Indigenous Conquistadors – Status, Rights, and Remuneration

Julia Bühner, Goethe University Frankfurt/Main

Abstract: The late medieval conquest of the Canary Islands can be understood as an encounter of normative conceptions. Whereas the indigenous conquistadors, their status, rights and especially their remuneration, equaled that of their French, Castilian or Portuguese counterparts, their different conceptions of property and the transfer of property rights sparked conflicts. Focusing on the indigenous ruler and Christian confederate Don Fernando Guanarteme and the merit report of his heiress we will see how indigenous Canarians learnt to understand European legal systems and concepts of normativity to defend their interests.

The conquest of the Canary Islands (1402–1496) raised questions of international legal interest. The conflict between Portugal and Castile as well as complaints of indigenous people and clergymen provoked debates about dominion rights and the status of infidel societies. At the Council of Basel for instance, the Castilian jurist Alonso de Cartagena argued, that the Canary Islands formerly were part of the Visigoth Kingdom. Consequently, the rule over the islands would rightfully belong to the King of Castile as the legitimate heir of this empire.1

Beside these claims of ownership discussed on an international legal level, the conquest likewise raised questions of private property rights and its transfer. Expropriations of the local population by the new colonial rulers went hand in glove with territorial promises for the conquistadors as recompense for their merits. New and old claims to ownership competed with another and gave rise to conflicts that lead to lawsuits and litigation.

In the following we will not focus on the French, Castilian or Portuguese conquistadors, but on indigenous warriors who fought on the conqueror’s side and the compensation of their services. Among those Tenesor Semidan, former “king” of the region of Gáldar on Gran Canary, is the best documented case. As we will see, the Catholic Kings promised him a land parcel for his military service on his island of origin, but the granted mercy was never fulfilled, as indicated by the merit report of his heiress, Doña Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme. Her argumentation reveals an interesting interplay of indigenous and European legal imaginations that underlines the importance of understanding conquests as encounters of different legal and normative conceptions.

Considering the duration of the conquering process, the different campaigns and involved parties, it is more suitable to speak of conquests of the Canary Islands in plural than of one coherent undertaking. Looking for indigenous actors mentioned in the sources, one faces the same complexity. The numerous indigenous mediators, envoys, army commanders and warriors mentioned in the chronicles seem to blur the categories of conquerors and conquered. But their often more fortunate fates were the exception rather than the rule. The great amount of the Canarian indigenous population was killed, enslaved, or carried off by foreign diseases.2

In his dissertation Gabriel Betancor Quintana has calculated that 95 Canarios, indigenous warriors from Gran Canary, received land parcels on the neighboring island Tenerife. After the Canarian leader Tenesor Semidan had bargained with Isabele of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón, he and a hundred and forty indigenous warriors had taken part the break of resistance on his home island and the submission of the Auaritas of La Palma and the Guanches of Tenerife. As conquerors, a status indicated in 45 cases in the documents, they were granted repartimientos as well as their Spanish, Portuguese, or French counterparts. In total, their grants would make nine percent of all land parcels given to new settlers on Tenerife after the submission of the Guanches in 1496.3 Naturally, these numbers must be handled carefully, first and foremost because of the difficulty of discerning indigenous people in the sources. Conversion being regularly obligatory to become a Christian ally, their baptismal names in the sources are Castilian and rarely indicate their status as Canarians. Regulating provisions and the duration of their military service, an agreement between Alonso de Lugo and indigenous warriors for instance mentions Cristóval Delgado or Pedro García that can only be identified as Canarians because of the addition canarios de la Grand Canaria.4 Nonetheless Betancor Quintana’s calculation can give us an impression of the small number of Canarian warriors who became conquerors and were rewarded for their service. Taking demographic estimations into account that assume 3500-4000 indigenous warriors on Gran Canary,5 only 2-3 % of them received land parcels and thereby became members of colonial society.

Tenesor Semidan, or after his baptism Don Fernando Guanarteme, is the exception among these exceptions, being granted with a special privilege. Caught by conquistadors during a nocturnal raid in an early phase of submission of Gran Canary (1478–1483), he was brought to the Iberian Peninsula, was baptized, and became the confederate of the conquistadors. For his support and loyalty, he was promised a repartimiento for him and his descendants on his home island Gran Canary, being described as very fruitful and well situated:

Y el nueuo ahijado se lo prometió y pidióle en retorno le hisiese merced de darle para él y todos sus descendientes a Guayedra, y su altesa se lo concedió, aunque pensó que mayor merced le hasía por que es vna ladera muy agria de montes y rriscos muy pendientes que desienden hasia la mar, donde no se crían sino ganado saluaje de cabras y puercos, que en aquel tienpo auía mucho en aqual lugar…6

What the former king and ruler of half of the island thought about his majesty’s mercy, being granted only a small part of his original territory, is due to our imagination. The privilege was ratified ten years later in 1491. As the Real Cédula makes clear, only Don Fernando Guanarteme and forty people of his family were allowed to live on their home island. Furthermore, the order speaks of an increase of indigenous residents on the island and the fear of political instability. Don Fernando Guanarteme was told to name his family members, all others would be forced under threat of death penalty to leave the island and migrate to other regions of the Catholic Kings’ empire.7

In the same year a royal order prohibited other Canarios, even if they just intended to trade, to set foot on Gran Canary, likewise under death penalty. Interestingly and in contrast to the wording of pacts concluded with indigenous leaders from Gran Canary they are named Canarios in this source, not new Christians or new vessels of the Catholic Kings. The fear of an uprising must have changed the position of the monarchs towards the indigenous peoples of Gran Canary, now explicitly marking them as “the other”.8 But whereas Don Fernando Guanarteme was protected by the Catholic Kings as long as they relied upon his service, the greed of the conquistadors however seems to have touched him and his belongings. Another Real Cédula from 1491 points at a conflict between the Guanarteme and one of the conquistadores’ commanders, Pedro de Vera, concerning money and cattle. Both a different understanding of property and malevolence towards the mercy given to the indigenous leader are possible interpretations.9

Keeping all those things in mind, we move now to the year 1526, when Doña Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme, daughter of Don Fernando, and her husband Miguel de Trejo Carvajal filed a petition, the so-called Información Guanartémica, assembling testimonies that should give prove of Don Fernando’s merits in the monarchs’ service.10 According to the petition, Don Fernando Guanarteme died poorly on Tenerife, making it doubtful that he ever benefited from the monarch’s grace (murió en la de Tenerife pobre y necesitado).11

The arguments of his heiress at the same time evoke his memory, stress Don Fernando’s merits and qualities as conquistador, and highlight his royal position in the former indigenous society. Moreover, Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme recorded, that she was the only, legitime and universal heiress of the former chieftain. Here, as also in other contexts, indigenous actors adopted and used Christian concepts, norms, and institutions to defend and claim their rights. Because handling marriage bonds rather loosely it is very likely, that the indigenous peoples of the archipelago originally were not familiar with the difference Christian cultures made between legitimate children and bastards.

Whereas the function of memoria is only stressed at the beginning of the petition with the common formula ad perpetuam rei memoriam, the report about Don Fernando’s merits and qualities as a conquistador also serves to capture a certain image of the indigenous leader for eternity. The text begins with a description of his coat of arms, decorated with a banner saying lealtad; a key characteristic ascribed to the indigenous king, that he likewise showed towards the Catholic Kings and the commanders of the conquering armies (in contrast to the accusation of infidelity and disloyalty often brought up against pagan enemies, as for instance against the Saxons). According to his heiress he would have voluntarily accepted Christian faith and allied with the Castilian invaders already before the conquest of Gran Canary. But other testimonies and additional evidence makes it doubtful, that Tenesor Semidan submitted voluntarily. Some of the chronicles of the conquest report that he was brought to the monarchs in chains and his wife was presumably held hostage on the Iberian Peninsula as a surety that he acted in the conquistador’s interest.

Furthermore, the petition highlights his commitment to the Catholic King’s conquest by emphasizing his braveness as a warrior and his role as leader of indigenous troops. These troops would have been under his command and financed by him (á su costa y debajo de su poderio), whatever that means against the backdrop of an indigenous culture that had a tribute system but was unfamiliar with money as an instrument of payment. As observed above, Doña Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme here adopts European legal norms, the right of receiving remuneration for a military “investment”, to claim recompense. Moreover, as leading conqueror of a self-financed troop she puts him on the same footing with commanders such as Pedro de Vera or Alonso de Lugo, that had bargained their rewards for their financial and military service in capitulaciones with the Catholic Kings.

Finally, the petition tries to prove Don Fernando’s position as indigenous king by claiming that the other Canarios followed his orders and that he negotiated peace with rebels and other tribal groups, thereby stressing two main features of European potentates: commanding and diplomatic authority. On top of that, Don Fernando Guanarteme is explicitly called “king” in the petition, attributing him the same rank as Ferdinand of Aragón, although his baptized name already combined his noble status in indigenous and colonial society (Guanarteme and Don) and guanarteme as the indigenous word for “chieftain” was well-known to the Castilians. Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme stresses her decent from this royal blood lineage justifying her right for compensation (dar de su sangre real y servicios que hizo á sus Majestades D. Fernando Guanarteme). Here, the self-conception of the indigenous princess as heiress of the king of Gran Canary was probably much stronger than that of any other European noble woman. The reason for this lies in an indigenous customary law. 

The people Europeans encountered on the Canary Islands were very different from their own cultural and religious background. This difference also entailed conceptions of property, death and lineage, family structures, and inheritance rules. Unfortunately, those are difficult to grasp due to the lack of indigenous historical record. Beside a few epigraphic testimonies indigenous Canarians were oral cultures so that knowledge about them must be drawn from one-sided European reports and archeology. But one important aspect ethnographical research could reconstruct is, that some of the Canarian tribal groups, that had migrated to the islands in antiquity and thereafter developed mostly independent from one another, inherited power via the female line. The Canarios on Gran Canary had a matrilineal system of heritage, making noble women the guarantors of lineage and the source of ruling power, transmitted through marriage upon their husbands. It is very likely that the conquistadors did not comprehend this indigenous tradition and therefore underestimated the symbolic meaning of marriage bonds between French, Portuguese, or Spanish and indigenous noble women.12 Therefore, a great self-confidence of the Guanarteme’s daughter can be assumed who understood herself as bearer of the Gran Canarian ruling lineage.

As the Información Guanartémica shows, the descendants of indigenous conquerors demanded recompense for the merits of their ancestors in the same way as the Castilian conquistadors did and thus directly competed with them. In addition to her fathers’ participation in the conquest campaigns, Don Fernando’s central roles, his position in the conquering army, Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme referred to his former position in the indigenous society, his voluntary baptism and acceptance of the new rule, and his loyalty to the Castilian crown. The example chosen here from a non-European context is thus able to shed light on the topic of heirs in the field of tension between old claims, conquest achievements and memoria.

Above that the example shows, that European conceptions of property, death and lineage, family structures, and inheritance rules cannot be considered universal. European encounters with other peoples made those differences explicit. Having a stronger female self-conception due to the matrilineal ruling system on Gran Canary, the heiress of Don Fernando Guanarteme argued by adopting European concepts of legitimate offspring, noble ranks and titles and remuneration.  Furthermore, the indigenous of the Canary Islands had to learn rules of European sociality to obtain their status in colonial society. Their indigenous titles not being enough, they could only improve their status with things that mattered in their new environment, such as money and land-property; surely a strong motivation for Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme to claim her rights.


Photo: Statues of Don Fernando Guanarteme and his daugther Doña Margarita Fernandez de Guanarteme, in: López Alonso, Antonio, PROYECTO TARHA, URL: [https://proyectotarha.org/2017/07/02/esenciales-xi-la-informacion-guanartemica/] (28.03.2024).

  1. See Julia Bühner, The Conquest of the Canary Islands (1402–1496). An Alternative History of International Law, in: Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory Research Paper Series 1 (2024), pp. 1-32 (http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4769272). The author’s dissertation, “Neue Welten. Eine andere Völkerrechtsgeschichte der Eroberung der Kanarischen Inseln (1402–1496)”, dealing in detail with this matter will be published in fall 2024 in the series “Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte” of the Max-Planck-Institute in Frankfurt/Main. []
  2. See Julia Bühner, Furchtlos vor der Macht des Schicksals. Die Wiederentdeckung der ‚Insulae Fortunatae‘ im Spätmittelalter, in: Eroberte im Mittelalter. Umbruchssituationen erleben, bewältigen, gestalten, ed. by Andreas Bihrer and Rike Szill (Europa im Mittelalter 39), Berlin / Boston 2023, pp. 267-294. []
  3. See Gabriel Betancor Quintana, Los Canarios en la formación de la moderna sociedad tinerfeña: integración y aculturación de los indígenas de Gran Canaria (1496–1525), Las Palmas de Gran Canaria 2000, p. 23. []
  4. Córdoba, 1492. Concierto entre el capitán Alonso de Lugo y diversos indígenas de La Gomera y Gran Canaria para tomar parte en las conquistas de La Palma y Tenerife, in: Antonio Rumeu de Armas, La Política indigenista de Isabel La Católica (Documentos 2), Valladolid 1969, appendix no. 64. []
  5. See García de Gabiola, Javier: La conquista de las Canarias: un ensayo bélico para América (1402–1501), in: Medievalia 51 (2019), pp. 161-162. []
  6. Libro de la conquista de la ysla de Gran Canaria y de las demas yslas (Ovetense), in: Canarias: Crónicas de su Conquista (Ínsulas de la Fortuna 2), ed. by Francisco Morales Padrón, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria 32008. p. 156. []
  7. Córdoba, 1491. Los Reyes Católicos ratifican el privilegio de residencia concedido a don Fernando Guanarteme y sus más intimos allegados, aunque exigiéndole que designe los cuarenta familiares que deberían disfrutar de la Gracia, in: Antonio Rumeu de Armas, La Política indigenista de Isabel La Católica (Documentos 2), Valladolid 1969, appendix no. 55. []
  8. See Antonio M. López Alonso, Que los concejos no consientan que ningún Canario embarque ni pase a la isla de Gran Canaria, in: Proyecto Tarha Mayo 2023. []
  9. Córdoba, 1491. Provisión del Consejo Real concerniente a la reclamación formulada por don Fernando Guanarteme contra el gobernador Pedro de Vera por despojo de ganado. El ex rey de Gáldar es llamado a comparecer en defensa de su derecho, in: Antonio Rumeu de Armas, La Política indigenista de Isabel La Católica (Documentos 2), Valladolid 1969, appendix no. 56. []
  10. See also Antonio López Alonso, The Essentials (XI): The Guanarteme Report, in: Proyecto Tarha 2017-07-02 (https://proyectotarha.org/en_GB/2017/07/02/esenciales-xi-la-informacion-guanartemica/). []
  11. See also for quotes and paraphrases in the following: Información de méritos de don Fernando Guanarteme, in: Gregorio Chil y Naranjo: Estudios históricos, climatológicos y patológicos de las islas Canarias, Tomo 3, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria 1891, pp. 203-234. []
  12. See, Julia Bühner, Menceyes und Guanartemes: Zur Rolle indigener Eliten bei der Eroberung des Kanarischen Archipels (1402–1496), in: Changes of Monarchical Rule in the Late Middle Ages / Monarchische Herrschaftswechsel des Spätmittelalters. Negotiations – Actors – Ambivalences, ed. by Sven Jaros, Eric Böhme, Marie Ulrike Jaros, Stefan Magnussen and Wolfgang Huschner (Europa im Mittelalter 44), Berlin / Boston 2024, pp. 375-399. []
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