Islands, as I’ve said before, are full of stories; some are simply myths, tales passed down from before written history, so that any truth has been lost in the telling. In some the kernel of truth still beats at the legend’s core, and this is one of those. It happened on a Canary Island called Benahoare, the most westerly and the most isolated of the islands; that which we know today as La Palma.
Although much of the history of the island was eradicated by the Spanish, we know that when an elder knew in his heart that his time had come, he had only to utter the word “vacaguare,” (I want to die), and he was aided by family to do so with dignity. He was taken to a cave, covered with goatskins, and surrounded by chosen possessions and a bowl of milk, was left to make his peace with his gods.
At the beginning of the 15th century the people of this island, trapped in a kind of Neolithic time warp, lived peaceably within the twelve kingdoms into which the island was divided. As in all good stories, there was a beautiful princess. Her name was Acerina. Some modern storytellers** speak of her black eyes in which men drowned, as if in a bottomless abyss. Others speak of her red lips, which burned like fire.
As you may guess, Acerina did not lack suitors. The ruler of Aceró the kingdom at the very heart of the island, and the Lord of Aridane, Mayantigo, were rivals for her hand, but Acerina had no doubts. Her heart belonged to Tanausú the young and handsome king of Aceró, whose lands circled the enigmatic mountainsides of what we now know as the Caldera de Taburiente, the jewel at the center of “La Isla Bonita.”
Some claim that their love was consummated at the foot of the great volcanic tower Idafe, a rocky steeple, which the Guanche considered sacred. It is also claimed that the very next day brought news of an invasion so fearsome that all the island trembled.
This was the Spanish Conquest.
In late 1492, before news of Columbus’s world-shaking discovery had had time to register in European minds, Alonso Fernández de Lugo landed on the beach at Tazacorte, on La Palma’s west coast, to seize the island in the name of the crown of Castille. As in so many instances on the islands, and in the Americas, the Conquistadors came armed with crosses and bibles as well as swords and cannon, and many of the gentle people of Benahoare were seduced by their lies and sugarcoated promises, or simply awed by the display of arms.
Aceró (which we know today, roughly, as Taburiente) and its king were in the minority in foreseeing the tragedy that would ensue. Amongst the citizens of Tanausú’s realm, resistance was strong, fuelled by passion for a landscape not only breathtaking in its beauty, but which was at the core of their beliefs and way of life. Its severe and steep topography, often hidden by swirling mists, was the match for the superior weaponry of the Spanish. They were unable to penetrate the caldera. Nevertheless, the Conquistadors had more formidable firepower, and the Guanche did not feel secure in their mountain hideaway. Tanausú sent the women and children to shelter in a cave in the high mountains, a decision that was to haunt him for what remained of his life.
That winter was devastating, and it is said that they all perished in the snow and freezing temperatures that were visited upon the island. Tanausú was heartbroken. His guilt was overwhelming. Acerina could not console him. When an emissary from Alonso de Lugo arrived, a cousin of Tanausú, who had converted to Christianity to ingratiate himself with the conquerors, and who now went by the name of Juan de la Palma, promising a truce and safe passage to discuss a peaceful solution, Tanausú agreed to attend.
Juan de la Palma is to the island of La Palma what Benedict Arnold was to the US, or Judas Iscariot to Christianity – it was a trap. The noble king of Aceró was captured, not in battle, but by perfidy, and was taken away in chains, with the intention of presenting him, like a performing animal, at Court.
However, Isabel and Ferdinand were never to see this “noble savage.” Spain had taken his body, but could not trap his spirit. With a heart-rending cry of “Vacaguare,” Tanausú announced his intention to join his people already fallen. He refused all food, and died at sea before the ship could reach the mainland. His body was tossed overboard, just where is not known.
It is said that Acerina watching from her beloved mountainsides as the ship’s sails swelled with the winds which bless these islands, felt her husband’s pain, and her heart broke into a million pieces. In her anguish she turned to Tanausú’s former rival, Mayantigo, who still carried a flame for her, and, herself, uttered a grief-stricken “Vacaguare.” He, in his love of her, responded to her wish, accompanying her to a cave, and waiting until her death so that she didn’t die alone.
More legends, more about the Guanche, more about Benahoare, more about the stunning landscapes for which Tanausú fought another time. For today this is enough.
** Wikipedia La Princesa Acerina
Juan Reyes Chapter “Tanausú” in “Leylendas Canarias” Presumably Volume 1 because my others are numbered volume 11 etc. I’m sorry I can’t link to him, but this is such a common name that the listings in Google are too numerous to identify him! Both these references in Spanish.