As was often the case, the salvation of pagan souls and the hope of discovering the source of Saharan gold, provided the motive for the conquest.
It was actually a Frenchman by the name of Jean de Bethencourt (right)who invaded Fuerteventura in 1402. After the initial complement of 280 French settlers was reduced by desertions to an eventual 63, Bethencourt transferred his allegiance to the king of Castille, where he had cousins by marriage, using Castille and especially Seville as recruiting grounds to meet his manpower needs.
Thus the island’s Spanish heritage was created, with the French influence reduced to a few Castillianised versions of French place names such as Morro Jable (from the French ‘sable’ meaning sand), La Oliva (the olive tree) and Betancuria, the inland capital founded by Jean de Bethencourt. Indeed the island’s name itself is said to be a Spanish adaptation of Bethencourt’s exclamation ‘Que forte aventure!
It was not until 1405 that Fuerteventura was finally conquered, largely due to the influence of the two priestesses, who persuaded Ayoze and Guize, the two kings, to surrender and accept baptism .They were each given some land and exemption from tribute payments for nine years. Whether the rest of the native population was assimilated or sold into slavery is a moot point, although the fact that many native words and techniques have survived to this day, suggests the former.
Now colonisation began in earnest, starting with the creation of the island’s capital at Betancuria, situated in a fertile inland valley, and less prone to pirate attacks than it’s vulnerable coastline. Here, the masons brought with him from France, built the island’s first church, the Santa Maria de Betancuria where the islanders’ spiritual needs were catered for. A tithe of 10% of all merchandise and agricultural produce was payable to the church and 20% to the ruler of the island.
Jean de Bethencourt returned to Normandy, leaving the island under the administration of his nephew. By virtue of sale or inheritance the island passed from ruler to ruler, eventually being inherited by the Herrera-Perazas and remaining under the feudal rule of this family for the next three centuries. Despite the subjugation of the natives, these were by no means peaceful times.
Portugal had a covetous eye on both Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, mounting an expedition in 1460 to invade them. Coastal villages remained vulnerable to pirate attacks, forcing their inhabitants to seek refuge in the mountains. Furthermore, a tempting supply of a precious commodity – slaves- lay a mere 80kms across the sea. Frequent raids were mounted providing a steady supply of slaves, camels and livestock, both for sale and domestic use. However this in turn, invited retaliatory attacks by the Moors.
In 1593 one such attack razed the island. The church at Betancuria was burnt down, villages were plundered, captives taken and hefty ransoms demanded to release them from the dungeons of Fez.
After many decades of resistance, the natives on the fertile island of Gran Canaria were eventually conquered in 1483, coming under the direct rule of the crown. Fuerteventura, with its intermediate lordships and subsequent higher taxes, in addition to its dry, barren landscape was therefore a much less attractive propositon to potential settlers. It found itself largely bypassed by the economic booms experienced in Gran Canaria and Tenerife, who became the gateway for trade between the Americas and Europe.
Gradually life seems to have become a little more stable, with the creation in the 1700s of six new parishes. In 1708 the Regiment of militias was created, headed by the colonels. They took up residence in La Oliva, which became the military and civil capital of the island. The colonels wielded considerable power, choosing the mayor and exiling anyone who dared to oppose them. For more than a century, marriages were arranged between the colonels’ family members, effectively forming a closed circle. The Casa de Los Coroneles still stands as testament to this village’s past military splendour. The town of Antigua briefly became capital of the island in 1808, but more importantly became the focus for opposition to the feudal system, fomenting dissent amongst the people in the South.
A period of conflict followed, between supporters of the colonels and the feudal system in the North, and those opposed to it in the South. Eventually in 1835 the feudal system was abolished and each parish was made into an administrative district. In 1820 the port at Puerto de Cabras (now Puerto del Rosario) had been declared the principal port of the island and in 1835 it took over the mantle of capital of the island.