Formed by underwater eruptions, Fuerteventura is about 17 million years old, the history of its first civilisations is somewhat patchy but records show that Fuerteventura was initially colonized by people who came from the bereber-magrebí area in the north east of Africa, at the beginning of the first millenium B.C. They were known as mahos, a people who mainly survived off its livestock and sea food. In early times Fuerteventura was known as Erbania, referring to the wall that divided the two main tribes of mahos from the north and south. These natives are believed to have come to the island about 10,000 years ago. Later historical references do however exist and Pliny, a first century roman historian for example, wrote of expeditions made to the island by the Phoenicians. In the course of history Andalusians, Majorcans, Portuguese, Genoese have all been here also. Spanish and Portuguese started to make their presence felt here in the 14th century but their scope was mainly to win over pagan souls for the catholic church and in 1339 a map by Angelino Dulcet appeared with the islands name given as Forte Ventura.
In 1402 two French noblemen, Jean de Bethancourt and Gadifer de la Salle joined forces to begin the invasion and colonisation of the island. They had little difficulty subjugating the mahos and the process of civilisation began in earnest killing off the native language and culture. This partly explains the legacy of gaps in our knowledge of the island’s history. The island was split into two autonomous kingdoms, Maxorata in the north and Jandía in the south and in 1405 all came officially under the Crown of Castilla when de Betancourt, who had relations by marriage with the Castillan royalty confirmed his allegiance. Fuerteventura next came under the dominion of the Catholic Kings in 1476 and the first settlements took place in El Vega del Río Palma and Betancuria. The latter remained capital of the island until the 19th century.
Subsequent history saw some difficult periods when the people, now numbering about 1,200 suffered periods of drought and hunger, plague, and all the time repeated invasions by pirates. Emigration to the outlying islands and to the new world (America) was regular and on occasions enforced by the rulers. A blot on the history was the extent of Fuerteventura’s role in the practice of slavery. Feudal rulers launched armed expeditions to the nearby coast of Africa to return with slaves and livestock to be sold all over Europe and the Americas. The Lords and other wealthy canary merchants profited greatly until the prohibition of such raids by Philip II in 1572 moderated to some extent the practice.
The 17th century saw a period of relative calm and population grew to about 3,000. During this period the looting by pirates was particularly frequent and one of them, in particular, Xabán de Arráez, gained almost complete authority of the island for 6 months, during which he ordered and almost fully achieved the total destruction of Betancuria, the capital of the island. This eventually convinced Felipe II, of the Court of Castilla, to demand the introduction a trained military force and the construction of some fortified towers along the coast, such as El Barranco de la Torre, El Tostón and the Caleta de Fuste castle.
The island´s military control eventually takes over, gaining power and influence due to the permanent absence of the Lord who had taken up residence in Tenerife. They end up exerting all the Lord´s functions, and make the Colonel’s position hereditary. In the 1708 its seat was moved to La Oliva and the Milicias regiment set up which took control over the bulk of the land within the nothern part of the island. It is not until the beginning of the 1811 Court of Cadiz abolished feudal rule and the end of the Lord and Coronel. A new system was instituted dividing the island into councils; one town hall for each parish and taking charge of the Cabildo government of the island. This is a period in which the economy ceases to depend on the growth of cereals. It benefits from to the introduction of other types of cultivations, such as Orchilla, Barrilla and Woodlouse which are in high demand and for which the island’s exports come to be appreciated. However, with technological progress and due to various periods of drought, bit by bit these exports too come to an end. Due to the resulting economic stagnation many majoreros are again forced to emigrate.
However, since the late 19th and early 20th century, Fuerteventura places greater emphasis on the production of salt, lime, tomatoes and livestock and has extended two commercial harbours to facilitate exports; Puerto Cabras (changed later to Puerto del Rosario) and Gran Tarajal. More recently exports of aloe and the award winning goats’ cheese are also making their mark. But it was only after the spectacular growth in tourism, which really took off in the 80s (unlike the other Canaries which have a long head start) that the island fully emerged economically. Now exceeding 100,000, the population has doubled in the last 20 years.