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The ancient Greeks were not the only nation which imagined there was a region in the Atlantic Ocean, an island beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the sea highway, now called the Straits of Gibraltar. The traditions of other people tell of a land where only happy mortals dwell. Greek poetry assigned this region to the ocean, which was supposed to surround the world as it was known at that time. The Romans also believed in this distant western land, and in the Christian Middle Ages these same traditions were carefully preserved. It was told that many an adventurer sought these Islands of the Blest but never returned home.
The seafarers of the Middle Ages must have been timid navigators for they never reached the open sea but contented themselves with cruising along its shore. At last the Genoese and Venetians, whose cities were very prosperous in the fourteenth century, because of their expanding commerce, ventured out of the Straits of Gibraltar. Their course, however, was not southward but north of the straits which connect the Mediterranean Sea with the ocean, for it is well known that the Venetians in 1318 reached Antwerp by vessel.
Simultaneously with these efforts of the Italians to reach the north, the Portuguese were striving to discover a passage to the rich Indies in vessels manned almost entirely by Italian sailors. The Genoese also undertook independent voyages of discovery. Two ships which passed through the Straits of Gibraltar at the close of the thirteenth century never came back. A Genoese expedition at the beginning of the fourteenth century discovered the Canary Islands, but the explorers declared they were not the Islands of the Blest. Before the year 1335 a Portuguese vessel returned to Lisbon from the Canaries with products of the soil and kidnapped natives. In July, 1341, two large and well armed vessels, under command of a Genoese and a Florentine, reached the Canaries in five days from Lisbon. They held possession of the islands until November. It is also known that Europeans stopped for some time at Teneriffe, where they found almost naked but fierce natives who lived in stone houses, tilled the soil, and worshipped idols. About the close of the fourteenth century thirteen friars attempted the conversion of the natives of the larger Canaries but were massacred by the savages.
About this time the islands of Madeira and the Azores were discovered but they were uninhabited. The Canaries alone had inhabitants, called Guanches. These Guanches lived upon seven islands, but, as there were no means of communication between them, they knew little of each other. Their dialects indeed were so different that they could not understand one another. Wheat and barley were cultivated. The natives on the islands of Gomera and Palma went naked, lived in caves, and subsisted upon roots and goats’ milk, and were dangerous enemies with their stone weapons and horn-tipped spears. The natives on the larger Canaries were the most civilized and had two large cities and thirty-three communities. Their two kings were at constant variance. The warlike Guanches were only subjugated after fierce encounters, for they climbed with the ease of goats and were such fleet runners that they could overtake the hare. When asked about their origin, they replied: “After the submission of our ancestors the gods placed us in these islands, left us here, and forgot us.”