The Other Caribbean Islands

Over a year ago, the ACMRS Newsletter introduced a series of articles, written by outstanding graduate students, that highlighted interesting and often less-explored aspects of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. PhD candidates from Art History and the School of International Letters & Cultures (SILC) have been quite helpful in supplying our readers with fascinating snapshots of historical information. We are happy to renew the series now, with an issue of major importance: the cross relations between the Canary Islands and the Caribbean, which would have a profound impact in the development of slavery, colonization, and the blending of cultures in Old and New Hemispheres. We present Xiomara Nunez’ article here, which will be of particular interest to anyone researching multiculturalism, Spanish and Latin American culture, and transculturation and Transatlantic interchange during the Early Modern period.

Any MA or PhD student interested in submitting an article to this series is encouraged to contact Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, Assistant Director of ACMRS. Areas of interest include, but are not limited to: Medieval Europe, the Medieval Americas, Early Modern Mediterranean, Africa and the Colonial Slave Trade, The Conquest of the New World and Indigenous Civilizations, Scandinavian Area Studies, Celtic Area Studies, Religious Minorities in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Asian-European Contacts and Colonization, from the Silk Road onwards. Other interesting suggestions welcome!

Las otras islas del Caribe: una revisión del concepto de meta-archipiélago de Antonio Benítez Rojo a través del papel de Islas Canarias en la identidad antillana

By Xiomara Nunez Rodriguez

English translation below

Según Benítez Rojo, el “modo de ser” caribeño se formaría a raíz de la repetición constante del sistema de la Plantacion “con mayúsculas”; un sistema socioeconómico de relaciones de poder que se fundaría en la gran maquinaria de las flotas del Imperio Español en las Américas y de la economía sustentada en las plantaciones de azúcar de caña desde el Renacimiento y a lo largo de toda su Historia. El ensayista cubano reconoce a las Islas Canarias como constitutiva de los llamados Pueblos del Mar y como antesala de lo que sería la Plantación del Caribe, pues fue en el archipiélago canario donde primeramente se estableció y desarrolló la plantación azucarera siguiendo el mismo proceso que en las islas caribeñas: la población nativa, la de los guanches, fue sometida a arduos trabajos en la producción del azúcar, y, tras su extenuación, se comenzaron a introducir cargamentos de esclavos del África occidental. De igual manera que en el caso de los taínos en el Caribe, el indígena de las Canarias se dio por extinto y su raza pasó a formar parte de un discurso identitario que reconstruiría de manera ideal las características y la significación de esta población originaria. El movimiento identitario e independentista canario surgiría en La Habana, principalmente por dos razones: en primer lugar, como una manera de defenserse ante el menosprecio del pueblo cubano hacia los propios canarios (denominados despectivamente “isleños”); en segundo lugar, como imitación del discurso martiano del mestizaje a través de la recuperación de un “buen salvaje” idealizado. Según Benítez Rojo, el “ser caribeño” se debe principalmente a un “ser supersincrético”, un choque total de culturas que surge con la colonización europea y con el sistema de la Plantación. Tanto la colonización europea como el establecimiento del sistema de la Plantación se dieron a través de la puerta directa de Canarias. En segundo lugar, la identidad cubana, siguiendo al ensayista, ha de entenderse especialmente a través del sustrato afrocubano y ejemplos como el de la santería. Existen evidencias de que en el origen de las prácticas de la santería de los esclavos africanos en Cuba tuvo gran importancia la influencia de las prácticas de “brujería” de las campesinas canarias que vivían en contacto con la comunidad esclava en Cuba.

Por otro lado, las primeras manifestaciones identitarias se dan en la literatura cubana a través de la diferenciación entre la Cuba Grande y la Cuba Pequeña: la Cuba Grande, la de la Plantación instaurada a través de Canarias; la Cuba Pequeña, la de los pequeños campesinos, llamados guajiros, que se componían en su mayor parte por canarios o descendientes de canarios . El caso será el mismo para los jíbaros de Puerto Rico. El poema épico Espejo de paciencia, considerado texto fundacional de la literatura cubana, fue escrito en 1608 por Silvestre de Balboa, oriundo de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; y la propia madre de José Martí, Leonor Pérez Cabrera, natural de Tenerife, se convirtió en un símbolo identitario de Canarias. También buena parte del Ejército Libertador de Cuba estuvo formado por campesinos canarios que habitaban en las zonas rurales de la isla. Incluso la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patrona de Cuba, tiene su origen muy probablemente en la Virgen de la Candelaria, patrona de Canarias.

Además, el discurso legitimador del guanche canario se debió, aún siendo Canarias ya una comunidad autónoma española, a una manipulación de índole colonialista que seguía ligando a Canarias con el Caribe, a diferencia de otras comunidades españolas. Finalmente, las continuas migraciones de Canarias a Cuba desde el siglo XVI hasta la posguerra española en el siglo XX, y el regreso constante de los emigrados al archipiélago canario, desarrollaron una serie de características culturales que han ligado el “modo de ser” canario con el caribeño: en la lengua, la religión, las relaciones familiares, la música y la gastronomía, entre otros aspectos.

De cierta manera, los canarios son canarios por ser algo caribeños, y los caribeños son caribeños por ser algo canarios.


The Other Caribbean islands: Revising Antonio Benitez Rojo’s Concept of the Meta-Archipelago and the Role of the Canary Islands in Antillean Identity

By Xiomara Nunez Rodriguez

English translation by Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, ACMRS

According to Benitez Rojo, the Caribbean “way of being” would be constituted according to the constant repetition of the official Plantation system. This is a system of socio-economic power relations rooted in the colonial machinery of the Spanish-American Empire, and in the concomitant sugar-cane economy which accompanied it, from the Early Modern period till the present day.

The famed Cuban essayist recognizes the Canary Islanders as integral components of his “Sea Peoples”, comprising the entryway into the meta-plantation of the Caribbean. It was in the Canary Islands that the self-same plantation system later implanted in the Caribbean, was first developed, using identical processes: the Native Guanche population was subjected to arduous manual labor in order to facilitate sugar production. Following the Guanche decline, ever-increasing shipments of Black slaves from West Africa began to replace the original inhabitants and supplement the work force. Just as in the case of the Taino Indians of the pre-Colombian Caribbean, the indigenous peoples of the Canary Islands became culturally extinct, and their cultural memory became integrated into a later identity-based discourse, one which would reconstruct and idealize the meanings and characteristics of the original civilization.

The movement for Canary identity and independence saw its genesis in Havana, primarily for two reasons: firstly, as a way to defend Canary descendants from the scorn of many other Cubans, who scathingly referred to the Canary folk as “the islanders” and secondly, as an imitation of the patriot Jose Marti’s discourse praising the rediscovery of the so-called “noble savage.”

For Benitez Rojo, the Caribbean essence owes its being to the “hyper-syncretic” tendencies of the area, to the overwhelming cultural conflicts that arose with European colonization and its ever-present plantation system. Both colonization and plantation went hand in hand through the gateway of the Canary Islands, directly into the Caribbean. Additionally for Benitez, Cuban identity should be understood via its Afro-Cuban substrata, which include examples of the Afro-Catholic syncretic faith known as Santeria. Much evidence points to the prominence of Santeria practices among the African slave population of colonial Cuba; as well as to the impact that the so-called “witchcraft” practices of the Canary peasant population had on the Cuban slave community, with whom it maintained ongoing and intense contact.

Significantly, some of the first identity-manifestations in Cuban literature are conveyed by differentiating Greater Cuba from Lesser Cuba. Greater Cuba arose from the establishment of the Plantation system, by way of the Canary Islands; Lesser Cuba, meanwhile, belonged to the small-scale peasants’ settlements, whose denizens were nicknamed guajiros-countryfolk. This secondary population overwhelmingly included Canary islanders and/or their offspring. The same analogy can be made for the jibaros-country “bumpkin” groups in Puerto Rico. The epic poem Mirror of Patience, by Silvestre de Balboa (1608) and a foundational text in Cuban literary studies, was written by a native of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands; and Jose Marti’s mother, Leonor Perez Cabrera, was actually a Tenerife native. Like her famous son, she also became a potent symbol of identity for Canary islanders (and Cubans). Accordingly, a large part of the Cuban Army of Independence was composed of Canary Island peasants and agriculturalists. Even the patron saint of the Island, the Copper Virgin of Charity, has her probable origin in the patron queen of the Canary Islands, the Candlemass Virgin.

And apart from this, the “legitimizing” Guanche rhetoric can also be traced-while the Canaries remain an autonomous community in multiethnic Spain-to a breed of colonialist manipulation that links only the Canaries to the Caribbean, to the exclusion of Spain’s other autonomous communities. Finally, the steady stream of Canary Island migration to Cuba, beginning in the 16th century and reaching its peak following the Spanish Civil War’s denouement in 1939, as well as the return of many of these emigrants to the Canary Archipelago, have forged a set of cultural characteristics linking the Canary lifestyle with that of the Caribbean. This can be seen in aspects of spoken and written language, religion, family ties, music and gastronomy, to name a few.

In conclusion, one can say that Canary Islanders are Canary Islanders by virtue of being somewhat “Caribbean” and that Caribbean peoples are Caribbean by virtue of being somewhat linked to Canary Islanders.


Xiomara Núñez Rodríguez was born in Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Islas Canarias, España), and completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish: Language and Literature in Madrid’s Complutense University, studying her final year abroad in University College of London thanks to an Erasmus scholarship. Subsequently, Xiomara completed her MA en Hispano-American Literature in the Complutense.

She has presented in the 5th Annual Symposium of Graduate and Undergraduate Students in Spanish in Saint Louis University’s Overseas Center in Madrid, with her work “A Struggle of Voices: the Autobiografía of Juan Francisco Manzano as portrayed in the mission of Richard Robert Madden”, and in the 2nd Gathering on Literary Research of the Young Hispanists’ Association of the Autonomous University of Madrid, with her paper titled “An Approximation of the Image of the Jew in the Literary Production of Borges, Through Borges’ Short Story El indigno”. Xiomara is currently studying for her PhD in Spanish, emphasizing Hispano-American literature, in the School of International Letters and Cultures of Arizona State University. She specializes in Caribbean literatura, focusing particularly on Cuban literatura, relations between race and identity, political applications of literary discourses, and the interconnectedness of the Caribbean and the Canary Islands.