|Edge of the Old World? San Sebastian, La Gomera|
Summer is over and in Somerville Senior Common Room, academics are swapping tales of holidays. Many colleagues have holidayed in cultural-historic hotspots, such as Central Italy, and so I wonder if they will wince when I admit to spending a fortnight in Tenerife – an island associated, in the UK, with loud mega-resorts, high-rise hotels, beaches full of British tourists, and not much else. The lavish modern water parks and zoos built on the island, consistently rated as its top attractions, only reinforce the impression that there is nothing really to see on this remote Canarian isle. Bucket-and-spade tourism dominates, in an archipelago whose economy has a long track-record of dependence on just one industry (wine, cochineal, sunseekers).
It is no real secret that there is more to the island – travel journalists regularly write features on ‘hidden Tenerife’, its live volcanos, pre-historic fauna, mountain villages. What interests me, however, is the way in which Tenerife and its tourism industry shrug off the past, an island refusing to wear its history on its sleeve. Yet historians of the late medieval and Renaissance worlds have long stressed how important the Canary Islands are – from John Merriman in the 1960s to Felipe Armandez Armesto in the 1980s, the archipelago has been described as a laboratory of empire, the place where Europeans learnt to colonise from the 14C, a stepping stone between medieval Christendom and global modernity.
Taking the ferry to the island of La Gomera, day-trippers from Tenerife dock in the tiny port of San Sebastian, cuboid houses perched on the mountainside. This is where Columbus provisioned his fleet, the port from which he set sail into the blue yonder in 1492. San Sebastian still feels remote, on the very edge of the Old World. When the Fred Olsen trimaran navigates the choppy channel between La Gomera and Tenerife, you can peer west through the salt-greased window and think of the Santa Maria sailing these same waters. All over the Canaries, you can eat papas arrugadas, rare ‘heritage’ varieties of potatoes, genetically important because these are potato strains first brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16C, preserved in their original form in this archipelago. In colonial towns in misty northern Tenerife, such as Oratava, you can visit the three-storied 17C town-houses of people who grew rich on trade, because the Canaries were an essential staging post for Spanish maritime traffic between Europe and the Americas in the early modern centuries.
There is more than enough material, to build among the hotels of Tenerife, a magnificent Museum of the Canaries, of Atlantic History, or of the Americas, to address the richness, complexities, controversies and myths of Iberia’s global empires – launched from these very shores. So Tenerife is a useful reminder that however historically significant or evocative a place may seem to scholars, 15,000,000 people a year fly to the Canary Islands for quite different reasons. After all, who needs history, or a heritage industry, in order to prosper if you have a really hot beach?