Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” kicked off a Galapagos publishing craze over 150 years ago. Since then, dozens and dozens of volumes showcasing and celebrating the natural history and wildlife of the islands have hit the shelves. The 500-year long human history in the islands, on the other hand, has been largely (though not completely) ignored. That’s too bad, because the story of people in the Galapagos is not only fascinating in its own right, but is important to understand as we grapple with how to preserve this remarkable corner of our planet. Here are four of my favorite books on the subject. Click on the book covers to learn more.
This book chronicles the stranger-than-fiction story of a nudist, back-to-nature, German doctor and his mistress who fled to the island of Floreana in 1929. They were soon followed by a bizarre cast of characters, including a German baroness, who proclaims herself the island’s “empress,” and her two male consorts. It doesn’t take long for things to get ugly, and betrayal, murder, and a genuine mystery ensue. The story is so good it became the subject of a major documentary earlier this year.
In 1932, Margaret Wittmer (then five months pregnant) and her husband left their native Germany for Floreana in search of an unspoiled Eden. This book is a fascinating account of the couple’s lives in the Galapagos and their struggle to become self-sufficient in the face of some pretty bleak odds (they lived in a cave for a while). It is a classic pioneer tale in the best sense, and includes a fascinating cast of characters, including the German doctor and the baroness mentioned above. Wittmer even hangs out with Thor Heyerdahl, who passed through the islands on his now famous Kon-Tiki expedition, and she narrowly misses meeting FDR.
3. Galapagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution
Carol Ann Basset takes an expansive look at the human history of the Galapagos Islands, from the earliest seafarers who frequently came ashore to replenish their stocks of food (with Giant tortoises, unfortunately), to the current friction between the islands’ many fundamentalist Christian inhabitants (many of whom are naturalist guides) and islands role as ground zero for the study of evolutionary biology. It is a great read for anyone who wants to understand the fundamental issues facing the Galapagos today, including the benefits and impacts of tourism.
OK. I know I said this list wasn’t going to include natural history books, but despite its title, this funny and engaging work by Henry Nicholls is as much about our species’ impact on and relationship with the Galapagos (and nature in general) as it is about evolution and animals. The prologue begins with an explanation of how the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed the fate of the islands and ends with an extensive explanation of how population growth, tourism, science and government have shaped the islands since. Merging historical information with the latest from the world’s of science and conservation, Nicholls makes a compelling case for why the Galapagos should matter to us all.