Galapagos History


Ancient archeological remains have been found which indicate that the first visitors coming from the Ecuadorian coast arrived on "Balsas" or floating crafts and a sailing technique, which allowed them to go far out to sea. There are no traces of permanent settlements, probably because they got lost at sea and arrived rather accidently then intentionally.

1535 Discovery

The islands were discovered 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, when drifting there while on a voyage from Panama to Peru. They discovered two islands and saw three more, one of them, the largest, was Isabela. They named the islands Galapagos because of the similarity between the tortoise’s shell and a Spanish saddle (this saddle was then called galapago). The lack of water and abundance of rocks caused a first negative impression.

1561 First Map of the Island

The islands soon appeared on maps. The first was a map from 1561, followed by Dutch maps like Mercator (1569) and Ortelius (1570). The name the "Enchanted Islands" (Las Encantadas) appeared on a map by Ortelius of 1589 as the islands seem to appear and vanish magically, an effect caused by the difficulty to reach them due to the stron currents which made navigating difficult especially when combined with the Garua mists. Guerrit’s map of 1622 shows three islands identified as Isabela, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal.

1680 Pirates & Buccaneers

In the 17th Century The islands continued to be forgotten for more than a century until the English pirates realized they were an ideal base between their attack on Spanish ports along the coast of South America, hiding out, repairing their boats, stocking up on water and tortoise meat for later journeys. The first expedition was that of John Cook and Richard Hawkins (1680). The second expedition in 1684 (Cook and E. Davis) was more intense and prolonged. They traveled the surrounding seas until 1688. The third was by Rogers and Courtney who stayed from 1707 until 1711. With these expeditions began the exploitation of the tortoises. 1684 William Dampier and Ambrose Cowley made the first comprehensive map of the islands and gave them the English names, dedicating them to several sponsors or friends: The island of King Charles (Floreana), Brattle, the Duke of Albemarle and Narborough etc.

1744 Spanish Exploration of the Islands

Although they didn't give much importance to the Galapagos in the first centuries, the Spanish explored them and named some of the islands, known as "the ancient Spanish names", but without clearly identifying them. Therefore "Isla de la Salud" or "Santa Maria" was probably the island currently known as Floreana; "San Bernabe" the current Isla Santiago; "Mascarin" was probably Española; "La Isla de Tabaco", San Cristobal. Later the "Isla Santa Isabela" would be identified as Isabela. The "Islas Santa Maria" (Tortuga, Crossman), appear in several French maps.

1788-1860 Whaler in Galapagos: Colnett

Several English whalers discovered that the whales migrated to the Galapagos to breed. In 1788, the ship Emilia arrived to England with 140 tons of oil and 888 sea lion skins. Soon after, the Beaver of Nantucket (USA) returned with 1,300 tons of whale oil. It was the beginning of a virtual stampede. In 1793, Captain James Colnett arrived in the H.M.S. Rattler to study the possibilities of establishing a whaling station in the South Pacific. By the end of the century, no less than 40 whalers, English and American frequented the water of Galapagos during the time of the whales to stock up on water, tortoises and sea lion skins. It will never be known how many thousands of tortoise were sacrificed and taken from the islands.

19th Century The First Inhabitant: Patrick Watkins

In the beginning of the 19th century, an Irish sailor was abandoned on Charles Island (Floreana), his name was Patrick Watkins and he is considered the first inhabitant of the islands. He cultivated vegetables, which he traded to the whalers for rum. Several years later, he managed to take over a small boat and some men whom he treated badly. He left the islands together with them but arrived in Guayaquil alone. Later he was arrested when trying to steal a ship and he spent the rest of his days in prison.

1832 Ecuador Claims Rights to the Galapagos

Although the islands belonged to Quito during the colonial years, after the independence they couldn’t be considered anybody’s land. For this reason General Jose Villamil, born in Louisiana and residing in Guayaquil, suggested officially incorporating the archipelago into the new Republic. Colonel Ignacio Hernandez, delegate of the governor, performed the ceremony February 12, 1832 on the island of Floreana, which took this name in honor of the first president of Ecuador, Juan Jose Flores


1832-1837 The First Colonization

General Jose Villamil organized a colonizing company with the illusion of converting the archipelago into a place of peace (the first town was called "The asylum of peace"), of progress and of the regeneration of criminals and rebel soldiers, by means of work. Villamil moved to the island on October 12, 1832 trying to make his dreams come true. In the beginning, everything seemed to prosper but the involved criminals destroyed the environment and ended up destroying the colony. In 1836, Villamil released the domesticated animals (cows, horses, and donkeys) on the main islands. They reproduced very quickly and together with feral animals that were left from previous visitors (dogs, cats, pigs, and goats) they turned into a danger for the ecology of the islands.

1835 Charles Darwin in Galapagos

On September 15, 1835, Captain Robert Fitz Roy arrived to the Galapagos on the "Beagle" as part of a trip around the world with the young naturalist Charles Darwin on board. They first visited Chatham Island (San Cristobal), and later Charles Island (Floreana). They sailed between Narborough and disembarked on Santiago. While the officials on board the Beagle drew a map of the islands, Charles Darwin studied and collected samples of the flora and fauna. His observations of the diversity of species on the islands later became the basis for his elaboration of the “Theory of Evolution”. The Galapagos now became famous in the scientific world as a virtual laboratory of evolution.

1850-1860 The Prison

After General Villamil left the islands, the Galapagos were considered an ideal site for a prison, as its distance from the mainland made escape nearly impossible and the inmates would have insufficient food and water to survive outside the camps. Sometimes the prisoners were without supplies, which prompted some spectacular escapes. A prisoner named Briones captured a whaling boat and escaped with other prisoners to the mainland killing 28 men. This incident provoked a strong controversy, because the owners of the whaling ship demanded large payments as compensation from the Government.

1869-1878 Second Colonization

In 1860, a whaler discovered Dyer’s Moss, a valuable plant for dyeing. Several businessmen tried to exploit it, among them Mr. Jose Valdizan, a Spanish businessman residing in Guayaquil. He obtained exclusive rights in 1869 and moved to the islands of Floreana where he organized plantations. He believed that he could take delinquents to work on his properties and win them over with kindness and work. He was treacherously murdered July 23, 1878. The island was abandoned, the domesticated animals and cattle went wild and later nobody wanted to return because Floreana was considered a "cursed island".

1879-1940 J. Cobo's Empire

Starting in 1879, on the island of San Cristobal, Manuel J. Cobos formed an advanced agricultural center, called "El Progreso", not far from the port. The first products included leather from the feral cattle, oil from tortoises and fish, while sugar cane plantations were prepared for a factory, which was installed in 1891. Various ships maintained an active trade with Guayaquil. Unfortunately, "El Progreso" turned into a kind of concentration camp with forced labor where the will of Cobos was the only law. He imposed his own currency, made decisions regarding the life, death or exile to isolated islands of many of his workers. Camilo Casanova was exiled to the Island of Santa Cruz, becoming an exact replica of Robison Crusoe. M.J. Cobos was assassinated by his workers on January 15, 1904.

1850-1940 Galapagos Strategic Importance

The strategic location of the islands became very important near the opening of the Panama Canal. Various European and North American countries wanted to buy or rent some or all of the islands, to be used as a fueling station for ships, or more importantly, for the defense of the Canal on the Pacific side. They even tried to declare the islands "res nullius" (no man’s lands). Ecuador resisted this pressure, but ceded some of the islands to be used for defense during World War II.

1926-1929 The Norwegians

The Norwegians had shown an interest in the Galapagos since 1880 due to the abundance of fish and opportunities to hunt whales. In 1908, a Norwegian sailboat crashed on the West Side of the archipelago and part of the crew was abandoned on the island of Santa Cruz for many months. Upon their return to Norway, they convinced some of their countrymen to immigrate to the islands. The first groups arrived during 1926 and two colonies were formed on Floreana and Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t as perfect as they had expected and in less than two years, the majority of the immigrants returned to Norway.

1929-1934 The Germans in Florena

In August 1929, Doctor Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch arrive to the island of Floreana, two lovers anxious to live under their own philosophy, isolated from decadent civilization. Their writings attracted others with similar ideas, but none of them lasted long except for the Wittmer family (Heinz, Margaret, and Harry) from Cologne. A few months later, an Austrian woman arrived, who introduced herself as the Baroness together with three lovers, and the island was transformed into a small hell, due to intrigues of the new inhabitants. The first lover returned to the mainland after a few weeks. In March 1934, the Baroness disappeared with one of her lovers, Phillipson, and even though Margaret affirms that they went on a yacht to the Pacific Island, no one has given any credit to her story. Margaret convinced Lorenz, the surviving lover, to return to Germany. He disappeared along with another Danish man, Nuggerud, before arriving to the island of San Cristobal. A few months later, Dr. Ritter died from food poisoning. In December, the mummified bodies of Lorenz and Nuggerud were found on the island of Marchena. Out of the seven colonists four died mysteriously, a mystery that has never been solved. However, the Wittmer family still lives on the island.

1936 The first Airplanes

William Robinson lived on his yacht in Tagus Cove, studying the flora and fauna of the islands, when he suffered a serious attack of appendicitis and his situation quickly became desperate. Luckily, the tuna clipper the "Santa Cruz" was nearby and contacted the Marines based in the Panama Canal by radio. Once permission was granted, two hydroplanes took off for the islands, followed by the destroyer "Hale". They arrived on time to save his life, and flights to the islands were installed. The first airplane flight, which carried mail from the Canal Zone to the Galapagos, took place on February 6, 1936. The first commercial flights arrived on January 3, 1959, with the LIA airlines and later with Ecuador’s airline TAME (June 6, 1963). TAME still has flights to the Galapagos.

1942-1949 Galapagos in WW II

The United States considered the Galapagos essential to the vigilance of the Canal. Since 1928, the US having studied all alternatives in case of a war in the Pacific, chose the island of Baltra as their principal base. Aerial vigilance began Five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In March 1942, operations at the base began: the U.S. built 3 airstrips (the first airplane, a B24 landed in May) the marines had their center in the adjacent "Eolian Cove" and constructed a dock (which is still being used), hydroplane ramps, etc. forming a Base that could house up to six thousand men. The official turnover of the base took place in 1946, but the last contingents didn’t leave until the beginning of 1949.

1946-1959 Penal Colony

Once again, in 1946 Ecuador opened a penal colony on the Galapagos Islands, this time on Isabela Island. Unfortunately, the colony soon turned into a concentration camp until 1950, when a police chief forced the people of the penal colony to construct a wall. This wall is known as "the Wall of Tears". In February 1958, there was an uprising, an intelligent prisoner named "Patecuco", disarmed police and took "Valinda" the yacht that belonging to an American millionaire and used it to escape to the mainland. No deaths occurred during the uprising, but the incident caused international repercussions and the government shut down the penal colony and stopped sending prisoners to the islands.

1936-1959 First Preservation Attempts

Various scientific expeditions at the beginning of this century sounded the alarm of the killing of the giant tortoise and of the danger of their disappearance. In 1936, the islands were declared a National Reserve with stricter regulations. Finally, in 1954, a movement was started to protect the species of the Galapagos and to found a center for scientific investigations on the islands.

1959 Galapagos National Park

The Ecuadorian government declared the Galapagos Islands a National Park on July 4, 1959. Simultaneously in Belgium, the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos was formed and marked the centennial celebration of the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species. That same year Ecuador designated 97% of the total land area of the archipelago as Galapagos National Park that shoulders the responsibilities of wildlife conservation projects including the protection of endangered populations, the eradication and control of introduced species, and the management of recreation and tourism. The Charles Darwin Station for scientific investigation was built on Santa Cruz Island, and was inaugurated on January 20, 1964. Today, the Charles Darwin Research Station, an international non-profit organization, acts as the scientific arm of the Park Service. Scientists at the Station conduct conservation based research and also train naturalist tour guides. In 1968, the National Park Service for the Galapagos was initiated. It started as a part of the Forest Service of the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1986 the surrounding 70,000 square kilometers (43,496 sq mi.) of ocean was declared a marine reserve, second only in size to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In 1990 the archipelago became a whale sanctuary.

1978 Natural Heritage Site

On September 8, 1978, UNESCO declared the Galapagos a Natural Heritage Site for its scientific prestige and to support the conservation efforts of the National Park. The General Secretary visited the islands in 1984 to proclaim it himself and in 1985 the Galapagos National Park was declared a Biosphere Reserve. This was later extended in December 2001 to include the marine reserve.