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.

It will be remembered that Berthin de Berneval had been left in command of the fort on Lancerota Island. Unfortunately he was Gadifer's bitter enemy, and no sooner had Béthencourt set out than he tried to poison the minds of Gadifer's men against him; he succeeded in inducing some, especially the Gascons, to revolt against the governor, who, quite innocent of Berneval's base designs, was spending his time hunting sea-wolves on the island of Lobos with Remonnet de Levéden and several others. Remonnet having been sent to Lancerota for provisions, found no Berneval there, he having deserted the island with his accomplices for a port on Graziosa, where a coxswain, deceived by his promises, had placed his vessel at his disposal. From Graziosa, the traitor Berneval returned to Lancerota, and put the finishing stroke to his villany by pretending to make an alliance with the king of the island. The king, thinking that no officer of Béthencourt's, in whom he had implicit confidence, could deceive him, came with twenty-four of his subjects to see Berneval, who seized them when asleep, had them bound, and then carried them off to Graziosa. The king managed to break his bonds, set three of his men free, and succeeded in escaping, but the remainder of his unfortunate companions were still prisoners, and Berneval gave them up to some Spanish thieves, who took them away to sell in a foreign land.

Berneval's evil deeds did not stop here. By his order the vessel that Gadifer had sent to the fort at Lancerota was seized; Remonnet tried resistance, but his numbers were too small, and his supplications were useless to prevent Berneval's men, and even Berneval himself, from destroying all the arms, furniture, and goods, which Béthencourt had placed in the fort at Lancerota. Insults were showered upon the governor, and Berneval cried, "I should like Gadifer de la Salle to know that if he were as young as I, I would kill him, but as he is not, I will spare him. If he is put above me I shall have him drowned, and then he can fish for sea-wolves."

Meanwhile, Gadifer and his ten companions were in danger of perishing on the island of Lobos for want of food and fresh water, but happily the two chaplains of the fort of Lancerota had gone to Graziosa, and met the coxswain, who had been the victim of Berneval's treason, and he sent one of his men named Ximenes with them back to Lancerota. There they found a small boat which they filled with provisions, and embarking with four men who were faithful to Gadifer, they succeeded in reaching Lobos, four leagues off, after a most dangerous passage.

Gadifer and his companions were suffering fearfully from hunger and thirst, when Ximenes arrived just in time to save them from perishing, and the governor learning Berneval's treachery embarked in the boat for Lancerota, as soon as he was a little restored to health. He was grieved at Berneval's conduct towards the poor islanders whom Béthencourt and he had sworn to protect. No! he never could have expected such wickedness in one who was looked upon as the most able of the whole band.

But what was Berneval doing meanwhile? After having betrayed his master, he did the same to the companions who had aided him in his evil deeds; he had twelve of them killed and then he set out for Spain to rejoin Béthencourt and make his own case good by representing all that had happened in his own way. It was to his interest to get rid of inconvenient witnesses, and therefore he abandoned his companions. These unfortunate men at first meditated imploring the pardon of the governor; they confessed all to the chaplains, but then, fearing the consequences of their deeds, they seized a boat and fled towards Morocco. The boat reached the coast of Barbary, where ten of the crew were drowned and the two others taken for slaves.

While all this was happening at Lancerota, Béthencourt arrived at Cadiz, where he took strong measures against his mutinous crew, and had the ringleaders imprisoned. Then he sent his vessel to Seville, where King Henry III. was at that time; but the ship sank in the Guadalquiver, a great loss to Gadifer, her owner.

Béthencourt having arrived at Seville, met a certain Francisque Calve who had lately come from the Canaries, and who offered to return thither with all the things needed by the governor, but Béthencourt could not agree to this proposal before he had seen the king.

Just at this time, Berneval arrived with some of his accomplices, and some islanders whom he intended to sell as slaves. He hoped to be able to deceive Béthencourt, but he had not reckoned upon a certain Courtille who was with him, who lost no time in denouncing the villany of Berneval, and on whose word the traitors were all imprisoned at Cadiz. Courtille also told of the treatment that the poor islanders had received; as Béthencourt could not leave Seville till he had had an audience with the king, he gave orders that they should receive every kindness, but while these preliminaries were being concluded, the vessel that contained them was taken to Aragon, and they were sold for slaves.

Béthencourt obtained the audience that he sought with the king of Castille, and after telling him the result of his expedition he said, "Sire, I come to ask your assistance and your leave to conquer the Canary Islands for the Catholic faith, and as you are king and lord of all the surrounding country, and the nearest Christian king to these islands, I beg you to receive the homage of your humble servant." The king was very gracious to him and gave him dominion over these islands, and beyond this, a fifth of all the merchandise that should be brought from them to Spain. He gave him 20,000 maravédis, about 600l., to buy all that he needed, and also the right to coin money in the Canary Islands. Most unfortunately these 20,000 maravédis were confided to the care of a dishonest man, who fled to France, carrying the money with him.

However, Henry III. gave Béthencourt a well-rigged vessel manned by eighty men, and stocked with provisions, arms, &c. He was most grateful for this fresh bounty, and sent Gadifer an account of all that had happened, and his extreme disappointment and disgust at Berneval's conduct, in whom he had so much confidence, announcing at the same time the speedy departure of the vessel given by the King of Castille.

Plan of Jerusalem
Plan of Jerusalem.

But meanwhile very serious troubles had arisen on Lancerota. King Guardafia was so hurt at Berneval's conduct that he had revolted, and some of Gadifer's companions had been killed by the islanders. Gadifer insisted upon these subjects being punished, when one of the king's relations named Ache, came to him proposing to dethrone the king, and put himself in his place. This Ache was a villain, who after having betrayed his king, proposed to betray the Normans, and to chase them from the country. Gadifer had no suspicion of his motives; wishing to avenge the death of his men, he accepted Ache's proposal, and a short time afterwards, on the vigil of St. Catherine's day, the king was seized, and conveyed to the fort in chains.

Some days afterwards, Ache, the new king of the island attacked Gadifer's companions, mortally wounding several of them, but the following night Guardafia having made his escape from the fort seized Ache, had him stoned to death, and his body burnt. The governor (Gadifer) was so grieved by these scenes of violence, which were renewed daily, that he resolved to kill all the men on the island, and save only the women and children, whom he hoped to have baptized. But just at this time, the vessel that Béthencourt had freighted for the governor arrived, and brought besides the eighty men, provisions, &c., a letter which told him among other things that Béthencourt had done homage to the King of Castille for the Canary Islands. The governor was not well pleased at this news, for he thought that he ought to have had his share in the islands; but he concealed his displeasure, and gave the new comers a hearty welcome.

The arms were at once disembarked, and then Gadifer went on board the vessel to explore the neighbouring islands. Remonnet and several others joined him in this expedition, and they took two of the islanders with them to serve as guides.

They arrived safely at Fortaventura island; a few days after landing on the island, Gadifer set out with thirty-five men to explore the country; but soon the greater part of his followers deserted him, only thirteen men, including two archers, remaining with him. But he did not give up his project; after wading through a large stream, he found himself in a lovely valley shaded by numberless palm-trees; here having rested and refreshed himself, he set out again and climbed a hill. At the summit he found about fifty natives, who surrounded the small party and threatened to murder them. Gadifer and his companions showed no signs of fear, and succeeded in putting their enemies to flight; by the evening they were able to regain their vessel, carrying away four of the native women as prisoners.

Gadifer found himself in a lovely valley
Gadifer found himself in a lovely valley.

The next day Gadifer left the island and went to the Gran Canaria island anchoring in a large harbour lying between Telde and Argonney. Five hundred of the natives confronted them, but apparently with no hostile intentions; they gave them some fish-hooks and old iron in exchange for some of the natural productions of the island, such as figs, and dragon's blood, a resinous substance taken from the dragon-tree, which has a very pleasant balsamic odour. The natives were very much on their guard with the strangers, for twenty years before this some of Captain Lopez' men had invaded the island; so they would not allow Gadifer to land.

The governor was obliged to weigh anchor without exploring the island; he went to Ferro Island, and coasting along it arrived next at Gomera; it was night, and the sailors were attracted by the fires that the natives had lighted on the shore. When day broke Gadifer and his companions wished to land; but the islanders would not allow them to proceed when they reached the shore, and drove them back to their vessel. Much disappointed by his reception, Gadifer determined to make another attempt at Ferro Island; there he found that he could land without opposition, and he remained on the island twenty-two days. The interior of the island was very beautiful. Pine-trees grew in abundance, and clear streams of water added to its fertility. Quails were found in large numbers, as well as pigs, goats, and sheep.

From this fertile island the party of explorers went to Palma, and anchored in a harbour situated to the right of a large river. This is the furthest island of the Canary group; it is covered with pine and dragon-trees; from the abundance of fresh water the pasturage is excellent and the land might be cultivated with much profit. Its inhabitants are a tall, robust race, well made, with good features and very white skin. Gadifer remained a short time on this island; on leaving it he spent two days and two nights sailing round the other islands, and then returned to the fort on Lancerota. They had been absent three months. In the meantime, those of the party who had been left in the fort had waged a petty war with the natives, and had made a great number of prisoners. The Canarians, demoralized, now came daily to cast themselves on their mercy, and to pray for the consecration of baptism. Gadifer was so pleased to hear of this, that he sent one of his companions to Spain to inform Béthencourt of the state of the colony.