Before the Spanish conquered the island in 1496 and set about claiming their spoils, the Guanche had lived happily for centuries, living off the land, the sea and their livestock. As soon as money started to play an important role in the island, Tenerife’s economy went from rags to riches and back to rags again. It’s a pattern that has persisted to the 21st century.
The Tinerfeños’ first step into economic activity came with the conquest when the conquistadores, recognising the fertility of the northern lands, set about planting sugar cane. The crop did exceptionally well in Tenerife and the island became very wealthy in a short space of time, creating a rich elite whose houses and haciendas you can still see today in the old quarters of La Laguna and La Orotava, along the north west coast from Puerto de la Cruz to Garachico and all the way to Buenavista.
But by the end of the 16th century, cheaper sugar production in the Antilles and Brazil had all but put an end to Tenerife’s sweet fortune and a new earner had to be found. Other than the architectural outputs of the wealth it created, few vestiges of the sugar trade remain today, save for a sugar mill in Los Silos which is now used as a banana storage depot and the rum factory in Tejina where one of the offshoots of the industry still hangs on in there.
Even as the last of the sugar cane was being cut down, a new market was opening up in the American colonies where the folks had developed a taste for fine wine. The sweet, white wine produced from the Malvasía grape became the darling of the Colonies and with its rise in popularity, Tenerife’s next monoculture was born. Where once the elegant stems of cane bowed in the breeze, now orderly rows of vines thrived on the slopes of Tacaronte, La Orotava, Icod de los Vinos, Garachico and as far as Candelaria on the east coast.
But as any celebrity will tell you, fame is no guarantee of longevity and by the end of the 18th century wars, which crippled supply lines, coupled with the rising popularity of the more affordable newcomer, Madeira wine, soon put the cork in the island’s viticulture trade.
Falling into a slump, there was a brief reprieve in the island’s fortunes, if not its looks, by the introduction of cochineal, a small black grub which formed and thrived on prickly pear cactus. Displacing the vines and much of the island’s natural pine forest, the black scarred cactus was considered a blight on the landscape and when the introduction of artificial dyes at the end of the 19th century made its production extinct, there can’t have been many who regretted its demise.
Next came bananas and at the beginning of the 20th century the landscape changed once again to accommodate the next saviour of the economy until tourism began in earnest towards the end of the century. Today much of the island is still covered in banana plantations and the crop is still the mainstay of the island’s agricultural outputs. But with reducing EU subsidies, it’s only a matter of time before the ubiquitous banana is bent out of shape, leaving just the sun worshippers to carry the economic load.
Category : about tenerife
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