Galapagos Island History

European discovery of the Galápagos Islands occurred when Dominican Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro (a Spanish soldier) and his lieutenants. De Berlanga’s vessel drifted off course when the winds diminished and his party reached the islands on March 10, 1535. According to a 1956 study by Thor Heyerdahl (a Norwegian writer and adventurer) and Arne Skjølsvold (writer), remains of potsherds and other artifacts from several sites on the islands suggest visitation by South American peoples prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

The islands first appeared on maps in about 1570 in those drawn by Abraham Ortelius (geographer and map maker) and Mercator (Flemish map maker). The islands were called ‘Insulae de los Galopegos’ (Islands of the Tortoises).

The first English captain to visit the Galápagos Islands was Richard Hawkins (a 17th century English seaman), in 1593. Until the early 19th century, the archipelago was often used as a hideout by mostly English pirates who pilfered Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain.

Alexander Selkirk (a Scottish sailor), whose adventures in Juan Fernández Islands (island group reliant on tourism in the South Pacific Ocean) inspired Daniel Defoe (a British writer, journalist, and spy) to write Robinson Crusoe, visited the Galápagos in 1708 after he was picked up from Juan Fernández by the privateer Woodes Rogers. Rogers was refitting his ships in the islands after sacking Guayaquil (the largest and the most populous city in Ecuador).

The first scientific mission to the Galápagos arrived in 1790 under the leadership of Alessandro Malaspina (an Italian-Spanish naval officer and explorer), whose expedition was sponsored by the King of Spain. However, the records of the expedition were lost.

Giant Tortoise

In 1793, James Colnett made a description of the flora and fauna of Galápagos and suggested that the islands could be used as base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. He also drew the first accurate navigation charts of the islands. Whalers killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises to extract their fat.

The tortoises could also be kept on board ship as a means of providing of fresh protein as these animals could survive for several months on board without any food or water. The hunting of the tortoises was responsible for greatly diminishing, and in some cases eliminating, certain species. Along with whalers came the fur-seal hunters who brought the population of this animal close to extinction.

Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands on February 12, 1832, naming it Archipelago of Ecuador. This was a new name that added to several names that had been, and are still, used to refer to the archipelago. The first governor of Galápagos, General José de Villamil, brought a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana and in October 1832 some artisans and farmers joined.

HMS Beagle The voyage of the Beagle brought the survey ship HMS Beagle under captain Robert Fitzroy to the Galápagos on September 15, 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 before they left on October 20 to continue on their round-the-world expedition.

Darwin noticed that the Finches differed between islands and the governor of the prison colony on Charles Island told him that tortoises differed from island to island. Towards the end of the voyage Darwin speculated that these facts might undermine the stability of Species. When specimens of birds were analysed on his return to England it was found that many apparently different kinds of birds were species of finches which were also unique to islands. These facts were crucial in Darwin’s development of his theory of natural selection (the process by which favourable traits that are heritable become more common in successive generations of a population of reproducing organisms) explaining evolution, which was presented in ‘The Origin of Species’ (a seminal work in scientific literature).

José Valdizán and Manuel Julián Cobos tried a new colonization, beginning the exploitation of a type of lichen found in the islands (Roccella portentosa) used as a colouring agent. After the assassination of Valdizán by some of his workers, Cobos brought from the continent a group of more than a hundred workers to San Cristóbal island and tried his luck at planting sugar cane. He ruled in his plantation with an iron hand which lead to his assassination in 1904. Since 1897 Antonio Gil began another plantation in Isabela island.

Over the course of a whole year, from September 1904, an expedition of the Academy of Sciences of California, led by Rollo Beck, stayed in the Galápagos collecting scientific material on geology, entomology, ornithology, botany, zoology and herpetology. Another expedition from that Academy was done in 1932 (Templeton Crocker Expedition) to collect insects, fish, shells, fossils, birds and plants.

During WWII Ecuador authorized the United States to establish a naval base in Baltra island and radar stations in other strategic locations.

In 1946 a penal colony was established in Isabela Island, but was suspended in 1959.

In 1959, on the one hundreth anniversary of publication of ‘The Origin of Species’, the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands was incorporated in Belgium. It began operations in the islands in 1960 and inaugurated the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1964. With that, some of the damage began to be reversed.

In 1965, the research station began a program of collecting tortoise eggs and bringing them to the research station where they would be hatched and raised to an age where they had a reasonable chance for survival. They were then returned to their native islands. This occurred just in time to save the Espanola race of tortoises from extinction (only 11 females and 2 males remained of the Espanola race). Declines in the populations of other races were reversed. Later, a similar program was initiated for land iguanas.

The Hawaiian Petrel was also close to extinction. Its breeding sites were protected and the population is increasing. Also in 1959, the the Galapagos were declared a National Park by the government of Ecuador. It was not until 1968, however, that the boundaries of the park, which include 95% of the land in the islands, and a park service were established. Later, the ocean surrounding the islands was declared a Marine Reserve and placed under the park’s jurisdiction as well. Goats were eradicated from several islands.

Organized tourism began in 1970, when 1000 tourists visited the islands. Tourism has grown to an estimated 60,000 visitors annually in the 1990’s. The impact of this on the islands has been kept to a minimum by implementation of very tight controls and regulation of tour operators. Tourists eat and sleep on tour boats and are allowed to come ashore only in designated areas, and then only under the supervision of licensed guides.