OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

December 19, 2002

The Mystery of the Isle of the Iguana:
the Galapagos Islands

Griesemer02.jpg (24414 bytes)

by Allan D. Griesemer Ph.D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library



The Galapagos Island chain owes its existence to a deep-seated mantle plume that remains stationary as the earth’s lithospheric plates move over them at the surface.  It has been determined that the Galapagos chain has existed for at least eight million years, and probably much longer.  These plumes rise to the surface beneath the lithosphere and exert enough pressure to crack this upper 150 km thick crust, allowing the lava formed at this depth to rise to the surface and form volcanoes – hence chains like the Galapagos and Hawaiian Islands. This geologic phenomenon has produced over 60 islands in this chain, with a total landmass of about 5000 sq. miles, and volcanic peaks reaching as high as 5600 feet.  The islands can be characterized as having very warm, dry, scrub-dominant coastlines, with relatively moist volcanic slopes covered by grasslands and small forests.  Marine iguanas, sea lions, and sea birds make up the dominant biota at the shore, while the tortoises, feral cattle, goats, horses, and dogs compete with one another on the volcanic slopes.  

Five major milestones are discussed in the paper, starting with the islands discovery in 1535, to their first appearing on a map in 1569, to their take-over by Ecuador in 1832, to the publishing of Beebe’s widely circulated book on the archipelago in 1924, to the first serious efforts to save this unique environment in the 1960’s.  The paper relates the stories of the earliest inhabitants, the period when the buccaneers were using them as a hide-out and launching ground for their attacks, to the whaling history and the role the Islands played in the War of 1812, to finally the many attempts to colonize the islands locally as well as from abroad.  Even though the Islands have been made into a National Park, their future is still very tenuous, due to Ecuador’s inability to commit the resources to protect this delicate ecosystem.  The age-old battle of people maintaining their livelihood versus the preservation of nature may prove unwinnable at least at this battleground.

About the Author

The Author retired from the directorship of the San Bernardino County Museum in 1997.  He had served in the Museum profession for thirty- six years, having started out as an apprentice at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey.  He also served as a Curator for three years at the Dayton Museum of Natural History in Dayton Ohio, and filled various roles at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln for nineteen years, leaving that institution to come to Redlands in 1984.  He received his Bachelors Degree from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, his Masters from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and his Doctorate from the University of Nebraska.  He has published twenty-three museum related articles, and eight academic papers in his career.  He is a member of several community-based organizations and of Sigma Xi.  He is married to his wife Nancy and has three sons living in the Midwest.

Introduction – The Geologic History of the Galapagos Islands

It seems strange that such a small collection of youthful volcanic rocks, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has assumed such a critical role in the history of humankind’s intellectual growth, in particular our insight into the earth’s biological processes.  At the time of Charles Darwin’s famous visit to the islands in 1835, there was no reason to suspect that this archipelago had anything significant to offer.  They repeatedly, since their discovery in the 16th century, had been written off as worthless and very inhospitable to all who tried to find some redeeming value in these 60 odd islands and islets.

This paper will explore some of the major historic milestones of this archipelago and elaborate on some of the intervening periods to provide the reader with a better understanding and flavor of the extraordinary, but often tragic road this small island chain has followed over the past five hundred years.

Those milestones begin in 1535 when the islands were first seen by human eyes (at least to anyone’s knowledge); 1569 when they first were placed on a published map by Mercator; l832 when they were first claimed by Ecuador; 1924 with the publication of Galapagos: World’s End by William Beebe, which hit Europe at just the time when a general disillusionment with life was growing following WW I, and a return to a simpler and more idyllic life, was becoming popular; to finally 1959 through the early 1960’s  when both private and public entities stepped forward to try and form a protective umbrella of sorts.  This included the formation of the Galapagos National Park in 1959; the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands incorporated in Belgium the same year, and finally the establishment in 1964 by UNESCO, of the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. These latter efforts have only been modestly effective primarily due to financial issues, both public and private. One only has to visit the Islands briefly to understand the economic issues, the age-old fight between the livelihoods of humans versus the preservation of our ecosystems, a conflict that we may have to accept as unwinnable.  Population growth is a never-ending problem.  A look at the 1950 census shows only 1346 inhabitants on the islands, however by the year 2000 the estimated population ballooned to more than 17,000.  In addition, the related tourism numbers increased by similar amounts from a few thousand to over 60,000 per year, all of which suggests less than a positive future for the preservation of this unique ecosystem. 

Even with their stark and primitive appearance, the islands do provide many contrasts. With their many volcanoes they offer highly variable environments, from warm and dry coastal areas teaming with vertebrate life in the form of marine iguanas, sea lions and extremely numerous sea birds, to the more humid highlands on the flanks of the volcanoes complete with forests and grasslands where the famous tortoises reside (along with feral horses, burros, goats, cattle etc.).  Of course since the islands are so young, geologically speaking, volcanic eruptions still are occurring at a regular pace. Therefore, from the rims of the calderas to the coast, many lava flows in various stages of erosion occur, making travel very difficult in these areas, and in fact, people time and again naively found out they could be life threatening.  The reactions to these islands were so negative at the time of their discovery, that no one even considered them worthy of names or charting them on a map for a hundred years, and thus they remained formally unclaimed for almost three hundred years. 

So what is the history of these volcanic islands, what is their source, how old are they, and what is their future? To understand the geologic history of this archipelago, I would like to take you back to 1998 when I gave a paper to this body on plate tectonics.  If you may recall, the essence of that paper dealt with the discovery in 1958 that the Earth’s lithosphere is made up of a dozen or so major plates that are in constant motion.  This means that these plates are either pulling apart or colliding with one another, which becomes the source of all major structural elements in our crust and accounts for the existence of our mountain chains, oceanic trenches, and those dreaded volcanoes, which in oceanic areas often become islands.  The plates responsible for the Hawaiian and Galapagos archipelagos are the Pacific and Nazca Plates respectively (see Figure 1).  In the case of the Galapagos and Hawaiian archipelagos, clearly islands of volcanic origin, their existence stems from an alternate source of heat.   This heat source is referred to as a ‘mantle plume’ (see Figure 2).  Such plumes are described as rising columns of hot rock, perhaps 100 km in diameter that emanate from the base of the mantle, which you may recall is the largest division of the Earth’s interior and about 2900 km thick.  Therefore, the plumes, which rise at about 10 cm per year, are independent of the crustal plates, and remain fixed as the plates move above them.  This is why the Galapagos and Hawaiian Islands have remained the same distance apart for millions of years, even though the Pacific and Nazca Plates have moved hundreds of miles in that time. The Nazca Plate, which has been calculated to move at about 5 cm per year, will carry the remnants of the Galapagos Islands to its eastern edge and beneath the South American Plate in about 14 million years. As the plumes reach the lithosphere, the upper 100 km of the Earth’s interior, they tend to heat up and flatten out as the plume’s upper surface experiences a loss in overlying pressure about 150 km below the surface. This begins the liquefaction or lava forming process.   At this point a doming of the lithosphere occurs due to the upward push of the plume, resulting in a cracking of the rigid lithosphere, cracks that allow molten lava to make its way to the surface.   After thousands of flows, volcanoes thousands of feet tall can develop, and if this is beneath the ocean, islands appear.  Since the plates tend to move in a linear fashion, the surface expression results in an island chain or archipelago such as the Hawaiian or Galapagos islands.  Therefore, in these cases, one end of the chain is much older than the other, which is true in both the chains noted above.  In the case of the Galapagos Islands, the oldest and most eastern island, Espanola is about five million years old and small in size due to erosion, and the youngest and most westerly; Fernandina is only seven thousand years old (see Figure 3).  As plate motion moves the volcanic masses off of the plume, they cool and contract, causing them to sink beneath the surface.  In an attempt to prove this concept, geologists recently completed a search to locate a seamount east of Espanola that would be in line with the existing islands, and did so at a depth of 1500 meters.  As predicted, it had beach gravels on its surface and a radiometric date of eight million years. 

The Galapagos volcanoes are referred to as ‘shield’ volcanoes for they form from

very fluid basaltic lava flows, which emerge from large central calderas. These calderas in some cases are several miles in diameter.  These kinds of volcanic flows result in very shallow outer slopes, looking something like inverted bowls.  Kilauea in Hawaii is a good example.  The central caldera is usually flat, but can, without notice, collapse hundreds of meters due to the voids left by the periodic expulsion of lava from beneath the surface.  In the case of the Galapagos Islands, this process over five million years, has produced a cumulated land mass of almost 5000 square miles, with the largest Island, Isabella making up almost half that amount.  Isabella is also the site of the tallest volcano, Wolf, which stands at 5600 feet.  All this action makes the Galapagos archipelago one of the most active volcanic areas in the world, which has been ideal for many animals and plants, but relatively inhospitable, or should I say challenging, for humans.

II The Earliest Human Contact – the 16th Century

 Due to the archipelago’s position 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, directly on the equator, and in the path of the strong Humboldt Current, the islands are situated as a perfect spawning ground for Darwin’s evolutionary process to function (see Figure 4).  At the same time the islands are just far enough away from the mainland so that human intervention was substantially delayed, in no small part due to the significant difficulty sailors would have returning to the mainland against the Humboldt Current in their small balsa raft, (see Figure 5).   Based on these presumptions, and the lack of any artifactual evidence, there is no proof that anyone had ever seen the Galapagos Islands prior to the year 1535, at least to tell about it.    There are some unsubstantiated suggestions that an Inca king in 1400 had made the voyage and returned, but most feel he actually had traveled to the Easter Islands instead, for his account said something about bringing back Negro slaves.

Almost everyone agrees that the first reliably recorded visit to the islands occurred by accident in the 1535.  This visit was made by Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, on behalf of King Carlos V, attempting to reach Peru to check on the reportedly barbarous exploits of Pizzaro. Unfortunately his ship became becalmed after a week at sea and drifted with the currents for eight days, eventually sighting land – the Galapagos Archipelago!  They landed on the small Santa Fe Island, but soon found there was no water – a common and never ending problem for all who sought refuge over the years. They renewed their voyage, but were again becalmed, this time for three days, and now were very short of water. They eventually lost two men and ten horses, and had to rely on small pockets of rainwater and chewing cactus pads for moisture, but finally made it back to the mainland. The Bishop had little good to report to the King, but did say he saw small crystals (diamonds?) in the beach sands, which undoubtedly did stir some interest back in Spain.  His report also spoke of the strange tame animals on the islands, especially the giant tortoises with saddle-like carapaces – hence the name Galapagos.  Later, this Bishop turned out to be a burr in Spain’s side, for he also took a stand against Spain’s right to subjugate the natives of the Americas, and the right to confiscate the native resources and wealth.  He also suggested the possibility of digging a canal in Panama, and even laid the groundwork for the creation of the independent state of Ecuador – a real revolutionary for his day.  

Other Spanish travelers in the late 16th Century, sailing along the west coast of South America, perhaps deserters from Pizzaro, were said to have reached the Galapagos Islands but gave them a different name, Las Islas Encantadas, or the enchanted isles.  This name arose apparently due to the numerous strange currents that swirl around the islands making distances difficult to determine, as well as from the frequent fog that makes travel rather frightening at times.  Sailors were known to swear that according to their charts the islands would move, and they would end up sailing “right through them” and never see them!

However, it was due to the Spanish that the islands first appeared on maps, the Mercator map of 1569 and the Ortelius map of 1570, where they are referred to as the Insulae de los Galapeagos.  This was a major milestone, for from this date on the abuse of the islands went into high gear as they became a hideout and source of fresh turtle meat for thousands of buccaneers and whalers over the next one hundred and fifty years.

III The Buccaneer Period – the 17th Century

Although there are reports of buccaneering going on in the Pacific in the late 16th Century, pirate influence was not a dominating force until the 17th.  Spain’s rivals, particularly England were becoming very much aware of the Spanish conquest and plundering of the New World peoples, and decided they wanted to claim some of that wealth for themselves.   Apparently England partnered with various pirates to capture as many of the Spanish galleons as possible.  The buccaneer captains began to use the Galapagos Islands as a base of operations, where they could rest, and stock up on easily acquired fresh meat and even some water.  One of their favorite hideouts was on Santiago Island at what is now called Buccaneer Cove, because water is available here most of the year.  Obviously the islands were in a very strategic location between Mexico and Peru, as the galleons from the north had to pass by the Islands, and were within easy striking distance of Spanish shipping leaving Peru.  In 1684 the pirate Ambrose Crowley made the first crude, but fairly accurate, navigational charts for the islands (see Figure 6).  He named many of the Islands after English noblemen who helped the pirate cause.  These were the first names that came into common use, and were not changed until Ecuador took over one hundred and fifty years later.

It was during this time that it was learned by the visitors that the easily caught tortoises could be tuned upside down and stacked alive on ship for up to a year without providing food or water, making them a great fresh meat supply.  Of course when the animals weighed up to four hundred pounds, it became somewhat of a task to get them from the highlands to the shore, but over the next couple of centuries, it is estimated from the logs of buccaneers and whalers, that they removed as many as 200,000 animals, seriously affecting their viability on all islands, and in fact totally decimating them on some.

The most serious threat to the Spanish galleons came in the early 1680’s when several pirates formed an alliance, which brought together ten ships and over one thousand men.  Its effectiveness was mostly psychological, as it really caught the Spanish governments attention, but in reality resulted in only one major skirmish involving fourteen Spanish ships.  There was a lot of shooting, but not much else occurred.

One of the most famous pirates was John Cook who started his journey to the Pacific from Chesapeake Bay.  His first encounter was with a 36 gun Danish ship off of Sierra Leone, which he captured and renamed the Bachelor’s Delight.  With this vessel, Cook and his crew rounded Cape Horn in 1684.  They encountered very bad weather and were forced further south than any one had ever gone before (or so he said), 60 degrees and 30 minutes south latitude.  The story goes that while passing the Horn they were discussing the “intrigues of women”, but after the bad time they had with this terrible storm, they vowed never to discuss women at sea in such a fashion again.  The afore mentioned Crowley was actually a crewmember on Captain Cook’s ship.  He not only made good navigational charts, he also was the first to record what the islands were like, both physically and biologically; it seems he was more of a naturalist then a pirate at heart. The most intense period of buccaneering ended in 1688 when King James finally severed England’s relationship with the pirates and extended them a full pardon. 

One other brief episode of buccaneering did take place in the early 18th century in and around the Galapagos Islands when several English merchants from Bristol financed two ships, the Duke and the Duchess, to prey on French and Spanish shipping.  The most interesting thing about this story is that the crew of these ships rescued a marooned man, Alexander Selkirk on Juan Fernandez Island off Chile. The story goes that he had gotten into an argument with a Captain Straddling and consequently put ashore almost four years earlier, and during that time had almost totally lost the ability to speak or more importantly, drink rum. However, he apparently could write, and in fact kept an account of his experiences.  This eventually became the story of Robinson Crusoe.  The end of this saga suggests that the story was stolen from him by a well-known writer of the day, Daniel Defoe, and Selkirk ended up dying in poverty. The Duke and Duchess did stay in the Galapagos area for four years, raiding when possible, including the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. They returned to Bristol in 1711, with booty that did not even cover the cost of the excursion, which ended pirating as a business in the eastern Pacific.

IV The Hunting Ground for Whalers – the 18th and 19th Centuries

Many more whalers than pirates came to the east coast of South America and the Galapagos Archipelago starting in the late 18th century, due to the discovery of the rich hunting grounds for sperm whales, including the majestic Blue whales.  One of the first to respond to this revelation was Captain James Colnett, who was sent by the British government in 1793 to investigate the possibilities.  In the process, he charted the Galapagos Islands in more accurate detail, and established a rather unique “institution” on Floreana’s northern coast, The Post Office Barrel, which still exists today (see Figure 7).  This unmanned ‘post office’ operates on a very simple basis, people leave messages in the barrel with appropriate addresses, and as other people come by at some later date, if they are willing to deliver the messages, they take the letters with them and act as the postman when they get back home.  Although the original barrel, of course, is no longer in existence, the system still works well, even though the post office structure leaves something to be desired. 

Several countries soon were sending whaling fleets into the area, including the United States. Since many of these fleets took advantage of the Galapagos chain as a stopping off place (especially once it became known that Floreana had a year round water supply) the earlier carnage of the turtle populations became a blip on the screen compared to that wrought by the whalers.  And these crews didn’t stop with tortoises; they also decimated the fur seal and sea turtle populations as well. 

It is interesting to note that the War of 18 12 between the United States, England and France found its way to the Galapagos Islands because of these competing whaling fleets.  Apparently the American government sent Captain David Porter to the area commanding the U.S.S. Essex with the intent of destroying or capturing as much of the British whaling fleet as he could.  He rounded Cape Horn in 1813, and arrived at San Cristobal Island in April of that year.  Within two weeks, he had captured three whalers loaded with oil worth $500,000. Before he was finished, he had captured seven more ships, in fact was having trouble commanding them all.  The story goes that as a last resort, one of the captured ships was put in charge of a twelve-year-old midshipman who later became the first full admiral in the United States Navy, David Farragut.  Porter was able to get some feeling for which ships were in the area, by checking the mail that had been put in the Post Office barrel.  Porter found that many of the sailors on the British ships were actually Americans, those he reemployed.  To keep things manageable, he would paint the captured ships and sell them to the Spanish.  He also frequently painted his own ship to fool the whalers long enough for him to be able to get close enough to capture them.  His run came to an end a year later, when he captured three more British whalers, one of whom had recently captured an American whaler. Although the description of these captures sounded as if things normally went quite gentlemanly, with little aggressive action necessary, in the case of this last British capture, because of the previous American ship’s capture, he put this British Captain in irons, a Captain Stavers.  Captain Porter’s total take from all his captures of British whalers amounted to over $2,500,000.   However, his luck did run out eventually. On his way back to America he was captured by two British warships.  He was allowed to return to the United States on one of the whalers he had captured.  Porter later became the Commander-in-chief of the Mexican Navy, and even later the Ambassador to Constantinople.  Whaling came to an end in this area finally in the mid 19th century with the discovery of petroleum and the growing scarcity of sperm whales.

Among the whalers who visited the Galapagos Islands as a youth was Herman Melville who did not speak of the Galapagos in very glowing terms. In his 1856 book The Piazza Tales he describes the Galapagos, which he calls Los Enchantodas, as “Man and wolf alike disown them.  Little but reptile life is here found; tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the aguano.  No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss”

V Colonization is initiated – 19th Century

The very first person to call the Galapagos Islands home was an Irishman, by the name of Patrick Watkins. Patrick came to Floreana Island in the year 1807 from an English ship, whether by choice or sentence is not known.  Captain Porter came upon him and described the man and his enterprise in some detail.  Apparently, Patrick was a very wild looking individual “He appeared to be reduced to the lowest grade of which human nature is capable and seemed to have no desire beyond the tortoises and other animals on the island, except that of getting drunk”. He apparently had red hair and few clothes, but was an enterprising person. He found a two-acre plot of land that could be cultivated about a mile from what is now called Pats’ Landing.  On this piece of land he grew potatoes and pumpkins, which he periodically sold to passing ships.  On one occasion, he was treated in a very inhospitable manner by one ship’s crew, and was robbed of $500. 

After this, he began planning his revenge and also a way to get off the Island.  He told an American Captain to send some men ashore to help pick his crop so they could make their purchases.  The Captain sent four boats of people, but when they got to his place, he was nowhere to be found.  When they returned to their boats, they found three of them destroyed, and the fourth one missing.  Patrick left a note saying he felt he deserved what he took, due to the previous injustices he had suffered.  It turns out he left with four of his own men, but when he arrived at Guayaquil, he was alone, When he was found he looked so suspicious, that he was arrested and later died in prison.

No other colonization was attempted or encouraged by the Spanish government, which had de facto control of the Islands for three hundred years.  That began to change in 1830 with the formation of the new country of Ecuador.  Within two years they annexed the Galapagos Islands, and changed the official name to Archipelago del Ecuador, and later yet, the name was changed again to Archipelago de Colon in honor of Columbus. In addition, they changed the names of all the Islands to reflect their now permanent Spanish-speaking enclave.

The first try at colonizing the islands fell to a gentleman from Louisiana, Don Jose Villamil.  He also picked Floreana because of its stable water supply, and became its first Governor in 1832.  Don Jose thought he could successfully achieve his dreams for the islands by using prisoners as his colonists.  Several other colonizers also utilized this unfortunate plan in later attempts, none of which succeeded.  In fact the islands became a de facto penal colony, often badly managed, but with the blessing of the ineffective Ecuadorian government, for much of the 19th century.

This first group of colonists was mostly made up of mutinous soldiers who had been condemned to die.  Vilamil’s logic was that they would be so grateful for this second chance that everything would work out – not so.  He also brought out normal townspeople, as well as farm animals.  His farm community was called Asilo de la Paz. By 1835, the year of Darwin’s visit, he had amassed a contingent of 300 people, half of which were convicts. Villamil was a decent man with a dream, but became disillusioned and resigned in 1837 and left the Islands.  A Colonel Williams took over, but he was not well liked and there was an uprising in 1841. Villamil unsuccessfully returned to try to save the colony, but the great majority of the people had already left.

Villamil did not give up easily.  He tried once more, hoping to harvest tallow from the thousands of feral cattle now on the islands, as well as develop a cattle ranch, but this too failed, and he finally gave up in 1860.  Unfortunately Villamil’s contribution was to increase the dreaded feral population of cattle, pigs and goats to devastating numbers.

A second attempt to colonize Floreana occurred in 1869 by Don Jose Valdizan, a very decent person of Span

ish decent.  His hope was to be able to harvest orchilla, a type of lichen common to the islands, used in the manufacture of dyes.  This worked for fifteen years, but he also based his hopes on the use of convicts, and the almost inevitable revolt occurred, resulting in Valdizan being murdered, the colonists scattered and the project abandoned. By the1880’s the island was totally abandoned again.

The most successful of the 19th century efforts was also the saddest for all involved, due to that most common of all human frailties – greed.  This occurred on San Cristobal, and was organized by a man by the name of Manuel Cobos in1869.  Cobos took advantage of Ecuador’s inability to really govern the islands, and essentially established himself as the ruler of San Cristobal.  He was a good businessman, but ruthless in his handling of people.  He would pay off convict’s debts, thus making them indentured servants on his island.  In fact they could never leave the island, for he was in total control, and the length of sentences were ignored.  He had as many as 400 men working for him.  He had his own company store and currency, and of course no one ever got out of debt.  The President of Ecuador, at one point, had issued an arrest warrant for Cobos, but there was no one to enforce it.  He successfully raised sugar cane, and had 10,000 head of cattle.  The name of his complex was El Progreso, and he attempted to expand his empire by farming and ranching on two neighboring islands, Floreana and Isabella, and brought in 100,000 coffee trees.   Things began to get a bit more difficult in 1885, when Ecuador made the Islands a Territory, which meant that a Territorial Head, Inspector and six policemen were assigned to the Islands – of course Cobos very quickly owned them all.  By 1904 Cobos was at his peak, and he was considering selling his holdings to an American firm for $500,000. His ruthlessness was his downfall.  He would discipline offenders by whipping an individual up to 500 times or marooning them on one of the other islands – both of which often meant death.  Revenge for his cruelty finally occurred in January of 1904 when one of the foremen shot him to death on his front porch.  The group of conspirators that left for the mainland and landed in Quayaquil were immediately arrested, but only the leader stayed in jail after their story was told.

There was one other attempt to colonize the Islands in the 19th century, by Don Antonio Gil in 1897.  He settled on Floreana first, but then went to Isabella, and hoped to raise cattle for their hides, take the tortoises for their oil, and harvest sulfur from the volcanic calderas. His ranch was called Santo Tomas, which was situated just below the volcano Sierra Negra. He asked the Ecuadorian government for police protection, which he got in the form of twelve men, all of whom deserted within two years, and the project failed.

Therefore, although several had attempted to colonize the islands, all failed in the 19th century, due to the type of people chosen, the lack of governmental control, the scarcity of good water, and the mistreatment of the colonists.  All of this activity did receive attention abroad, particularly in the United States. Our country offered to take the Archipelago de Colon off Ecuador’s hands, since they were having so little success in dealing with all the issues, but were politely refused.  Ecuador however, did entertain the possibility of giving the islands to England to pay off some debt, but got such a strong negative reaction from Spain, Peru, and France, they gave up the idea.

VI Colonization is Begun Again With Some Success  - the 20th Century

Even before the end of the 19th century, the growing interest in the Galapagos Islands in Europe and America resulted in a proposed colonization by August Christensen from Norway.  His attempt to settle on Floreana in the 1870’was foiled however, when the Ecuadorian Government required that he and his colonists renounce their Norwegian citizenship.  They refused, so the colony never materialized.  However, Christensen tried again in 1926, this time with some success and he set up a fishery on Floreana near Post Office Bay. He came to an agreement with the Government and the first group of 40 people built a fishing and whaling center called Casa Matriz. This caused a bit of a stir on the mainland for the Norwegians were known for their ability as fisherman, and it was feared they would over-fish the area. While this group was struggling to get established on Floreana, a second group of 80 Norwegians arrived the same year and settled on Santa Cruz.  However, within a year, both colonies were already in the throes of disbanding.  In 1930 Christensen was still trying to save at least his investment, by selling his equipment to the Van Camp Company of California, but Ecuador would not allow the sale and the effort collapsed.  The many problems they faced included, inadequate equipment, the very hot climate which resulted in trouble preserving the fish, a significant shortage of fresh water, the distance to markets, and the psychological problems that resulted from the fact that the community was all men.  Most of these issues should have been anticipated, but obviously weren’t.

This brings us to one of the most bizarre stories to come out of the Islands – the 1929 establishment of a very small German colony on Floreana.  It has been suggested that the reason for this early 20th century interest in Europe for places like the Galapagos Islands was because of the disillusionment Europeans felt with western civilization following WW I, and the related desire to lead a simpler life – perhaps on some paradise isle in the distant Pacific.  The first couple to emerge in this story to flee the perceived problems of the West was Dr. Frederick Ritter, and his mistress Dora Strauch.  They decided to leave Germany for a more idyllic life, after having read Robinson Crusoe; both were married at the time.  Ritter was a dentist (he removed all his teeth before he left), and Dora a trained musician.  She had multiple sclerosis, which had left her with a limp and barren.  They decided to leave Germany so that their spouses could perhaps get together, in fact they invited their spouses to their going away party, just so they could meet.  They first considered the Azores, but when they got there, there already were too many Europeans, so they decided to continue on to the Galapagos Islands. They left on the 3rd of August and arrived on the 31s t.   The only person living on Floreana at the time was a man called Hugo who spent his time capturing wild cattle.  They settled near a fresh water spring in the interior of the island, calling the site Friedo. - their “garden of peace”.  Unfortunately Frederick was a loner, and not a very caring person, and shortly after arriving began to show his indifference to his new mate.  News of their affair and escape to the Pacific became front-page news back in Germany, and they were called the “Adam and Eve of Paradise”.  The problem with this was that this publicity caused numerous visitors, which Frederick particularly hated.  For this they only had themselves to blame for they regularly sent letters to friends telling of their idyllic lives, which of course ended up in local papers. In the next few years, several groups came, stayed a while, but in the end always left, realizing it was not quite the paradise they had expected. This was true until 1932, when finally two groups came and stayed, much to Frederick’s displeasure. These also were primarily from Germany.  The first came in August - the family of Heinz and Margarita Wittmer and their 12-year-old son Harry - Margarita was five months pregnant.  In fact they chose Floreana because they knew that Frederick was a doctor of sorts.   The second included the mysterious if not bizarre Baroness Eloise Wagner De Bosquet, and her entourage of three companions/lovers, Rudolf Lorenz, Robert Philippson, and an Ecuadorian by the name of Valdivieso, who had been to France, all of whom were in their 20’s and 30’s Heinz Wittmer had been the secretary to the Burgermeister of Cologne, Conrad Adenauer.  Once their desire to become permanent was clear, Frederick in particular became very cold towards them all. The Wittmers initially lived in one of the lava tube caves that had housed pirates; it was also near the central spring. 

The Baroness came in October of 1932 and settled at Post Office Bay, using what was left of the Norwegian buildings.  She immediately dubbed herself the “Empress of the Island”, and began taxing anything coming or going, which greatly irritated the others.  Her background was very murky.  Lorenz later told the others that she was once a spy in WW I, also a singer in Constantinople where she met a French nobleman, and from that time on referred to herself as Baroness.  It also came out that she left Paris right after shortages were found at a dress shop where she was employed.  She walked around the Island wearing black boots, and often carried a whip and revolver. Other things she did to annoy her fellow colonists, included writing to Germany and making obnoxious comments such as “Dr. Ritter is a lowly dentist, really not much more than a nurse” and that he had been arrested on the island due to a reign of terror.  She frequently claimed to own the island and was going to make it into another Miami for rich Americans.  She also angered everyone by bathing nude in the community’s common water tank that provided their only drinking water.  And of course her sexual escapades became notorious, with many tales even reaching the mainland, causing governmental officials to come to Floreana to investigate – they went home praising her.

These circumstances caused Heinz Wittmer to comment that he was ready to take matters into his own hands – a statement that caused concern later.  At about his time, the Baroness built her own house, also in the central region, not too far from the spring, which she called Hacienda El Paraiso, and was joined at her abode by three additional companions, Trygwe Nuggerud, the German journalist Brockman, and his brother Linde.  The latter only stayed a short time, for on a hunting expedition one day, the Baroness shot Linde, apparently on purpose.  She nursed him back to health, and he quickly left. She told Frederick that God had spoken to her and told her to move to Floreana, and that her job was to purify the earth, in any way she could.

On January 1, 1933 Rolf Wittmer was born, and for a while relations between the colonists actually became civil. A fairly common visitor to the island was Allan Hancock, a wealthy California businessman on his yacht, the Velero III. He would usually bring presents for the colonists, and a rivalry developed to curry Hancock’s favor.  So although 1933 had started off on a positive note, things rapidly went down hill throughout the rest of the year. Lorenz, who was the Baroness’s favorite when they arrived, had slipped badly to second behind Phillippson, and was becoming quite neurotic and even reclusive.   He would disappear for long periods, usually ending up at someone else’s home, before crawling back to the Baroness.  Frederick’s indifference to Dora was becoming very pronounced, and he was even becoming physical with her.  There were rumors of a lot of at least flirting between the Baroness and Frederick, and Dora with the Baroness’s groupies.  In reality, no one really was getting along with anyone else for very long periods of time, only Margarita seemed to be reasonably sane by the end of the year.  Nineteen thirty-three was bad, but the year 1934 would turn out to be tragic for the colony.  Before the year is out, five of the twelve people in the Colony will have died, and all by mysterious means. Later, the natives would refer to the island as the man-eater place.

Early in the year Allan Hancock arrived with a producer from Hollywood with the idea of making a movie using the Baroness and Philippson as pirates – it turns out the Baroness couldn’t act, so the whole idea was a flop.  By March the temperatures had risen into the 120-degree range, and the islands were also experiencing a drought -  things were not going well. 

Margarita’s version of the next few days are as follows: On March 27th, The Baroness came to Margarita, since that was where Lorenz was living at the time, and asked that he take care of her place since she and Philippson had been offered a trip to Tahiti, and that she anticipated moving to Tahiti. Everyone was pleased with the thought of no Baroness.  On the 30th, Lorenz reported to the colony that the Baroness was gone as were all her things. When the Wittmers went to the Hacienda a few days later, they found Frederick going through all the things that were left, and he said that she was gone and would not be back, he guaranteed it.  However, no one ever saw a boat come or go from the island.

Dora’s version of the events:  On March 21st Lorenz showed up at their house looking calm and serene for the first time in a long time.  He reported, however, that the Baroness had threatened to kill him.  On the 25th the mail arrived from Europe, containing two articles authored by the Baroness that depicted the Ritters in very negative terms. They all went to the Hacienda on April 1st   and found the Baroness’s favorite hat and a copy of the book The Portrait of Dorian Gray, of which she was very fond, and would never leave behind. 

On April 21st a yacht does come to the island to pick up the Baroness, a Mr. Howell from Chicago.  Nuggerud finally appears in mid-July with friends from the mainland.  He had married an Ecuadorian woman with a baby.  Nuggerud met with Lorenz at the Wittmer’s where he learned of the Baroness’s disappearance.  Nuggerud and Lorenz, plus an Ecuadorian boy named Jose, decided to sail back to the mainland so that Lorenz could work his way back to Germany.  It is known they got as far as Santa Cruz, and left for San Cristobal where they hoped to catch a ship for Guayaquil – but they never arrived.   So to date, four members of the colony have disappeared. 

Now the story turns to the Ritters.  Dora reported that the two of them were getting along very well, that a stability had developed, a real sense of happiness.  On the other hand, Margarita indicated that they were separating and essentially not even speaking.  In November, it was reported that the Ritter’s chickens had died from eating poison meat.  A few days later, Dora came rushing to the Wittmers saying that Fredeick was dying because he had eaten infected canned meat.  Apparently, Frederick believed that anything could be eaten if boiled. But the strange thing about this story is that Frederick was a vegetarian.  He died on the 21st of November.  Dora did not attend the funeral. Again the accounts of Fredericks’s last moments differ vastly between Dora and Margarita.  Dora says he died peacefully reaching out for her saying that he had fulfilled his work.  Margarita indicated Frederick had written a note saying he cursed Dora to his last breath, and that he tried to kick and hit her when she came to his bedside to give him a shot of morphine.  The two women from this time on obviously became dire enemies even after they both returned to Germany.

To make matters worse, four days before Frederick died, they found Lorenz and Nuggerud, far to the north on the beach of Marchena – mummified (see Figure 9).  Neither the boat nor the young Ecuadorian boy was ever found. 

Hancock returned in December to this amazing string of tragedies.  He agreed to take Dora to the mainland so she could get back to Germany.  On the ship she said some very strange things, including that she killed her husband and that the Wittmers were involved with the disappearance of the Baroness.  This caused Hancock to return to Foreana and he and Dora sat down with Margarita until they agreed to sign a joint statement clarifying the events.  Basically it was Margarita’s version that was agreed upon.  Dora was questioned by the Governor of the Islands, but allowed to leave for Germany on January 2, 1935, which meant there would be no investigation.  Were there murders, if so who, by whom?

Margarita was brought to Germany to help clear the air on these strange events.  What this did was to start a verbal war between Dora and Margarita, with each writing a book.   And to this day, the mystery continues, only Margaraita is still alive, and she has refused in recent years, to speak of that time to anyone.  What of that statement that Margarita’s husband Heinz made, on more than one occasion, that he would take things into his own hands, and Frederick’s guarantee the Baroness would not be back, the scorned Lorenz, or the unstable Dora?  After reviews by numerous people, with little real evidence, the general conclusion is that Lorenz killed the Baroness and Philippson, perhaps with the help of Frederick and Dora.

There was one more attempt at establishing a penal colony on the southern tip of Isabella in 1946.  However, as in the past little supervision was provided, and by 1958 a breakout was easily planned and carried out by about 40 inmates.  They eventually confiscated a fishing boat and a small yacht, and sailed with 21 men for Columbia.  There they were captured and sent back to Quito.  The penal colony was removed the next year and thankfully this use of the islands was ended.

The final colonization effort, coming from the outside of Ecuador, was attempted in 1960 by a relatively unschooled thirty-five year old science fiction addict from Seattle.  He called his dream the “Filiate Science Antrose” He was an atheist, racist, and an anti-government type person who wanted to create a utopia for scientific investigation, as a service to the world. Somehow, he got a university professor to support him, and with his backing advertised for participants – and had over 300 applicants!  Perhaps that was because he indicated there would be free love and equality for all.  Out of that number he chose 106 people from all walks of life, each of which was to pay a $2,500 membership fee.  With this money they were going to buy 20-60,000 hectares of land on Isabella, grow pineapples and cacao, and also sell biologic specimens. They seemed to have forgotten that the Islands belonged to Ecuador and that they might have some concerns about such a venture.  In fact, Ecuador had only recently made the Islands a National Park, and had not yet drawn up the necessary regulations on the private ownership of land. They arrived in March, and hoped to catch a boat full of lobsters to send back to the States, for a profit of $40,000.  The only trouble was that they couldn’t catch many lobsters, and their refrigeration system on the boat failed.  They then bought a refrigeration plant, but it was not working, and couldn’t be fixed – someone really saw them coming!  In addition, this was all happening right after Castro had taken over Cuba, so the leftists on the mainland were very resentful of the capitalists taking over their islands. When a second contingent was about to leave Seattle, the ship was stopped by the Coast Guard for being unsafe for the number of people it was carrying – so many had to get off.  On the trip south, for a lack of leadership, chaos reigned on this ship.  By the time they got to Isabella, all was in turmoil and they found the first group was ready to return home, saying they had been duped, and were bankrupt.  Everyone was very bitter. They all eventually boarded both ships and left in January of 1961.  On the way home, one boat sank, but thankfully all were saved.

The only successful colonization effort was made by another German family in 1935 on Santa Cruz Island.  This involved the four Angermeyer brothers.  Their parents sold their home in Germany so that they could buy a boat that would allow the brothers to get away from Hitler by sailing to the Galapagos Islands.  Some of their descendents still live on the Island operating a yacht rental and a hotel in Puerto Ayora. Johanna, a daughter of one of the brothers wrote a book about their exploits entitled My Father’s Island.  She now lives in England, but still spends time on Santa Cruz.

 Thankfully for the Islands, the colonization days are over.

VII Conclusions

Even though the colonization days are over, overpopulation and over-fishing are still major problems for this most important natural treasure. The fishing problem in this case involves the excessive harvesting of sharks and sea cucumbers, both of which are sold to Japan in large numbers as aphrodisiacs and other medicinal cures. The local fishermen are demanding their right to fish as they wish, and the government seems to have neither the will nor the means to stop them.  The feral animals, currently mostly goats, are still ravaging several of the islands, making life very tough for the tortoises, especially on Isabella.  There has been some improvement on some islands.  Goats and dogs have been removed from several of the smaller islands, and the Charles Darwin Research Center has a successful tortoise breeding and egg hatching program that has allowed them to release about 2000 tortoises back into the wild.  We were told recently that there are again about 20,000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands, but of course several species had already become extinct by the time any effort was made to save them.

One writer, native to the Islands, tried to explain the rationale of those 18th and 19th century visitors.  She noted that they only killed for their own subsistence, and at that time they viewed these resources as endless. In addition, they considered the natural world as almost an adversary, as a threat to their survival, and they certainly knew nothing of ecology or the balance that exists in nature, or for that matter that they too were part of that balance.  She further laments the coming of modernization, of the associated greed, of the hotels and roads that are being built.  She notes that her neighbors are changing from relaxed residents to aggressive businessmen.  As a crowning blow, she indicated that a local lagoon is now so regulated with dikes that the tides are only allowed to raise and fall under the supervision of the hotel staff.   It sounds as if colonialization has been replaced by industrialization, and of course, tourism.  Our poor Mr. Darwin must be rolling over in his grave.


  • Angermeyer, J., 1989, My father’s Island, Urchin Press, 303p.

  • Beebe, W., 1924, Galapagos, World’s End, G.P. Putnam’s & Sons, New York, 441p.

  • LaTorre, O., 1990, The Curse of the Giant Tortoise, printed in Ecuador, 237p.

  • Moore, T. de R., 1980, Galapagos: Islands Lost in Time, Viking Press, New York, 71p.

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