GALAPAGOS - Discovery and History

Historians believe that the Galapagos Islands were first discovered by the Incas in the 1400’s, although pottery shards found on the Islands of Santiago, Santa Cruz and Floreana suggest that the islands had been visited before by Amerindians who came from Ecuador on Balsawood Rafts. In spite of their refined culture, the Incas had no written language, so documentation of their discovery is lacking.

Kon_Tiki_md.jpg (65828 bytes)
Hayerdahl’s Kon-Tiki (built in 1947)
A balsa raft of the type used by ancient Indians

In terms of recorded history the Galapagos Islands were first officially discovered, albeit accidentally, by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama in 1535. The Bishop and his ship were becalmed and carried out to sea by ocean currents whilst on a journey from Panama to Peru. Desperately short of water they sighted land, dropped anchor and went ashore. We know of course how arid the Islands are, but the poor Bishop and his crew searched far and wide for water, loosing 2 men and ten horses in the process. They were eventually forced to take a leaf out of the land iguanas book and to chew cactus pads for moisture. When the Bishop returned to the mainland he wrote an account to his emperor, Carlos V of Spain, describing the sea lions, tortoises, iguanas and tame birds. This report was relayed to the Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, who included the islands in his atlas ORBIS TERRARUM, published in 1574. On the map the islands were called “Insulae de los Galopegos” the “Islands of the Tortoises”. The Galapagos Islands had now been officially christened.

The islands had another name as well, given to them by a group of Spanish soldiers who tried to land there in 1546. The soldiers had very little nautical training, and as they peered through the mists and tried to land on the islands they became convinced that the islands were bewitched, as they seemed to keep floating away from them. They called them “Las Islas Encantadas” the “Enchanted Islands”.

The Galapagos Islands eventually received a third name. In 1892 on the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon), the Islands were officially renamed by the National Assembly of Ecuador as the “Archipelago de Colon”. The official name however is hardly ever used.

PART 6: EARLY HISTORY The discovery of the Americas by Columbus in 1493 was significant in the rich and varied history of the Galapagos Islands. In 1493, with the knowledge of the New World to the west, the Spanish Pope Alexander the VI granted to Spain the entire western hemisphere. Needless to say this decree was not met with overwhelming approval in Great Britain, the Netherlands and France. While open war was not actually declared, citizens of these countries were given to understand, that if they took private action against Spain, they would not be punished. Thus a kind of “cold war” developed between Great Britain and Spain, and the late 1500’s to the early 1700’s became the age of buccaneers and pirates.

Treasure ships were rich pickings for buccaneers

Buccaneers in the Archipelago What is the difference between a buccaneer and a pirate? Actually not very much and it really depends on circumstances. If a man robbed a Spanish ship the British classed him as a buccaneer, if however he captured a Spanish ship, he was called a pirate. For the sake of argument, I will refer to them here as buccaneers. The whole western coast of South America was buccaneer territory and the Galapagos Islands were used as a refuge, and as a base for raids on the Spanish colonial port, and the prized Spanish treasure ships. These ships carried vast sums of money and gold, which were used to pay oversea Spanish forces and staff. In between raids the buccaneers stocked up on water and fed on the giant tortoises. One of these buccaneers, a Britisher, William Ambrose Cowley, drew up the first navigation charts for the Galapagos Islands. Being a patriotic kind of chap, he named several islands after British royalty of the time e.g. the Island of Charles (Floreana) for King Charles II and James (Santiago) for King James II. He also named many Islands after his fellow buccaneers or for English noblemen who helped the pirates cause e.g. Albermarle (Isabela) for the Duke of Albermarle.

Far from being an intellectual lot who sat around making maps and discussing what names to give the islands, the buccaneers were fairly blood thirsty, and when they were not raiding, sacking and pillaging on the mainland or attacking treasure ships they fought each other for entertainment. The losers were usually castaway on some deserted island - one such was Alexander Selkirk who had been marooned on Juan Fernandez Island (off the coast of Chile) for 4 years - he later became the model for Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”.

Whalers on the Galapagos Islands At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as Spain’s world power began to decline, South America began to trade with Britain and France. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, oil - which at that time came from whales, was in great demand. Buccaneers reports of huge numbers of sperm whales off the west coast of South America inspired the British navy to send a ship to the islands to investigate the possibilities of whaling. The Captain of this ship - James Colnett, made the first accurate navigational charts of the islands and once again allowed himself the pleasure of naming a few islands e.g. Hood (Espanola) for Admiral Hood, Barrington (Santa Fe) for Admiral Barrington. He also reported anchorages, water and a seemly endless supply of fresh meat - the tortoises. It is estimated that whalers and sealers may have removed more than 100,000 tortoises from the islands, resulting in the extinction of some subspecies. Each ship would take between 500 and 600 tortoises, which were easily caught, could survive many months without food and water, and could be conveniently stored (live), stacked upside down in the hold.

Captain Colnett was also responsible for starting the first postal system in the Galapagos. This was a large barrel on the Island of Floreana into which letters could be dropped by an outward-bound ship, to eventually be picked up and delivered to their destination by a homeward-bound ship. This system was used extensively by whaling ships, which were often at sea for two or three years. The original barrel disintegrated, but has been replaced many times and the system, although unofficial, is still in use today.

The first Galapagos settlers The first man to live on the Galapagos Islands was an Irishman named Patrick Watkins, who was thought to have been marooned on the Island of Floreana in 1807. He grew vegetables, which he exchanged with passing whalers for rum. In 1809, perhaps inflamed by too much rum, he stole a whaling ship the “Black Prince” and with 5 captured sailors on board set off for the mainland. Only he arrived in Guayaquil alive - whether he ate the unfortunate sailors or threw them overboard remains a mystery.

In 1813 more violence erupted on the islands, Captain David Porter of the USS Essex came to the islands to destroy the British Whaling fleet. This he did with the help of information gained from raiding the post office barrel on Floreana.

The Islands then remained pretty much uninhabited until about 1832, when they were officially annexed by Ecuador and a penal colony was set up on Floreana. Spanish names were given to the Islands, adding to the confusion of the existing English names. For the following hundred years repeated colonization attempts were made, most of which failed.

Between 1892 and 1950 both Britain and the United States made several attempts to lease or purchase the islands, however they were denied. The Americans were however permitted to build an air force base on the Island of Baltra during the Second World War, from which it was possible to defend the Panama Canal. The airstrip is still in use today.

Charles Darwin,
the islands most illustrious visitor

Scientists visit the islands The first scientific mission to the Galapagos was in 1970 under the command of Alessandro Malaspina, a Sicilian captain, sent by the King of Spain; unfortunately the records of this expedition were lost. Without doubt however, the most famous scientist to visit the Galapagos Islands was Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin came to the Islands aboard the HMS Beagle, captained by Robert Fitzroy in 1835. Darwin stayed in the islands for only five weeks, visiting just four islands; San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santiago. Nevertheless he made extensive collections of plants and animals, and recorded observations on their natural history which were later to form the foundation for his work “The Origin of Species”, published 24 years later - the rest is just history!

References Boyce, B (1990) A travelers guide to the Galapagos Islands. Galapagos Travel, USA

Jackson MH (1993) Galapagos Natural History. University of Calgary Press.

Pictures taken from "MICROSOFT ENCARTA DVD-ROM", Reference Suite'99

Dr. Janet Sumner-Fromeyer