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San Sebastian

San Sebastian. 1813. Spain, Basque Region.

Donostia - or San Sebastian - was a fishing village for centuries located a few miles from the border with France. By 1174, it was granted self-governing status by the kingdom of Navarra which used the bay as its principal outlet to the Mediterranean. (Map above: 1813. San Sebastian, Basque Region, Spain.)

Navarra has been at the crossroads of European history for more than 1,200 years and has played a role in history that is far larger than its geographic size. Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, Navarra shares a role in the history of both countries, while still retaining its unique character as part of Spain.

Basque Dairy Maid. San Sebastian. 1881.

Dairy Maid. Basque. 1881.

In 1180, Sancho the Strong (Sancho el Fuerte) founded the city in what is now the Old Quarter. The city's unique geographic setting made it a perfect port and military stronghold, thus walls were built to surround the city and protect it from outside forces.

Mount Urgull was converted into a fortress, equipped with artillery.

San Sebastian has witnessed several sieges and wars, particularly during the 15th and 16th centuries. The city's use as a military port throughout the centuries is evident with the number of battles that took place there between Spain and France, and Spain and England, especially during the middle ages.

In 1808 until 1813, Napoleon's troops occupied the city but was later driven out by Anglo-Portuguese troops led by the Duke of Wellington. By the summer of 1813 the Peninsular War had reached a crisis. The Port of San Sebastian had to be captured fast if Wellington’s British armies were to avoid a humiliating retreat due to lack of supplies. But in San Sebastian was the wily French commander Louis Rey. The scene was set for a classic siege campaign.

The British, Portuguese and Spanish armies of Lord Wellington had defeated the French in Spain and were poised to invade France itself. But the supply situation was critical. All of Wellington’s supplies had to come from Britain to Lisbon and were then carried over bad roads, mountain ranges and dusty plains for hundreds of miles to reach the fighting front. Wellington needed a port with good harbour facilities close to the battle front. There was only one available, but it was held by a French force under the command of General Louis Rey who was desperately repairing and reinforcing the defences. The siege began on July 7, 1813 and at first Wellington hoped it would be over quickly. But when the first assault failed it become clear that a long siege was inevitable. The city was looted and destroyed with the exception of a few buildings.

The Donostiarras resolved to rebuild the city. As a result, the Old Quarter was reconstructed and, today, remains much as it was.

In the 19th century, San Sebastian became the setting of the Carlist war. However, in spite of this, the city continued to grow and went on to be named the provincial capital of Guipuzcoa.

San Sebastian gained popularity when Queen Isabel II visited it in 1845. She was advised by her doctors to take salt water baths to treat her skin ailment. Her summer visits to the city served as a start of what would become a resort town. The Spanish aristocracy followed suit and this caused the city to flourish both socially and economically.

Arrival of the Kings at San Sebastian.
Arrival of the Kings, San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian fell under the rule of Spanish General Primero de Rivera and, for a time, the Basque region was torn by the Spanish Civil War. 35 years later, it experienced another transition with the shift to a democracy.

Basque Celebration: El Antiguo San Sebastian.
Dario De Regoyos Y Valdes

Basque Celebration.

When Queen Isabel II first visited the city in 1845, it brought attention to the area; the city began to grow. With proper facilities like street lighting, telephones, water and other infrastructural innovations, the city expanded and attracted visitors from all over the world. In 1863, San Sebastian was named capital of the Gipuzkoa province. The role of the city changed, the walls were demolished, the focus was more on commerce, the city became a popular tourist destination and spa resort, the economy boomed and'san Sebastian became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.

Daily Alta California, January 29, 1876, San Francisco, California, USA

Von Arnim's Family Pleading for His Pardon
The Recent Spanish Battle.

1875. War, Spain. San Sebatian.

London, January 28th. -- The Times correspondent, writing from San Sebastian, thus surmises the results of the fighting on Tuesday: "If the Carlists really and seriously intended to penetrate to Vol they were completely baffled. General Mariones returned to San Sebastian, escorted by two battalions of troops, and encamped on the captured positions." The writer gives the following description of fighting on the Vera road up to three o'clock in the afternoon: The Alfonsists were successful at the foot of the Council Hill, and on the slope of the three crowned mountains, where the Carlists battalion was intrenched, the two parties exchanged fire for hours.

King Alfonso XIII in a Hussar's Uniform.
By Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida.

Portrait of King Alfonso XIII wearing the Uniform of teh Hussars. 1907.

At four o'clock the Alfonsists attempted to advance with the bayonet, but they recoiled before the steady fire from the trenches; then he could see the Carlists leaving their positions and charge after their retreating foes. An intervening slope hid the combatants from sight, but I judge the Carlists were following up their success. It is generally believed here that simultaneous movement is being made in the Provinces of Biscay and Navarre. If so, a very few days will prove whether Carlistism is ended, or another campaign is to drag through the coming summer.

Daily Alta California, September 26, 1889, San Francisco, California, USA

Spanish Dynamiters at Work.

Madrid, September 25th. A bomb was exploded to-day behind the Ayete Palace at San Sebastian, where Queen Christina is staying. No one was hurt and no damage was done.

San Francisco Call, September 22, 1905, San Francisco, California, USA

Spain and Belgium Sign Treaty.

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain, Sept. 21. King Alfonso to-day signed a treaty of general arbitration between Spain and Belgium.

San Francisco Call , August 11, 1907, San Francisco, California, UA

Stork Expected by Royalty

Paris, August 10 -- Special dispatches from San Sebastian, where King Alfonso and Queen Victoria are sojourning, say that her majesty, who gave birth to a son May 10, is again in delicate health.

San Francisco Call, February 6, 1909, San Francisco, California, USA


Unaware of Parentage, He Inherits Dead Mother's Money

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain, Feb. 5. -- A poor fisher boy of San'sebastian, named La Jabeita, recently inherited a fortune under the most romantic circumstances. Upon returning from a cruise in a fishing schooner he was met on the wharf here by two strangers, who informed him that they were the executors of the will of his mother, an American woman, who died a few weeks ago in the village of Munsac, near Bilbao, leaving him $600.000. The boy was ignorant of his origin.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



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W. S. Lindsay

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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