488 years ago today: Not as beautiful as Panama: The discovery of the Galápagos Islands

The Reverend was not very enthusiastic. The islands were inhospitable, there was hardly any water to be found, and the crew had to chew cactus leaves. And then this one critters!

Bewitched Islands

Calm and a current that drove the ship far out to sea had brought the Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, and his crew here on March 10, 1535, 488 years ago today. They were actually on their way to Peru to settle a dispute involving the less-than-peaceful conqueror Francisco Pizarro.

That day in March is the official date for the “discovery” of the archipelago that was soon named “,Insulae de los Galopegos” after the giant tortoises that live there.

Statue of Tomas de Berlanga in Berlanga de Duero, Spain.
© mauritius images / Prisma / Raga Jose Fuste

But for a long time they were also known as “Encantatas”, the “Bewitched”, because of the unpredictable sea currents that flowed around them. But perhaps the real first people to reach the islands had come from that Incan empire east-southeast that Pizarro was about to take it down. But that has never been proven with certainty.

settlers and boat thieves

The islands are now known as the laboratory of evolution. But the people associated with their history are almost as interesting as the northernmost penguins, marine iguanas, and Darwin-Finken.

An Irishman named Patrick Watkins is said to be the first settler there. He too seems to have liked it only to a limited extent, because after two years he stole his dinghy from a whaler in 1809 in order to head for Guayaquil in Ecuador. The five slaves he took with him did not survive the crossing.

Baroness Wagner’s lover

In 1835 Charles Darwin came to the Galápagos as a visitor. However, the legend that the creatures here were the main inspiration for his theory of evolution is really just a legend. “Totally useless to man or the larger beasts” was the verdict of the islands he confided to his diary.

© mauritius images / Westend61 / Fotofeeling

And the first truly deeper connection he developed with creatures of the archipelago was a culinary one. Because on board the “Beagle” after island hopping on the equator off Ecuador there were more for a while giant tortoiseabout 30 of which were carried along in the ship’s hull as live fresh meat.

In the 1930s, several German dropouts lived – and died or disappeared under obscure circumstances – on the small island of Floreana. Among them was the philosopher Friedrich Karl Ritter, who must have gone a bit mad, and a lady who called herself Baroness Wagner-Bosquet when she arrived. But soon she, who also had three lovers with her, only wanted to be called “Empress of Galápagos”. She disappeared without a trace. What really happened during this “Galápagos Affair”, which was covered in the gazettes in Germany, is still largely unclear to this day.

In comparison, the explorer Berlanga was a real bore. His Most Reverend Excellency brought with him from Panama, when he returned to his native Spain, only a live caiman over ten feet long.

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