The Galapagos Islands


" This archipelago has long been frequented, first by the Bucaniers, and latterly by whalers, but it is only in the last six years, that a small colony has been established here. The inhabitants are between two and three hundred in number: they are nearly all people of colour, who have been banished for political crimes from the Republic of the Equator, of which Quito is the capital… In the woods there are many wild pigs and goats; but the staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises".

Charles Darwin,

Voyage of the Beagle, 1835.



The Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, officially discovered the islands, (in 1535), when his ship was becalmed and drifted on the ocean currents westwards, eventually making a landfall on the Galapagos. That the Bishop and some of the crew survived was a small miracle, as they found barely enough fresh water to make the 600-mile return journey back to the mainland. Indeed many of the crew perished along the way. A report of the discovery was then sent to the King of Spain.


It is possible however that people of pre – Colombian coastal settlements may have visited the islands previously. Legend has it that before the end of the 15th century, the Inca Tupac Yupanqui led a voyage of ocean exploration that came upon two islands, Ava Chumbi, (Island Beyond), and Ninachumbi, (Island of Fire). It is suggested that this may be a reference to the islands of Isabela and Fernandina respectively. Whether or not the monarch himself was present on the expedition is unclear, as no written record exists from this period. However, the presence of pottery shards and other remains do indicate that at some point in time the islands were indeed visited by early seafarers.


During the 16th and early 17th centuries, the "Enchanted Isles" became a frequent hideaway for the English pirates and privateers, seeking refuge from the Spaniards. From the safety of the islands, the English ships would plunder the Spanish galleons that plied the coastal routes, taking booty from Peru to the land crossing of the Isthmus of Panama and thence across the Atlantic to Spain. They also pillaged coastal settlements, repeatedly attacking, and burning Guayaquil before fleeing back to the Galapagos. The Spaniards declined to follow them, believing the islands to be under a curse, disappearing and reappearing in different positions, hence the early name "las Islas Encantadas" (Bewitched Islands). Undoubtedly the pirates were the first to begin introducing exotic species to the islands, such as black rats, maybe cats and dogs and possibly goats. They also preyed upon the local wildlife. As one famous English pirate, Ambrose Cowley, is purported to have said, "no pullet, (sic) makes finer eating than a Galapagos tortoise".


Then in the 18th and 19th centuries came the English and North American whalers and sealers, leaving behind a trail of destruction and depletion. This period saw the disappearance of three tortoise populations and, with the further introduction of exotic species of plants and animals, the endangering of many more native and endemic species. 


The Ecuadorian government laid official claim to the "Archipelago de Colon" in 1832. They established a small colony, primarily of soldiers, that having been accused of rebellion and sentenced to death had their sentences commuted to banishment to Floreana Island. The colony, instigated by General Juan Jose Flores, and under the leadership of Ignacio Hernandez, soon became nothing more than a destination for common criminals and failed within a few years.


Shortly afterwards, in 1835, came the visit of the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, on board H.M.S. Beagle. His writings about the islands provoked an enormous amount of interest, and his theory of evolution by natural selection, subsequent to his voyage rocked the modern world.


More settlers arrived during the early 1900’s, including those involved in the mysterious deaths and disappearances on Floreana in the 1930’s, the Ritters, Wittmers, the Baroness, and her lovers. (See "The Galapagos Affair", by John Treherne, Penguin Press). Greater still was the influx of people from the 1970’s to the present day. The local population in 1975 was around 2000 and today is estimated at around 25 – 30 000 in total, between the 4 inhabited islands, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana.


In 1959, the islands were declared a National Park, a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1978 and subsequently a Biosphere Reserve in 1984. Galapagos waters became, by decree a marine reserve in 1986 and a Whale Sanctuary in 1991. UNESCO was again approached to make the marine reserve a World Heritage Site, and this became a reality in December of 2001. In 2016 the area surrounding the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin, approximately 40 000 square kilometres, (15 000 square miles), was declared a Marine Sanctuary with zero extraction.

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