Bibliography Texts

On the Origin of ———-Species “Galápago”

John Woram

This page comments on the relationship between a tortoise and a saddle; and how the word “galápago” has been applied to both. So far, the author José Coello y Quesada is the first known writer to mention a galápago saddle. If anyone reading this page knows of an earlier citation, please contact with the details, especially anything that sheds light on how the “g” word came to describe a type of saddle.

There's a legend in Galápagos folklore that early (but never identified) Spanish explorers dubbed the islands' famous inhabitants “galápagos” because the characterisitic shape of their carapaces resembled a Spanish saddle. One popular spin to this tall tale makes an exception: Bishop Tomás de Berlanga gets the credit for christening the islands as “Galápagos.” Most such legends explain that galápago is an old Spanish word, meaning saddle.

Well, yes and no: galápago is indeed an old Spanish word, but it does not mean saddle. It means tortoise. It has meant tortoise for thousands of years. In fact, the Diccionario Crítico Etimolológico de la Lengua Castellana begins a three-page/two-column galápago definition by noting its origin is “ … probablemente de un hispánico prerromano.” Here, the word “saddle” is conspicuous by its absence.

In his April 26, 1535 letter to Charles VI of Spain, Berlanga reported his detour to islands which he did not name, and informed His Majesty of what he saw there:

… muchos lobos marinos, tortugas, higuanas, galápagos, … .” “… many sea lions, turtles, iguanas, tortoises, … .”

If he were the first to apply galápago to a reptile because its shell reminded him of the contour of a saddle, some written explanation would have been needed. But of course there was no such need: both he and his king knew its ancient meaning: tortoise.

For hundreds of years thereafter, buccaneers and whalers followed the bishop to the islands, and the tortoise became a favorite food source for sailors away from home port for years at a time. But again, in all that was written, there is not one known account of anyone writing that the famous reptile derived its name from a Spanish saddle.

Time passes. And then, almost a quarter-century before Darwin, the United States frigate Essex, Captain David Porter, visited the islands to make life as unpleasant as possible for the British whaling fleet. No naturalist, Porter was however a keen observer of the reptile population, and he commented on the differences between tortoises on James (San Salvador) and Hood (Española) Islands. In his 1815 Journal of a Cruise, he noted the distinctive contour of the Hood tortoise's shell, which was “ … elongated, turning up forward, in the manner of a Spanish saddle.” Although Porter apparently knew a Spanish saddle well enough to make the comparison, he said nothing about it being called a “galápago” —perhaps for a very good reason. Perhaps Porter was the first to note the similarity between a certain carapace and a certain saddle, or at least was the first to write about it. And this might be as good a place as any to point out that the carapaces of other Galápagos tortoises—the dome-shaped Geochelone elephantopus porteri for example—bear no resemblance whatever to a saddle contour, and therefore the galápago/saddle association is meaningless.

Apparently Darwin had read Porter, for when he prepared the second (1845) edition of his Journal of Researches, he recalled that the American captain described the Hood Island tortoises “ … as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish saddle.” Like Porter and the others before him, Darwin made no mention of a Spanish saddle called “galápago.”

Well now, given that no visitor from Berlanga to Darwin wrote a word about a Spanish saddle being a galápago, what is the explanation for the preposterous notion that a tortoise—known as a galápago for at least fifteen hundred years before the voyage of Berlanga—was in fact named after a saddle?

To take a detour along the road to an answer, let's first consider driving a “hybrid.” Or a “diesel.” In context, readers understand these words refer not to all cars, but only to specific types of vehicles. But how then did “galápago” acquire a similar equestrian association? Perhaps some mid-19th century rider dubbed his saddle a “silla galápago” because—as noted by Captain Porter—its contour resembled the carapace of a certain tortoise. The description caught on, and soon found its way into print: Spanish author José Coello y Quesada§ wrote in 1859 of outfitting a horse with a “silla-galápago” (galápago saddle) and later on noted that military officers routinely use a “galápago” but on special occasions a “silla alemana” (German saddle).

§ Coello y Quesada, Jose: Estudios sobre el Ejército Sardo. Madrid, 1859: M. Rivadeneyra.
… with thanks to Sysop Janet McConnaughey in CompuServe's Books and Writers Community Forum for information about Sr. Coello.

The next step was the dictionary, and in fact the 1869 edition of the Spanish Royal Academy's Diccionario de la Lengua Española§ is the first to include the following as its eleventh definition of “galápago:”

Manej. Silla de montar, ligera y sin ningún resalto, a la inglesa.
Horsemanship. A light English-style saddle, without a projection (ridge, or horn on a western saddle).

§ Information on Diccionario date courtesy Instituto Cervantes, New York.

It's clear that the word describes a type of saddle, and not the saddle itself; for if it did, “silla galápago” would mean “saddle saddle,” which is unlikely, to say the least. And in context, the Diccionario also makes it clear that the old word “galápago” is actually a relatively new word, when used to describe a saddle. And—to further damage the old legend—a saddle of English, not Spanish, style.

Today we may drive a hybrid (or diesel) to the stable, then equip a horse with a galápago; that is, a saddle whose contour is named in honor of a tortoise and not—as the legend has it—vice versa.

Left: An English saddle, called “galápago” for less than 200 years, and
Right: A fairly well-known reptile, called “galápago” for more than 2,000 years.