Although Jean de Béthencourt’s partner in mischief, Gadifer de la Salle, sailed past here in 1403, it wasn’t until 1478 that Europeans actually landed in the area. That year Juan Rejón and his troops set up camp just south of La Isleta, naming it Real de las Palmas. As the conquest continued, the original military camp expanded into the barrio (district) of San Antonio Abad, later known as Vegueta.
By the time Christopher Columbus sailed by on his way to the Americas in 1492, the busy little hub of the old town had already been traced out. Everybody likes to claim a hero for their very own and the Gran Canarian version of history has it that Columbus briefly stopped here for repairs before pushing on to La Gomera.
The city, along with the rest of the archipelago, benefited greatly from the Spanish conquest of Latin America and subsequent transatlantic trade. But, inevitably, the islands became a favourite target for pirates and buccaneers. In 1595 Sir Francis Drake raided Las Palmas with particular gusto. Four years later a still more determined band of Dutch adventurers reduced much of the town to ruins.
In 1821, Santa Cruz de Tenerife was declared capital of the single new Spanish province of Las Islas Canarias. This left the great and good of Las Palmas disgruntled but redress was some time in coming.
The fortunes of the port city fluctuated with those of the islands as a whole, as boom followed bust in a chain of cash-crop cycles. However, towards the end of the 19th century Las Palmas began to prosper, due to the growing British presence in the city.
The Miller and Swanston trading families were already well established by the time Sir Alfred Lewis Jones set up the Grand Canary Coaling Company in Las Palmas. The city flourished as a crucial refuelling stop for transatlantic shipping, which continued until just before the outbreak of WWII, when coal-fired ships gradually made way for more modern vessels.
It was the British who introduced the first water mains, electricity company and telephone exchange in the early 20th century. The city’s prosperity had become such that Madrid could no longer resist calls for the islands to be divided into two provinces. Las Palmas thus became capital of Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in 1927.
It was from Las Palmas that Franco launched the coup in July 1936 that sparked the Spanish Civil War.
Since the 1960s tourism boom, Las Palmas has grown from a middling port city of 70, 000 to a bustling metropolis of close to 400, 000 people. And, while it shares the status of regional capital evenly with Santa Cruz de Tenerife, there is no doubt that Las Palmas packs the bigger punch in terms of influence and size.