New Histories of International Law. The Conquest of the Canary Islands (1402–1496)

Julia Bühner, WWU Münster

Abstract: The doctoral thesis concentrates on international legal aspects in the context of the conquest of the Canary Islands (1402–1496). By including indigenous perspectives and focusing on international legal practices, the interdisciplinary project seeks to add a new chapter to the history of international law.

Resumen: La tesis doctoral analiza los aspectos internacionales y jurídicos de la conquista de las Islas Canarias (1402–1496). A través de la inclusión de las perspectivas indígenas y una investigación de las prácticas internacional-jurídicas, el proyecto interdisciplinario quiere añadir un nuevo capítulo a la historia del derecho internacional. 

For years it has been widely accepted that Francisco de Vitoria’s lectures questioning the legitimacy of the American conquest in the first half of the sixteenth century marked the beginning of the history of international law. On the one hand this led to a neglect of research on ancient as well as medieval developments of international law. On the other hand, the assumption that Europe was the birthplace of international law fostered a narrow Eurocentric narrative. According to the idea that international law was Western European in its origin and subsequently globalised, conquest and colonisation were described as an expansion of European international law.1

In the light of a disciplinary renovation during the last years, the field has tried to overcome this „double exclusionary bias“2 encouraging to write „alternative histories of international law“3 or even unravel histories still untold. In my dissertation project I intend to shed light on one of the latter, part of the history of the medieval Iberian Peninsula, and its impact on the history of international law: the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands (1402–1496).

Taking written sources such as chronicles, letters, papal bulls and royal decrees as well as archaeological sources into account, the project addresses three main questions. First, it shall be shown to what extent the conquerors used their knowledge about medieval international common law to justify their course of action. For instance, the European intruders concluded a treaty with the Majos, the native population of Lanzarote, allowing them to build a castle on the island (see poster, middle section). By pretending to take legal action, wresting the rightful dominion over Lanzarote from the Majos appeared less illegitimate.

Second, the project tries to understand the conquest as an encounter of different legal cultures. Each island of the archipelago can be regarded as a „miniature continent“4 . Due to their evolution in total isolation from one another, the island were inhabited by various different peoples with unique cultural habits including diverse international legal practices. On Lanzarote, which was divided into two territories, treaties gained validity by means of specific rituals: By drinking milk in unison for instance, contracting parties were bound to their word.5

Third, the conquerors of Lanzarote were already accompanied by two Majos, Isabel and Alfonso, who had been captured in a slave raid (see poster, middle section). It was due to their mediation, so the chroniclers, that the Majos surrendered. Furthermore, the nephew of one of the conquerors, Maciot, was married to Teguise, daughter of the indigenous ruler of Lanzarote (see poster, middle section). This indicates that the indigenous inhabitants of the islands were not just victims of war but operated as translators, diplomats and advocates of their own right. Although maybe not the „key player“6 in the development of modern international law, the project finally wants to give these forgotten peoples their rightful place in the history of international law.

Photo: ©Julia Bühner. (Castillo de Santa Bárbara, volcano Guanapay, Lanzarote)

  1. Becker Lorca, Arnulf: Eurocentrism in the History of International Law, in: The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law, ed. by Bardo Fassbender/Anne Peters/Simone Peter, Oxford 2012, p. 1036. []
  2. Rasilla del Moral, Ignacio de la: International Legal Theory. The Shifting Origins of International Law, in: Leiden Journal of International Law 28 (2015), p. 423. []
  3. Kemmerer, Alexandra: Towards a Global History of International Law? Editor’s Note, in: European Journal of International Law 25 (2014), p. 289 []
  4. Abulafia, David: The Discovery of Mankind. Atlantic Encounters in the age of Columbus, New Haven/London 2008, p. 33 []
  5. Tejera Gaspar, Antonio: Majos y europeos. El contacto de culturas en Lanzarote en los siglos XIV y XV (Un precedente americano), Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife 1992, p. 62 []
  6. Kirmse, Stefan B.: Sleepy Side Alleys, Dead Ends, and the Perpetuation of Eurocentrism, in: European Journal of International Law 25 (2014), p. 309 []