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Galapagos Islands History
The islands emerged about five million years ago, give or take a million, as a result of violent volcanic action. In geological terms, this should be considered a recent event.
As the young islands were cooling off, say, two million years later, some species gradually arrived. They were live organisms riding on “rafts of vegetation” from the shores of Central and South America. Unusual climatic events, like flooding, can take lots of vegetation rafts eventually to the ocean. Therefore, it is pure chance that allows a raft to eventually reach Galapagos. These early immigrants had to adapt to a peculiar new environment, and simply evolved — slowly — in a different direction from their continental ancestors. And, wonders of nature, they developed into species unique to the islands, with features not seen in their past ancestors.
In fact, when Darwin published his book On The Origin Of The Species, the nineteenth-century thinkers confirmed long held suspicions that species were not immutable, and praised the archipelago as a living laboratory. Since then, it has become the greatest observatory and laboratory of evolution.
The first human being in Galapagos was Tomás de Berlanga, a Spanish bishop who was navigating close to the shores of Central America on an apostolic mission in February of 1535. His boat had been stilled by calm winds, and the Panamá Current pushed it southward only to know that the arrival was to some mysterious islands, which had no evident charms. “Birds are so silly,” he wrote to the King of Spain, Charles V, “they know not how to flee”. The islands had been officially discovered. It was March 1535.
Eventually, the bishop’s party sailed back to the continent with the first encouraging breeze. The islands were reported to Spain, but no effort was made to colonize them based on the somewhat uninviting descriptions from Berlanga.
Anyway, having arrived less that 500 years ago, humans are some of the newest “living organisms” inhabiting the Galapagos.
Isolated and Remote
Sometimes the Galapagos become invisible, almost illusory at short distances, particularly in the dense veil of early morning. Remember the waters surrounding the islands are a bit cold for tropical standards. This produces a fine mist (known locally asgarúa) as cool air invades warmer patches of air. Thus, an early fog can be quite deceiving at telling what’s ahead. This is how the islands picked up the name of Las Encantadas (which can be translated as ‘enchanted’ but also ‘bewitched’): islands that suddenly appeared, as the mist evaporated, and islands that disappeared as the mist engulfed them.
Then, in 1570, a map of the Spanish New World drawn by a Flemish cartographer circulated in the Caribbean, showing the elusive islands, for the first time, with the unpoetic name of Islas de los Galapagos (Islands of the Giant Tortoises). This map, in buccaneer’s hands, was used to maraud up and down the Pacific in the 1600s.
During the 17th century and a good art of the 18th, the astute pirates found in the Galapagos a safe place to hide, repair their vessels, map future raids and stock up on fresh meat, killing tortoises by thousands. They apparently left no buried treasures and eventually decided that the Caribbean was more challenging after all.
Late in the 18th century came the whaler fleets that made the archipelago a centre of operations, but after a number of years the whalers, too, left when the profits weren’t worth the costly, lengthy routes. The whalers are, indeed, the human group that leaves the first devastating impact on the islands: thousands of giant tortoises killed, and domestic animals introduced. These events will prove later the reasons for having a strong conservation campaign in today’s Galapagos.
In sum, nobody really wanted the Galapagos — until 1832. On February 12th, Colonel Ignacio Hernandez, of Ecuador, with instructions from General Jose de Villamil, planted the Ecuadorian flag on Floreana Island, and took possession of what he named officially Las Islas Galapagos on behalf of his government. Sixty years later, in 1892, most of the islands received a Spanish name, all related to the Discovery of America.