Bibliography Texts

At the Crossroads of Commerce

Granville Fortescue

The author was U. S. Army Captain Granville Fortescue, a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. His tables have here been sorted alphabetically, according to the text in column 1. Text in parentheses by the author, in brackets added to this online page. Throughout, the Galápagos tortoise is referred to as a turtle. Illustrations in the original text are not yet available here.

When the Panama Canal is opened the Galápagos Islands will be in the track of the steamers of the world.

The completion of the Panama Canal will bring the Galápagos Islands into the limelight of the world stage. In almost a straight line and half way from Southampton to Sidney, their future maritime importance can not be exaggerated. To get a clearer idea of what the opening of the isthmian waterway means to this archipelago, take your atlas of the world and measure off a scale distance of about 600 miles from the west coast of Ecuador on the equator, and you will discover the islands. In this you will be more fortunate than some of the early Spanish navigators, who christened them the “enchanted isles,” because they were supposed to appear and disappear between voyages. We now know that their apparent unstability was due to the defective nautical instruments of those early days and not to any physical phenomenon. You will see at a glance that the islands, about two days run from Panama, stand in the same relation to the Pacific entrance of the Canal that the West Indies does to its Atlantic gateway. It will also be noticed that they are a little more than half way on the trade route from San Francisco to Valparaiso.

It needs no prophet to foresee that the now almost unknown archipelago will soon be a port of call for the steamships of the world and their position be likened in some degree to that of the Hawaiian group in the northern Pacific. The settlement on Chatham Island will be changed from the status of a penal colony to that of a commercial center.

The rapidly increasing trade between the west coast of South America and Japan brings these islands in the pathways of the mercantile vessels of the latter country.

The following table gives the distances of the Galápagos Islands from the principal ports of the world:

Chatham Island to:miles
Ecuadorian coast, nearest point530
Lota [Chile]2,430
San Francisco2,990

This group is remarkable in many ways and the story of the isles from the prehistoric period when nature in the throes of some great agony threw them up from the bed of the Pacific, to the time of their discovery and occupation by man, holds much of interest.

Nothing is known definitely of the date when the islands came into being, except that they were of a distinctly later appearance than the mountains of the South American mainland. Unique from a geological point of view, Darwin, who visited the islands in 1835-6 [sic, September & October, 1835], evolved a curious theory to account for the peculiar formation of the 2,000 or more craters that make up the group. This scientist was convinced that the volcanic protuberances appeared slowly above the surface of the sea in the fashion of boiling mud bubbles rising gradually to their present heights and in the process being broken down on the southeast side by the action of the waves, thus explaining the uniform opening of the craters. Later investigators account for this curious characteristic of the volcanic basins in a much more prosaic way, contending that the islands are of the usual igneous formation and that the action of the elements, an almost constant trade wind, with occasional rains, have in time torn down the lava walls all to the windward side. Volcanically, the mountains of the Galápagos are no relation to the sierras of South America, but belong to the igneous range of Panama, being all that is visible above sea level of a system of submarine hills running from Veragua, a province of the Isthmian Republic, in the direction of the islands of Coiba, Cocos, and Culpepper, the latter the most northern of the Galápagos group. Some scientists think them the remains of a now sunken continent. Owing to the isolation of the islands, there is no authentic record of active eruptions, but we know that as far back as 1735 volcanic disturbances were noticed, while in 1814 and 1825 English skippers reported the craters active, and as late as 1907 a new opening appeared on James Island, from which a torrent of lava flowed to the sea.

The archipelago consists of 15 larger islands and about 40 smaller, with a total area variously estimated at from 2,400 to 3,000 square miles, included between latitude 0° 38' N. and 1° 27' S. and longitude 89° 16' 30" W. and 91° 40' 45" W. Culpeper and Wenman Isles lie outside of this radius to the north. The most important in area are Albemarle, Indefatigable, Narborough, Chatham, James, and Charles. Other islands are Hood, Bindloe, Abingdon, Barrington, Tower, Duncan, Jarvis, Brattle, Culpeper, and Wenman. These names are the more common ones, but they are no longer official, as the Republic of Ecuador renamed the archipelago, in 1892, “Colón” in honor of Columbus, at the same time changing the nomenclature of each distinct island as follows :

AbingdonPinta, Geraldino[?]
AlbemarleIsabella [sic, Isabela]
BarringtonSanta Fe
BindloeMarchena, Torreos[?]
Chatham, Grande, Tierra de GilSan Cristóbal
Charles, Floreana, MascarinSanta María
Culpeper, JervisRábida, Guerra[?]
Duke of Norfolk, Indefatigable, Infatigable, Tierra de ValdezSanta Cruz
Gasna, Nunez, Wenman(blank)
Islote RedondoRocca [sic, Roca] Redonda
JamesSantiago, San Salvador

The same uncertainty that clouds the history of the pristine geologic appearance of this archipelago holds with the records of the date of its discovery by man and the first stories of the islands come to us in a most roundabout fashion. Letters of sailors and priests sent from Peru in the period following the conquest tell of the possible earlier discovery of at least two of the islands. An ancient Incan legend would lead one to believe that the archipelago was known to the Kings of Quito, having been discovered by the Incan Tupac Yupanqui, who, according to their traditions, made a voyage of discovery on the Pacific during which he fell in with the two islands (Fire and Seaward). A modern writer attempts to identify these as the Isles Chatham and Hood of our day. The voyage lasted more than a year, and when the seafaring Inca returned to Cuzco, the capital of his kingdom, he brought as trophies a “throne of copper, numerous negro prisoners, and skins of animals like unto horses” (otaria jubata?). It would be interesting to know just what countries the daring Peruvian voyager did visit where he found the throne, the negoes, and the skins, as they are all foreign to the west coast of South America, especially the negro. Certainly he did not capture these latter in any Galapagean island. That the group was known to the Quichuas, however, is probable. These people were great fishermen, using large, well-constructed sailing rafts in the quest for sea food, so it is easily possible, especially when we consider the relation of the antarctic current to the isles, that some of their craft found the way to what we now call the Galápagos Islands. Leaving the question of Quichua discovery perhaps forever undetermined, we do know that Thomas [sic, Tomás] de Berlanga, third bishop of Panama, was the first European to sight the Galápagos, on the 10th of March, 1535. This exploring prelate is also credited with being responsible for the introduction of bananas into the Western Continent.

His discovery of the Galápagos Islands was quite accidental and came about during a voyage from Panama to Peru, whither he had been sent to report on the doings of Pizarro, for the worthy bishop enjoyed the confidence of his King. According to his letters, the prelate left Panama on the 23d of February, 1535, laying a course for Inca land. All went well until the 1st of March, when the ship ran into calm weather, and was drawn at the mercy of the currents for eight days, at the end of which time the watch descried land, which was a welcome sight, as little water remained in the casks. Bishop Berlanga and his crew were doomed to disappointment in their search for water on this island; so, after in a measure satisfying their thirst with tunas (prickly pears), they left the turtles in possession of its desolate shores and sought elsewhere.

Fortunately, a few days later (Passion Sunday), they landed on another island, larger and of more inviting aspect than the first, and here, after first solemnizing mass in honor of the day, their efforts in search of springs were rewarded by the finding of a plentiful supply of water.

It must have been a picturesque ceremony—the celebration of the sacrament of the mass on these desolate shores. Picture a rough cross, sheared up from a pile of lava rock, the bishop-captain bowed before it, his hard, drawn face and grizzled beard just showing above the gold and purple chasuble; as acolyte [for] some gaunt prototype of Don Quixote chanting the responses in a rough, deep bass, while the ship's company, a motley band of soldiers in queer helmets, leather jerkins, with long Toledo blades on hip, and sailors, more than half pirates in dress and hopes, knelt in strong devotion and perfect faith, the great turtles, huge black lizards, and fearless birds watching curiously the thirst-racked and famine-worn humans who thus disturbed their haunts. Indeed, the spirit of the Cross was strong within the early conquerors.

The good bishop was a scientist as well as a churchman, and he determined the exact latitude and longitude of the archipelago;§ but he gave no name to the group, and after a stay of ten days turned the prow of his ship toward Peru. From the data available it would seem that Berlanga landed first at Barrington Island, passed Charles, and found water on Chatham Isle, where he also discovered what at first seemed diamonds and amber. He gives little account of the flora and fauna, but makes reference to that fact afterwards, often verified, that the indigenous birds did not take flight at the approach of man, but allowed themselves to be taken by hand.

§ Berlanga determined latitude only: “… they are between half a degree and a degree and a half of the Equator, in the south latitude.”

After Bishop Berlanga left the islands their existence was again ignored, and they remained almost forgotten for a space of eleven years, when Diego de Rivadeneira, who, in carrying on war against the constituted authority at the time, was compelled to put to sea without chart or compass. He arrived at Albemarle and found time to study the fauna to some extent, and described one of the most remarkable forms of bird life peculiar to the island. This was the beautiful gerfalcon (Craxirex galapagoensis) §, a bird of prey that lived off the young of the land turtles, thus being the first element that has brought about the almost total extinction of the testudo, that remarkable reptile found nowhere else on the surface of the earth.

§ The Galápagos Hawk, classified by ornithologist John Gould. Full name: Craxirex galapagoensis Gould, 1839.

Rivadeneira also left the group nameless, but after arriving safely at Acapulco and making his peace with the powers that were, his discovery was made known to the King of Spain, and he was recommended for the post of governor of the islands, a position he never filled, however.§ The archipelago now was well known to the Spanish mariners, and for reasons already suggested were called the Enchanted Isles. Ortelius, however, in his map of America and the South Sea, published in 1570, indicated the group under the name Galápagos [sic, galopagos & galopegos] which designation it has held ever since. Ambrose Cowley, a sea rover of the seventeenth century, gave the islands individual names, some of which hold to this day. The group became the rendezvous of the pirates who ravaged the west coast about the end of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They laid in supplies of rum and flour on these convenient isles and used them as a base for planning and fitting out numerous marauding expeditions.

§ As a variation on this tale, author John Hickman writes that Rivadeneira:

… petitioned the King for authority to colonize and govern an archipelago about which he knew very little more than that it had no fresh water. There is no record of any reply fom Spain, and perhaps it was lucky for Don Diego that he never had reason to return.

   Neither author identifies his source.

The South Pacific whalers also made port in the islands and early reported them as most satisfactory fishing grounds, a distinction they still enjoy. Near the end of the eighteenth century, to be exact, in 1793, the Viceroy of Peru ordered a survey of the archipelago made, as it was part of his domains, and Alonso de Torres carried out his orders.

A copy of Torres's map was found in the archives of the hydrographic office in Spain in 1891, but it is quite imperfect and of little value geographically, however most interesting historically.

During the period of revolution against Spanish authority in South America the islands were much used by the privateers that preyed on Spanish commerce, being visited by those two active Argentine corsairs, [Hipólito] Buchard and [Admiral William] Brown, who came to divide their booty and settle a difference that had arisen between them. With the fall of Spanish power the isles were in a measure forgotten and these desolate shores were only touched by an occasional whaler or some circumnavigating sailor, the archipelago actually remaining no man's land until February 12, 1832, when the Ecuadorean Government formally took possession of the group. It is curious to note that this act of occupation was inspired by a North American, a Louisianian named Villamil, who left his native territory when it came under the jurisdiction of the United States. This gentleman had gained certain distinction in the Ecuadorean army during the wars against Spain, bearing the title of general.

General Villamil entered on a plan of colonization with great enthusiasm. He obtained a concession from the Ecuadorean Government in recognition for his having brought the islands to the notice of the officials of this Republic. He induced some of the younger men of the best families of Guayaquil to accompany him to Charles Island, where he established the Society for the Colonization of the Archipelago of the Galápagos. He imported cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, pigs, and chickens, whiqh were distributed throughout several of the larger islands, and he immediately began the cultivation of potatoes, beans, corn, and household vegetables. Afterwards he took up the extensive cultivation of sugar cane and citrus fruits, coffee, and other products suitable to the climate. His enterprise met with great success at first, and every thing pointed to a prosperous and happy future for this self-exiled band of modern Robinson Crusoes.

Trade was established with the different whalers that frequented these oceans, and the colony began the export of turtle oil, which was a source of considerable revenue.

Unfortunately the originator of the scheme soon lost interest in the affairs of the colony, and this, combined with the fact that the Ecuadorean Government found the islands a suitable place for use as a dumping ground for undesirable citizens, and a constantly diminishing trade between the group and the main coast, due to various circumstances, caused the original colonizers to become discouraged. The undesirable element became an extremely disturbing factor, dissensions were rife, and assassination frequent, until finally in 1851 the once happy settlement of 250 people had dwindled to a colony of 13, consisting of a governor and 4 minor officials and 8 criminals. During an absence of the authorities, the criminals took possession of a visiting American whaler, murdered the crew, followed the governor to Albemarle Island, whither he had gone, murdered him, and thence proceeded to the coast of Ecuador, where they fell in with another ship which they assaulted, overpowering the crew, and put 29 defenseless people to the sword. Fortunately this band of pirates was shortly afterwards captured and met the fate that their crimes merited.

During the time that Villamil was governor of the islands they were visited by the famous scientist, Charles Darwin, who stopped at Chatham Island in 1835. The record of this visit will be found in The Voyage of the Beagle, a book which Charles Elliott designated as one of the Harvard classics. The observations of this famous scientist are extremely interesting, especially in view of the fact that it is sometimes stated that the study of the geology, flora, and fauna of this archipelago served as the inspiration of his wonderful work, The Origin of Species. He has given the islands a unique place in biological studies, describing the archipelago in a most apt phrase, as “a little world within itself.” He uses this term of descriptive nomenclature because on these islands he found certain animal and vegetable species that existed in no other part of the known world.

It is unfortunate that Darwin was not able to spend more time in the islands, and it would seem that certain of his conclusions were influenced by the fact that he visited the group during the dry season, and any one familiar with conditions in tropical countries would easily understand how the appearance of the country would be entirely changed after the rains.

Darwin and subsequent investigators were all struck by the fact of the peculiar appearance of the islands, the visible surface of the ground being studded with the remains of innumerable extinct craters, which one writer describes as recalling the flesh of a person who has suffered severely from smallpox. The islands may be said to be a graphic study in geology, or, perhaps more accurately, an object lesson in the effect of climates. For the first 600 feet, approximately, of elevation, there is nothing save a desolate waste of acres of lava rocks, over which crawl numbers of huge lizards and gigantic turtles, recalling vividly some possible antediluvian landscape. From 600 to 800 feet there will be found stunted vegetable growth, while above the latter altitude the process of disintegration has gone on whereby a fertile soil has been brought into being, and the whole shows a country of hillock and meadow land that comes as a delightful surprise to the beholder, after the desolation of the lower levels. The summits vary in height from 1,600 to 3,700 feet, and on some of the islands are found craters extending 4 or 5 miles across. The valleys of these craters form extensive meadows wherein thousand of cattle, known to be descendants of the original importation in 1832, now browse, molested only by the modern hide exporter and the offspring of the first dogs brought over by Villamil.

The sea currents in the vicinity of these islands merit notice. It would seem that the great Humboldt, current running toward the west and northwest, meets the Central American water sweep, thus forming a whirlpool at this point. The speed of the current reaches the figure of 2 miles an hour.

The difference in the temperature of the sea is remarkable here. On one side of Albemarle Island a foot below the surface, 80° F. was reported, while on the other side, the temperature was found to be less than 60° F. These currents and the trade winds combine to give the islands a delightful climate, in spite of the fact that they are crossed by the Equator, and during certain seasons of the year it is said that nowhere can you find weather conditions more healthful or agreeable. In the higher parts of that section capable of extensive cultivation the climate is comparable to the Hawaiian Islands. The rainy season provides an abundance of water, which collects in the craters and fissures of the volcanic formations, where it remains during part of the dry season. The lower levels, however, are arid during most of the year. The average temperature is 72° F., although during the season of calm it will be found much hotter on the leeward side of the islands.

As already stated, the indigenous animal life of the archipelago is in its way perhaps the most interesting in the world. When Darwin first visited the islands he determined 26 distinct species of land birds, 25 of which were found nowhere else in the world, and since that time other naturalists, who have studied this feature, claim that there are 58 peculiar species, and possibly more. Darwin puts forward the hypothesis that all of these are descended from a single species, having been modified in form and color during the course of ages.

Of the reptiles the most interesting are the turtles and lizards. The former, the Galápagos, are found nowhere else, and at one time literally swarmed over the islands. They were huge, measuring sometimes 3 feet from the breast shell to the dome of the back; slow of movement, making about 4 miles a day when walking; long, thin necks and curiously small heads and broad flat flappers; their whole appearance suggesting some dwarfed descendant of the Pleistocene age. Some specimens weighed as much as 600 pounds, but these giants are very rare nowadays. An expedition that sailed from San Francisco with the special object of getting specimens of the Galápagos turtle, after considerable difficulty could only find a few weighing 40 or 50 pounds. Formerly, cruisers or ships that stopped at the island had no difficulty in killing great numbers of these reptiles, but latterly a combination of circumstances are working for their complete extinction.

The turtles yield a peculiar quality of oil that can be used in place of lard. The medium-sized ones contain from 5 to 6 gallons of this product, worth about 75 cents gold per gallon, and as it is a very simple matter to extract the oil, it is easily seen how the turtle hunters would pursue their calling until they had completely exterminated this remarkable reptile.

The dogs that roam the islands have also contributed to the destruction of the turtles, and their method of attack merits description. Upon the approach of a pack, the reptile withdraws within his shell, then the dogs sit patiently in a circle around him until returning confidence prompts the tortoise to put out a claw. The dogs seize it, and in the resultant struggle they get a hold on his other members. Then it is only a question of time when the dogs are sure of their meal.

In connection with these turtles, a peculiar roughened condition of the back of the shell on some of the larger ones is responsible for the hypothesis that they are of almost incalculable age. It was thought that this roughened condition was due to the falling of lava on their backs, thrown out in the first eruptions.

The lizards are of two kinds, the land and marine lizard, the latter (Amblyrliyncus crustatus) being the last surviving species of a genus widely dispersed in the Mesozoic age. The study of the habits of this reptile afforded Darwin much enlightenment as well as entertainment, for in his book, The Voyage of the Beagle, he describes how he plagued them with a stick, started a fight between two specimens, and otherwise amused himself at the expense of this degenerate descendant of a prehistoric age.

The islands are seal rookeries of considerable importance, and it is possible that the skin “resembling that of a horse,” which the Spaniards speak of as being one of the trophies of Yupac Tupanquy [sic, Tupac Yupanqu], the Incan king, was perhaps a seal pelt. As giving an idea of the extent of this industry, it is known that at one time a firm in Callao took 10,000 sealskins annually from the archipelago. Some of the seals of the Otaria juhata [sic, jubata] species frequently grow to the size of a bull, but there is also a smaller species which is generally found about 5 or 6 feet long.

The plants of the islands are even more remarkable in their way than the animals. In the study of botany 190 species have been found indigenous to the Galápagos. Perhaps the best known of all the plants is the orchilla weed (Rocella tinctoria), commonly known as dyers' moss. This weed finds it value from the fact that before the discovery of analine dyes it formed the basis for the manufacture of certain tints. At one time it brought a price of $5 to $6 per pound in the market, and the gathering of orchilla was a very profitable commercial undertaking. The fact that this plant was found in great abundance on the middle levels of the islands led to a second and also disastrous attempt at colonization. One Valdizan obtained a concession from the Ecuadorean Government for the exclusive collection of all the orchilla in the Galápagos group. In putting his concession into effect he tried to establish a colony on the islands, but after a precarious existence for a number of years the colonists assassinated Valdizan and made their way back to the mainland. All those who have studied flora and fauna in the group have been struck with the fact that the former, instead of being representative of what they expected to find in a tropical island, was more of that class of botany encountered in the highlands of the Andes. The vegetation here found at 1,000 feet having much in common with that growing at 10,000 feet elevation on the mountains of the mainland. In truth, there is nothing about the islands to convey an idea that they are in the most tropical of all tropical latitudes, directly under the Equator.

The fishing grounds of the group have been famous for years up and down the west coast, codfish being especially numerous in this vicinity, while lobsters without claws and oysters are found on the rocks surrounding the islands.

As a fish story, the experience of the owner of an auxiliary launch, who recently made a cruise throughout the islands, is given. This gentleman sets forth that he caught 50 codfish on a line, averaging 12 pounds, the largest weighing 18 pounds, in less than an hour.

That is about 1 fish a minute, which would seem to be about all the most exacting follower of Isaac Walton could wish.

There are large accumulations of salt throughout the various islands, so the proposition for the establishment of plants for the catching and salting of fish would seem to hold out hopes of considerable success.

That the islands are of economic value is clearly established, but if any doubt remains of tliis point, it should be dispelled by a realization of what the last colonizer accomplished. A man named Manuel J. Cobos established a hacienda and began the cultivation of sugar cane. He was not neglectful of other agricultural and horticultural opportunities, for in addition to his sugar cane he planted all characters of vegetables and fruits, most of which prospered exceedingly. In fact, his “Centro del Progreso,” which was the name of his sugar mill, rapidly increased in value, and in a few years a barren section of land of no value was transformed into a prosperous sugar plantation which could have been easily disposed of for $150,000. Cobos was sometimes called the “King of the Galápagos Islands,” and it is feared that he exercised his power after the manner of the despot. He was the supreme authority, and in a number of cases inflicted the death penalty, which he sometimes varied by a sentence of exile, the adjacent islands being found eminently convenient as a place to which he could send such persons whom he judged merited this character of punishment. He also found it convenient to establish his own bank, and issued paper and metal currency with which he paid his laborers. The advantages of this plan are self-evident.

The Ecuadorean Government has several times begun negotiations for the sale of the islands, and as far back as 1851 the preliminaries of transfer were arranged with the United States, the sum offered being $3,000,000 for the right of collecting the guano that could be found on the islands. For various reasons the sale fell through, and while since that time tentative negotiations have been commenced during different administrations, no definite agreement has ever been reached. It is rumored that a prominent financier who is largely interested in Ecuadorean enterprises has more than a lien on these islands.

Summarized, the resources of the islands are as follows: The wild cattle found in large numbers on several of the islands, especially Albemarle, where it is estimated that the total number of cattle is about 40,000; the galapagos, or land turtle, whose commercial value has already been detailed, but which is unfortunately rapidly diminishing in numbers; the orchilla, no longer as valuable as in former years; donkeys, of which 20,000 fine specimens are roaming wild on James Island; seals, still found in great numbers on most of the islands; fisheries, already referred to; and the possibilities of the extensive cultivation of sugar cane and other agricultural and horticultural products. Citrus fruits thrive wonderfully in this climate and coffee has been cultivated with success. There are a number of sulphur deposits, as might be expected in volcanic formations. Some investigators see a considerable source of wealth in these.

In conclusion, it is only necessary to emphasize what has been said in the opening paragraphs of this article, that the situation of these islands on the crossroads of commerce will undoubtedly make them a considerable international factor of importance in the future. It might be found advisable for ships passing through the Panama Canal to coal at this point. The trade winds make it possible to lay down coal from Australia or Lota [Chile] much more cheaply at Chatham Island than at Acapulco or Panama on the mainland. Because of their position within striking distance of this latter place their strategic value would be considerable under certain conditions.

It has been the purpose of this paper to set forth briefly the economic resources of the Galápagos Islands. Certain phases of their possible development have been only indicated, and it may be stated that the Archipelago de Colón, as the group is now called, will be undoubtedly one of the most important possessions of the Ecuadorean Government.