Galapagos Islands history

The Galapagos Islands are approximately 6 million years old. They are a result of underground volcanic activity on the tectonic plates, the molten lava raising and creating the islands. These islands have then ‘drifted’ eastward. Therefore the islands further to the east (like San Crisbol) are older, and those to the west (like Isabella) are younger


The Galapagos islands were discovered accidently in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama. He was sailing from Panama to Ecuador and his ship became becalmed with no wind. The currents carried him out to the Galápagos. He described the Galapagos islands as very dry (desert like), with remarkable giant tortoises, marine iguanas, sea lions and the many types of birds. Just like tourists today, he was amazed at the tameness of the animals.


The Galapagos islands first appeared on map by Portuguese mapmakers in 1570. At this time the islands were called "Insulae de los Galopegos" in Portuguese (Islands of the Tortoises). The Spanish equivalent is Galapagos, the same name that is used today.


Richard Hawkins, a famous English pirate, arrived in 1593. This was the start of many famous pirates who visited the archipelago until about 1820. The Galapagos islands was used as a hiding place by English pirates that attacked Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain. Even today there are still many rumors about hidden treasures on the Galapagos islands.


In 1708 Alexander Selkirk was stranded on Juan Fernández Island. Several years later he was picked up privateer Woodes Rogers who was refitting his ships in the Galapagos after attacking the city of Guayaquil. This real life story became the basis for the famous Daniel Defoe novel called ‘Robinson Crusoe’


In 1793 James Colnett drew the first accurate navigation charts of the islands and produced a description of the flora and fauna of Galápagos. He also suggested that the Galapagos islands be used as base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately this was an ecological disaster. Whalers killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises for both food and to their extract their fat. The giant tortoises could be kept on board ship as a means of providing of fresh protein. The giant Tortoise could survive for several months on board without any food or water. Months later they would be slaughtered for fresh food. The hunting of the tortoises greatly diminished, and in some cases, totally eliminated certain species. Similarly the fur-seal hunters hunted this animal close to extinction.


On February 12, 1832 Ecuador annexed (claimed) the Galapagos Islands and it was renamed the Archipelago of Ecuador. General José de Villamil, the first governor of Galápagos came with a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana. This was a darker side of the history of Galapagos, with many convicts being mistreated, and the infamous ‘wall of tears’ later being constructed on Isabela islands.


On September 15, 1835 the survey ship HMS Beagle under captain Robert FitzRoy arrived to Galapagos to survey approaches to the harbors. On board was a young naturalist named Charles Darwin. He engaged in the scientific study of geology and biology on four of the thirteen islands for a little over one month. The present governor of the prison colony on Charles Island told Darwin that tortoises differed from island to island. Darwin also found that there were different species of finches, and each was unique to specific island. Both these were crucial in Darwin's development of his evolution theory. He presented this theory in a book called ‘The Origin of Species’.


Several times cultivation was tried in the Galapagos. Nearly every time it ended in disaster, and at times murder… Two important Ecuadorian businessmen, José Valdizán and Manuel Julián Cobos tried to cultivate a type of lichen found in the islands (Roccella portentosa) to be used as a coloring agent. Valdizán was assassinated by his workers. Cobos brought more than a hundred workers to San Cristóbal island to plant and cultivate sugar cane. His tough management also led to him been murdered…


The unique nature of the Galapagos was beginning to be understood in the scientific world. In September 1904 an expedition of the Academy of Sciences of California stayed in the Galápagos for almost a year collecting scientific material on geology, entomology, ornithology, botany, zoology and herpetology. A second expedition from the same academy in 1932 collected insects, fish, shells, fossils, birds and plants.


During WWII the United States established a naval base in Baltra island. They also built an airport. Today this is the airport most travelers arrive at.


In 1946 another penal colony was established, this time in Isabela Island. It was very harsh, and finally suspended in 1959.


In 1934 the first laws protecting the Galapagos islands were established. In 1959 the islands became a national park. In 1968 the Galapagos National Park was officially established. Today almost f 97% of the land space of the islands holds National park status with only 3% being for human use.


In 1979 UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands a Humanity Natural Heritage site and in 1985 a Biosphere Reserve. In 1990 the archipelago became a whale sanctuary. In 1998 a marine reserve was created. This totals over 133,000 km2. In 2001 the marine reserve became a UNESCO National Heritage site.