From the fall of the Roman Empire until the Spanish conquest of the Canaries in the 15th century, little was known about the islands and their people. There were, however, a few early expeditions, some by Arab explorers, others by Europeans. In fact, an Arab enclave had been established on Gran Canaria as early as 1,000 AD. Often the purpose of these voyages was to explore the "Seven Seas" but many expeditions ended up in the Canaries by accident, having lost their way off the coast of western Africa.

Juan Bethencourt

One of these early expeditions may well have given rise to the name of Lanzarote. A Genoese sailor called Lancelotto landed on the island in 1312 and many historians believe the islands name originated from this source. Others say the name derived from the conquering Norman knight, Juan Bethencourt who triumphantly broke his lance into pieces on arriving on Lanzarote and declared "Lanza rota" (broken lance). But the story is highly unlikely, since Bethencourt would have spoken old Norman French, and not modern Castilian Spanish.

Perhaps the most likely origin comes from a French nobleman, by the name of Lancelot who came to Lanzarote in one of Bethencourts expeditions. An important pre--conquest expedition was ordered by King Alfonso IV of Portugal in 1341. His sailors led by the Italian mariner Angiolino del Tegghia de Corbizz, sailed to the Canaries and counted up to 13 islands in the archipelago -- the seven major islands and six minor islands of the Canaries Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Palma, Gomera, Hierro, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, representing the former, and Lobos, Roque del Este, Roque del Oeste, La Graciosa, Montana Clara and Alegranza, the latter.

The explorers, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish were greeted graciously by the Guanche inhabitants. And it was this expedition which was to open vast new horizons for further European voyages. We owe the first reasonably accurate account of the location -- and, indeed, the verifiable existence -- of the Canary Islands to this voyage. The demystification of the Fortunate Islands had begun. Also, sadly, had the plundering. The years leading up to the Conquest were marked by a series of piratical raids on the islands. In search of riches and glory, buccaneers from Spain and Portugal sailed to the Canaries, conducting lightning attacks on the islands. The Cueva de los Verdes, a huge undergound volcanic cave in the north of Lanzarote came in very useful as a hiding place for the islanders during these raids.

During the 1390s a group of ship owners from Andalusia in the south of Spain, and Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa in the north, organised a particularly destructive expedition when Lanzarote was plundered. The pirates avoided Tenerife, however, since they had heard hair--raising tales of the savagery of the inhabitants of the larger island. In 1393, the Spanish nobleman Almonaster landed on Lanzarote. He returned to the Spanish court of Henry III of Castile with a number of Guanche natives and agricultural products taken from the island.

Henry III of Castille

One courtier, eager for fame and fortune was particularly impressed by Almonasters expedition. And it didnt take long for the ambitious Norman nobleman, Juan Bethencourt, to resolve to conquer the Canary Islands. Bethencourt immediately started planning the conquest. He persuaded two influential Franciscan monks, Pedro Bontier and Juan Le Verrier to be his chaplains and also to act as the expeditions chroniclers. He would also take along two baptised Canarian natives, Alfonso and Isabel, who would come in useful as his interpreters.

Bethencourts ship with some 80 men set sail from La Rochelle on the west coast of France on May 1, 1402 heading south. After calling at Vivero and La Coruna, the expedition reached Cadiz in the south west corner of Spain and docked there for some weeks, during which time 26 men deserted.Undeterred by the desertions and assisted by his lieutenant, the knight Gadifer de la Salle, Bethencourt set sail for the Fortunate Islands. Within eight days of leaving Cadiz, the desert islands of Alegranza, Montana Clara and La Graciosa to the north of Lanzarote came into his view.And as the ship approached, an even bigger coastline appeared on the horizon It was Lanzarote.Bethencourt swiftly began planning a landing on the north of the island, but his first attempt ended in failure due to stormy weather and the rocky coastline. He decided to use the tiny uninhabited island of Alegranza as a base from which to launch his attack on the bigger neighbour. Bethencourt held a "council of war" with his 53 men and resolved to sail to Lanzarote as soon as possible.But the following day his council of war was to prove superfluous. On landing, Bethencourt and his men were welcomed by the islanders, offered gifts and treated not at all like conquering enemies, but good friends. In the previous years Lanzarote had suffered scores of piratical raids and the inhabitants saw in Bethencourt a great chance of protection. One of the islanders who was quite clearly the local king -- he was wearing a primitive crown made of goat-skin and shells -- pleaded with Bethencourt to protect them from the plunderers. In return, the king promised friendship and his submission to Bethencourt and the King of Spain "as friend, not as subject". During this meeting, the expeditions chroniclers were impressed by the islanders ability to make themselves understood even though they spoke such an entirely different language.

The Norman was delighted with the peaceful reception and the avoidance of bloodshed. And one of his first "security jobs" for the island was the building of the fortress of Rubicon in the south of Lanzarote, between Playa Blanca and Papagayo. Bethencourt appointed Berthin de Berneval as its commander.Everything was going well until Bethencourt decided to set sail for the nearby island of Fuerteventura. His reconnaissance trip proved a disaster. There were food shortages and rumours of mutiny. Bethencourt returned to Lanzarote only to discover that many of his men had already mutinied there. The only thing to be done was to return to Spain and replenish stocks and men as soon as possible. He appointed his second-in-command, Gadifer de la Salle, governor of Lanzarote, in his absence. On his return to Spain, Bethencourt received a heros welcome. King Henry bestowed the government of the islands to Bethencourt, gave him the right to his own coinage, one fifth of the exports and furnished the Norman with 20,000 maravedis to pay for a second expedition. A heavily--armed and well--manned ship was immediately dispatched to Lanzarote to help Gadifer. While Bethencourt was in Spain a power struggle had broken out on the island between his officers, Berthin and Gadifer. Guanche leaders were drawn into the conflict and scores of Spaniards and islanders died in what was to become a bloodbath of the first few months of Bethencourts absence. Treason and treachery were rife among both the conquistadores and the Canarians.It was only with the return of Bethencourt that peace was restored to the troubled island. In order to quell further uprising, Bethencourt captured the local king of Lanzarote, Guardarfia, and ten of his followers. And on February 27, 1404, according to Bethencourts chroniclers, the people of Lanzarote surrendered.The Franciscan Le Verrier baptised Guadarfia as Luis, and soon after, all the islanders followed suit and were initiated into the Catholic faith. The island of Lanzarote, the first of the Canary Islands, had now come under the direct control of Spain with Bethencourt as governor. By May 1405 the natives of Lanzarote were greeting Bethencourt as their "king". Returning once again from Spain, the Norman lord was welcomed to a "fanfare of trumpets, bugles and other musical instruments". His next move was to be the conquest of Fuerteventura which Bethencourt had accomplished by January 18, 1408 after some fierce resistance by the war-like natives there. But it was to take almost a century before resistance to the Spanish conquest was quelled on the rest of the islands.