During all of my research, I couldn’t help but ask myself time and again why so many Canarios had emigrated to Louisiana between 1778 and 1784. 2736 emigrants from the Canary Islands are officially recorded on the passenger lists of the ships, yet experts suggest a total of almost 4000 people. Today, there are approximately 40,000 Isleños, i.e. descendants of the Canarios, living in Louisiana (and some documents even claim that there are 70,000!).
It is a well known fact that a lot of them emigrated to Cuba, Uruguay, Mexico, Hispaniola and Venezuela (the last great wave of emigration to Venezuela took place between 1936 and 1945). But what made them go to Louisiana of all places?
I am no historian, just half author and half actress. While “researching” and “discovering”, my brain has taken in images that have touched me emotionally, images I would like to share with you. Please, close your eyes and let me take you on a journey through time. No, wait, don’t close your eyes just yet! Better read the following text first.
Let’s put ourselves on the Canary Islands in the 18th century. The Spanish had conquered the islands some 300 years ago and successfully killed off the native Guanches by means of their conquista and missionary work (although according to the newest genetic findings, about 40 % of the present Canarian population is said to be related to the original inhabitants – but that is just an aside). Furthermore, La Gomera, the second smallest of the islands, was the last stop for Christopher Columbus before he set sail for India on September 6, 1492 – and discovered the New World, America, instead, as we all know. In short: the Canary Islands became the most important trading place for the Spanish in the Atlantic Ocean.
And just like the little seeds that almost inevitably make their bed in fertile Canarian soil, the population multiplied, increasing from 41,000 inhabitants in 1605 to 194,516 in 1802. Even back then, Tenerife and Gran Canaria were the most populated islands.
The Canarios grew crop, sugar cane and wine – the latter was made for export. The economy was booming, especially with respect to wine-growing. And with the free trade laws of the 18thcentury, the Canary Islands were also able to engage in the trading business of the New World.
The imported products didn’t take long to mushroom on the islands: potatoes, corn and tomatoes became a big hit, an economic success. While cacao, tobacco, Brazilian wood and furniture were imported from America, the “famous” wine, vinegar, tinned pears, quinces and dried fruit were exported from the Canary Islands.
And here’s something I hadn’t been aware of, a thing nevertheless intelligible if you take into account the 1787 map of America: after having conquered America (and having lynched and killed the Indians), Spain had to populate and defend a huge territory! Hardly anyone would leave their home voluntarily and set off to a completely unknown and unfamiliar world - except for a few adventurers, that is. Obviously! By royal degree, the blood tribute – “tributo de sangre”, illegally practised since 1678 - was set out in writing in 1718. As a result, the Canarian-American trade relations were legalized in a very special way: for every 100 tons of goods exported FROM America, five Canarian families with five members in each, had to emigrate TO America!
So basically, the Canarios had no choice. They were bondsmen or quite simply white slaves. Maybe they were a little better off than “other” slaves, since the men suited to be soldiers received a pay for four years. The decisive factor for the pay of the recruits was their body height, though: the taller a man, the more money he was paid. This probably also explains the fact that today’s Canarios are of a different calibre – a smaller one, because all the tall ones left. Anyway, families from villages all over the islands were “selected” for emigration: fathers, mothers (even those to be), children of all ages and - if there weren’t enough children - grandfathers, grandmothers or mothers-in-law were wrapped and sent off as well. Quite often, there were families with up to nine children on board. The families were picked up and taken to Santa Cruz, where they were “conveyed by ship”: on July 10th, 1778 onboard the Santisimo Sacramento, on October 22nd onboard the La Victoria, on October 29th onboard the San Ignacio de Loyola, on December 9th onboard the San Juan Nepomuceno, on February 17th, 1779 onboard the La Santa Faz – just to name a few of the ships. And the shipment didn’t stop there, it continued like that until 1784. No wonder then, that a constant emigration of this size led to an imbalance of the sexes on Tenerife: the population count in 1787 was only 5065 men, but 8094 women between the ages of 25 and 40!
All ships had one surgeon, one priest and between 292 to 460 people on board. Some of them managed to get away before the ships’ departure, others opted for impromptu-weddings before the anchor was cast off. Penned up in a dark bilge, they were very short of space, and if allowed on deck at all, it was only for a tiny breath of fresh air. And sex - pardon me: intercourse – was prohibited even for married couples, and even trying to was pointless because of the strict separation of the genders.
It is difficult to imagine what it was like for those simple families to leave their homes, not knowing what to expect and without being certain if they would even arrive at their destination. When I think of the most recent images (2008/2009) of the Senegalese refugees, who were stranded almost dying of thirst in their little and overcrowded boats between the tourists on our Tenerifean shores, emigrating will always be hard to imagine with reference to financial situations. They were refugees, who got medical attention and help in shakedowns, but who refused to reveal the names of their countries of origin out of fear to be sent back if they were of legal age. After providing some basic care for the refugees, the beaches were disinfected and returned to the hands of the ocean-dipping tourists. Remember? The world is a handkerchief.
In the Mississippi Delta, the Canarios were assigned land. Every family received no more than a rifle, a few animals and some seeds - true to the motto “búscate la vida”, “eke out a living”. The emigrants had to manage in totally unfamiliar living conditions: the ground beneath their feet was no longer volcanic and thus fertile, but a swampy terrain that first needed draining. Instead of little lizards, they now had to deal with crocodiles; the mild climate of the Canarian Islands changed places with cold winters and extremely hot summers, followed by hurricanes and mosquitoes. And as if that wasn’t enough already, diseases and epidemic plagues like smallpox and cholera also came along with their drastic life change.
They settled on both sides of the Mississippi: in Valenzuela, Galveztown, Barataria and San Bernado (Saint Bernard Parish, 8 miles downstream from New Orleans). They named their villages after their Canarian hometowns, like La Candelaria, built churches, houses, squares, maintained their traditions, their language, their folklore, their food and fiestas – in short: their roots, the only thing they had left. They transformed the swampy terrain into fertile ground, were the first to grow sugarcane and, being excellent fishermen and hunters, ate everything they were able to trap – even crocodiles and beavers. Moreover, they defended their land bravely and successfully.
In 1800, i.e. only 15 to 22 years after the arrival of the emigrants, Spain “secretly” sold the Louisiana Territory between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains to France – Canarios included. And only three years later, in 1803, Napoleon sold the huge “Louisiana Purchase” back to the, then smallish, United States of America for the ridiculous amount of 15 million dollars – Canarios included, again.
However, the Isleños kept to themselves and had little or no contact with the rest of the English- or French-speaking population. With the construction of the first paved streets and the ban on Spanish in schools at the beginning of the 20th century, the Isleños’ oral culture started to change. Today, the old Canarian language and figures of speech from the 18th century are still used, but only by the older generations.
The Isleños have been survivalists ever since and continue to be so. They were able to adapt brilliantly to the constantly changing life conditions without abandoning their roots, fighting triumphantly in various wars – from the American Civil War to the First and Second World War. When their land was burned to the ground due to war, they dealt with beaver minks or shrimps; they were masters when it came to shipbuilding and the Mississippi steamboat navigation. They even made history as musical pioneers during the emergence of jazz, as is proven by Alcide Nuñez. Furthermore, they overcame many flood crises – well, at least the survivors: in 1915, 1927, 1965. Since St. Bernard is located further up stream than New Orleans in one of the curves of the Mississippi River, the levees were opened at regular intervals, burying the lands of the Canarios under masses of water – all this for New Orleans’ sake? And what do you know; the Canarios didn’t receive any reimbursement. It was only in November 2009 when the victims of the last big natural disaster, hurricane Katrina of 2005, obtained the first judicial success. 1.3 million people living on the east coast had lost family members as well as material belongings. Five claimants were granted reimbursement by a US district court, arguing that the Engineering Corps of the Armed Forces were responsible for the destructive inundations of New Orleans after the hurricane. The corps didn’t fully comply with their obligation to maintain the drainage passages properly.
In 2000, 67,229 people were living in St. Bernard, after Katrina only 19,826 of them were left.
In 2010 the existence of the Isleños was almost wiped out by one of the most terrible environmental disasters: on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, spilling more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. On top of this was dumped more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant. So far, more than 16 billion dollars has been spent by BP on the cleanup, as well as claims and other spill-related bills.
The future of Louisiana fishermen and their fishing industry was killed, from one day to the next, by a cocktail of oil and dispersant.
In 2013, Spain (Repsol) and Morocco started a „drilling for oil competition“ just 40 kilometers off the coast of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.
There is a lot more to tell about the Isleños and their descendants in Louisiana.