On 6 September 1492, after loading up with supplies from La Gomera, Christopher Columbus led his three small caravels out of the bay and set sail westwards beyond the limit of the known world. When Columbus was on the island, San Sebastián had barely been founded. Four years earlier, in 1488, there had been a terrible massacre in the wake of the failed uprising against Hernán Peraza, the island’s governor. When it was all over, what had been the Villa de las Palmas, on a spot known to the Guanches as Hipalán, was renamed San Sebastián.
The boom in transatlantic trade following Columbus’ journeys helped boost the fortunes of the town, which sits on a sheltered harbour and was one of the Canaries’ best ports. Nevertheless, its population passed the 1000 mark only at the beginning of the 19th century. The good times also brought dangers, as, like other islands, San Sebastián was regularly subjected to pirate attack from the English, French and Portuguese. In 1739 the English fleet actually landed an invasion force but the assault was repulsed.
The fate of the town was linked intimately with that of the rest of the island. Its fortunes rose with the cochineal (a beetle that produces a red dye) boom in the 19th century, but that industry collapsed with the emergence of synthetic dyes.