Long before Castilla (Spain) conquered the island in the 15th century, this rugged land was known as Benahoare. The first inhabitants are thought to have arrived as early as the 5th century BC, setting up an orderly society that eventually divided into 12 cantons, each with its own chief.
The island officially became part of the Spanish empire in 1493, after Alonso Fernández de Lugo (a conquistador and, later, island governor) used a tribesman-turned-Christian to trick the Benahoaritas into coming down from their mountain stronghold for ‘peace talks’. They were ambushed on the way at the spot now known as El Riachuelo. Their leader, Tanausú, was shipped to Spain as a slave, but went on a heroic hunger strike on board the boat and never saw the Spanish mainland.
The next century saw an important period of development and prosperity for the island. Sugar, honey and sweet malvasía (Malmsey wine) became the major exports and abundant and durable Canary pine provided timber for burgeoning shipyards. By the late 16th century, as transatlantic trade flourished, Santa Cruz de la Palma was considered the third most important port in the Spanish empire, after Seville and Antwerp and the city's grand heritage that can be seen today is testament to that status.
The sugar, shipbuilding and cochineal (a beetle used to make red dye) industries kept the island economy afloat for the next several centuries, but the island’s fortunes eventually took a downward turn, and the 20th century was one of poverty and mass emigration, mainly to Venezuela, Uruguay and Cuba. These days around 40% of the island’s workforce depends on the banana crop, but tourism is another crucial ingredient, with Santa Cruz a popular cruise ship port of call.