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Galapagos Human colonization

Conservation efforts and institutions that protect the Galapagos Islands

1959, precisely one hundred years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Ecuador declared the islands its first national park, preserving whatever land that was not already settled for protection. Five years later the Charles Darwin Research Station was opened outside of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Working with the Nation Park Office, the station conducts research and determines courses of action to protect the islands. The Park office then implements many of these policies, constructing and marking trails for the visitor sites as well as regulating boats and visitor limitations.

The Transition

bachas galapagos

The archipelago of Columbus also know as Galapagos becomes part of Ecuador

Ecuador claims the Galapagos Islands in 1832

Although the islands belonged to Quito during the colonial years, after the independence they couldn’t be considered anybody’s land. For this reason, General Jose Villamil, born in Louisiana and residing in Guayaquil, suggested officially incorporating the archipelago into the new Republic. Colonel Ignacio Hernandez, delegate of the governor, performed the ceremony February 12, 1832, on the island of Floreana, which took this name in honor of the first president of Ecuador, Juan Jose Flores.

1832-1837 – The First Colony

General Jose Villamil organized a colonizing Galapagos company with the illusion of converting the archipelago into a place of peace (the first town was called “The asylum of peace”), of progress and of the regeneration of criminals and rebel soldiers, by means of work. Villamil moved to the island on October 12, 1832, to try to make his dreams come true. In the beginning, everything seemed to prosper but the presence of criminals destroyed the environment and ended up destroying the colony. In 1836, Villamil released domesticated animals (cows, horses, and donkeys) on the main islands. To take advantage of the grass and they reproduced very quickly, together with the wild animals that were left over from the previous colonization (dogs, cats, pigs, and goats) they turned into a danger for the ecology of the islands.

charles darwin visit galpagos

The most important scientific research expedition to reach the isles of fire

On September 15, 1835, Captain Robert Fitz Roy arrived at the Galapagos on the “Beagle” as part of a trip around the world with the young naturalist Charles Darwin. They first visited Chatham Island (San Cristobal), and later Charles Island (Floreana). They sailed between Narborough and disembarked on Santiago. While the officials on board the Beagle drew a map of the islands, Charles Darwin studied and collected samples of the flora and fauna. His observation of the diversity of species on the islands would be the basis for the later elaboration of the Theory of Evolution. The Galapagos would be seen from under a different light, a virtual laboratory of evolution.

By the time of Darwin’s visit in 1835, tortoises were already disappearing from Floreana. He found two to three hundred people living on the island and that:

“the staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises. Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced in this island, but the people yet count on two days’ hunting giving them food for the rest of the week. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.”Galapagos – Berthold Seeman

By 1846, well after Villamil’s colony had been abandoned, Berthold Seeman, a naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Pandora, reported there were no tortoises to be found on Floreana, but there were 2000 head of cattle. Wild dogs roamed the island, and they were later reported to attack visitors. The Santa Fe and Rabida tortoise races also became extinct in the nineteenth century.

In the meantime, Darwin made careful observations about both the geology and biology of the islands. Darwin was particularly struck by the “differences between the inhabitants of the different islands”:

“The distribution of tenants of this archipelago”, he wrote, “would not be nearly so wonderful, if for instance, one island has a mocking-thrush and a second island some other quite distinct species… But it is the circumstance that several of the islands possess their own species of tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder.”

At Voyagers, we invite you to visit the Galapagos Islands, yet in much more comfort than young Darwin on the Beagle.

conservation in galapagos

Galapagos Colonization – History and Mistery

There is an interesting chapter in the history of Ecuador behind the discovery of the Galapagos and the settlement of inhabitants from various parts of the world. Though it is said that the islands were discovered long in the Inca era, there is no trace of the discovery. And as far as colonization is concerned, the archipelago saw several visitors and settlers. Read on to get an insight into the earliest inhabitants of the islands.

1850-1860 – The Prison

The Galapagos Islands were unknown to the world for long until the Europeans discovered them during one of their voyages in 1535. The islands first appeared on the map in the 1570s. Although there had been several Spanish visits in the 16th century, no one inhabited the islands by that time. Rather, the archipelago was a mere hideout for the Spanish pirates. It was in 1809 when Patrick Watkins, an Irish sailor, was marooned on the islands that the Galapagos recorded its first settlement. He lived in Floreana Island for two continuous years and survived by hunting and growing vegetables on the island. However, he managed to navigate to Guayaquil by stealing an open boat.

1869-1878 – Second Colonization

In 1869, a colony was established in San Cristobal by tyrannical Manuel Cobos, who didn’t instantiate much progress and was murdered in no time. And then in 1893, two colonies were established by Dan Antonio Gil–Villamil on the southeastern coast of Isabela and Santo Thomas, high up the slopes of Sierra Negra, and interestingly, the towns remain even today.

From what the history of Ecuador says, the Galapagos Islands were officially acquired by Ecuador in 1832 and were named “Archipelago del Ecuador.” This new land gained curiosity overseas. And it was in the early 20th century when eco-tourism started, thanks to William Beebe’s scientific book Galapagos: World’s End, which threw a good deal of light on various visitors and settlers of the place. A couple of Norwegians visited Floreana in 1925, and there were a few who either settled down in Academy Bay on Santa Cruz or in Floreana. After a couple of years, Santa Cruz Island drew a number of visitors from other parts of the world, including Europe, America, and even Ecuador. The Angermeyer brothers from Germany arrived here in 1935, and their descendants are said to be living in Santa Cruz until this day.

After that, the Galapagos Islands underwent small construction, which occurred almost out of sudden. It was during World War II when the US government arrived on the islands and established an airbase at Baltra, just to save the Panama Canal from the hostile Japanese threat, which was later fortified by the Ecuadorian government.

And it was in 1959 that the Charles Darwin Foundation established. And today, the Galapagos Islands are inhabited by Spanish and Native Americans. There are, of course, a few descendants of Europeans and Americans who had settled on the archipelago long ago. Today five islands in the archipelago are inhabited: Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz, and the total population is around 25,000.

military base baltra

Known as the Rock – Baltra was a military airbase during WWII

1850-1940 – Galapagos’ Strategic Importance

The strategic location of the islands became very important as the time drew near for the opening of the Panama Canal. Various European and North American powers looked for any way to buy or rent some or all the islands, to be used as a fueling station for Navy ships, or more importantly, for the defense of the Canal on the Pacific side. They even tried to declare the islands “res nullius” (no man’s lands). Ecuador resisted this pressure but ceded some of the islands to be used for defense during World War II.

1936 – The First Airplanes

William Robinson lived on his yacht in Tagus Cove, studying the flora and fauna of the islands, when he suffered a serious attack of appendicitis and his situation quickly became desperate. Luckily, the tuna clipper the “Santa Cruz” was nearby and contacted the Marines based in the Panama Canal by radio. Once permission was granted, two hydroplanes took off for the islands, followed by the destroyer “Hale”. They arrived on time to save his life, and flights to the islands were installed. The first airplane flight, which carried mail from the Canal Zone to the Galapagos, took place on February 6, 1936. A commemorative stamp was created. The first commercial flights arrived on January 3, 1959, with the LIA airlines and later with TAME Ecuador’s airline (June 6, 1963), and once again, booklets of commemorative stamps were created. TAME still has flights to the Galapagos.

1942-1949 – Galapagos in WW II

The United States considered the Galapagos essential to the vigilance of the Canal. Since 1928, the US has studied all of the alternatives in case of a war in the Pacific, and chose the island of Baltra as the principal base, and accumulated everything necessary in the Canal Zone (“the Galapagos Units”). Aerial vigilance began Five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. March of 1942, operations at the base began: the U.S. built 3 airstrips (the first airplane, a B24 landed in May) the marines had their center in the adjacent “Eolian Cove” and constructed a dock (which is still being used), hydroplane ramps, etc. In total, the Beta Base, as it was called, could house six thousand men. Even though the Beta Base never had to face an emergency, the Union recognized that the Galapagos had played an important role, and for that reason, they tried to buy or retain the base after the war. The official turnover took place in 1946, but the last contingents didn’t leave until the beginning of 1949.

national park

Learn about the first explorers and settlers of the enchanted isles

1935 -1959 – First Preservation Attempts

The year 1935, the one-hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s visit, was something of a turning point in Galapagos history, as the Ecuadorian government decreed parts of the islands as wildlife preserves. Four centuries of human presence had had an adverse effect on its unique fauna. Three of the 14 races of tortoises were gone forever and populations of others were vastly reduced (a single individual remains of the Pinta race). The native rice rat, one of the few indigenous Galapagos mammals (two native rat species and one bat species), was already extinct on many islands. Plants introduced on the settled islands were replacing the unique native species. Feral goats, like those released by Captain Porter, along with pigs, burros, and cattle, were defoliating some islands. Introduced rats and feral cats, dogs, and pigs ate the eggs or young of the native birds and reptiles. While nothing was done to enforce the decree, much less to reverse the damage, and while feral animals and other problems would become worse in the future, the decree represented at least a realization and official recognition, that there was something worth preserving in the Galapagos.

Various scientific expeditions at the beginning of this century sounded the alarm of the killing of the giant tortoise and of the danger of their disappearance. The events of the incorporation of the islands to Ecuador (1832) and of the visit of Charles Darwin (1835) were the occasions when the Ecuadorian government took measures for the conservation of the animals. In 1936, the islands were declared a National Reserve with stricter regulations. Finally, in 1954, a movement was started to protect the species of the Galapagos and to found a center for scientific investigations on the islands. The Ecuadorian government declared the Galapagos Islands a National Park on July 4, 1959.

1978 – Natural Heritage Site

On September 8, 1978, UNESCO declared the Galapagos a Natural Heritage Site for its scientific prestige and to support the conservation efforts of the National Park. The General Secretary visited the islands in 1984 to proclaim it himself.

1998 – Interpretation Center

On August 12, 1998, Prince Felipe of Spain arrived in the Galapagos Islands to inaugurate the Interpretation Center on San Cristobal Island. The center is mainly focused on the interaction between the human populations and the processes of the so-called “laboratory of Natural History”, showing that a harmonious relationship between humans and nature is possible if undertaken in the right way. Interactive displays enhance the interpretation. The center is divided into several pavilions, each one with its own theme: geology, evolution, human history and current problems and its solutions, amongst others. Your journey and understanding of Galapagos would be incomplete if you did not visit the Interpretation Center

Tourism in the Galapagos

Tourism in the Galapagos has grown considerably in the last few decades. From the 4000 visitors in 1970, the number of tourists has grown to roughly 60,000 per year. Of course, as the number of visitors increases, the impact on the preservation of the islands becomes greater. 

Frequently Asked Questions