The Galapagos islands are believed to date back more than six million years, when they emerged as a result of volcanic activity generated beneath the ocean’s floor.
The islands are commonly known to have been discovered on March 10th, 1535 when Dominican Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants, following the conquest of the Incas. While performing an administrative mission for the Spanish Monarch Carlos V, the bishop’s ship stalled when the winds died and strong currents carried him out to the Galapagos. In his account of adventure, addressed to Emperor Carlos V, Berlanga described the harsh, desert-like condition of the islands and their trademark giant tortoises. He wrote about the marine iguanas, the sea lions and the numerous species of birds. He also noted the remarkable tameness of the animals that continue to thrill and delight modern day visitors. However, in 1963 Thor Heyerdahl reported findings of pottery of South American origin that suggested earlier contacts – a theory that appears controversial still today.
Around the year 1570 the islands appeared on a map for the first time – drawn by Abraham Ortelius and Mercator. The islands were called “Insulae de los Galapagos” meaning “Islands of the Tortoises”.
From the late 16th century, the archipelago was considered an ideal hiding place by the English pirates who pilfered the Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain. “Buccaneers Cove” on the northwest side of Santiago, was especially a favoured site due to the presence of fresh water – a scarce commodity in the Galapagos. Giant tortoises could be kept alive for months in the holds of ships and so created a source of fresh meat for the mariners.
By the late 18th century pirates were replaced by whalers and fur-seal hunters. British captain James Colnett was commissioned by His Majesty’s government to investigate the possibilities of sperm-whale fisheries in the 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 – often at sea for years – would leave letters in the barrel to be collected by England-bound ships. The “Post Office Barrel” may still be seen today on the shore of “Post Office Bay”. A few years before the arrival of Colonett, the first scientific mission to the Galapagos arrived under the leadership of Alessandro Malaspina, a Sicilian captain whose expedition was sponsored by the King of Spain. However, the records of the expedition were lost.
During the course of the 19th century, whalers came to the Galapagos in large numbers – numbers much greater than the pirates. This had a massive impact on the animal life, as several tortoise species were brought to extinction due to hunting.
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”. He nevertheless wrote a short story, “Los Encantadas”, which took place in the islands and was 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, who however, had taken little interest in them and had done almost nothing to enforce its claim. In 1832, they were claimed by the 2 year old Republic of Ecuador and named the “Archipelago del Ecuador”. Sixty years later, 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.
The “Voyage of the Beagle” brought the survey ship HMS Beagle under captain Robert FitzRoy to the Galapagos on September 15th, 1835 to survey approaches to harbours. The captain and others on board – including his companion, the young naturalist Charles Darwin – made a scientific study of geology and biology on four of the thirteen islands, leaving October 20th to continue their round-the-world expedition. Upon their return to England, when collected specimens of birds were analyzed, it was found that many were species of finches, which were also unique to islands. These facts were crucial in Darwin’s development of his evolution theory, which was presented in “The Origin of Species”. Visits to the islands were much more frequent by now and increasingly their purpose was scientific and strategic as well as commercial. Population had by this time increased to around 300.
While some scientific work, mainly the collection of specimens, had been going on since Darwin’s visit, the first expedition that made a serious attempt to catalogue the flora and fauna of the islands was the expedition of the Californian Academy of Science in 1905/06 under the leadership of Rollo Beck, aboard the schooner Academy. In 1923 and 1925, William Beebe led two expeditions for the New York Zoological Society and wrote two books on the islands, ‘Galapagos, Worlds End’ (1924) and ‘The Arcturus Adventure’ (1926).
With the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 the Galapagos islands became much more accessible. Following WWI, a number of European settlers arrived in the islands; firstly a group of Norwegians who set up a fish canning factory on Floreana. When this venture failed, a number of them either stayed on or returned later to settle on Santa Cruz. During the 1930’s a number of European settlers arrived – among them the Wittmers on Floreana and the Angermeyers on St. Cruz who established themselves permanently. Their descendants remain part of the social fabric of the islands.
With the outbreak of WWII and the joining in of the USA following Pearl Harbour in 1942, the Galapagos gained strategic importance to maintain control of the sea lanes to Panama. USA received permission from the Ecuadorian government to construct an air force base on the island of Baltra. When the Americans withdrew after the war, all of the island residents were allowed to each remove one of the many wooden buildings from the base, and for the next 40 years or so these clapboard houses were visible on all the inhabited islands. With Ecuadorian sovereignty re-established, having declined a US purchase offer, the site now serves as the main airport for the archipelago. In 1968 one of the two runways was resurfaced and regular flights from continental Ecuador began. Today there are 3 or more flights each day to and from both Baltra and the later established airport on San Cristobal.
In the post-war era the population grew slowly with a number of other European and North American settlers arriving, as well as larger numbers of Ecuadorians who came out to fish and farm. At that time the economy was largely based on fishing for ‘bacalao’, a rock bass which was salted and dried, then shipped to the mainland as a traditional Easter food. The arrival of tourism in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought people and with them, economic prosperity. As the industry burgeoned in the 1980s and ’90s, and as new fisheries were developed, the population grew rapidly. By the turn of the century it had risen to some 20,000.
UNESCO declared the Galapagos Islands a Humanity Natural Heritage in 1979 and, six years later, a Biosphere Reserve, which has resulted in an even greater interest at the international level.