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Human History of the Galapagos Islands

In 1535, Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, set sail for Peru to help settle a dispute between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants. Along the way, strong winds and currents forced the ship off course, and for a while things looked grim. The sailors were running low on provisions, particularly water. Unwittingly, they stumbled upon the archipelago and were at first relieved, then distressed when they found out how barren and harsh they were. It inspired his famous quote, which appeared in a letter to the king of Spain:

 "The abrupt landscape is desolate and mysterious, with no signs of human presence; the rocks are sterile, and there is nothing but seals, and turtles and such big tortoises that each could carry a man on their back, and many iguanas that are like serpents.

Great masses of volcanic rocks cover the beaches, as if God had rained stones all over!

The Bishop’s report included some description of the Giant Tortoises, and in 1574 a Flemis Atles was published with the islands on it, named “Insulae de los Galopegos,” or “islands of the saddle-backs,” and they have been the Galapagos ever since. Their other nickname, “the Enchanted Islands,” sounds like a twentieth-century marketing slogan, but it isn’t: apparently a group of Francisco Pizarro’s men accidentally found their way there in 1546 and gave them that name because of the way they appeared and disappeared in the mists.

Buccaneers and Whalers

For years the islands were ignored, but in the seventeenth century the far-roving ships of the buccaneers and whalers realized that they made a great place to stop and gather provisions. It was during this time that animals such as goats and pigs were released on the islands, so that future visitors would find a source of food there. Rats and mice also escaped off of the ships and onto the islands, where they remain a pest to this day.

It wasn’t long, however, before these passing ships realized that the giant tortoises of Galapagos made for much better provisions. The tortoises were easy to catch and lived for a long time at sea, providing sailors with fresh meat whenever they wanted it. They even didn’t eat or drink much while on board. During this time, thousands of Galapagos tortoises were captured and hauled off on pirate and whaling boats: Charles Darwin reported that one boat took 700 tortoises from Floreana Island and that such a haul was not uncommon.

Seal hunters also visited the islands, driving the Galapagos fur sea lion population to the brink of extinction: fortunately, the pelt of the Galapagos sea lion is not as good, so those animals were not hunted. To this day, Galapagos Fur Sea Lions are much more shy of humans than their Galapagos Sea Lion cousins.

Besides the introduction of unwanted species and the predation of the tortoises, the most lasting effect of these visitors was the establishment of Post Office Bay, where sailors from all nations would leave letters home and take those of other seamen with them if they were headed that direction. The tradition continues to this day.

In 1684, English buccaneer William Ambrose Cowley was the first to make a navigational chart of the Islands, naming them after prominent British noblemen including King Charles, King James, Admiral Narborough and the Duke of Albemarle. These British names are still sometimes used, although not as common as the Spanish names. Other famous privateers and pirates to visit the islands included William Dampier and Woodes Rogers.

Colonies and Penal Colonies

During the 19th century, Ecuador established colonies on the Islands, in part to firmly establish their ownership of the islands – many nations, including France and the United States, had their eye on them.

The first great pioneer colonist was General José de Villamil, a leader of Ecuador’s Independence movement. He established a colony on Floreana in the 1830’s consisting mostly of re-captured deserters from the army and convicts. They scratched out a meager existence as farmers, often selling whatever excess food they had to passing ships.

Another penal colony was the one led by Manuel Cobos, named El Progreso. Located on San Cristobal in the 1870’s, the colony was a sort of forced-labor camp led by the tyrannical Cobos. Cobos would later be attacked and killed by his own workers, who he maintained in conditions of near-slavery. Isabela Island was home to yet another penal colony: unruly cons were sent to work on the “Wall of Tears” which can still be seen today. By the 1950’s there were no longer any penal colonies on the Islands, but many a native islander can trace his or her roots to these convicts.

Norwegians and Germans

In the late 1920’s, Galapagos was the destination of a most unlikely set of settlers: Norwegians. In 1907, a group of Norwegian sailors had been forced to abandon their ship, the Alexandra, which had been carrying coal from Australia to Panama. They made it to Floreana, and from there to San Cristobal and then to Guayaquil, although two sailors perished along the way.

The stories of the returned sailors lit a spark in the collective imagination of the people of Norway. Their tales of laden fruit trees, sunny climes, tasty tortoises so slow a toddler could catch one and even buried treasure converted the rocky, barren islands into an exotic tropical paradise.

Eventually a few small groups of adventurous Norwegians would find their way to the islands: the Ecuadorian government even granted them land and exclusive hunting and fishing rights.

The Galapagos Affair

The Galapagos Island came to world attention in 1934, when a bizarre string of deaths and disappearances took place among the European population of Floreana Island. Known as “the Galapagos Affair,” the scandal was avidly followed around the world.

The US Air base

When World War II broke out, everyone realized the strategic importance of the Panama Canal. The USA decided that in order to win the war and protect its interests, the Canal must remain safe from Japanese or German occupation. To this end, they arranged a deal with Ecuador to put a military base in the Galapagos. For several years, US airmen and sailors lived on Baltra, where they had not only an air base but also a barracks, store, bar and even a bowling alley. The US left in 1947, turning over the base to Ecuador. Some of the buildings are still there…as is the most famous ghost in Galapagos, “the Headless Gringa.” 

Growth of Tourism

Galapagos was still considered a remote backwater well into the 1960’s. The inhabitants of the towns made a living mostly by fishing or small-scale agriculture. Visitors were generally limited to scientists wishing to follow in Darwin’s footsteps or those tourists who had their own yachts. In 1959, the National Park was established, imposing rules on visitors for the first time.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s tourism began to be an important industry. As airplanes could now reach Ecuador easily, the Galapagos were no longer quite so remote. Ecuadorians were delighted (and perhaps a little surprised) to find that so many well-heeled foreigners would travel so far and pay whatever it cost to see the Galapagos. It wasn’t long before hotels, restaurants tour agencies and cruise ships started popping up, and by the late 1970’s tourism was beginning to replace fishing as the main economic activity in the islands.

Special Laws for Galapagos

In the late 1990’s, it became clear that greater protection for the islands was in order. Because of the tourism boom, thousands of poor Ecuadorians from the mainland had gone to the island to look for work. The people were creating a strain on the environment and the population of the towns was booming in an alarming fashion. Laws were passed to limit the people who could stay and kick out those who could not.

In addition, stricter laws were passed to help the island ecosystems. Certain fruits and vegetables were prohibited, and pets such as dogs and cats were put under a stricter control. Efforts were made to eradicate introduced species and prevent new ones from arriving.   

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to The Galápagos Islands: Natural History of Galapagos, History of the Galapagos Islands and The Islanders Take Over.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
22 Apr 2011

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