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Galapagos Isles

Galapagos History

The Galapagos Isles were “discovered” by Europeans accidently when the ship of Spaniard Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth bishop of Peru, sailed off course and arrived at the islands on March 10th, 1535. However, it is rumored that the islands were first discovered some 60 years earlier by the Incan king Tupac Yupanqui, though some discrepancies in the story make it more plausible that he had arrived at Easter Island.

Beginning in the late 16th century, the Galapagos Isles became a base of operations for English pirates preying on treasure laden Spanish Galleons.  Interestingly, giant tortoises were a prized source of food for the mariners as they could be held alive on ships for months without food or water.  By the late 1700´s, the pirates were being replaced by whalers coming from the American colonies and England, as dozens of ships began coming each year. The whalers soon became more numerous than the pirates ever were, and their hunting of tortoises, turtles, birds, and land iguanas did devastating damage to the wildlife of the Galapagos Isles. Many species of tortoises went instinct, and as many as 200,000 were taken from the isles in the 19th century, as well as a large number of seals that were prized for their luxurious fur. One of the whalers that came to the isles was the great American novelist Herman Melville, who wrote a short story called Los Encantados, titled after the name that many whalers and pirates had used to refer to the Galapagos – The Enchanted Isles

In 1832 the Galapagos Isles were annexed from Spain by the two-year-old Republic of Ecuador, who renamed them The Archipelago of Ecuador. Later in 1892 Ecuador renamed the Islands The Archipelago of Colón in honor of Cristopher Colombus and the 400th anniversary of his discovery of the Americas. This remains the official name today, but the islands are still more commonly known by their traditional name Galapagos. The first official settlement of the Islands began in 1833 on Floreana Island by a Frenchman named Jose Villamil; however, the first “permanent” human inhabitant was an Irishman named Patrick Watkins who was marooned on the islands in 1807. He spent eight years selling fruits and vegetables to passing ships, until he finally stole a boat and sailed back to the mainland.

On September 15th, 1835, the HMS Beagle, sailing under Captain Robert FitzRoy, arrived at the Galapagos Isles to survey the harbors. Within the personal of the ship was a young naturalist and geologist by the name of Charles Darwin.  Darwin was impressed with the number of volcanic craters in the Galapagos Isles, and his research of volcanic formations during his five week visit led to several important geological discoveries, including how volcanic tuff is formed. His observations about the differing species within the islands, particularly the differences between the bird and the tortoise species from island to island, later were crucial to his formation of his theory of natural selection presented in The Origin of Species.

Waves of European settlers began arriving to the Galapagos Isles in the 1920´s and 30´s, as the Ecuadorian government offered 20 hectares of land, the right to maintain their citizenship, and ten years free of taxation to any settlers who arrived to the islands. The settlers were first typically Norwegian, followed by Germans, whose decedents can still be found there. In 1959, on the one hundredth anniversary of publication of The Origin of Species, the Galapagos became a national park, imposing several restrictions on the human population and commencing with many nature and wildlife restoration programs. The decline of many species, especially of tortoises, was reversed as breeding sites became protected and hunting became restricted. Later, in 1968, the oceans surrounding the isles were declared a Marine Reserve and placed under the park´s jurisdiction. Tourism began in the park in the 1970´s, which has steadily increased to an estimated 60,000 visitors annually in the 1990's, and to an estimated 180,000 visitors annually in the present day. 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 only under the supervision of licensed guides.

The Galapagos Isles

© Galpagos Isles Info, Galapagos & Ecuador 2011