History of Galapagos

Learn more about the Galapagos Islands

Early Discovery

Legend has it that the Incas first discovered the Galapagos Islands in the 15th century, but since they did not have a written language and no ruins have been discovered, the legend cannot be substantiated.

It wasn’t until the 16th century, when the Spanish had created a lucrative shipping route along the pacific coast of Ecuador, that the Galapagos were officially ‘discovered’.

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Inca gold was being shipped up the coast to Panama, where it was unloaded onto mules for the journey across the isthmus. Upon reaching the Atlantic coast, the treasures were again put on a ship and sent to Spain. The journey between Panama and Peru became a frequent route. In 1535, Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama was in route to Peru. His ship, drifting without wind, went off course due to the currents. It was quite by accident that he “discovered” the Galapagos Islands. In a letter to the King of Spain, the bishop described the islands by saying: “I do not think this is a place where one might sow a bushel of corn because most of it is full of very big stones and the earth is much like dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass”.

The bishop and the crew, like many early visitors, arrived in the islands thirsty and were less then impressed by the lack of water. He didn’t even bother to give the islands a name.

It wasn’t until 1574, when the name “Galapagos Islands” first appeared on a map and has remained ever since. “Galapago” is an old Spanish word, meaning saddle. The large Galapagos Tortoises on some of the islands had a shell that resembled an old Spanish saddle, thus the name.

History of Galapagos

Buccaneers & Pirates

During the 1500 and 1600’s, the west coast of South America became prize Pirate territory. As Spain was busy collecting the wealth of the Incas and shipping it home, the Buccaneers or Pirates (depending on whose side you were on) would attack the Spanish treasure ships and gather riches for their own country.

The Galapagos Islands became a favorite hideout for these Pirates. They would retreat to the islands, due to the good anchorage and distance from Spanish shipping lanes, to stock up on fresh water and meat (tortoises). The islands of Floreana, Santa Cruz and Santiago became favorite spots.

James Bay on Santiago still bears the name Buccaneer’s Cove as an homage to these men. Other evidence of the pirate days are the feral goats living in the islands, descendants of goats left by the Pirates and Buccaneers.

William Ambrose Crowley, one of the buccaneers, drew the first navigation chart of the Galapagos Islands. A proud Englishman, he named several of the islands after British Royalty and military.

The Whalers

During the 19th century, Spain’s power in Latin America began to decline. The countries of South America began trading independently with England and France and the heyday of the Pirates drew to a close. The industrial revolution had changed the world and now, rather than Spanish gold, seafarers were in search of oil. Oil came in the form of whale blubber.

By 1792, British whalers reached the Galapagos to hunt the mighty creatures. Upswelling currents around the islands made the Galapagos an excellent feeding ground for whales and the islands of Isabela and Fernandina were a favorite calving place of whales.

Between the years of 1811 and 1844, it is thought some 700 whaling ships visited these islands. Whaling was a lucrative business with very few regulations. Damage to the Galapagos environment by the whalers was unprecedented.

Each whaling ship would collect between 500-600 tortoises to provide fresh meat on the cruise. It is estimated that whaling ships removed 15,000 tortoises from Floreana causing the extinction of that subspecies as well as those on Santa Fe and Rabida. In total, it is thought that Whalers removed some 200,000 tortoises from the Galapagos. The whalers also created problems that would long survive them; they introduced a number of animals to the Galapagos including the black rat, cats, cattle, donkeys, goats and dogs.

One famous whaler who visited the Galapagos was author Herman Melville who wrote about his visit to the islands in the story, The Encantadas. By 1835, whaling visits to the Galapagos ended. By 1859, with the discovery of the first commercial-scale petroleum (a less expensive form of oil), whaling quickly declined throughout the world.

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Darwin’s Visit

In 1835, during a 5 week period, the HMS Beagle visited the Galapagos Islands where Darwin studied the flora and fauna. His observations included the finches now known as Darwin’s finches. The islands are home to 13 species of finches, all of which have adapted to their habitat. The size and shape of their bills reflect their specializations. Darwin noted the similarities and differences in his journal and organized the finches as part of his collection.

His observations later brought him to conclude that flora and fauna evolve over time through a process of natural selection. Darwin spent the next 20 years of his life gathering supporting evidence and in 1859, he published the now famous The Origin of Species. In 1959, for the 100-year celebration of the publishing of Darwin’s first book, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park were created. A few years later, the Charles Darwin Research Station with its research vessel, The Beagle, was established to inform the world about Darwin’s theories and the Galapagos Islands as well as to serve as a living laboratory for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Early Galapagos Colonists

During the whaling years, the first of the Galapagos settlers arrived. The first “permanent” human inhabitant of the Galapagos was an Irishman by the name of Patrick Watkins, who was marooned on Floreana in 1807. He spent 8 years there, raising vegetables and selling them to visiting whaling ships, before stealing a boat and sailing to the mainland. When the boat finally reached Guayaquil, Watkins was the only one left alive.

In 1869, a colony named Progesso was established on San Cristobal under the leadership of Manuel Cobos. Cobos was hardly a progressive, however, and his tyranny led to his murder several years later. The colony survived and San Cristobal remains the seat of government in the Galapagos today.

In 1893, Don Antonio Gil established a colony on the southeast coast of Isabela, which he called Villamil, and another, Santo Tomas, 20 kilometers inland, high on the slopes of Sierra Negra. The latter was established to mine sulfur from the fumeroles in the area. Around Villamil, coral was mined and burned to produce lime. This was supplemented by fishing and cattle ranching on the moist windward slopes of Sierra Negra. These towns remain today.

In 1924, William Beebe’s book, Galapagos: World’s End was published. The book detailed Bebe’s observation as part of a scientific expedition. The book’s descriptions and illustrations painted the Galapagos as a Utopia inspiring a new onset of visitors and settlers. This book inspired the beginnings of the eco-tourism that today dominates the Galapagos economy. Tourism began, however, as only a trickle (one of those early tourists was U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited the islands in 1938).

Over the next century, visitors and settlements would come and go. Business schemes were hatched, but few would stay until the 1920’s and 1930’s.

In 1832, the Galapagos Islands were officially annexed by Ecuador and renamed to the “Archipielago del Ecuador”. As the stories of this new land spread around the world, eager people traveled to the Galapagos to seek their dream. A group of 22 Norwegians arrived in Floreana in 1925 seeking their fortune from fishing. Floreana turned out to be anything but the paradise the promoters promised, as the colonists came to realize after the promoters left. Most managed to survive for a difficult year or two there. Some of the survivors eventually returned to Norway, others moved to the settlement on San Cristobal, and others settled on Academy Bay on Santa Cruz, joining another group of Norwegians who had set up a cannery there the year before. Within a few years, most of these colonist left as well, but a few remained. A few years later, more Norwegians came to Santa Cruz, as well as a sprinkling of others from Europe, America, and Ecuador, all seeking a simpler life. Among them were the four Angermeyer brothers from Germany, who settled on Santa Cruz in 1935. Their descendants still live there today.

On Floreana an eccentric German Doctor, Dr Friedrich Ritter, and his mistress, Dore Strauch, set up a small farm. They lived happily in their island Eden, visited by passing ships and writing of their new life which included nudism and experimental diets and medicines. Within a few years, a German family (the Wittmers who still reside on the island today) and the Austrian “Baroness” Wagner de Bosquet, with her three male lovers in tow, joined them on the island. The settler’s feuding climaxed in the mysterious disappearance (and assumed murder) of the Baroness and one of her lovers, the accidental death of another lover and the poisoning of the doctor. The details of the “Floreana Mystery” may be read in several books written about it. Frau Wittmer’s book, Floreana, provides a first hand account of these events as well as an account of her 65 years on Floreana.

During W.W.II, the US government arrived in the islands. They constructed an airbase on Baltra to protect the Panama Canal from Japanese threat. At the end of the war, the base and all of its facilities were given to the Ecuadorian government. The landing strip now serves as one of the island’s two airports.

In 1959, to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the Galapagos Islands became Ecuador’s first National Park. That same year, the international, non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation was established to assist in the preservation of the islands. The National Park regulates policies, issues permits, approves landing sites and itineraries while the Darwin Station trains the naturalist guides working there.

Learn more about the Galapagos Islands and how to explore the Islands today.

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