History of the Galapagos Islands
Often referred to by many as a world unto itself, the Galapagos Archipelago or as it is more commonly known as the Galapagos Islands, is renowned for its spectacular wildlife and amazing natural volcanic landscape. Spread out over 50,000 sq km across the Pacific Ocean, this archipelago is made up of 13 major islands and 6 smaller islands, of which only 5 are inhabited today. A province of Ecuador and lying some 1,000 km west off the coast, the Galapagos was officially declared a national park by the Ecuadorian Government in 1956.
Made a UNESCO World Nature Heritage Site in 1980, these islands were first discovered by the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga by accident in 1535, while he was sailing from Panama to Peru. He named the islands ‘Galapagos’ after the giant tortoises or galapago found here. Thought to have been inhabited by pre-Columbian natives after a Norwegian explorer Thor Heyedahl found some ancient pottery pieces here in 1953, much of this island’s ancient history has yet to be uncovered.
Used mostly by pirates and buccaneers for the next three centuries after its discovery, as a perfect place to hide their loot and riches, these islands were also known to whalers and sealers who used it as a source for fresh whale, seal and tortoise meat. Shrouded in mystery for a long while, as the islands would disappear during heavy fogs, the Galapagos Islands were also known the ‘Enchanted islands’ to many sailors. However, once it was chartered, many scientific explorations were made here by the 18th century.
The most famous visitor to these islands has to be Charles Darwin, who later used his findings and research of the Galapagos to prove his ‘theory of evolution’. He came here in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle; 300 years after the islands were first discovered by Bishop Berlanga.
Claimed by Ecuador in 1832, these islands were then used as penal colony till 1959. During this period a number of settlers also came to live on the islands as well. Today around 20,00 people now live on the islands of Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela, and San Cristobal and are mostly engaged in tourism or farming. Declared a wildlife refuge in 1934 and a national park in the late 1950’s, the Galapagos Islands were made a marine and whale reserve as well in 1998.