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The island is home to the University of La Laguna; founded in 1792 in San Cristóbal de La Laguna, it is the oldest university in the Canaries.A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is the second to have been founded on the island, and is the third of the archipelago.

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In 1492 the governor of Gran Canaria Francisco Maldonado organized a raid that ended in disaster for the Spaniards when they were defeated by Anaga's warriors.Santa Cruz de Tenerife is the capital of the island and the seat of the island council (cabildo insular).The city is capital of the autonomous community of Canary Islands (shared with Las Palmas), sharing governmental institutions such as presidency and ministries.The Benahoaritas (natives of La Palma) are said to have named the island, deriving it from the words tene ("mountain") and ife ("white").The 18th-century historians Juan Núñez de la Peña and Tomás Arias Marín de Cubas, among others, state that the island was likely named by natives for the legendary Guanche king, Tinerfe, nicknamed "the Great." He ruled the entire island in the days before the conquest of the Canary Islands by Castilla.The fishermen typically caught mackerel and other residents ate potatoes, assumed to be of low quality by the elite of La Laguna.

As Santa Cruz grew in commerce and status, it replaced La Laguna as capital of Tenerife in 1833 during the reign of Fernando VII.

Between the 1833 territorial division of Spain and 1927, Santa Cruz de Tenerife was the sole capital of the Canary Islands.

In 1927 the Crown ordered that the capital of the Canary Islands be shared, as it remains at present.

In December 1493, the Catholic monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, granted Alonso Fernández de Lugo the right to conquer Tenerife.

Coming from Gran Canaria in April 1494, the conqueror landed on the coast of present-day Santa Cruz de Tenerife in May, and disembarked with about 2,000 men on foot and 200 on horseback.

Many of the natives died from new infectious diseases, such as influenza and probably smallpox, to which they lacked resistance or acquired immunity.