The proximity of May 30th, official date of the so-called Day of the Canaries, awakens among lovers of the ancient history of the Archipelago the memory of a controversial event wrapped in the unknowns of the scarcity of documentary records: we speak of what has been known either as the Letter, Peace or Pact of Calatayud.
Professor Wölfel’s finding
In 1930, Professor Dominik Josef Wölfel (Vienna, 1888-1963) published in Anthropos journal a collection of unpublished transcriptions of some public documents from the Archivo General de Simancas, among which a letter from Queen Juana I of Castile –traditionally known as Juana the Mad–, dated January 1515, in which she responded to the protests presented by two christianized Grandcanarian indigenes, Juan Beltrán and Juan Cabello, who demanded the fulfillment of the contents of a letter signed on May 30th, 1481 by the Queen’s parents, the Catholic Monarchs. In 1953, the Austrian ethnologist and philologist reprinted his transcription of the document in El Museo Canario journal as part of an article devoted to Bishop Juan de Frías.
In the letter signed by Queen Juana was inserted a copy of her parents’ resolution on this matter whose most important lines we reproduce below, adapted to modern English to facilitate their reading:
[…] know that at the time that the guanartemes and knights and other persons of the common of the Great Knighthood [might be a mistake for Gran Canaria?], after being by the grace of God reduced and converted to our holy catholic faith, sent to give us and to pay us obedience and happiness, and they recognized us as their King and Queen and natural Lords, and also Prince Don Juan, our beloved and dear son, after our days and the other monarchs, our descendants, that after him descended, were in their part, before us, presented certain chapters in writing among which it is contained a chapter with an answer, the tenor of which, with that our answer, is this that follows:
Item because the said Canarians could not live without coming to these our kingdoms of Castile and Leon to trade and to carry some supplies and other things to the said island of Gran Canaria, they implore to Your Highnesses that now and at all times and from now on, those of the said island may go as Christians, since they freely are, across all parts and places of the said kingdoms wherever they want to and that for them being Canarians be not either person or persons daring to captivate them.
To this we respond that what they ask for in this chapter is fair and that we shall command to do it so giving our letters and provisions for it as they request.
And now, by the said guanartemes and knights and other people of the common of the said island of Gran Canaria, our vassals, we were pleaded with and begged by mercy to command to provide them with what is contained in the said chapter, according to and as it is contained in it. And we took it for good and we commanded to give this our letter in the said reason, by which we command you and each one of you that whenever the said Canarians of the said island and common of the said Gran Canaria, or any of them shall come to any of these said cities and towns and places to buy such supplies and other things of any quality whatsoever, to give these to them and allow them freely to buy and to take and to freight, so by land as by sea, putting not any hindrance nor any other impediment, paying the customary rights that the other persons of these said our kingdoms by the like are accustomed to give and to pay. Also, let them freely come and pass and be and return to the said island of Gran Canaria, both by land and by sea, freely and safely with the said goods and other things above and without them and do not captivate them, nor catch, nor seize, nor wound, nor cripple, nor kill, neither permit nor do whatever other evils or damages or disgrace on their persons and properties against right, for we receive by this our letter and by the said copy, as said is, the said Canarians and each of them and their persons and goods and merchandise and things belonging to them and each one of them under our guard and protection and royal defense, and we want and it is our mercy and will that, for being as they are our vassals, to be treated and defended and protected as are our other vassals, subjects and natives of these our kingdoms […]
[…] given in the city of Calatayud, thirty days of the month of May of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ of one thousand four hundred and eighty-one years. I, the King. I, the Queen. I, Alonso de Ávila, secretary of the King and Queen, our Lords, I had it written at their command. Andrés, doctor. Registered. Doctor Diego Vázquez, chancellor.
Unfortunately, although the cited document is kept in the Archivo General de Simancas under catalogue number RGS-LEG-1515-01-32 –as the digital copy provided by this institution shows– the letter containing the request list presented by the delegation from Gran Canaria, to which the Castilian monarchs responded, if it still exists, has not been located among the funds of the archive as we were told by personal communication of Isabel Aguirre Landa, head of the Reference Department.
The original response letter, once the emissaries returned to Gran Canaria, must have been held by some person on the island, and there is no doubt that it was that document, or some copy of it, that Beltrán and Cabello presented to Juana I. Given these observations, what conclusions can we draw from the copy inserted in the response of the Queen of Castile?
Guanartemes and knights
First, note the use in the text of an imprecise plural, guanartemes and knights, and the absolute absence of anthroponyms. A plausible explanation is that this vagueness was no more than the expression of a temporary disinterest of the monarchs by the appeals of the Canarian delegation, for in May of 1481 the Catholic Monarchs stayed in Calatayud to attend the oath of their son, Prince Juan, only three years old, before the Aragonese courts, being a particularly delicate moment for Fernando II of Aragon, whose relations with his vassals of the Iberian East were not as stable as he wished.
This indefinition is partially solved in the accounts of the conquest of Gran Canaria transcribed by Professor Miguel Ángel Ladero Quesada, where it is stated that one guanarteme and an indeterminate number of Canarian knights travelled to Calatayud. At the same time, this official proof supports the account by Diego de Valera, who in his Chronicle of the Catholic Monarchs details that in the year 1481:
[Grandcanarians] sent to tell [Pedro de Vera] whether he would like to give them peace and they wanted to be Christians, which they then put into work baptizing many of them, and sent to the king and queen four main Canarians to give them their obedience, which they were given in Calatayud.
Among these four main Canarians, Valera claims in a later passage of his account that one was the most important of them:
[…] they took with them the principal of the four they have been lead before the monarchs, […]
So it seems sufficiently proven that only one guanarteme travelled to Calatayud, but this does not prove that the use of the plural guanartemes is incorrect. In fact, there is an indication in the text itself that suggests the opposite: […] sent to give us and to pay us obedience […] Why sent rather than came? Maybe none of the ambassadors was a guanarteme? We just already checked that this was not so.
Therefore, supposing that Juana’s letter text is neither tainted nor contains errata, a possible answer is that two guanartemes would be subdued and Christianized, and that one of them travelled to Calatayud by himself and on behalf of his counterpart who, hypothetically, stayed on Gran Canaria.
Pact or subjugation?
The following expression leaves no doubt: the guanartemes and knights who had sent to pay their obedience had been reduced and converted to Catholicism. That is, they surrendered or were defeated and received the baptism, although no mention is made of their Christian or native names.
Given this, it is worth noting that a number of historiographical references to the content of this letter interpret this event as a pact among the Crown of Castile and the guanartemes –or guanarteme– of Gran Canaria, even extending its scope to a supposed Kingdom of the Canary Islands –let us note that some ethnohistorical sources attributed to Norman Baron Jehan IV de Béthencourt the title of King of the Canary Islands, later assumed by Inés Peraza and Diego García de Herrera–.
However, the response of the Catholic Monarchs expressly claims that at the time –that is, simultaneously, during the same public act or soon after– that the guanartemes, etc. sent to give us and to pay us obedience […] were in their part, before us, presented certain chapters in writing […].
This means that the letter carried by the Canarian delegation was presented during or after the obedience ceremony but, in any case, the monarchs did not resolve on the petitions contained therein until the emissaries did not previously subjugated themselves to the authority of the Crown. Obviously, an act in which one of the parties accepts the conditions of the other before the latter evaluates the former’s proposals and then decides whether to endorse them or not, can hardly be understood as a pact. A different matter would be the celebration of a homage, but in this case the obligations of both parties –Lord and vassal– were well known in advance.
Another important question is whether the Catholic Monarchs replied in writing to each and every one of the Canarian delegation’s requests, but this is not known at all: as a fact, the Monarchs’ recognition to the free movement of Grandcanarians and their merchandise across the dominions of the Crown of Castile, as well as the practice of commercial activities, all of these in equal conditions with the other subjects of the kingdom, appearing in a separate document not mentioning other possible resolutions only seems to indicate the greater priority that this provision had for the petitioners and their representatives, certainly threatened by the Europeans’ constant harassment; in fact, Juan Beltrán and Juan Cabello’s protest before Juana I, twenty-four years later, proves an iterative unfulfillment of the royal provision.
We cannot say anything about the rest of the requests contained in the letter presented by the delegation from Gran Canaria, since we know nothing about them.
The Day of the Canaries
Perhaps one of the most widespread myths about this “Pact” of Calatayud is the one stating the Day of the Canaries –or more precisely, the Day of the Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands– commemorates its signing, since the truth is that this celebration recalls the day on which the first session of the Parliament of the Canaries took place, on 30th May 1983.
In addition, as clarified by the text of the letter granted by the Catholic Monarchs, whatever was agreed in Calatayud was only applicable to the Grandcanarian indigenes subjected to the invaders, since the rest of the natives kept on warfaring until at least 1483. If we add that at the time of the resolution three of the Canary Islands were part of the Herrera-Peraza family estates and two others remained independent until the end of the 1490s, it is difficult to argue that the submission of May 1481 had a political significance of such a magnitude as to justify its commemoration in modern times.
However, it should not be stressed that the date of May 30th, 1481 is simply that in which the Catholic Monarchs gave a written response to only one of the requests of the delegation from Gran Canaria: no doubt, both the act of submission and the presentation of the letter containing all of the requests, as well as the interviews and debates that eventually surrounded these events, took place on an imprecise date but, of course, earlier than the one indicated. Another reason that denies the linkage of the Day of the Canaries to the so-called “Pact” of Calatayud.
Antonio M. López Alonso
- Valera, D. de (1927). Crónica de los Reyes Católicos. Madrid (España): José Molina.
- Wölfel, D. J. (1930). “La Curia Romana y la Corona de España en la defensa de los aborígenes Canarios. Documentos inéditos y hechos desconocidos acerca de las primicias de las misiones y conquistas ultramarinas españolas”, Anthropos, vol. 25, pp. 1011-1083. Viena (Austria): Anthropos Institut.
- Wölfel, D. J. (1953). Don Juan de Frías : El Gran Conquistador de Gran Canaria. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (España): El Museo Canario.