galapagos islands history

When most people think of the Galapagos Islands, natural, rather than human, history understandably comes to mind. Still, people have done some pretty interesting things here since Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, first landed on these volcanic shores in 1535.  Henry Nicholls’ The Galapagos is a great read for anyone interested in learning about both the natural and human forces that have shaped islands. It’s also jam-packed with interesting bits of trivia about the history of the islands. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Darwin was mostly interested in rocks (and was a pretty good geologist)
When Charles Darwin arrived in 1835  he was more interested in geology than living things, according to Nicholls. Long before anyone had ever heard of tectonic plates, Darwin postulated that the Galapagos Islands were created by the eruption of lava from volcanic fissures in the ocean floor. Though the actual story turned out to be a little more complicated, Darwin’s ideas about geology were certainly way ahead of their time.

2. The islands helped inspire one of the great works of American literature
Herman Melville passed through the islands in the 1840s aboard the whaler Acushnet and published a series of literary sketches based on the islands called The Encantadas in 1854.  Nicholls also claims that Melville drew on his visit to the Galapagos for inspiration when he wrote his masterpiece Moby-Dick.

3. Speaking of literature, the first person to live in the islands was a real life Robinson Crusoe
According to Nicholls, the first person to actually live in the Galapagos Islands was a marooned Irishman named Patrick Watkins. He apparently reached the shores of Floreana in 1806 and preceded to horrify passersby with his ragged and dreadful appearance. He lived in a hut and grew vegetables, which he traded for rum with passing sailors. Doesn’t sound all that bad, actually. And though Nicholl doesn’t mention it in his book, the real life Robinson Crusoe (or at least the likely prototype for the character), Alexander Selkirk, visited the islands in 1709,  years after he was rescued from the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile.

4. The islands were once a sort of penal colony (and it didn’t turn out well for the jailer)
One of the first permanent settlements in the islands was a commune in the highlands of San Cristobal called ‘El Progresso.’ It was founded in the 1850s by an entrepreneur named Manuel Cobos who intended to use convict labor to farm lichens to use in the production of purple dye. Things didn’t work out as planned and the convicts eventually ended up growing sugar cane and coffee before turning on their master and killing him in 1905.

5. The invasion of Pearl Harbor helped put the islands on the map
Prior to the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the Galapagos Islands were a largely forgotten Pacific backwater. During the war that followed, the US built a military base and airstrip on the island of Baltra (no-so-affectionately dubbed “The Rock” by the men stationed there). The US occupation of the islands demonstrated that they could support a sizable population as long as there were adequate provisions, an insight that would ultimately change the course of the islands’ history.

6. FDR visited and had a really great idea
Charles Darwin is not the only luminary who was inspired by a visit to the Galapagos. Franklin Roosevelt spent time in the islands in 1940 and was so impressed by what he saw, according to Nicholls, that his dying wish was to preserve the islands “for all time as a kind of international park.”

Want to learn more? Check out the Galapagos History section here on About Galapagos.