Ten miles off the south coast of Mallorca is a small group of islands, the largest of which is Cabrera Island, or Goat Island. It is possible to take one of two boat trips from Colònia Sant Jordi to get a closer look at them and learn what life was like on Cabrera. While the fast boat takes you on a whistle stop tour of the islands, lasting less than a couple of hours, the slow boat trip lasts most of the day. It takes an hour to get to Cabrera and then you have four hours to explore before returning.
The first people lived on the island around 2,000 BC, at the same time as Mallorca, and while Greek and Phoenician sailors stopped off on the island around 1,000 BC, the Carthaginians (Punics) and Romans did the same when they ruled the Mediterranean. Their ships were ferrying goods to and from across between modern day Italy and Spain and Cabrera was a useful navigation point. Captains also anchored in the island's sheltered waters during bad weather. A number of sunken wrecks have been found in shallow waters, including two Carthaginian and three Roman ships.
Monks settled built a tiny monastery on Cabrera around 600 A.D. so they could act as missionaries for passing sailors. However, Pope Gregory I was forced to send a counsellor to the island to deal with their poor behaviour.
The religious settlement closed when the Moors seized the islands in 902 A.D. and there is very little information about the next 300 years. Following the conquest of Mallorca in 1229, the Bishop of Tarragona was given the islands and passed it to three knights; Bernat de Claramunt, Guillem Huguet o Renovard and Pere de Malbosc. They rented out the land and fishing rights and peasants eked out a living, planting vineyards or brought livestock to the island to graze.
When news of the Cabrera's natural harbour reached North Africa, pirates started using it, anchoring in its bay during the day and then attacking Mallorca's harbours and villages by night. They also used it as a base to intercept merchant ships heading into and out of Palma bay. Guillem Saragossa built a watchtower on the rocky promontory overlooking the harbour at the end of the 14th Century. While the handful of guards could warn the villagers on the mainland with fire and smoke signals, it was a dangerous job.
Piracy across the Mediterranean reached its height following the fall of Algeria to the Ottoman Empire in 1529. An alliance between France and Turkey, signed to counter the alliance under the Holy Roman Emperor, Spain's Charles V, increased the tension and there was a strong possibility that the Balearic Islands could be invaded and occupied. Although Cabrera castle had been extended and strengthened, the Ottoman leader Barbarossa attacked and destroyed it in 1531. Another castle was built in its place but another Ottoman sea captain, Dragut, captured it and enslaved the garrison in 1550. It did not help that the Palma authorities refused to build a watchtower on Cabrera's highest hill at a time when they were being built all around the island.
The pirate threat subsided following the Holy League's defeat of the Ottoman navies at the Battle of Lepanto, off the coast of Greece, in 1571. The Sureda family took over the island in 1663 and built the hexagonal three storey castle we see today.
The takeover of the Spanish crown by Philip V started the Spanish War of Succession with the Habsburgs in 1700. A military garrison was posted on Cabrera to make sure that English or Dutch ships did not seize the island and use it as a base.
Very little happened on Cabrera during the 18th Century. Plans to establish a village, a hospice for soldiers or a prison never got off the drawing board. There was also talk of moving the Xuetes (converted Jews) to the island but it too was only talk. However, at the turn of the 19th Century a new use was found for Cabrera, and it was a shocking one... Read the Cabrera Prison Camp webpage to discover the rest of the island's history.
Go to www.excursionsacabrera.es to find out more on the island and booking information.
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