Alexander von Humboldt self portrait

Sailing ships passing the peak of Teide in the 1800s

  Early Foreign Visitors and the Advent of Tourism.

Romantic Expeditions

Between 1770 and 1830, almost thirty scientific expeditions sailed to the Canary Islands. For most of them, the Islands were nothing more than a compulsory stop for provisions on their way to America or to the Southern Seas, locations that at that time represented the frontiers of what was known and controllable.

Humboldt opened up the age of travelers who came to the Canary Islands with no academic protagonist, which proved to be extremely productive for the Archipelago and its history of science. The lone stay of the botanist Broussonet springs to mind, who having fled the Napoleonic Wars came to the Islands and wrote Florilogium Canariensis, a work that had enormous influence on the history of Botany. At Humboldt’s request, a journey was undertaken by von Buch and his Norwegian companion Smith, which laid the foundations for their future studies and all consequent geological investigations of the islands.

Another decisive milestone was the encyclopedic work of Webb and Berthelot, who treated the Islands not only as a natural unit but also as a cultural unit. All told, these “Romantic” expeditions led to the Canary Islands being considered a destination for European scientific investigators rather than a mere stopover, a status the islands maintained throughout the century. This was enhanced by the opening up of new disciplines such as medicine and astronomy.
The opening sentence in Leopold von Buch’s work, The Physical Description of the Canary lslands (Physikalische Beschreibung der Kanarischen lnseln) is significant in this respect. Written in 1803 and published in 1814, it says: “I know that it is very difficult to imagine, but the Canary Islands will one day be a tourist destination, a holiday resort, like the Gulf of Naples or the Alps are now for us Central Europeans”.

One of the first recorded ascents of Teide was made by the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt in 1799. His account of the hike recounts his struggle against the elements as well as his unsuccessful interactions with local guides: 'Their indolence was despairing; they sat and rested every 10 minutes and threw away our carefully collected obsidian and pumice stones when our backs were turned … it became evident that none of them had ever been on the peak.' Humboldt's inexperienced party spent the night in miserable freezing cold, squatting under an overhang at 2,900m without tents or even coats. They pressed on to the top at 3am by the light of flaming torches, eventually getting to the summit at 8am, 'stiff with cold, while our feet burnt in our boots from the heat of the volcano'.

Despite Humboldt's experience, the ascent of Teide became established as a favourite challenge among well-to-do travellers who began spending their winters on Tenerife in the late 19th century. Olivia Stone, who in 1886 was one of the first female climbers of Teide, did a lot to encourage this. 'Teide is regarded affectionately from every point of view,' she wrote, 'and its ascenders may be said to have Peak-mania. Even as I write, I feel a strong and irresistible longing to do it again.'

Olivia Stone
Oliva Stone at San Gines Lanzarote in 1885
Puerto Del Rosario (formerly Puerto De Cabras) 1900
La Oliva in 1890

 Harvesting the Cochineal

                    Early Chroniclers

Tenerife became a popular destination on The Grand Tour, the European circuit that became a fashionable pastime for the rich in the late nineteenth century. Various contemporary artists and writers brought back favourable impressions of Tenerife that particularly caught the imagination of the moneyed English seeking a pleasant place to spend the winter or seek spa treatments. The first widely distributed and well-received guidebook was written by Olivia Stone who set out with her husband to travel throughout all of the seven islands, an endeavour never realised by any foreigner before.  Her book was the first of a spate of guides about Tenerife.

Olivia’s chronicles record a fascinating view into the 19th century islander’s lifestyles and conditions, she reports finding a Guanche mommy, that of a woman, on her way to the mountains one day. “Mommie Collecting” had become quite a fashion from the 18th century onwards, it being considered most desirable to have a mommy in the house to show to ones friends or visitors. This practice of the more wealthy locals to buy “objects” from the Guanche (conquered native) culture was probably originally influenced by European visitors

The chronicles of the travellers who visited the Canary Islands in the centuries XVIII and XIX have been helping investigators to uncover details of the daily life the women of the archipelago, who had surprised the foreigners with their beauty, but also by their ignorance, poverty and superstitions.
University professor and investigator in History of Education at the University of La Laguna, Teresa González, has investigated texts written by Elizabeth Murray, Piazzi Smyth, Olivia Stone, Verneau, Berthelot, Humboldt and others, to publish a book, Canary Islands women in the chronicles of travellers.

Outsiders' accounts have been an essential source of information about Canary Islands women in centuries past, about whom there are scarcely any historical accounts, because the past of the women of the islands is “invisible, remains hidden and subject of very few referencies.” González says it was interesting to observe how the travellers analysed Canarians from their European viewpoint. They value but also underestimate and, in some cases, ridicule the behavior of the islanders. These travellers were mostly British, German and French and were of a "cultured class", with money, which made them look from a "position of superiority", analysing the island population as living in extreme poverty and intellectual misery.

The chroniclers described people who were rough, but because they had been kept far away from knowledge. They particularly noticed that “better off” women were kept inside, infrequently going out into the street, unless accompanied by a servant or family member.
Travellers such as Olivia Stone y Isabel Burton chronicled the outstanding beauty of the Canarian women, even though the peasants did not have the ideal pale colouring but were of dark complexion even though they used enormous sombreros, scarves and  gloves  to try to avoid this. Many of the travellers visiting La Laguna, La Orotava and Garachico in Tenerife, as well as Gran Canaria and Lanzarote, spoke of empty streets and silence broken only by the occasional clattering of a shutter behind which a pretty face could sometimes be glimpsed.

They also described scenes with peasant women laden with fruit and milk who went to market barefooted in groups, engaged in animated conversations and accompanied by children. Olivia Stone noted, “Industry in Tenerife was even more abandoned than that in Gran Canaria” and that “the people were poor, but the fishermen were poor to extreme misery and had almost nothing to eat but dried salted fish and gofio.”

Many chronicles spoke of how the Canarians hid from foreigners and how very poor they were, especially in the south of the islands where there were very few schools and children ran half naked through the streets. When it was time to contract domestic servants the foreigners remarked how the women were torpid that hardly knew how to cook cabbage and potatoes although they praised their embroidery and lace work.

English chronicler Whitford's attention was drawn by the belief in witches, ghosts, apparitions and curses, superstitions, which until recently pervaded among country women.

Many also spoke of the moral order and in this respect, Brown confirmed that the morality of Canarian women was quite elevated; for instance if they were married they were almost always faithful, even when their husbands emigrated and they were left alone for a number of years.
Single girls rarely had more than one boyfriend.

For Pegot-Ogier, the women of the Canary Islands were "uncultured, ignorant, had much less knowledge of the outside world than the men and were incapable of being the center of attention, despite their beauty".

Some travellers also spoke of how misery drove many island women to prostitute themselves in exchange for a few coins, mainly those who did not have a man to look after them. And there are stories of how women offered themselves to sailors or a group of thirty girls, accompanied by their old mothers, who begged insistently for "the favour of an intimate conversation.”

Typical Canarian Patio in a Country House
Olivia Stone

Olivia’s Visit to Fuerteventura

Olivia Stone visited Fuerteventura in 1884 and received a warm welcome, reporting that upon approaching Corralejo in their boat, the entire population of the fishing village were waiting to receive them on the rocks.
Amongst them was a well dressed man with a white hat who they knew could not be from the poor group of huts that made up the village, it was their host, the mayor of la Oliva who had made the journey from La Oliva by camel.
Olivia described the Corralejo fishermens  wives as extremely hospitable, bidding them to enter into their homes to drink coffee and giving them the best that they had, “although this was not much.” The houses had dirt floors, were mostly of one room with poor low beds, a few seats and a table which spoke of the scarecity of resources- yet not of beauty as ” through the open doors the blue sea glittered as calm as a lake bordered by the black rocks of the Isla de Lobos , the mountains of Lanzarote and the white coast of Fuerteventura.”

She described the people as seeming to be intelligent, cheerful and ingenious, tall, broad shouldered with anglular faces and very large, cinnamon coloured, crystaline eyes.

Villaverde was “a slope with a group of huts with mud and straw inclined roofs” that lived up to its name (Green Village) as it was “green and fresh, even the ugly tuneras (prickly pear catcus) of cochineal. “The land was divided by stone walls inside which were planted mainly potatoes and tuneras to cultivate the cochineal beetle.
She described La Oliva Village as a few houses and a church, the houses large with flat roofs, white walled and with doors and shutters of leaf green.
The earth around the village was red, there were a great number of straw stacks, and there were many large farms in the vicinity.  Her supper in La Oliva where she lodged consisted of fried eggs, lamb, pork, excellent goats cheese, particularly  good bread (Usually only for fiesta days-a luxury ) and tasty home baked buiscuits and coffee; all from La Oliva except the wine which was from Lanzarote.

The village of Vega de Río Palmas was a small settlement of poor mud houses when Olivia visited, arriving by camel from Betancuria. She defined The Paso de las Peñitas as a “magnificent granite gorge” and noted the existence of a reservoir “with walls many feet thick, “ where one stands today; although in the year that she visited, due to heavy rains and the subsequent pressure of water the walling had cracked. The pass, she recorded, was unknown and unappreciated yet offered one of the best panoramic views of the island. She followed a path that had been “painstakingly excavated and constructed, some three feet wide which was wide enough for people, but not for camels; “but owing to the granite wall on the right being inclined there was enough space to allow us to pass, the animal walking on the edge of the precipice and I sitting calmly with my feet hanging in space. “

The French anthropologist René Verneau visited at the same epoch and saw “ in the gorge’s enormous mass of rock- “something awesome and imposing.” Today more than a century later, the path they followed continues to be very impressive.