The Galapagos Islands: Tortoises, Pirates, and Darwin

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marine iguanas at the Charles Darwin Research Center, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, the Galapagos photo courtesy of Xxchangwoo0120xx

Marine iguanas at the Charles Darwin Research Center, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, the Galapagos. Image by Xxchangwoo0120xx.

Over the years, people have seen the islands of the Galapagos, in the Pacific Ocean, in many different contexts – from a source of tortoises to a haven of pirates. Now, however, the Galapagos Islands are now inextricably linked with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Galapagos: Bewitched Islands

Due to its remote location, it is not surprising that humans did not inhabit the Galapagos archipelago throughout most of human history. Another reason why the islands eluded discovery for so long is that heavy fog envelopes them at certain times of the year, so passing ships can easily miss seeing them. Spanish sailors called the islands “Las Encantadas,” meaning the bewitched islands.

The first written mention of the islands was on March 10, 1535, when a priest named Tomas de Berlanga sighted them while sailing from Panama to Peru. Some speculate that the Incas visited the islands a century earlier, but there are no written records to prove it.

a Galapagos tortoise can live well over 120 years and weigh hundreds of pounds; photo courtesy of Leslie Cohen

A Galapagos tortoise can live well over 120 years and weigh hundreds of pounds. Image by Leslie Cohen, used with permission.

Islands of the Tortoises

In the year 1570, a mapmaker named Abraham Ortelius put the islands on the world map. He called them the Isolas de Galapagos, meaning Islands of the Tortoises, based on the reports of sailors that there was an abundance of those animals.

Indeed, sailors exploited the tortoise population from the time of the discovery of the islands. The sailors captured the enormous tortoises and took them on board for several purposes: first, for their meat, but also because the animals had huge supplies of water stored in their bellies – water that the sailors could drink or use for cooking.

This exploitation over several centuries led to a severe decline in the tortoise population, which the Ecuadorian government is now working to correct.

The Island of Floreana (Also Known as Santa Maria)

By the end of the eighteenth century, there were a great number of ships moving through the Galapagos islands. In 1800, Europeans established a makeshift “post office” on Floreana. This post office still exists today, and serves one of the tourist attractions.

The first known human settler on the islands was Patrick Watkins, an Irish crew member of a British ship, who left the ship to settle on the island of Floreana in 1807.  There are no accurate records of how long Watkins stayed there, but eventually he moved to mainland Ecuador.

In 1832, Ecuador annexed the Galapagos Islands as a territory and established a settlement. The early colonists established small farms on the islands of Floreana and Santa Cruz, growing their own food and supplying vegetables to whaling ships. Today, the main inhabitants of Floreana are Watkins’ descendants.

pirates constructed huge stone monuments in order to scare off any potential "visitors"; photo courtesy of Leslie Cohen

Pirates constructed huge stone monuments in order to scare off any potential “visitors.” Image by Leslie Cohen, used with permission.

Pirates in the Galapagos

As early as the late 1500s, pirates began using the Galapagos islands as a hideout. Starting in the 17th century, British pirates made their headquarters on the island of Floreana. From this remote and inaccessible base, the pirates looted passing ships, as well as settlements in South and Central America.

The pirates remained in a position of power and amassed great stores of gold and other wealth for several hundred years. They lived in caves and made huge statues to frighten off any potential visitors. In the early 1900s, the Ecuadorian government was able to rout them out.

Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection

Perhaps the most significant development in the human history of the Galapagos was in 1835, when Charles Darwin visited the islands while serving as official naturalist on the five-year voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle.

Darwin, the ship’s official naturalist, noticed the unusual flora and fauna on the islands and the fact that each island had its own distinctive species intrigued him. His discoveries in the Galapagos islands led to Darwin’s formulation of the theory of natural selection. As other scientists became familiar with Darwin’s work, his writings changed the prevalent views of science; creating the basis for our understanding of biology, geology and anthropology.

The Charles Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora is today a center for research and a rehabilitation center for tortoises.

Islands Declared a World Heritage Site

In 1934, the Ecuadorian government passed the first laws to protect the islands. Later, the government named the Galapagos Islands a national park.  The wildlife and geological features of the Galapagos are so unique and so significant to the study of science that UNESCO declared it a world heritage site in 1978. 

In recent years, the Galapagos has become a very active center of tourism. The Ecuadorian government restricts the number of tourists in order to protect the fragile environment and to facilitate the ongoing scientific research that has significant implications for biology, geology and the environment.

© Copyright 2014 Leslie Cohen, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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