Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Bishop's Sea: Fine Corinthian Leather


There's something a little unfair about remembering a great actor and a great guy like Ricardo Montalban for a tagline from a commercial, but, come on, "Fine Corinthian leather." It's hilarious, and it reminds us of a distant day when Mediterranean leather products had a cachet of quality that industrial leather from more northerly climates just could not match. 

The product that comes immediately to mind when I think about this is chamois leather, which turns out to be a southwestern French product, but close on its heels in my free-associating mind is "Moroccan kid leather," an advertising tag rather than a specific industrial product. This turns out to be a specific product of exactly a national industry, "Morocco leather."  Per Wikipedia, it was a goatskin product, usually dyed, especially associated with the port city of Safi, imported into Europe since long before the late Sixteenth Century, when it became the bindery leather of choice for expensive book editions. Not surprisingly given that it is sourced to an entrepot city, the Wikipedia article goes on to indicate that much Moroccan leather was not from Morocco at all, and singles out northern Nigeria as a source.

Which, sure, why not. But today I want to talk about the Canary Islands.

The importance of the Canary Islands to the plantation of the Atlantic seems clear enough at first glance. Columbus set out from the Canaries, and advanced theoretical thinking about his agenda is that if he wasn't looking for more Canary-like islands to exploit if he didn't bump into Asia, first, the rest of the Atlantic world was geared up to do it for him after practicing on the rest of Macaronesia. At a slightly more theoretical mode of analysis, we have Peter Russell, who deduces an "obsession" with the Canary Islands in Prince Henry the Navigator, and explains a lacuna of discussion of Dom Henrique's adventure there on the "humiliation of being driven off by pagan islanders armed only with Stone Age weapons," as opposed to, say, a desire on the part of the historian to skip lightly over the years in which the junior infante worked within the discredited regime of the Regent Peter, and perhaps in particular the "debated" events of the last day of the Regent's life, when he might or might not have been assassinated by members of his own retinue seeking an advantageous settlement with the new monarch. Setting aside cynical explanations in favour of psychological, Russell goes on to position the Guinea trade as a consolation prize for Henry's real ambition, the Fortunate Islands. See? This is what happens when you write a scholarly biography. You either end up worshipping your subject or hating him, and the first kind of study is terrible or worse.

Yes, Prince Henry's invasion of the Canaries really was driven off  by the islanders. Whether they were really pagan Stone Age natives with Stone Age weapons is firstly debatable, but secondly not as much to the discredit to the Prince as the line implies, since it happened all the time. Indeed, we haven't much of a blow by blow of the Portuguese expeditions of 1424 and 1445, but that doesn't stop us from reproducing the story of their defeat from the Portuguese expedition of  1341, which we have, apparently, from the letters of Boccaccio, via Richard Henry Major's edition of a translation of Bethencourt's Le Canarian. Ships full of men and horses, armed with "siege engines" (probably crossbows), trade for goat skins, seal pelts and oil (Milord of Bethancourt supposes that the seal hunt on the island of Lobos between Fuerteventura and Lanzarote might be worth six hundred gold doubloons a year), dried fish and fish oil, and dyestuffs, then set out westward toward the wetter islands of the archipelago, where they beach, unload the troops, and chase Guanches through the forest until they run into a strongpoint and are repelled (or worse) by slingers. Guanches who try to skirmish with the slavers usually come off poorly given the invaders' crossbows, weapons as terrifying here as they would be in Mesoamerica two centuries later; but guerilla warfare quickly drives in foragers, and the hungry invaders soon depart for the Atlantic coast of Iberia and the slave marts. It is not exactly obvious how this basic pattern of onset and retreat could have been overcome short of putting the invaders under direct supply from Andalusia. The only obvious solution was to recruit local allies, and while it seems as the islanders of La Gomera were only too willing to be those allies from an early date, the dominos-toppling speed with with the conquistadores achieved their settlements in the 1480s and 1490s suggests that a certain tipping point had to be reached before mere enthusiasm could lead to concrete results. 

You will notice that I have already dropped my little documentations of the importance of sealing in these early voyages. In fact, the breach between Bethencourt's partner, Gadifer de la Salle, and that most unworthy and traitorous mutineer and all around bad person, Berthin de Berneval, took place while Gadifer was sealing on Lobos. The salient details are on opposite ends of the book because Bethencourt, or, rather, his ghost writer, Jean la Verrier either badly needs an editor, or has chosen to write very indirectly and episodically to avoid explaining something. My suspicion is that that "something" is that the Bethencourt expedition's interactions with a King of Lanzarote are complicated by the fact that that monarchy is the same as that of Lancelotto Malocello, meaning that it has a plausible claim to be a papal fief with its own bishop, although this is a bit tricky due to the bishop backing the wrong Pope during the last schism. 

So, yes, sealing and train oil, as I suspected, but not really the point as it develops. The common dismissal of the natives of the Canaries as Stone Age objects to the rest of the world's subjectivity is perhaps sustainable in the face of evidence that expeditions of as early as the mid-1300s could buy train oil  and seal pelts on the easternmost islands. This could easily be explained by a plantation fishery based in European fishing regions as far away as Bethencourt's Normandy. Where things get tricky is the goat skins, which do not fit the narrative, for it is clearly explained that these are well-cured, well-dressed hides, already dyed. This is not something we expect to find in "Stone Age" natives.

This is not a technological judgement. The chemistry of leather tanning and dying is technical to describe and dying can be carried out by highly technological processes, but it can also be done with Stone Age methods. That said, the inference is that the dying used orchil dye extracted from the native lichen, Roccella. Orchil is widely extracted for dyemaking by "ethnic" people around the world, hence "ethnolichenology." Canarian dyemaking is rather like curing beaver pelts in North America; not precociously advanced, but rather an indication of an unsuspected industry. I suppose that the ubiquitous dyed leathers described in the conquest/exploration narratives may have been produced solely to meet the needs of the indigenous Canarian rag trade of each of the individual islands, but that doesn't really match up with the facts of regular trading voyages in search of dyestuffs and goatskin. The obvious inference is that the Canaries sold more of their product to traders from Safi than to occasional adventurers from Europe, and Bethencourt/La Verrier make a throwaway reference to "Christian" traders on the islands. Inasmuch as we also hear repeatedly of Canarians living in villages, with stone-built houses (although some of these might actually be fortified granaries), walled gardens, and agriculture. We might guess that the would-be conquerors are overstating the backwardness of the Canarians they intended to conquer. 

Given that most of the literature we have is directed at European venture capitalists, it is even possible that the Canarians are not, in fact, limited to throwing rocks and "lances untipped with iron." Bethencourt emphasises at several points that the Canarians have no answer to European bows and arrows not because of their technological backwardness, although that is a given, but because they cannot wear much armour due to the climate and the quality of the roads on the islands. The lack of iron seems less technological and more geological, the islands being of recent volcanic origin, with good drainage that would prevent the formation of significant bog iron deposits. 

The native Canarians, we now know, are the majority ancestors of the modern Canarians, we can set aside the idea that they were either the descendants of Vikings/ancient Atlanteans, or in any case obligingly became extinct upon the arrival of the Spanish, we are left to conclude that the Canarians became part of the Spanish empire because circumstances at the time of their mass surrenders in the 1480s and 1490s had made this an attractive option. A Safi-based rags trade was all very well, but there was more  money to be made in the direct export of orchil and the growing of provisions for the transatlantic trade. Canary agriculture seems to have been prehistorically focussed on meat, dairy and green vegetables, with grain in a distinctly secondary or tertiary dietary role. Early European encounters with Canarian cuisine were beyond astonishment at the islands' toasted corn flour staple, gofio, and my own sense is that a true, grain-staple diet is going to invent baking and bread as the most efficient way of storing and consuming grain. 

That said, grain production would logically decline rapidly in the western Canaries after the establishment of inter-island commerce, driven out by Fuerteventuran and Lanzarotan product, as is the case today. The thing is that it was replaced by sugarcane production, and sugarcane farming as significant agronomic implications due to its efficiency as livestock fodder. Large sugar plantations in the lower elevations would rapidly unbalance transhumant agriculture and lead to the uplands reverting to forests and forestry. The efficient conversion of an excess of fodder into saleable provisions implies a shift from goats to cattle. Sure enough, the colonial era saw the breeding of a unique Canarian cattle breed, although goats remain the major herded livestock, although I am pleased to see this article confirming my intuition that livestock management in the Canaries now depends heavily on imported fodder do to limited local pasture.   

So, new economy, new society. From now on, I guess we need to get our fine Corinthian leather from northern Nigeria. 


  1. Interesting post - a lot to think about there...

    Gofio looks much more normal from a North African perspective. In a nice little paper on Berber cuisine, Brugnatelli emphasises the importance of toasted grains across the region: . Incidentally, the other name WP gives for gofio - ahoren - is simply the Berber word for "flour".

  2. There's clearly something going on with the way grain is eaten throughout northwestern Africa (and this extends the notion of the Canaries as part of the Berber ecumene) in the sense that toasted grain just makes sense given climate, or whatever. It's just that no-one from the Sorbonne has come down to ask an auntie why they do it.

  3. OFF TOPIC: Faroese pre-Viking sheep DNA. YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT: