History of the Galápagos
An Array of Adventurers
Although it’s widely accepted that the Galápagos Islands were discovered in 1535, they have a much longer history. At around five million years old, they were already well known to species of Tortoises and iguanas, for instance, long before we ever set foot there.
But since we humans tend to figure prominently in any history-of-place we tell, so this story starts with our accidentally bumping into them.
In our own defense, however, we have made up for our kind’s lack of time in the Galápagos by the numbers of colorful personalities and bigger-than-life characters that have represented us there: scoundrels and pirates, heroes and heretics, great thinkers and renowned conservationists — all with fascinating stories of their own:
A Place of Giant Reptiles and “Tame” Birds (1535–1569)
It started out as a trip from Panama to what is now Peru. But, as most travelers can attest, when you embark on an adventure, things don’t always go as planned.
In 1535, after the fall of the Inca Empire, Bishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga of Panama set out to investigate the reported atrocities committed by conquistadors on the indigenous peoples of Peru. On March 10 of that year, Bishop Berlanga stumbled upon the Galápagos Islands when his ship, carried by the South Equatorial Current, drifted into them. The crew had very little water left by the time they landed in the Galápagos, and they needed to search for more. Fortunately, they found just enough in a rocky ravine to sustain them on the trip back to the mainland.
In his written report to King Carlos V of Spain — the first, official mention of the islands in recorded history — Berlanga provided descriptions of the giant tortoises, iguanas, fur seals, and “tame” birds that he found there. Although he portrayed the islands as inhospitable, curiosity about this mysterious place was born.
Putting the Islands on the Map (1570–1590s)
Apparently, news of Bishop Berlanga’s report made its way to Flemish cartographers. One of them, Abraham Ortelius, included the islands in what is now considered one of the first modern atlases: the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World), published in 1570. Ortelius may have used a 1569 collection of maps by Gerardus Mercator, another Flemish cartographer, as an additional resource. The islands were labeled Insulae de los Galopegos, named for the saddle-shaped shells of the giant tortoises, Berlanga had reported seeing.
Two years later, however, a group of Spanish sailors who were fleeing South America were also pushed by the South Equatorial Current to the Galápagos. Having no charts with them, they called the islands the Islas Encantadas (Bewitched Islands) because they seemed to appear and disappear before their eyes in the fog and mist. In fact, some seventeenth-century Spaniards who witnessed the same phenomenon claimed that the Galápagos were, in truth, nothing more than mere shadows that had no physical form at all.
Avast, Me Hearties! (1590s–early 1700s)
From the late 1500s to the early 1700s, pirates were the most frequent visitors to the islands. These “scurvy naves” used the Galápagos as a base from which to run their raids on Spanish colonial ports and as a refuge where they could stock up on food: most notably, tortoise meat. Live tortoises, which are able to survive a year or more without food or water, could be piled high in the ships’ hulls as a source of fresh meat during the time the sailors were at sea.
Because of the antics of these ancient mariners, scuba divers and fortune hunters with dreams of finding pirate gold or silver are still drawn to the Galápagos today.
Navigational Charts and a Legendary Rescue (1700s)
At least one of these pirates, however, didn’t fit the typical stereotype. Englishman William Dampier had a decidedly literary inclination and was a gentleman more interested in the wonders of nature than in plundering. He was, in fact, the first man to sail around the world three times. He made his first visit to the Galápagos in 1679 and returned twice more.
In 1684, Dampier anchored a Danish ship he’d seized and renamed the Bachelor’s Delight on Santiago Island. With him were Captain John Cook and his navigator, William Ambrose Cowley. Cowley drew the first navigational charts of the islands and named many places after his fellow buccaneers or for English noblemen sympathetic to the “pirate cause.” Buccaneer Cove and James Bay (now known as Puerto Egas) on Santiago are a few of the favorite hideouts Cowley named.
When the War of the Spanish Succession broke out in 1701, Dampier was appointed commander of the ship the St. George in order to assist the English against French and Spanish interests. With its crew of 120 men, the St. George set sail from England on April 30, 1703, for the port of Kinsale in Ireland. There, Captain Dampier met up with the captain of the smaller galleon, the Cinque Ports. The two ships then left Kinsale together, with the intention of attacking a Spanish treasure ship returning from Buenos Aires. When that plan fell through, they headed for the southern seas by way of Cape Horn. While rounding the horn and cruising up the South American coast to Mexico, the two ships finally captured a few small, Spanish ships.
In September 1704, the Cinque Ports separated from the St. George on the Pacific Coast of the Americas, after putting one of its crew, Scotsman Alexander Selkirk, ashore alone on an island in the Juan Fernández group, about 373 miles off the coast of Chile. Selkirk’s “crime” was complaining about the ship’s seaworthiness. The Cinque Ports sank a month later.
By 1709, William Dampier was piloting the Duke, a boat under the command of privateer Captain Woodes Rogers. They rescued Selkirk in early February, after he had lived for four years and four months without any human companionship.
Selkirk took part in a raid on Guayaquil and retreated with the crew to the Galápagos. There, he taught his mates how to live off the land, since he had become an expert at survival on his lonely island near Chile. Intrigued with Selkirk and his know-how, Captain Rodgers included him in a 1712 published work titled A Cruising Voyage Round the World: first to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Using that account for inspiration, Daniel Defoe based his title character on Selkirk for his famous 1719 book, Robinson Crusoe.
Whales No More (late 1700s–late 1800s)
The next wave of visitors to the Galápagos didn’t have raiding Spanish ships as much on their minds as taking the treasures of the sea: what they came for were whales.
English Captain James Colnett arrived in the islands in 1793 looking for sperm whales. His investigations — and his far more masterfully drawn navigational charts — began an era of whaling that lasted almost a hundred years. Not only did the whalers, who came in search of whale oil to fuel the Industrial Revolutions of Europe and North America, decimate the crop of cetaceans, they butchered thousands of Galápagos fur seals for their pelts — almost to the point of extinction. And they kept on eating tortoises. Certain species of tortoise were removed forever from the face of the Earth. Between 1811 and 1844, according to the whalers’ logs that survived, at least fifteen thousand tortoises were taken for food. During the nineteenth century in all, as many as two hundred thousand were harvested.
By the late 1790s, the islands were becoming alive with traffic; so much so, that Colnett set up a “post office” barrel on Floreana, one of the few islands with natural springs, to enable passing ships to collect and deposit mail. The beach where the barrel sat was known as “Post Office Bay.” The original barrel, a ”recycled” wine cask, is long gone, of course, but others have replaced it over the years. Today, visitors to the Galápagos still leave messages here, with the same dreams for delivery.
Settling In: the First Human Resident (1807–1850s)
Patrick Watkins probably never thought he’d earn the historical distinction of being the first resident of the Galápagos. But that’s just what he did, after he was marooned on Floreana in 1807. An Irish crewmember on a British ship, it is lost to history as to why Watkins was put ashore and left behind.
Watkins grew vegetables on Floreana, which he exchanged for rum with passing whalers. But after two years, it seems, Watkins had had enough of his island. He seized the Black Prince, a whaling ship, while the crew was on land stocking up on water and tortoises. He took along with him five sailors as his “slaves.” Although it’s not known why or how, mysteriously only Watkins reached Guayaquil alive.
In the spring of 1813, after the outbreak of the War of 1812, the USS Essex under the command of Captain David Porter arrived in the islands. Captain Porter was charged with halting British shipping in the eastern Pacific. With the help of intelligence he gained by perusing the mail at the post office barrel on Floreana Island, Porter managed to destroy the British whaling fleet in the Galápagos.
But history ascribes to Captain Porter yet another mantle — one not quite so deserving of medals. He is said to have released one of the first invasive species on the Galápagos: goats.
In 1814, two British warships at Valparaíso, Chile, attacked the USS Essex and Porter was forced to surrender. Herman Melville, an American novelist who had visited the Galápagos as a young whaler, later based part of his 1851 book, Moby-Dick, on the real-life tragedy that befell that ship.
Annexed by Ecuador (1832–1892)
In 1832, the Galápagos were officially transferred from Spain to Ecuador, and they were named Archipiélago del Ecuador. A new, small colony sprouted on Floreana, founded by Ecuadorian General José Villamil. It was thought that the springs there would make it possible for residents to farm the rich volcanic soil. Most of the “settlers” were convicts, political prisoners, or other unwanted people. But while fruits, vegetables, cattle, pigs, and goats were raised, the staple food remained tortoises. By 1846, the tortoises of Floreana were gone. About two thousand free-ranging cattle had taken their place.
Over the next century, other attempts were made at colonization, but most failed. People were predominantly drawn to the islands to exploit the sulfur from active volcanoes, fish, tortoises, lichens (for the textile dye industry), and salt.
In 1892, the islands were officially renamed Archipiélago de Colón in honor of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón), but “the Galápagos” is the name we still most commonly use today.
Creating an Evolutionary Theory (1835–1859)
Today, you cannot think of the Galápagos without thinking of Charles Darwin, perhaps the islands’ most famous tourist. On September 15, 1835, the twenty-six-year-old Darwin arrived on the HMS Beagle, captained by Robert Fitzroy, who made even more improvements to Galápagos navigational charts. Fitzroy’s versions were used up until World War II.
Darwin visited only the islands of San Cristóbal, Floreana, Isabela, and Santiago, but the collections of plants and animals he acquired during his short, five-week visit (with only nineteen days on land) inspired his thoughts on the theory of evolution. When his controversial book, The Origin of Species, hit the market in 1859, he changed forever the course of biological thought throughout the world. Phrases such as “natural selection,” “genetic mutation,” and “environmental adaptation” became part of our lexicon. Since Darwin’s time, scientific expeditions to the islands have become a tradition.
Utopians and the Empress of Floreana (late 1920s–1934)
By the 1920s, Europe was weary of war. Many on the continent began to dream of finding a place where they could create a peaceful, idyllic life for themselves. Two events came together to convince some of them that they would be able to find it in the Galápagos: the publication of American naturalist William Beebe’s bestselling 1924 book titled Galápagos: World’s End, and the Ecuadorian government’s offer of free plots of land with hunting and fishing rights and no taxes for ten years to anyone wishing to settle there.
One such European was Friedrich Karl Ritter, a German dentist, philosopher, and vegetarian. He longed to indulge his raw food theories and work on his theosophist — a “hidden” science that attempts to reconcile scientific, philosophical, and religious disciplines into a unified worldview — treatise in the company of his devoted disciple and girlfriend, Dore Strauch Koerwein. He decided that the Galápagos would make a perfect base for those endeavors.
There was just one problem: both Dore and Friedrich were married to other people. In a bizarre agreement, the two couples worked out a plan where Frau Ritter would take over the household management chores for Herr Koerwein so that Friedrich and Dore could set off for their dreamland. They arrived on Floreana Island in the late 1920s.
The two built a house they named “Friedo” (a contraction of Friedrich and Dore) in the highlands, near a freshwater spring. They planned their house, gardens, and orchards to conform to Dr. Ritter’s theories, placing those elements carefully in a feng shui-type of design. Over the following three years, Dr. Ritter wrote letters back home and articles for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, which became highly popular. Friedrich and Dore were soon cast as notorious lovers in the public’s imagination, a sort of nouveau Adam and Eve. Floreana suddenly become fashionable. Europeans in their luxury yachts began to stop by, and rich Americans were known to drop anchor at “Black Beach” in order to pay a visit to the faddish couple.
Much to the Ritters’ disappointment, however, the popularity of their story began to draw other would-be inhabitants to Floreana. But most soon left, unaccustomed to the real-life rigors of making a living there. But in September 1932, Margret and Heinz Wittmer (and Heinz’s twelve-year-old son, Harry, from a previous marriage) of Cologne, Germany, came to Floreana. Like others before them, they came for a more peaceful lifestyle and to avoid post-war Germany’s financial meltdown. But unlike most of them, the Wittmers were extremely successful at agriculture and stayed on.
The reception by the Ritters, unfortunately, was cool. Margret and Heinz Wittmer were down-to-earth types, while Dr. Ritter believed his philosophical rhetoric was beyond the intellectual levels of the island’s newest residents. The couples basically kept to themselves.
Shortly after the Wittmers arrived, an eccentric Austrian woman who called herself “Eloise Wagner de Bosquet” appeared with her two lovers, Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Philippson. They had heard of Ecuador’s offer of land on Floreana and arranged to make their home in what they thought would be a tropical paradise. Eloise planned to build a hotel for the wealthy yachtsmen who were frequent visitors to the island. The trio managed to get a structure they called “Hacienda Paradise” built, but it was not much more than a shack constructed of planks and corrugated iron.
Eloise, who was fond of carrying a gun and a whip, then proclaimed herself to be the “Empress of Floreana.” That didn’t sit well with Dr. Ritter or the Wittmers, who simply called her “the baroness.” Tensions on the island rose.
In January 1933, Margret Wittmer claimed a “title” for her own family when she gave birth to a son, the first “native” of Floreana, whom she named Rolf.
But starting in October 1933 and lasting until April 6, 1934, a severe drought hit the Galápagos. Many of the springs dried up, making water scarce. Crops failed, and hostilities begin to bubble over.
The baroness came to the conclusion that Philippson was her true lover and started to mistreat Lorenz, over-working, beating, and starving him. As the baroness’s favoritism to Philippson grew, the two men came to blows. Lorenz was driven out and sought refuge with the Wittmers.
Then — according to a story Margret would later tell — on March 28, the baroness showed up unexpectedly at the Wittmers to announce that she and Philippson were going to leave immediately for the South Seas with American friends who had arrived on their yacht, anchored in Post Office Bay. The baroness purportedly said that since she and Philippson would probably not return, Lorenz could become sole master of the house and animals they left behind.
Strangely, however, Heinz and Margret had never reported seeing any ships in Post Office Bay around that time. Since their home possessed the best view of the bay, they were always the first to spot and welcome arrivals.
The baroness and Philippson were never seen or heard from again.
According to Lorenz, when he returned to Hacienda Paradise, he found the cottage empty, the luggage and donkey missing, and all-around disorder. Lorenz lived at the deserted home for the next several weeks, returning to the Wittmers for meals. He then moved to Post Office Bay, where he waited for a passing ship.
On July 20, a fishing boat captained by a reckless Norwegian named Nyggerud arrived. Although the sea was dangerously high, Lorenz offered Nyggerud extra money if he would leave immediately. Two days later, the deserted and rickety fishing boat was seen drifting off San Cristóbal Island. It is believed that the two experienced engine failure and abandoned ship, setting out in the skiff to try to reach land. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the waterless Marchena Island at the northwest end of the archipelago.
Lorenz’s mummified body was found on Marchena’s beach months later, alongside that of Captain Nyggerud’s. Both had died of thirst.
In November 1934, Dr. Ritter also passed away. Dore Strauch believed that he succumbed to food poisoning from meat they had improperly canned, even though he had professed to be a vegetarian. One doctor who later visited the island suspected that from the symptoms of increasing paralysis that Dore described, Friedrich may have actually died from an aneurism.
Dore Strauch left Floreana and returned to Germany, where in 1935 she wrote a book titled Satan Came to Eden about her life on the island. In her opinion, Lorenz murdered the baroness and Philippson and burned their bodies in a fire made of acacia wood, hot enough to completely destroy all evidence of them. She also thought that the Wittmers might have corroborated Lorenz’s story out of pity for his plight.
Margret Wittmer continued to live on Floreana. Her 1961 book, Floreana, Poste Restante, become a bestseller. She died in March 2000.
Harry Wittmer drowned in a 1951 boating accident. Rolf Wittmer pioneered the Galápagos tourism industry, operating tour boats under his company’s name, Rolf Wittmer Turismo, Ltd.
The Smithsonian Institution reports that by 1934, there was nothing left of the baroness’s empire but a run-down house, a ruined garden, and a sign posted at Post Office Bay, which read:
WHO EVER YOU ARE
Two hours from here is Hacienda Paradise … a little spot where the weary traveler is happy to find some rest, refreshment, and peace on his way through life.
Life, this little bit of eternity chained to a clock, is so short after all; so let us be happy, let us be good.
At “Paradise” you have no name but one, “friend.”
We will share with you the salt of the sea, the vegetables of our little garden, the fruits of our trees, the fresh water running down from the rocks; we will share with you what other friends who passed by gave us. We will spend with you some moments of life and give you the happiness and peace that God put into our heart and mind since we have left the restless turmoil of the metropolis to the quiet of centuries which has laid its mantle upon the Galápagos.
One of the First World Heritage Sites (1932–2001)
In 1932, the same year that Margret and Heinz moved to Floreana, Ecuador enacted laws to protect the Galápagos. Four years later, it declared 97 percent of all the islands, excluding the inhabited areas, a national park. In that same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation established its headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. But it would take more than twenty years for conservation work in the Galápagos to actually begin.
In the intervening years, during World War II, the United States gained permission to build an airbase on Baltra Island, which was used to patrol and defend the Panama Canal. At the end of the war, the U.S. gave the airstrip to Ecuador.
Finally, in 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation was organized to oversee a research station on the Galápagos and advise the national park. Five years later, in 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Academy Bay in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island was a reality. Today, the CDRS mission is to become the world’s leading research institution, to conserve the biological diversity and natural resources of the islands, and to create a sustainable society that values the Galápagos and is committed to protecting it.
Currently, Galápagos residents, about thirty-five thousand of them mostly on the four larger islands of Isabela, Floreana, Santa Cruz, and San Cristóbal, make their living from tourism, cattle ranching, fishing, and agriculture. The provincial capital of the Galápagos is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal, but both the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galápagos National Park Service have their headquarters at Academy Bay on Santa Cruz.
Park service personnel work to eradicate and control introduced species, particularly feral dogs and cats, goats, pigs, and guava shrubs and trees. They protect endangered, endemic animals and manage recreation and tourism.
In the 1970s, the Charles Darwin Research Station published a Master Plan for the Galápagos National Park. In 1978, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Galápagos Islands one of the first twelve World Heritage Sites. UNESCO named the Galápagos a Biosphere Reserve, affording it even more protections in 1984.
Two years later, by presidential decree of Leon Febrès Cordero, the Galápagos Marine Reserve was created. La Reserva Marina de Galápagos is one of the largest in the world. It signifies that the waters of the Galápagos are as biologically diverse as the islands. In 2001, UNESCO expanded the World Heritage Site status of the Galápagos to include the Galápagos Marine Reserve.
They Are What You Make of Them (Present)
Today, the Galápagos Islands are at a crossroads. Introduced, invasive plant and animal species are an ongoing threat; and immigration from the Ecuadorian mainland, increasing visitor numbers, and illegal fishing and poaching are taking a toll on the delicate ecosystems found here. The International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) and its members are taking measures to ensure that the Galápagos remain as natural and untouched as possible by contributing to critical conservation projects.
For all of its human history, then — from 1535 to today — the Galápagos Islands have called to adventurers, dreamers, fortune hunters, scientists, ecotourists, and the merely curious. Whether you imagine them as mist-shrouded, ethereal lands; places to “hideout” for a while; or a very-real research station, the Galápagos Islands invite you to experience their histories — and unravel their mysteries — for yourself.