El hierro – history and geography

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El Hierro, nicknamed Isla del Meridiano („The Meridian Island”) is a Spanish island. It is the smallest and furthest south and west of the Canary Islands, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. It is situated at 27°45′ north, 18°00′ west.



The name of the island is derived from the Guanche language toponym Hero, though by the process of folk-etymology was transformed into „Hierro,” meaning iron in Spanish, due to its similarity to that word. Thus, Ferro (Latin ferrum, „iron”) was and is used as a name for the island. It is the name for the island in other languages, including French, German, and Danish). Pliny the Elder, who used Juba II as his source, names a series of Canary Islands, and it is believed that his Capraria may have been Hierro. The ancient Guanche people on the island, called bimbaches, were conquered by Jean de Bethencourt –more through the process of negotiation than by military action. Bethencourt had as his ally and negotiator Augeron, brother of the island’s native monarch. Augeron had been captured years previously by the Europeans and now served as mediator between the Europeans and the Guanches. In return for control over the island, Bethencourt promised to respect the liberty of the natives, but he eventually broke his promise, selling many of the bimbaches into slavery. Many Frenchmen and Galicians subsequently settled on the island. There was a revolt of the natives against the harsh treatment of the governor Lázaro Vizcaíno, but it was suppressed.


Like the rest of the chain, the island is sharply mountainous. It has an area of 278 km². Maximum high is situated in the middle of the island, in Malpaso, with 1.501 meters high. Like all the Canary Islands, El Hierro is a tourist destination. It is served by a small airport at Valverde and a ferry terminal, both of which connect to Tenerife.





Political organization

The island is part of the province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It includes 2 municipalities: Valverde is situated in the northeast and Frontera in the southwest, both contain several villages. The seat of the island government (cabildo insular) is in Valverde town. 10.162 people (2003) live on the island.

The Meridian island

El Hierro’s western end was for long time considered the end of the known world by the Europeans

The island is known in history as the prime meridian in common use outside of the British Commonwealth. Already in the 2nd century A.D., Ptolemy considered a definition of the zero meridian based on the western-most position of the world, giving maps with only positive (eastern) longitudes. In the year 1634, France ruled by Louis XIII and Richelieu decided that Ferro’s meridian should be used as the reference on maps, since this island is the most western position of the Old World and also thought to be exactly 20 degrees west of Paris, so indeed the exact position of Ferro was never considered. Old maps (outside of Anglo-America) often have a common grid with Paris degrees at the top and Ferro degrees offset by 20 at the bottom. Louis Feuillée also worked on this problem in 1724. It was later found that the actual island of El Hierro itself is in fact 20° 23′ 9″ west of Paris, but the Ferro meridian was still defined as 20 degrees west of Paris. The Ferro meridian is 17° 39′ 46″ west of the Greenwich meridian.

Source: wikipedia.org; CC License

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