Archaeological evidence suggests that the island of Cabrera was inhabited by humans as far back as the Talayotic Period from 1300 BC-123 BC. Several shipwrecks off the island’s coast have also been discovered that date back to the Punic and Roman era.
During the period from 425 AD- 903 AD, the Byzantine-Paleo Christian era, the island was home to a somewhat significant settlement centered in the port region of Cabrera. It was also home to a monastery in a basilica whose ruins can still be seen today. The existence of this monastery is confirmed by a letter from Pope Gregory in 603 AD instructing Defender Johannes to deal with the issue of the monks living on Cabrera. Their behavior had apparently devolved to a point where the Pope feared they had not only “surrendered their lives to various crimes” but were also “fighting on behalf of the old enemy rather than serving God.”
After that the history of Cabrera fell silent for several centuries, leading historians to believe it lay uninhabited. The next news of Cabrera came during the Middle Ages when the castle was built at the end of the 14th century and pirates ran rampant through the surrounding waters. The castle was destroyed and rebuilt at least ten times, but pirate attacks often prevented the necessary building materials from reaching the port. A story of pirate plundering also gives us some of the earlier history of fishing around the island when twenty-two fishermen and their boats were captured by Berber pirates in the sixteenth century. (Visitor’s Guide, 2004)
As the Europeans gained greater control of the Mediterranean, the threat of piracy decreased but threats from internal conflict did not. Cabrera once again played an interesting role in the backdrop of history when it was chosen to host approximately 9,000 French prisoners captured during Napoleon’s attempts to conquer Southern Spain. The captives were held between 1809 and 1814 when a peace treaty was signed. Seventeen prisoners apparently managed escape by taking a local fishing boat by force but due to disease, lack of resources, and poor infrastructure, most of the prisoners died. Only 3,600 men survived and returned to France. (Visitor’s Guide, 2004)
After its time as a concentration camp, several attempts to resettle the island were made. Another prison house, Es Pabellons, was built in 1830 and later converted into military headquarters; visitors can still tour it today. Forty years later, the iconic Cabrera lighthouse was completed after four years of construction. In 1916, Cabrera officially became property of the state for national defense purposes and some associated infrastructure was built. At this point, attempts at agriculture and animal husbandry ceased, and through the 1950s the native pinewood forest cover that had been reduced to a just a few hectares recovered to nearly 300 hectares.