Human Cultural History of the Galápagos Islands

Fern Gookin
Architecture Major and College Park Scholars: Earth, Life, and Time
July 12, 2000


Discovery: 1485-1570
Exploration and Exploitation: late 1500s-1870s
Settlement: 1880s-1930s
Preservation: 1930s-present
Additional Readings

Since the first presumed arrival of humans in the fifteenth century, the human cultural history of the Galápagos Islands has been colorful. From pirates to utopian communities to penal colonies, these islands have supported -- and destroyed -- people from all over the world. Regardless of their intended purpose, this wide variety of people have changed, and are still changing, the endemic life on the islands.

Discovery: 1485-1570

  • 1485: Incas There is archaeological evidence that people from the Chimu Incan tribe from northern Peru sailed to the Galápagos Islands on balsa rafts. This voyage would have taken place during the rule of the Incan Tupac Yupanqui.

  • 1535: Official Discovery The Spanish Bishop Fray Thomas de Berlanga made the official discovery of the islands when his ship was blown off course. He thought the islands were hideous and useless. He also called the islands the Galápagos. Berianga chose this name because the giant tortoise shells reminded him of saddles, and the Spanish word for saddle is "Galápagos".

  • 1570: Mapped The islands first appeared on a map as "Insulae de los Galopegos".

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    Exploration and Exploitation: late 1500s-1870s

  • 1593-1710: Pirates Pirates often used the Galápagos as a hide out and as a resting place after looting the coast of South America. The pirates impacted wildlife on the islands in two major ways. First, it is estimated that over the years they took hundreds of thousands of tortoises into their ships as a source of fresh meat. Second, pirates may have introduced goats to the islands to maintain a food supply in while on the Galápagos. In turn, the viceroy of Peru introduced dogs to the islands to get rid of the goats, hoping to get rid of the pirates' food. This was unsuccessful; goats and dogs are two of the most devastating introduced species to the islands.

  • 1790: First Scientific Mission Alexander Malicina of Spain went to the islands for research purposes, but the reports from the expedition were lost.

  • 1793-1870: Whale Exploitation Whales are being hunted in the islands' waters. This industry is dwindling the populations of tortoises and fur seals, as well as whales.

  • 1793: Post Office Barrel The post office barrel is erected on Floreana. Visiting ships can leave letters in the barrel. These letters will stay there until a ship stops at the barrel that will be traveling in the direction of the letter's destination. The barrel was a customary stop, and still stands there today.

  • 1800-1900: Fur Seal Exploitation Fur Seals are hunted nearly to their extinction by North Americans and Europeans.

  • 1807-1812: First Settler on Floreana Patrick Watkins lives on Floreana. He is mentioned by Herman Melville in The Enchanted Islands.

  • 1832: "Archipelago de Ecuador" Ecuador officially annexes the islands. They give the archipelago the name "Archipelago de Ecuador", and give the islands their Spanish names.

  • 1832: Prisoner Colony Established On Floreana A Creole officer came from the mainland with soldiers imprisoned for rebellion. They called this officer the "Dog King" of Charles Islands because he is said to have controlled his prisoners with dogs and treated them as slaves. After the mutinous end of the "Dog King", the domesticated animals within their penal colony were released and became feral.

  • 1835: H.M.S. Beagle The young Charles Darwin came across the Galápagos on the H.M.S. Beagle. He traveled within four islands during a five week period. Also on the boat was Captain FitzRoy, a skilled cartographer, who drew accurate maps of the islands.

  • 1841: Herman Melville The author Herman Melville visits the islands and is displeased. Nevertheless, he writes The Enchanted Islands, which is a book about the Galápagos.

  • 1859: The Origin of Species Twenty four years after his only visit, Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. In this book, Darwin synthesizes his observations on the islands to form his revolutionizing theories on natural selection and evolution.

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    Settlement: 1880s-1930s

  • 1886: School Set Up on Floreana A small school was set up on Floreana for children.

  • 1892: "Archipelago de Colon" The official name of the islands changes from the "Archipelago de Ecuador" to the "Archipelago de Colon" in honor of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas four hundred years earlier.

  • 1905-1906: California Academy of Science Scientists come to the islands and make the first extensive research and collections on the islands.

  • 1923: William Beebe A famous scientist of his time, Beebe writes a book called The Galápagos World End. This brought attention to the islands from all around the world and inspired people to move to the islands.

  • 1924-1930: First Commercial Production of Salt Salt mines were established on Santiago by Mr. Egas. This was a successful industry until the national park bought their lands.

  • 1926: Norwegians Norwegians try to colonize the Galápagos. They lured workers from Norway through advertisements promising a tropical paradise, may found this was far from the truth. They came to the islands and started a short lived fishing industry, some descendants can still be found living on farms in the highlands of Santa Cruz.

  • 1928: Dr. Ritter Dr. Ritter, a dentist from Germany, and his companion, Dora Strauch, move to Floreana.

  • 1932: Whittmers The Whittmer family move to Floreana in hopes to cure their ailing son. The descendants of the Whittmer family still live on Floreana.

  • 1933: The Baroness A baroness moves to Floreana with three male companions, two Germans and one Ecuadorian. She was looking to gain fame and fortune by living on the island.

  • 1934: Mysterious Disappearances and Deaths It is believed that the baroness's experiences were not what she imagined and she hired a Norwegian captain to take them back to the mainland. Not long after their disappearance, two male bodies, possibly a woman's as well, were found washed up on shore with a dinghy. Soon, Dr. Ritter was found dead by poisoning and Dora moved back to Germany where she entered an insane asylum.

  • Angermeyers Four Angermeyer brothers moved to Floreana after they fled Germany in WWII. One died of Tuberculosis and one called himself "The King of the Galápagos". Angermeyer decendants still remain on the islands.

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    Preservation: 1930s-present

  • 1934: Protection of Fauna This was the first step towards preserving the islands. Flora on the Galápagos Islands is just as abundant and diverse as the animals.

  • 1941-1948: U.S. Military on Baltra The United States built and used the island of Baltra as a military base. The States abandoned the base after World War I in 1948. It is currently used by the Ecuadorian military and is not part of the Galápagos National Park.

  • 1959: National Park The Galápagos National Park is created and has a large task to handle. Eventually, 97% of the land on the Galápagos is officially national park territory. They work hand in hand with the Charles Darwin Research Station to keep the islands preserved.

  • 1959: Charles Darwin Foundation This is the organization that runs the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is under their insight that the park began its preservation.

  • 1964: Charles Darwin Research Station The research station is an integral part of keeping the islands preserved. They have programs aimed to reintroduce species such as giant tortoises and land iguanas that are threatened on the islands and eradicate introduced species.

  • 1965: Tortoise Eggs Nurtured at Research Station The tortoise breeding program began in 1965 and as of March, 2000, over 1000 reared tortoises have been released.

  • 1968: Administration of National Park Service Nearly ten years after its creation, the Galápagos National Park gets and administration system. With this in place, more issues are addressed and goals are accomplished.

  • 1969: Large Scale Tourism Tourism on the islands began with the Metropolitan tour boat the LINA-A, which held 58 passengers. Tourism has increased dramatically and is by far the largest industry on the islands.

  • 1971: Lonesome George Lonesome George is the only giant tortoise left from Pinta Island. He was found and is being held at the Charles Darwin Research Station in hopes that George will mate to prolong his race.

  • 1972: Capture of Sea Turtles Japanese fishing boats capture hundreds of the endangered green sea turtles. This not only threatened the population of sea turtles but it also instilled fear of humans.

  • 1972: "Beagle III" Inaugurated The presence of Darwin is brought to the island as the research boat the "Beagle III" is inaugurated.

  • 1973: Baltra-Puerto Ayora Road Built A road is built between Balra and the San Cristobal town of Puerto Ayora. People can now easily get from the airport on Baltra to the island's biggest town. However, a road only furthers the human influence and destruction of the two islands.

  • 1974: Master Plan of National Park The Galápagos National Park adopts a master plan to set goals for the preservation of the islands.

  • 1976: Black Rat Eradicated on Bartolome Black rats are a feral species that prey on the eggs of endemic species such as birds, giant tortoises, and endangered sea turtles. The eradication of them on Bartolome is a major accomplishment.

  • 1978: World Heritage Site UNSECO declares the Galápagos Islands a World Heritage Site. This means that the islands are not just a national, but an international concern. This declaration brings funding and restrictions to the islands. (ALEXA)

  • 1980: Construction of San Cristobal Airport An airport was created in the Galápagos's capitol of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Two airports on the islands (one on Baltra) makes the islands more accessible.

  • 1986: Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve No fishing is allowed in the resources reserve which is set at a fifteen mile radius around the islands. The reserve is now extended to a forty mile radius around the islands.

  • 1986: Tourism Tourism in 1986 is estimated at over 26,000 visitors per year. This is a number that many thought the islands could never sustain and would never be reached. Currently tourism is over 80,000 visitors per year.

  • 1986: Puerto Ayora Gets Paved The paving of a road anywhere destroys natural ecosystems. This is magnified on the Galápagos Islands. Human influence is growing with the human population to meet demands.

  • 1991: Inter-Island-Telephone The first telephone lines are connected between the islands. This small commodity expedited communication between the islands.

  • 1992: New Master Plan of the National Park The Galápagos National Park adopts a new master plan for the park. Regulations within the park are kept strict to ensure preservation despite the 80,000 visitors per year.

  • 1993: Telephone Connection to Mainland Telephone service is made available to the mainland and all over the world. The Galápagos Islands are now linked to the outside world; internet cafés are even available in the towns.

  • 1994: Fire on Isabela Isabela Island experiences a volcanic eruption. This natural process is still forming Isabela which is currently over the hot spot.

  • 1994: Tortoise Slaughtering The enforcement of commercial fishing laws on the islands cause protesting local fisherman to slaughter 70-80 giant tortoises.

  • 1994: Reintroduction of Land Iguanas on Baltra Land iguanas are reintroduced on Baltra thanks to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

  • 1995: Introduced Species on Isabela The largest of the islands, Isabela, is threatened by introduced plants and animals. The research station is working to eradicate these species, especially goats which are the greatest threat to endemic species.

  • 1996: Year Round Population The number of year round residents on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal is up to 6,000.

  • 1997: New Legislation New legislation is passed that increases preservation of the islands, such as increasing the marine reserve, eliminating immigration, and tightening tour restrictions. (ALEXA)

  • 1998: Interpretation Center With the help of Spain, an interpretation center is constructed on San Cristobal. This center offers in depth exhibits on the natural and human history of the islands.(ALEXA)

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    Additional Readings:

    Galápagos Conservation Trust

    Galápagos History

    World Wildlife Fund

    Benchley, Peter. "Galápagos: Paradise in Peril." National Geographic Apr. 1999: 2-31.

    Boo, Elizabeth. Ecotourism: The Potentials and Pitfalls. 2 vols. Lancaster, PA: Wickersham Printing Company, Inc., 1992.

    Brown, Nancy. 2000. Notes of Lecture delivered on 6-18 on M/V Corinthian.

    Emory, Jerry. "Managing Another Galápagos Species -- Man." National Geographic Jan. 1988: 146-154.

    Otterman, L. Clinker Islands: A Complete History of the Galápagos Archipelago. McGuinn and McGuire Publishing, 1993.

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