Diving The Galapagos

a blog for DiveTheGalapagos.com

Floreana History – Pre 1900’s

Floreana Part 1 is from the early 1500 until the 1900’s:

Post Office Bay Engraving from 1800's

How to begin about a topic that covers the beginnings of time, evolution, whalers, pirates, pioneers, the US Navy, endemic species and tourism today? That’s the task at hand where Isla Floreana in the Galapagos is concerned. On the surface, in many ways Floreana might seem the most boring of the islands. Then again, baseball might seem like a boring sport to anyone who does not realize the incredible intelligence involved in the sport. You have to be well-informed and do your homework to truly appreciate how remarkable either (baseball or Floreana) is. Without further ado, I’ll try to put the awe I feel about Floreana into context.

Floreana is today the least populated of the populated islands in the Galapagos with 170 residents, however, it was the first to be settled. As you approach from the sea, you will be able to see what has drawn sailors for centuries – one green hill in the middle of an otherwise seemingly brown and lifeless isolated Pacific isle. Most of the early travelers who wrote about the Galapagos usually said the same thing in their own emphatic way…what an uninviting, unappealing place!

But, unlike most of the other Galapagos islands where water was not a year round assurance, Floreana has an artisian spring that drips out of the rocks consistently enough to have formed a deep indentation where today, moss hangs down like lace where the water trickles out. That trickle has been the beacon of Floreana for centuries.

While Thor Heyerdahl wanted the world to believe that the Incas actually managed to paddle 600 nautical miles out from the Ecuador coast to leave evidence of their visit, most seem to doubt his findings. It is generally established that the Galapagos Islands were first discovered by a Spanish priest in 1535.

Due to Spaniards transporting Peruvian gold through Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, was in route to Peru when his ship went adrift in a dead calm sea and the currents pulled him westward. Thus the Bishop accidentally discovered the Galapagos. In a letter to the King of Spain, the bishop described the islands by saying: “I do not think this is a place where one might sow a bushel of corn because most of it is full of very big stones and the earth is much like dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass”. The bishop and his crew, like many early visitors, were less then impressed by the lack of water. He didn’t even bother to give the islands a name. It wasn’t until 1574 that the name “Galapagos Islands” first appeared on a map. “Galapago” is an old Spanish word, meaning saddle. The giant Galapagos Tortoises had a shell that resembled an old Spanish saddle, thus the name.

During the 1500 and 1600’s, the west coast of South America was prize Pirate territory. As Spain was busy collecting the wealth of the Incas and shipping it home, the Buccaneers (or Pirates depending on whose side you were on) would attack the Spanish treasure ships to steal the ships’ riches. The Galapagos Islands became a favorite hideout for these Pirates. They could plunder and then hide out in any number of island coves, easily eluding the Spaniards. The islands of Floreana, Santa Cruz and Santiago became favorite spots due to fresh water and fresh meat. Almost every single accounting from this era onward describes the meat of the giant tortoises as delicious.

By 1792, British whalers reached the Galapagos. Upwelling currents around the islands made the Galapagos an excellent feeding ground for whales. Each whaling ship would collect between 500-600 tortoises to provide fresh meat for their crews. It has been written that “whaling skippers were almost lyrical in their praise of tortoise meat, terming it far more delicious than chicken, pork or beef”. They said the meat of the giant tortoise was “succulent meat and the oil from their bodies as pure as butter, but best of all, the giants could hibernate in a ship’s damp for a year or more.”

Whalers landed in Floreana to replenish stock and headed to the highlands to carve temporary dwellings out of the soft rock. Visitors today often tag these caves as “the Stonehenge of the Galapagos” due to their appearance. It is estimated that whaling ships removed 15,000 tortoises from Floreana causing the extinction of that subspecies. The whalers also created problems that would long survive them; they introduced a number of animals to the Galapagos including the black rat, cats, cattle, donkeys, goats and dogs. Between the years of 1811 and 1844, it is thought some 700 whaling ships visited these islands. Damage to the Galapagos environment by the whalers was unprecedented.

In 1807, Galapagos received its first resident. Irishman Patrick Watkins arrived on the island of Floreana marooned at sea. For two years he lived from growing vegetables and selling his produce to passing ships. It is said he constantly begged for transportation off the island to no avail. Eventually he stole a ship’s longboat, taking some of the sailors with him, however only he arrived at Guayaquil on the continent, no doubt the beginning of the pattern of mysterious human tragedy that would be associated with Floreana moving forward.

Whalers established “Hathaway’s Post Office” on Floreana in 1812 as a means of communicating with their families. Because the ships were out 2 years at a time, ships that were on their way back home would pick up letters placed in a barrel at the ‘post office’ and deliver them upon arrival. During the Anglo-American war of 1812, An American naval captain heard that British ships were cruising the Galapagos, so he deftly headed for Post Office Bay and picked up all the mail waiting to be delivered which provided him with a virtual roster of the British whaling ships in the area. He then planted false letters of his own and soon was able to capture 12 enemy vessels, destroying a million tons of enemy cargo. For the early settlers of the 20th century, the Floreana Post Office would be their only communication with the outside world, even if a ship didn’t pass for six months. The time-honored tradition of the Floreana Post Office continues to this day as visitors see what letters are bound for their home countries and either mail them once back home or, in some rare cases, hand-deliver them as was done for centuries.

Since it’s discovery and for over 300 years, the Galapagos were a political no man’s land. Then, in 1832, Ecuador gained its independence and annexed the Galapagos Islands, renaming them the “Archipelago del Ecuador” and changing the islands’ English names to Spanish names. Floreana was named after Venezuelan born General Juan Jose Flores who had become Ecuador’s first President in 1830.

The Galapagos had a famous visitor in 1841, Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame, who wrote of his travels to the Galapagos in a series of published articles called, “The Encantadas“. Melville’s visit to Floreana is included in the articles. In much of his text, Melville rewrote what others had written before him, so how much he experienced versus how much he ‘borrowed’ is still unclear. For example, it is interesting to compare different versions of what became ‘the legend’ of Patrick Watkins‘ escape from the Galapagos with Melville’s version apparently having far more mass appeal in its day. One famous explorer and writer who had come before Melville was safe from plagiarism, William Dampier, probably due to what a fine writer Dampier was unlike the others Melville borrowed from who were more seaman than authors.

William Dampier was a world-renowned explorer and excellent writer who often sailed with pirate ships as a means of financing his voyages. He came to the Galapagos a full century and one half before Darwin and offered many vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos, however, after what might be considered a scientific or naturalist summary, inevitably the focus was followed by a culinary review of the worthiness of the animals’ meat. Apparently his favorites were the Galapagos tortoise and the Galapagos dove. He published quite a bit about the Galapagos in his book, A New Voyage Round the World“.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that Floreana was more than temporarily settled. And that was when worlwide fame came to visit and all hell began to break loose.

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