The Galápagos Archipelago was discovered by accident in 1535, when Tomás de Berlanga, the first Bishop of Panama, drifted off course while sailing from Panama to Peru. The bishop reported his discovery to King Charles V of Spain and included in his report a description of the giant Galápagos tortoises from which the islands received their name, and an amusing note about the islands’ birds that any visitor today can appreciate, ‘…so silly that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.’
It is possible that the indigenous inhabitants of South America were aware of the islands’ existence before 1535, but there are no definite records of this and the islands don’t appear on a world map until 1570 when they are identified as the ‘island of the tortoises.’ In 1953, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl discovered what he thought to be pre-Columbian pottery shards on the islands, but the evidence seems inconclusive.
For more than three centuries after their discovery, the Galápagos were used as a base by a succession of buccaneers, sealers and whalers. The islands provided sheltered anchorage, firewood, water and an abundance of fresh food in the form of the giant Galápagos tortoises, which were caught by the thousands and stacked, alive, in the ships’ holds. More than 100, 000 are estimated to have been taken between 1811 and 1844. The tortoises could survive for a year or more and thus provided fresh meat for the sailors long after they had left the islands.
The first rough charts of the archipelago were made by buccaneers in the late 17th century, and scientific exploration began in the late 18th century. The Galápagos’ most famous visitor was Charles Darwin, who arrived in 1835 aboard the British naval vessel the Beagle. Darwin stayed for five weeks, 19 days of which were spent on four of the larger islands, making notes and collecting specimens that provided important evidence for his theory of evolution, which he would later formulate and publish, but not for decades after. He spent the most time on Isla San Salvador observing and, for that matter, eating tortoises. The truth is that Darwin devoted as much of his attention to geology and botany as he did to the animals and marine life of the Galápagos.
The first resident of the islands was Patrick Watkins, an Irishman who was marooned on Isla Santa Maria in 1807 and spent two years living there, growing vegetables and trading his produce for rum from passing boats. The story goes that he managed to remain drunk for most of his stay, then stole a ship’s boat and set out for Guayaquil accompanied by five slaves. No one knows what happened to the slaves – only Watkins reached the mainland.
Ecuador officially claimed the Galápagos Archipelago in 1832. For roughly one century thereafter, the islands were inhabited by only a few settlers and were used as penal colonies, the last of which was closed in 1959.
Some islands were declared wildlife sanctuaries in 1934, and 97% of the archipelago officially became a national park in 1959. Organized tourism began in the late 1960s and now, an estimated 80, 000 foreign visitors visit the islands each year. Another 20, 000 or so are businesspeople or Ecuadorians visiting family and friends and don’t enter the protected reserve.