[…] the King […] had ordered him, among other words, to come another day, in the wee hours, to the quarter of the fat bell, through Xerez wicket, to speak with Their Highnesses, and that no one should see him nor take another person with him; […] and when he returned […] he said how His Highness had asked him for the conquest of this island, before a secretary of His; and that he had given it all in writing, and what population and places there were on the island, and the size of the island; and how many people would have to come from Castile, to conquer it and place it under the obedience of Their Highnesses on this island, and what ships would be necessary, and that everything was given in writing; and that […] His Highness had asked him if he knew any ship masters and that he would bring Him some […]RUMEU (1990, pp. 677-678). This translation by PROYECTO TARHA..
Let us clarify that this title, sort of a Hollywood one, is not that of the essential we want to show today, but the story contained in it, worthy of a screenplay, justifies this liberty.
In 1990, Professor Antonio Rumeu de Armas (Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 1912 – Madrid, 2006) published one of his always very interesting works under the extensive title of Fernán Guerra, Major Scout of the Conquest of Gran Canaria and Promoter of the Foundation of Las Palmas.This translation by PROYECTO TARHA. What the professor showed us this time was the transcription and a study of an unpublished public document of enormous historiographical value, which once again demonstrated that what chronicles and histories omit, conceal or misrepresent usually spring to the light in the form of surprising testimonies, often driven by the most mundane needs.
Among different types of historiographically useful public documents are, on the one hand, the nobility reports, and on the other, the merit reports. The former record statements that purport to prove the noble ascendancy of those concerned with the purpose, generally, of circumventing the payment of certain taxes reserved to plebeians, while the latter try to prove to the royal authorities the services rendered to the Crown by a certain individual aiming to obtain some kind of remuneration or compensation, not settled at the time. Let us read the opinion of Professor Rumeu de Armas in this regard:
Merit reports […] hold the extraordinary value of the actors’ direct testimony, serving to complete the chronicles, whenever they silence important events or have been interpolated or added by the hand of a scholar compiler not involved in the development of historical events.
Merit reports never leave the reader fully satisfied, for we think how much the actors of the episodes they narrate knew in contrast to the scant information expressed in the words. By subjecting themselves to a rigorous questioning interrogation, the answers suffer from monotony and repetition. More dangerous is the friendly attitude of witnesses, always prone to dithyramb and flattery. This last circumstance demands critic’s maximum deliberation.R1990, pp. 631-632.). (
Unfortunately, in relation to the Canary Islands, only one nobility report and three merit reports are preserved, to wit:
- The nobility report of Luisa de Betancor and sons, made in Gáldar (Gran Canaria), in 1528.
- The merit report of Fernando Guanarteme, also made in Gáldar, in 1526, by request of his daughter, Margarita Fernández Guanarteme.
- The merit report of Pedro de Vera, initiated at Jerez de la Frontera (Andalucía) in 1537, by request of his grandson, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, famous author of an interesting account on his own staying among several North-American tribes, a work known as Naufragios (Wrecks).
- The merit report we are taking care of this time, made at Real de Las Palmas in 1502, by request of Catalina Guerra, Fernán Guerra‘s daughter.
Who was Fernán Guerra?
The first thing to note is that Fernán Guerra’s name does not appear in any of the chronicles and histories of the conquest of the Canary Islands, despite the key role he played in it.
The fourth question of the interrogation contained in the merit report indicates exhaustively that Fernán Guerra was an almogavar; that is to say, a pawn skilled in going deep into enemy territory. With a deep knowledge of the Islands’ geography, their anchorages, ports, roads and, of course, the language and customs of the old Canarians, an experience that would share with his neighbor, young lengua or faraute –interpreter– Juan Mayor, these knowledge made Guerra an ideal guide, both to enter into deals with indigenous leaders and to capture and trade slave workforce.
Guerra’s job was, therefore, a highly-risky one balanced out by the economic profits it yielded to him, especially if we take into account extreme poverty conditions to which Lanzarote people survived. Thus, three of the eight witnesses of the merit report, old conquerors in their majority, indicate Guerra’s participation in diverse combats and that he perfectly knew Gran Canaria island because he had been captivated by the natives.Witnesses Lope de Salazar, Ibone de Armas and Alonso Cornado.
A Seigneury’s opponent
The oldest record we have on this character is that of his own declaration in Sevilla, on March 29th, 1477, as witness of the Council of Lanzarote in the Cabitos’ Inquiry opposing Doña Inés Peraza and Diego García de Herrera‘s seigneurial rule. From this information, we come to know that Guerra was a neighbor, for more than thirty years, on the capital of the Seigneury of the Isles of Canaria although born outside it, possibly in Sevilla itself. He also witnessed the Portuguese occupation of the island, in 1448, and participated along with the other neighbors in the expulsion of the Portuguese governor, Antão Gonçalves. These neighbors tried after hindering Inés Peraza’s inauguration as the new holder of the Seigneury, as supporters of the change to the Royal jurisdiction.A1990, pp. 207-213). (
Council of Lanzarote’s request to the Crown pleading the modification of the Island’s legal regime ended in tragedy: following a brawl in Gran Aldea –current Teguise–, in December 1476, Inés Peraza ordered to seize the documents of the notary’s office in Lanzarote, hung six men and imprisoned more than a dozen. Guerra, who was in Fuerteventura, was captured by Inés Peraza, who ordered him to be tortured, taken back to Lanzarote and hand him over to her husband, Diego de Herrera, to be tried, not without first insinuating her men to throw him into the waters of La Bocaina.RUMEU (1990, p. 671. But taking advantage of a slip by his keepers, some Guerra’s friends managed to rescue him and he sailed for Sevilla, carrying with him part of the seigneurial treasure, stolen under the pretext that it contained some tributes due to the Crown by the Lords.
On privateers and spies
The voyage to Sevilla was not without danger: a Portuguese caravel approached the ship in which Fernan Guerra was travelling, taking all the voyagers as prisoners and taking away the tributes they carried with them. Shortly afterwards, some Basque privateers captured the caravel in turn, releasing the island captives although they could not recover the riches that they intended to deliver to the Crown, and which, we suppose, the Basque mariners would have demanded them in exchange for their freedom.
After declaring in Sevilla before Judge Cabitos, Fernán Guerra expected in vain the Catholic Monarchs would strip the Herrera-Peraza of the rule of Lanzarote, since the monarchs had decided to respect the right of the Lords to the islands that they already had under their control and exchange the islands not conquered by a compensation consisting of five million maravedis.
However, astutely, Fernando V the Catholic chose to make the almogavar an offer he certainly could not refuse. During a brief meeting, Consort King of Castile ordered Guerra to come to his presence late at night, when a certain quarter of the fat bell of the church of Santa María la Mayor rang, alone and without anyone seeing him, through the wicket of Jerez. For three nights, secret meetings were held in which Guerra, with his knowledge as almogavar, described to the monarch, in all detail, the way in which the Crown could seize Gran Canaria: its roads, its ports, its population, the number of fighting men who would face the invasion, as well as the numbers that would be necessary to beat the indigenous resistance.RUMEU (1990, pp. 677-678).
Fernán Guerra had no choice but to cooperate, and the King was aware of this advantageous situation for his interests: the almogavar could not return to Lanzarote without suffering the wrath of Inés Peraza. Worse, not to act quickly, his wife and children would end up being propitiatory victims of the foreseeable reprisals that the Herrera-Peraza would undertake. Therefore, it was imperative to actively help both to prepare the conquering armada and to subdue the island of the canariotes. If this latter objective were to be achieved, Guerra, his family and other dissidents could establish themselves in a new colony, much richer and more fertile than the arid capital of the Seigneury and away from the dominion of Inés Peraza. In this scene’s context, it is not surprising that Fernán Guerra accepted without hesitation the important position granted him by the Crown, reserved for the most experienced guide: adalid mayor –major scout– of the conquest of Gran Canaria.
News that Fernán Guerra’s sedition had reached a point of no return came promptly to Inés Peraza. The Lady, infuriated by the betrayal of her vassal and by the unnappealable dismantling of the Seigneury, inmediately ordered the capture of Fernán Guerra’s family with the intention of deporting them to Cape Verde, the demolition of their houses and the confiscation of all their properties, which were distributed among the Lady’s servants.
María May, Guerra’s Gomeran wife, together with her three children, fled and hid in the mountains of Famara, in conditions of absolute precariousness, waiting for a miracle that manifested itself in the arrival of the conquering fleet at Lanzarote in the middle of June, 1478, from which a ship was separated whose crew proceeded to the rescue of the refugees.
Since then, always according to the testimonies gathered in the merit report, Fernán Guerra was present in almost all the war operations undertaken during the War of Canaria. And it was precisely on his advice that Juan Rejón, captain of the conquering army, decided to land on the Bay of Las Isletas and not on Gando Roads, as originally planned, thus giving rise to the present city of Las Palmas Of Gran Canaria. The motivations of this change of plans as well as the political scenario in which they are inserted have been object of study in our essay, The Indigenous Pacts of Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
A foreseen ending
It was foreseeable that our character’s risky way of life could only lead him to a violent epilogue: after the conquest of Gran Canaria, Fernán Guerra met his death during a visit in peace to one of the Guanche menceyes –chieftains–, a personal friend of the almogavar, who ordered his immediate execution. The reason given was that the Lady had informed the indigenous leader that Guerra’s true intention was to prepare the way for the invasion of Tenerife, just as he had done in the case of Gran Canaria.RUMEU (1990, p. 666).
Whether being the pretext true or not, there is no doubt that Doña Inés Peraza’s long arm had finally managed to reach her enemy.
Antonio M. López Alonso
- Aznar Vallejo, E. (1990). Pesquisa de Cabitos. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria – Madrid: Cabildo Insular de Gran Canaria.
- Rumeu de Armas, A. (1990). “Fernán Guerra, adalid mayor de la conquista de Gran Canaria y promotor de la fundación de Las Palmas”, Anuario de Estudios Atlánticos, vol. 1, núm. 36, pp. 631-686. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Cabildo de Gran Canaria.