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Human Discovery:
PAST Galapagos Colonists

From Oxford, Peter, and Graham Watkins. Galapagos: Both Sides of the Coin. Morgansville: Imagine Publishing, 2009. Print. Available for purchase in our online store.

The first permanent residents in the Galapagos Islands settled on Floreana Island. Patrick Watkins, an Irishman, was probably the first settler in the islands. “Irish Pat” lived on Floreana, near Black Beach, where he grew vegetables that he bartered with whaling crews and where he, apparently, spent a good deal of time drinking rum. Watkins was marooned, or had requested to be left, on Floreana in 1805. He abruptly vacated Galapagos in 1809, leaving in his wake a flurry of stories about his voyage to the mainland aboard the Black Prince, as he left the islands accompanied, but arrived in Guayaquil alone. Several writers have reconstructed the legend of Irish Pat from verbal and written tales and “Pat’s Landing” was a feature on Floreana for whalers. Watkins was the inspiration for the chapter entitled “Hood’s Isle and the Hermit Oberlus” in Herman Melville’s novella, Las Encantadas.

General Jose Maria Villamil

General José María de Villamil Joly, of French-Spanish parentage and born in Louisiana when it belonged to Spain, was the first to push colonization of the Galapagos Islands. In 1831, Villamil commissioned a study of financial possibilities in the islands. The researchers suggested that the relatively common lichen orchil, or Dyers Moss, Rocella gracilis, which produces a mauve dye, had economic potential. Consequently, Villamil organized the Sociedad Colonizadora del Archipiélago de Galápagos, filed a claim on the land he required, and then worked on persuading the newly formed Ecuadorian government to annex the islands. General Juan José Flores, Ecuador’s first president, supported Villamil and, on February 12, 1832, Colonel Ignacio Hernandez annexed the archipelago as a territory of the Republic of Ecuador. Hernandez provided new names for two islands, including Floreana, named in honor of President Flores. Villamil remains a national hero as the first governor of Galapagos, as the father of the Ecuadorian navy and as a high-ranking minister in the Ecuadorian government.

Cobos' El Progreso Sugar Mill

The first colonists on Floreana were soldiers who had taken part in a failed coup attempt on the mainland. Eighty others joined them later in the year, with General Villamil. They brought with them donkeys, goats, pigs, and cattle, thus assuring the establishment of introduced animals on the islands. They also cut down highland forests on Floreana to create pastures and to plant crops, including citrus. The economic focus of these new settlers was orchil, live tortoises, and tortoise oil that they sold to visiting whalers and sent to the mainland. Villamil left for Floreana in 1837, and in the same year the remaining colonists revolted against the governor, Colonel Jose Williams. By 1852, the settlement had failed.

The next major colonization effort began in 1858 when Manuel J. Cobos, José Monroy, and José Valdizán formed the Orchillera Company. When this project failed, Cobos moved to El Progreso, a settlement on San Cristóbal, and focused his efforts on the production of sugar cane, coffee, and tortoise oil. From 1879, the “Cobos Empire” infamously used prisoners and indentured laborers, until his disgruntled “workers” assassinated him in 1904. From 1860, José Valdizán extracted orchil in Floreana and, in 1869, he won an exclusive 12-year contract from the government of Ecuador to extract orchil from Galapagos. Valdizán died during an uprising in 1878. The trade in orchil declined because of the discovery of large quantities of the lichen in Baja California and because of the development of synthetic dyes, beginning with mauveine developed in London in 1856.

In 1893, Antonio Gil made a third attempt to colonize Floreana, but abandoned his efforts and moved to Isabela, where he founded the settlements of Puerto Villamil and Santo Tomás. By 1905, there were 200 people living on Isabela, exporting sulfur and lime and using tortoises for meat and oil. Colonists also mined salt from James Bay on Santiago Island in 1886, from 1924 to 1930, and in the 1960s. They used the salt to cure fish and to fill the infrequent demand produced by heavy rains flooding the coastal Salinas saltpans on the mainland.

In 1925, Norwegians colonized Floreana and San Cristóbal. Initially those in Floreana planned to set up a whaling station, but that did not work out and they moved to Academy Bay in Santa Cruz. Other Norwegians had arrived on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal in 1926. On Santa Cruz they focused on fishing and canning turtles, lobster, and grouper, a venture that ended after the cannery boiler exploded in 1927. Norwegians living in Wreck Bay on San Cristóbal also moved to Santa Cruz in 1928.

The Baroness, Robert Lorenz (left), & Rudolph Phillipson (top) on Charles Island. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1929, German colonists arrived in Floreana, leading to a wealth of stories about the eccentric Dr. Friedrich Ritter, Dore Strauch, Baroness Eloise Wagner de Bosquet, and the Wittmer family. The stories ended in tragedy in 1934, when the Baroness and one of her partners disappeared, Ritter died of food poisoning, and another inhabitant ended up mummified on Marchena Island. The occurrences remain a mystery to this day.

During the 1930s, other German families arrived in Santa Cruz to work with the Norwegian colony and lived, initially, by farming and fishing. However, San Cristóbal was more attractive to colonists because of its relatively easy access to water. This was the most populous island until the 1960s and, as a result, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the administrative capital of the archipelago.

It is not surprising that, as has been the case with many other isolated islands, Galapagos was home to penal colonies. In 1832, Coronel Ignacio Henandez recommended the use of the islands as a special prison, and during the 19th century, penal colonies were established on Floreana and San Cristóbal. In 1944, the Ecuadorian government established a third colony on Isabela, with 94 criminals arriving in 1946. In 1958 there was a rebellion leading to the closure of the prison—the “Wall of Tears” in Puerto Villamil remains as a testament to the cruelty of the prison. Ecuadorian authorities closed the Isabela penal colony in 1959, 127 years after the government sent the first political prisoners to Floreana.

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