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At Las Palmas
by [?]

On a map the Canary Islands look like seven irregular fish scales, and of these Grand Canary is a cycloid scale. For it is round and has deep folds or barrancas in it, running from its highest point in the middle. Like all the other islands it is a volcanic ash pile, or fire and cinder heap, cut and scarped by its rain storms of winter till all valleys seem to run to the centre. With a shovel of ashes and a watering-pot one could easily make a copy in miniature of the island, and at the first blush it seems when one lands at Las Palmas that one has come to the cinder and sand dumping ground of all the world, an enlarged edition of Mr Boffin’s dust heaps, a kind of gigantic and glorified Harmony Jail. There is no more disillusioning place in the world to land in by daytime. The port is under the shelter of the Isleta, a barren cindery satellite of Grand Canary joined to the main island by an isthmus of yellow sand-dunes. The roads are dust; dust flies in a ceaseless wind; unhappy palms by the roads are grey with dust; it would at first seem impossible to eat anything but an egg without getting one’s teeth full of grit. And yet after all one sees that there are compensations in the sun. I said to a man who managed a big hotel, “This is a hideous place;” and he answered cheerfully, “Yes, isn’t it?” And he added, “We have only got the climate.” So might a man say, “I’ve not much ready money, but I’ve a million or two in Consols.” I understood it by-and-by. And after all Las Palmas is not all the island, nor is its evil-mannered port. The country is a country of vines behind the sand and cinder ramparts of the city, and if one sees no running water, or sees it rarely, the hard-working Canarienses have built tanks to save the rain, and they bring streams in flumes from the inner hills that rise six thousand feet above the sea. They grow vines and sugar and cultivate the cochineal insect, which looks like a loathsome disease (as indeed it is) upon the swarth cactus or tunera which it feeds on. And the islands grow tobacco. Las Palmas is after all only the emporium of Grand Canary and a coaling station for steamers to South Africa and the West Coast and South America. It also takes invalids and turns out good work even among consumptives, for there is power in its sun and dry air.

Its people are Spanish, but Spanish with a difference. The ancient Guanches, now utterly extinct as a people, have left traces of their blood and influence and character. Even now the poor Canary folk naturally live in caves. They dig a hole in a rock, or enlarge a hollow, and hang a sack before the hole, and, behold, they possess a house. Not fifty yards from the big old fort at the back of the town the cliffs are all full of people as a sandstone quarry is sometimes full of sand martins. The caves with doors pay taxes, it is said, but those with no more than a sack escape anything in the shape of a direct tax. To escape taxes altogether in any country under Spain is impossible. The octroi or fielato sees to that.

For the most part Las Palmas to English people is no more than a sanatorium. They come to the Islands to get well and go away knowing as much of the people as they knew before. And indeed the climate is one that makes sitting in a big cane chair much easier than walking even a hundred yards. But the English for that matter do not trouble greatly about the customs or conditions of any foreigners. They are foreigners, Spaniards, strangers. It is easy to sit in the garden of a big hotel surrounded by one’s own compatriots and ignore the fact that the Canary Islands do not belong to us. That they do not is perhaps a grievance of a sort. One is pleased to remember that Nelson made a bold attempt to take the city of Santa Cruz in Teneriffe, even though he was wounded and failed. For no more surprising piece of audacity ever entered an English head. There was no more disgrace in his failing than there would be in failing to take the moon. And after all, some day, no doubt, the English will buy or steal a Canary Island. There is a lingering suspicion among us all that no island ought to belong to any other nation, unless indeed it is the United States. With an enterprising people these cinder heaps would be less heavily taxed and more prosperous. For the prosperity of Las Palmas itself is much a matter of coaling. And the islands have had commercial crisis after commercial crisis as wine rose in price and fell, as cochineal had its vain struggle with chemical dyes. Now its chief hold is the banana.