History of the Galapagos Islands

The history of the Galapagos Islands starts with its discovery on March 10, 1535, by Spanish Fray Tomas de Berlanga.


After reporting great tortoises that looked like saddles, to King Charles V of Spain, the Islands were baptized with the name of Galapagos that means saddle.

He discovered this Archipelago accidentally while sailing from Panama to Peru. Some historians believe the Islands were visited and used by groups of Incas as early as a century prior to the Berlanga's discovery, but this has never been proved.

The first extended visit to the Galapagos Islands was made in 1683 by an English buccaneer vessel, the Batchelor's Delight, under Captain John Cook. Some of the crew members were: William Dampier, Lionel Wafer, Ambrose Cowley and Edward Davis, all of whom would leave records of their visit.

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Dampier was the first to provide us with an accurate description of the Islands and their fauna and flora. In 1687, William Hacke published a Galapagos Map based on Cowley's visit in 1684.

Although not very accurate, it took more than 100 years until a better version was prepared by Aaron Arrowsmith for James Colnett's book published in 1798.

After the voyage of HMS Beagle the first truly accurate map was published by the British Admiralty based on Captain Robert FitzRoy's detailed survey of the Galapagos Islands.

The colorful history of the Galapagos Islands includes visits from pirates, whalers, sealers and even love and mystery.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the industrial revolution changed from the need for Spanish gold to oil which came from whale's blubber. 100 years of exploiting the waters, as well as the land, bringing not only tortoises and whales, but also fur seals near extinction, followed.

In 1835, Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands while serving as official naturalist on the five year voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. Until that time, the prevalent view in science was that species of plants and animals were immutable.

On the Galapagos Islands, it became clear to Darwin that, over time, different species adapt to their environment. He was intrigued by the fact that each small Island had its own characteristic species of bird, lizard and tortoise.

Because the Islands' physical and climatic conditions were relatively similar, he reasoned that they were not responsible for these differences.

Instead, he concluded that the differences were related to feeding habits. This theory helped form the basis of Darwin's unprecedented works on biological adaptation, natural selection and evolution.

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Settlers in the History of the Galapagos Islands

With the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 the Galapagos Islands became much more accessible.

Following the First World War, a number of European settlers arrived in the Islands. The first group to arrive was from Norway, they set up a fish canning factory on Floreana Island.

When this failed a number of them either stayed on or returned later and settled on Santa Cruz Island.

A number of German settlers also arrived in the 1930's. The Wittmers on Floreana and the Angermeyers on Santa Cruz established themselves permanently and their descendants remain a part of the social structure of the Islands.

However the best known were two couples who settled on Floreana Island. Friedrich Ritter, a dentist, and his partner Dore Strauch arrived in 1929, and the Baroness Eloise Wagner-Bousquet who arrived with her two lovers in 1933.

Of these five people, three died mysteriously on Floreana, one died as a castaway on Marchena Island and only Dore Strauch returned to Germany alive.

Ecuador claimed the Galapagos in 1832. In 1959 the Galapagos Islands National Park was created and tourism began in the 1960s.

In 1978, the Islands were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO emphasizing its universal value for mankind. Now, an estimated of 200,000 people visit this group of Islands each year.

History of the Galapagos Islands in World War II

In 1942 the Galapagos gained strategic importance to maintain control of the sea lanes to Panama and so the United States received permission from the Ecuadorian government to construct an air force base on Baltra Island, just north of Santa Cruz Island.

When the Americans withdrew after the war, all of the island residents were allowed to remove one of the many wooden buildings from the base, and for the next 40 years or so these clapboard houses were visible on all the inhabited Islands.

With Ecuadorian sovereignty reestablished, having declined a US purchase offer, the site now serves as the main airport for the Archipelago.

In 1968 one of the two airports was rebuilt and regular flights from continental Ecuador began.

We should point out in the history of the Galapagos Islands that the first vessel arriving to these Islands was the Golden Cachalot, and then in 1969 the Lina A cruise ship came into operation.

Today there are 3 flights each day to both Baltra and the new airport on San Cristobal Island. The national airlines are Tame, AeroGal and Icaro.

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