JEAN DE BÉTHENCOURT, 1339-1425, I

The Norman cavalier—His ideas of conquest—What was known of the Canary Islands—Cadiz—The Canary Archipelago—Graciosa—Lancerota—Fortaventura—Jean de Béthencourt returns to Spain—Revolt of Berneval—His interview with King Henry III.—Gadifer visits the Canary Archipelago—Canary Island or "Gran Canaria"—Ferro Island—Palma Island.

Jean de Béthencourt was born about the year 1339, at Eu in Normandy. He was of good family, and Baron of St. Martin-le-Gaillard, and had distinguished himself both as a navigator and warrior; he was made chamberlain to Charles VI. But his tastes were more for travelling than a life at court; he resolved to make himself a still more illustrious name by further conquests, and soon an opportunity offered for him to carry out his plans.

Jean de Béthencourt
Jean de Béthencourt.

On the coast of Africa there is a group of islands called the Canaries, which were once known as the Fortunate Islands. Juba, a son of one of the Numidian kings, is said to have been their first explorer, about the year of Rome 776. In the middle ages, according to some accounts, Arabs, Genoese, Portuguese, Spaniards, and Biscayans, had partially visited this interesting group of islands. In 1393, a Spanish gentleman named Almonaster, who was commanding an expedition, succeeded in landing on Lancerota, one of these islands, and brought back, with several prisoners, some produce which was a sufficient guarantee of the fertility of this archipelago.

The Norman cavalier now found the opening that he sought, and he determined to conquer the Canary Islands and try to convert the inhabitants to the Catholic faith. He was as intelligent, brave, and full of resources as he was energetic; and leaving his house of Grainville-la-Teinturière at Caux, he went to La Rochelle, where he met the Chevalier Gadifer de la Salle, and having explained his project to him, they decided to go to the Canary Islands together. Jean de Béthencourt having collected an army and made his preparations, and had vessels fitted out and manned, Gadifer and he set sail; after experiencing adverse winds on the way to the Ile de Ré, and being much harassed by the constant dissensions on board, they arrived at Vivero, and then at Corunna. Here they remained eight days, then set sail again, and doubling Cape Finisterre, followed the Portuguese coast to Cape St. Vincent, and arrived at Cadiz, where they made a longer stay. Here Béthencourt had a dispute with some Genoese merchants, who accused him of having taken their vessel, and he had to go to Seville, where King Henry III. heard his complaint and acquitted him from all blame. On his return to Cadiz he found part of his crew in open mutiny, and some of his sailors so frightened that they refused to continue the voyage, so the chevalier sent back the cowardly sailors, and set sail with those who were more courageous.

The vessel in which Jean de Béthencourt sailed was becalmed for three days, then, the weather improving, he reached the island of Graziosa, one of the smaller of the Canary group, in five days, and then the larger island of Lancerota, which is nearly the same size as the island of Rhodes. Lancerota has excellent pasturage, and arable land, which is particularly good for the cultivation of barley; its numerous fountains and cisterns are well supplied with excellent water. The orchilla, which is so much used in dyeing, grows abundantly here. The inhabitants of this island, who as a rule wear scarce any clothing, are tall and well-made, and the women, who wear leathern great-coats reaching to the ground, are very good-looking and honest.

The traveller, prior to disclosing his plans of conquest, wished to possess himself of some of the natives, but his ignorance of the country made this a difficult matter, so, anchoring under the shelter of a small island in the archipelago, he called a meeting of his companions to decide upon a plan of action. They all agreed that the only thing to be done was to take some of the natives by fair means or foul. Guardafia, the king of the island, treated Béthencourt more as a friend than a subject. A castle or rather fort was built at the south-western extremity of the island, and some men left there under the command of Berthin de Berneval, while Béthencourt set out with the rest of his followers for the island of Erbania or Fortaventura. Gadifer counselled a debarcation by night, which was done, and then he took the command of a small body of men and scoured the island with them for eight days without meeting one native, they having all fled to the mountains. Provisions failing, Gadifer was forced to return, and he went to the island of Lobos between Lancerota and Fortaventura; but there his chief sailor mutinied and it was not without difficulty that Gadifer and Béthencourt reached the fort on Lancerota.

Béthencourt resolved to return to Spain to get provisions and a new contingent of soldiers, for his crew he could not depend upon; so he left Gadifer in command and set sail for Spain in one of Gadifer's ships.