History of the Galapagos Islands

Legend has it that the Incas first discovered the Galapagos Islands in the 15th century but, as they did not have a written language and no ruins have been discovered, the legend cannot be substantiated. The first recorded discovery was in 1535, by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, originally from Soria in Spain who happened upon them accidentally while sailing from Panama to Peru. This was a frequent route used by the Spanish to ship Inca gold back to Spain. Pirates were the first people to “use” the Galapagos Islands and for three centuries, the islands became their refuge: sufficiently distant from the mainland to permit escape, yet close enough to the trade routes and coastal cities for raids. The Buccaneers or Pirates would loot the Spanish convoys and gather riches for their own countries, mainly France, Britain, and Holland, whose interest lay in draining the resources of the Spanish empire. James Bay on Santiago still bears the name Buccaneer's Cove, a permanent reminder of those times.

It wasn't until 1574 that the name "Galapagos Islands" first appeared on a map and it has remained ever since. "Galapago" is an old Spanish word, meaning saddle. The large Galapagos Tortoises on some of the islands had a shell that resembled an old Spanish saddle. Mapmaker Abraham Ortelius plotted the Galapagos Islands, eventually naming them the Isolas de Galapagos, or "Islands of the Tortoises." The islands, still uninhabited on a permanent basis by man, were called "Las Encantadas," the bewitched islands by the Spanish. When enshrouded in mist, the islands were difficult to find, and the area's gentle winds gave sailors the sensation that the islands themselves were moving instead of their ships.

In the 17th Century the English buccaneers William Dampier and William Ambrosia Crowley visited the islands and by 1678, Crowley had drawn the first navigational chart of the archipelago, naming islands after English royalty and nobility. Dampier was one of the first of many writers to describe the Galapagos Islands from a naturalist’s perspective when he published A New Voyage Round the World in 1697—the first English language account of the islands. Dampier returned to the islands but before he did his ship had found Alexander Selkirk marooned on the Juan Fernandez Islands; Selkirk provided the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. John Clipperton seems to have been one of the last pirates recorded as visiting the Galapagos, in 1720.

In the 18th century, the British (and later American) whalers and sealers used the islands as a source of food on long journeys. As the practice of privateering and whaling gave way to more legitimate forms of commerce, the Galapagos were eventually left in relative peace.

It was in the 19th century that these remote oceanic islands were brought to the world’s attention by the naturalist Charles Darwin who visited in 1835. It was the islands’ unique biodiversity that inspired Darwin to write his theory of evolution. Some 20 years later he published his famous (and sometimes controversial) book on creationism “Origin of Species.”

In 1892, The Galapagos Islands were officially named the Archipelago de Colon, (Columbus’s Archipelago) in honour of Christopher Columbus, by the government of Ecuador. In 1924, European and American interest in the Galapagos was stimulated by the publication of William Beebe's book Galapagos: World's End. Settlers came from mainland Ecuador, Europe, Scandinavia and America seeking a simpler life surviving by fishing and cattle ranching. During WWII, the U.S. Navy obtained permission to establish an airbase and radar station to protect the approach to the Panama Canal. These were abandoned after the war.

In 1934, the first legislation to protect the islands was enacted and in 1959 the Archipelago was made a National Park. International recognition since that time has earned Galapagos the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site, World Biosphere Reserve and Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary. Since the 1964 establishment of the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, the surrounding waters and national parks have become sanctuaries for scientific study, conservation and tourism.