tube, where they remained safe until a scribe decided to reveal their whereabouts to the pirates in exchange for favourable treatment. The traitor pointed out the secret entrance they used to stock up at night and destroyed any chance they had of salvation.
The port of Arrecife saw the ships leave, loaded with 900 slaves. Days later, King Philip III ordered the Spanish fleet to intercept the Algerian ships. In the heat of the battle, he sank half the ships, with the captured Lanzaroteans on board. It was 1618 and the island was left practically uninhabited. This was the most devastating attack of all those suffered by Lanzarote over three centuries.
Rocks and Forts
Sometimes first impressions are right. If you look at the Chinijo Archipelago from the 480-meter-high Famara cliff, you will see a group of islands and rocks that seems to be taken from an engraved illustration plate in a Jules Verne novel.
Corsairs flying different flags took refuge during the Modern Age among Alegranza, La Graciosa, Montaña Clara and the two rocks, the East Rock and the West Rock, to make repairs, draw up plans and wait for the passage of the Spanish treasure fleet, always loaded with valuable merchandise.
Navigating these waters is today a pleasant experience for the traveller and at the same time, the only way to contemplate the same anchorages and cliffs that those natives eager to do business used five centuries ago.
Attacks were so common and ferocious that the Spanish crown ordered the construction of defensive systems: watchtowers, warning bells and small fortresses like the San Gabriel Castle, which had rooms for troops, an arsenal and a powder storeroom. The cannons that today adorn its façade pointing peacefully towards Fuerteventura date to a later period, to the 19th century.
The bike is the best transport to use to follow this historical route. Let’s leave Naos behind and pedal towards the Muelle de los Mármoles to visit another fort in the same bay: the Castillo de San José, built in the time of Carlos III and converted into the International Museum of Contemporary Art by César Manrique. From its panoramic windows the imagination flies like a seagull and we can empathize with the dramatic existence of the Lanzaroteans of that time: hungry due to the lack of farmland (the most fertile plains were covered by lava from Timanfaya) and with hardly any water due to a severe drought that had devastated the island. It was not by chance that this defensive castle was popularly known as the Fortress of Hunger.
Tit for Tat
It is worth remembering that the lords of Lanzarote had acted with identical violence since they had conquered Lanzarote. For 150 years they organized expeditions to North Africa (known as cabalgadas) to capture Moorish slaves. Human trafficking was a common commercial operation and universal human rights had yet to arrive.
Let’s visit another municipality. Destination: Teguise. The old tower built on top of the Guanapay volcano was not strong enough to deal with the virulent attacks and in 1570 it began its transformation into a lordly castle with battlements. There were reasons enough, because two decades earlier the village had been razed to the ground by the French corsair El Clérigo and a Turk with the dreadful name of Cachidiablo. Today, the castle houses the Museum of Piracy.
You should not leave the town without passing through the Callejón de la Sangre, a small cobbled road of some 50 meters, easy to locate even without Google Maps as it is behind the church dedicated to Guadalupe. In this old ravine bed, the Lanzaroteans defeated the assailants under the command of the pirate Dogali in 1571, but fifteen years later, in exactly the same place, many others perished in another North African attack.
Pirates and corsairs generated a perpetual sense of fear and mistrust on the island. Many Lanzaroteans emigrated.
Read Rumeau de Armas in Los Hervideros
Let’s go to Femés, a village famous for its excellent cheeses and roasted goat. From the viewpoint you can see the Bocaina strait that separates Lanzarote from Fuerteventura. Sometimes, depending on how the wind blows, it gets shrouded in mist. Here too, marine predators used to lurk.
In 1593 the English ships Pleasure and Mary Fortune arrived to capture a Portuguese ship that had anchored on the island. They also decided to take the wood from the old chapel of San Marcial de Rubicón, the first episcopal see in the Canary Islands.
Let’s take the car and go to the Castillo del Águila (or de las Coloradas), in Playa Blanca. The architecture of the tower, overlooking a rugged coast, evokes a lot of skirmishes.
Just seven years after it was built, four hundred men disembarked from two xebecs, killed the men of the garrison and set the tower on fire. Femés had no better luck.
The English merchant Thomas Wyndham, aboard his Lion, stopped over in Lanzarote after trading in Safi in Morocco. So fed up were the inhabitants of Lanzarote that they misunderstood his intentions and launched a pre-emptive strike against him. The sailor claimed damages from the King of Spain and received compensation for his sour reception.
Le Testu, La Motte, the Earl of Cumberland, Walter Raleigh… The list of sailors who made Lanzarote the perfect setting for violence is very long.
Antonio Rumeau de Armas gathers all these episodes in his work Piraterías y Ataques Navales contra las Islas Canarias (Piracy and Naval Attacks against the Canary Islands). Reading him before visiting Los Hervideros or the Mirador de Guinate doubles the pleasure of the travel experience.