The History of the Galapagos Islands
In a country with a 10,000-year human history, the history of the isolated Galapagos Islands is all relatively recent. Born of fire, these volcanic islands 600 miles from the Ecuadorian mainland have risen up layer by layer from the ocean floor for millions of years. The oldest of the Galapagos Islands in the east are over four million years old, while the western islands average around 700,000 years old. Thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, this is one of the most pristine natural sites in the world, but in the past 500 years, the Galapagos Islands have played an important role for pirates and whalers, armies and armadas, and even Charles Darwin himself.
The Galapagos Islands are almost entirely made up of volcanic islands, just over 600 miles from the shores of Ecuador’s mainland. Located over a hotspot on the Nazca plate, millions of years of volcanic eruptions have created these islands. As the plate moves east towards continental South America, the islands erode and sink slowly back into the sea. Their distance from the mainland and location at the confluence of three oceanic currents – the cold water Humboldt & Cromwell Currents and the warm water Panama Current – make for tremendous biodiversity both on land and in the sea, especially for the reptiles and fish that have colonized much of the archipelago.
The first settlers
Even to this day, only four of these enchanting islands are inhabited – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Floreana, and the population hovers at just 25,000 people total. Although considering its population just 200 years ago, it has grown substantially.
Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Galapagos Islands served primarily as a sanctuary and hideaway for pirates and whalers, and sites like Buccaneer Cove on Santiago and Tagus Cove on Isabela still harken back to these early days of people in the Galapagos. However, the first permanent settlers to the Galapagos Islands came in the mid 19th century. Early attempts at establishing civilizations and mills on the arid islands were generally unsuccessful, though, by the end of the 19th century, there were several small populations living on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands.
Ecuador claims the Galapagos
Considered an unimportant archipelago, the Galapagos Islands were annexed by Ecuador in 1832, shortly after the country had won its independence from Spain. In the same year, General Jose de Villamil went to Floreana Island with a group of convicts to establish the first of three penal colonies that the Galapagos would eventually host.
Darwin’s visit in 1835
When Charles Darwin was just a young naturalist, he made a voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, which departed England in 1831. The primary purpose of the navigation was to chart the coastal regions of South America, but in 1835, the small ship headed for the Galapagos Islands. Although it was not Darwin’s intention to completely change the way we understand ecology, it was largely due to his observations of the various distinct finch species of the Galapagos Islands that he later theorized evolution and natural selection. Years later, in 1859, he published On the Origin of Species.
While in the Galapagos, he visited San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela, and Santiago Islands, and witnessed how differently each of the species had evolved on each island according to its particular conditions.
Great Galapagos Mysteries
Floreana Island – The greatest mystery of the Galapagos Islands comes from Floreana Island, where three immigrant families tried to establish their lives, but death and conspiracy followed them. On one side of the island, the hermit couple of Dr. Friedrich Ritter and Dora Strauch built their outpost in 1929. Three years later, to the disdain of Ritter, Heinz & Margret Wittmer came to the island and built their home by a freshwater spring near to Ritter and Strauch’s camp. Shortly thereafter, Eloise von Wagner (the Baroness as she called herself) arrived on the shores of Floreana accompanied by her two lovers.
Tensions rose after the Wittmer’s arrival in 1933, and mysteriously by 1934 the bodies of the flamboyant Baroness and one of her lovers had disappeared. Ritter then died of food poisoning, and the mummified body of the Baroness’s other lover was found washed ashore on Marchena Island afterward. The truth of what happened will forever be one of the Galapagos Islands’ great mysteries.
Isabela Island – From 1944 until 1959, the Ecuadorian government established its third penal colony in the Galapagos, in addition to previous colonies on Floreana and San Cristobal. Nowadays, they are considered a natural paradise, but for the scores of prisoners sent here, they served as their scorching prison. In the heart of Isabela Island, a massive wall of heavy lava rock built by the prisoners themselves still stands as a testament to the harsh conditions and treatment to which they were subjected.
Santa Cruz & Baltra– In the peak of World War II, the Galapagos Islands were at the periphery of the war’s Pacific theater. Although no battles were fought here, the remnants of a US military base can still be seen on the barren Baltra Island, and the ghostly steel ribs of a slowly rusting abandoned military barge is the main attraction at Las Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz.
Currently, about 200,000 people visit the Galapagos Islands every year to witness this immaculately preserved archipelago and the unique wildlife it is home to. It has been a tourist destination since around the 1960s, but the industry has exploded since the 1990s. Luxury cruises aboard intimate catamarans, romantic beachfront resorts, and endless exploration for eager nature enthusiasts continue to entice travelers to the “enchanted islands.”
Each year, more hotels are built and the limit on the number of tourists reaches maximum allowable capacity, but careful regulation and monitoring from the National Park ensures that development does not endanger the fragile Galapagos ecosystems.