Throughout its history, on numerous occasions the bay of San Sebastián was chosen by corsairs as an objective because of its excellent conditions of shelter, being protected of storms at all times of the year. Being a practically undefended bay with easy access, it was used by pirates of different nationalities on numerous occasions. Another factor that contributed to the presence on the island of these corsairs was the commercial traffic with the Indies, which although did not reach the quotas obtained by the crown-owned islands. Many ships were dispatched with this destination, and others took refuge waiting to be loaded at the port of Garachico.
Therefore it can be said that La Gomera, for all the above mentioned reasons, becomes a coveted target for pirates and hence the numerous invasions that are suffered, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of all of them, the ones of 1571, 1599 and 1618 by French, Dutch and Algerians, respectively, could be noted for their destructive repercussions. In any case, it should be said that the naval attacks against La Gomera begin in the second half of the fifteenth century with the objectives sometimes being the ships anchored in the bay of San Sebastián or in the worst case direct attacks against the capital, resulting in looting, fires and destruction of some of the most important buildings.
A very important aspect to understand this wave of corsairs on the island is the acceptance of a peaceful coexistence of both the residents and the landlords. These and the oligarchy with sufficient surpluses obtained important economic benefits with the rescue of prisoners and exchange of products. In return, the corsairs used the bay as a place to wait for the fleets as they passed by the island, while at the same time obtaining supplies. We observe, therefore, how there is a certain collaboration between the corsairs and the Lords of the island, always moved by the economic interest that exists in this ‘fraudulent commercial exchange’, since although the corsairs were considered heroes of war in their countries of origin, for the Spanish Crown they were enemies.
Turning now to the proper account of these attacks, it is necessary to begin with that which occurred on August 24, 1571, when the French pirate Jean de Capdeville arrives in the island commanding four French ships and one of English nationality. Unexpectedly, the French disembarked at the port and besieged the town of San Sebastián, forcing the natives of the place to take refuge in the island’s interior. After plundering the village the Huguenot corsairs burned it, destroying the archives and ruining the main buildings like the ‘Convent of the Holy Kings’. The population, although reacting late, undertook a counterattack from where they had hidden, which provoked the retreat of the pirates.
On July 13, 1599, the Dutch corsair Pieter Van der Does arrived at the capital’s bay from attacking Gran Canaria. The strategy developed to surprise the residents of the town was different from what they usually did. Thus, they landed a part of the troops that they brought on the beach of Avalo, a few kilometers to the north of San Sebastián, with the purpose of attacking the Gomeran resistance forces by the back. At the same time, they made their entrance through the bay, establishing two fronts of attack. The islanders, in anticipation of the frontal attack and with intent to deceive the Dutch, had buried three brass cannons and the church bells on the beach. Meanwhile, the Lords of the island retired to their Chejelipes estate, deep in the ravine of San Sebastián. The Gomeran defense was very brave and risky, but they could not beat the bulk of the Dutch squadron, which burned the town and rescued the artillery and the bells. On July 21, the Dutch left San Sebastián de La Gomera leaving it materially devastated.
To conclude these accounts, it is necessary to mention the violent Algerian invasion that captained by Tabac and Solimán and composed of sixty ships appeared on La Gomera, after looting Lanzarote on May 20, 1618. Such was the majority of the invading troops that the entire population fled inland, leaving the village totally abandoned. Even the Lord himself, Don Gaspar de Castilla y Guzmán, fled to take refuge with his family on La Palma. The Algerians, as they found no resistance, devoted themselves to plunder the village and to make incursions to the interior, finding some natives who were later sold in Algiers as slaves. Before leaving the village, the main church, the stately residence and a large number of private houses were set on fire, and the Torre del Conde was completely dismantled. From this event the locals were prey for a fear of new pirate attacks, which led them to suspend their commercial relations with other islands for a long period of time.
Submitted by José Juan Padrón Padilla