A Brief History of the Galapagos

Discovery, Pirates, and Whalers

The Galapagos were discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama. This was the time of Spanish exploration and discovery, and followed Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe by a just a dozen years and Balboa's discovery of the Pacific by two dozen. de Berlanga, however, was no explorer. He had been sailing to Peru, recently conquered by Pizzaro, when his ship became becalmed and was carried west by currents; his discovery was entirely accidental. de Berlanga saw little value in the islands. He wrote that the land there, inhabited only by birds, seals and reptiles, was "dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass, but only some thistles." By the time de Berlanga sighted the first of islands, his ship had only a two day supply of water. They found no fresh water on the first island they landed on. They sailed on to a second (one with high peaks, possibly Santa Cruz) but ran out of water by the time they reached it. After several days they succeeded in finding water "in a ravine among rocks" (later visitors learned to find water by following tortoise paths into the highlands). In the meantime, de Berlanga's men were reduced to squeezing water from prickly pear cactus pads. Two men and ten horses died of thirst before water was found. de Berlanga reported sighting two more large islands, possibly Santiago and Isabela, and landed on the smaller of the two. In his report to the King of Spain, de Berlanga did not refer to the islands by name, but they appear on Ortelius's 1570 world map as "Insulae de los Galopegos", named for the saddleback giant tortoises de Berlanga and subsequent early visitors reported seeing.

It is possible that the islands were discoved some 60 years earlier by the Inca king Tupac Yupanqui, as Incan oral history tells of his voyage to the west and discovery of two "Islands of Fire". If there is truth to this, and there are some inconsistencies in the story, it is perhaps more likely he discovered Easter Island.

The fabulous wealth of the growing Spanish Empire caught the attention of Spain's European rivals, who wanted to limit Spanish power and grab some of the wealth for themselves. England in particular gave its blessing to pirates and buccaneers who attacked Spanish galleons returning to Spain from the New World laden with treasure. The Galapagos lay not far from the route between the conquered Inca Empire of the Andes and Panama and New Spain (Mexico), the center of Spanish activity in the New World. So beginning in the late 16th century, the Galapagos became a base of operations for many English pirates. In 1684, one of these buccaneers, Ambrose Cowley, made the first crude map of the islands and named each of them, mainly after English kings and noblemen (these names have largely been supplanted by Spanish ones; a small islet east of Isabela, however, still bears Cowley's name). Though fresh water is scarce in the Galapagos, it can be found in a few localities. One particularly favored spot was Buccaneer Cove on the northwest end of Santiago. Fresh meat, in the form of the giant tortioses, was another valuable commodity to be had in the Galapagos. The giant tortoises were highly prized by mariners because they could be kept alive in the holds of ships for many months without food or water.

By 1790 pirates were being replaced by whalers. Captain James Colnett was comissioned by His Majesty's government to investigate the possibilities of sperm-whale fisheries in region and visited the islands in 1793 and 1794. Colnett made the first reasonably accurate map of the archipelago and set up a "Post Office Barrel" on Floreana. Whalers, who would be at sea for years, would leave letters in the barrel and ships heading back to England to port would pick up the letters and deliver them to port. The Post Office Barrel may still be seen today on the shore in Post Office Bay.

Soon whalers from New Bedford as well as England were coming to the Galapagos in large numbers, dozens of ships each year. Like the pirates before them, whalers would hunt tortoises, turtles, birds, and occasionally land iguanas for food. The whalers, though, were much more numerous than the pirates had been and some races of tortoises quickly became extinct. As many as 200,000 tortoises may have been taken over the course of the 19th century. Also taken in great numbers were fur seals, whose thick, luxurious fur was highly prized. By the early 20th century they were nearly extinct (they have since greatly recovered). In 1813, when the U.S., Britain, and France were at war with one another, American Captain David Porter, commanding the U.S.S. Essex, nearly destroyed the British whaling fleet in the Galapagos. At the same time, Porter charted the islands and made careful observations of them in his log, including an eruption of Floreana in July 1813, the only known historic eruption of this volcano. Porter was also the first to remark upon the differences in the tortoises, particularly in the shape of their shells, from the various islands. When anchored in James Bay, Porter released several goats to graze near the shore. However, after several days the goats disappeared into the interior and were not seen again. Porter had not intended to release the goats. But in subsequent years and centuries, many were deliberately released to provide a continuing source of meat to ships in the area. These goats would multiply, eventually reaching 100,000 on Santiago, and devestate the native flora of Santiago and several other islands and threating the native herbivores, such as the giant tortoise. Today, introduced species remain the single greatest threat to the Galapagos biota.

Among the whalers who stopped here was Herman Melville, the great American novelist and author of Moby Dick. Melville was unimpressed by what he saw, "five and twenty heaps of cinder dumped here and there in an outside city lot", but nevertheless wrote a short story, Los Encantadas, that took place in the islands, published in 1854. The title is the name whalers and pirates often used for the islands, the Enchanted Isles.

Up to 1832, the islands were nominally owned by Spain, which, however, had taken little intersest in them and had done almost nothing to enforce its claim. In 1832, they were claimed by the 2 year old Republic of Ecuador (which lies 1000 km to the east), and named the "Archipelago del Ecuador". In 1892 they were renamed "Archipelago de Colon" in honor of Columbus and the 400th anniversary of his discovery of America. This remains the official name of the islands, but the original name, Galapagos, is more widely used. In 1833, the Ecuadorian government granted a concession to Jose Villamil, a Frenchman who had left Louisiana when it was sold to the United States, to establish the first settlement in the Galapagos, on Floreana. Villamil raised fruits, vegetables, cattle, pigs, and goats and did a brisk business trading with whalers.

By the time of Darwin's visit in 1935, tortoises were already disappearing from Floreana. He found two to three hundred people living on the island and that "the staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises. Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced in this island, but the people yet count on two days' hunting giving them food for the rest of the week. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship's company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach." By 1846, well after Villamil's colony had been abandoned, Berthold Seeman, a naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Pandora, reported there were no tortoises to be found on Floreana, but there were 2000 head of cattle. Wild dogs roamed the island, and they were later reported to attack visitors. The Santa Fe and Rabida tortoise races also became extinct in the nineteenth century.

Whaling interest in the Galapagos waned in the 1860's as sperm whales became scare and recently discovered petroleum came rapidly to replace sperm oil. Though ships continued to occasionally stop there to take fur seals and provision, the great era of pirates and whalers was over.