Early History

Map of the Galapagos Islands as described by Ambrose Cowley in 1684.

Map of the Galapagos Islands as described by Ambrose Cowley in 1684. (c) James Burney – A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean

For millions of years the Galapagos Islands remained isolated and shrouded in mystery. Formed about 4 million years ago, the youngest of the islands are still being shaped by active volcanoes.

Untouched by humans until the sixteenth century, fascination with the Galapagos and its natural wonders began for many with Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking voyage. But long before Darwin set foot in the Galapagos, the islands inspired awe from early explorers and ire from settlers who fell victim to the pirates who ravaged the coastlines. In 1535, the bishop of Panama, Father Tomas Berlanga, landed there accidentally. And in 1570, mapmaker Abraham Ortelius arrived and plotted the Galapagos Islands. By the 17th century, the islands had become an infamous hideout for British buccaneers who pirated Spanish ships and looted settlements in Central and South America.

Buccaneer Ambrose Cowley created the region’s first crude navigation charts in 1684 and named many of the islands after his fellow pirates and the English noblemen who helped their cause. Buccaneer Cove of Santiago Island was a favorite anchorage for the buccaneers, who are often blamed for introducing rats to the islands.

Despite their many famous and infamous visitors during this period, the islands would remain uninhabited for quite some time. Disappearing into a fog at certain times of year, the Galapagos Islands often could not be seen by passing ships, leading some explorers to claim that they were not islands at all, but mere shadows.

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