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Discovery of the Galapagos Islands

Clements Markham

It has not hitherto been known to English readers when or by whom the Galapagos Islands were discovered. We are usually told, as a conjecture, that they were discovered by Spaniards at some time in the early part of the sixteenth century. As geographical students in Spain have been in possession of detailed information on this subject for some time, the publication of an interesting little pamphlet at Madrid, by Don Marcos Jimenes de la Espada, † seems a fitting occasion for placing the facts he records in possession of English geographers.

Las Islas de los Galapagos por Marcos Jimenes de la Espada, 1892.

The group, now known as the Galapagos Islands, was discovered by an Inca of Peru, named Tupac Yupanqui, who flourished towards the end of the fifteenth century, and was the grandfather of Atahualpa. After the conquest of Quito he collected a large fleet of balsas on the coast of the province of Manta, put to sea, and discovered two islands, which he named Nina-chumpi and Hahua-chumpi. Chumpi means a girdle or encircled space in Quichua, hence an island. Nina means fire, and Hahua outside. The Fire Island and the Outer Island = Albemarle and Narborough Islands it is supposed. With regard to Nina-chumpi, there is later evidence of the activity of Galapagos volcanoes. In 1546 smoke was seen issuing from a crater. Darwin saw a small jet of smoke issuing from the summit of one of the craters in 1836;§ and eruptions were recorded on Narborough Island in 1814 and 1825.† Our authorities for this Inca discovery are, Sarmiento, the first surveyor of the Straits of Magellan, and Miguel Cabello de Balboa, in his Miscelanea Austral (1580).

§ Actually, on September 29, 1835.

Anuario Hydrografico de Chile, 1890, p. 396.

Señor Vidal Gormaz, the Chilian hydrographer, in an article on the Galapagos in the Anuario Hidrografico de la Marina de Chile (1890), says that the early Spanish discoverers called the Galapagos “the Enchanted Islands,” but he gives no authority for the statement.§

§ Gormaz' source may have been “Cowley's Voyage Round the Globe” in which the author mentions the Enchanted Islands name.

The Spanish discoverer of the Galapagos Islands was a bishop. Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Castilla del Oro, was charged by the Emperor Charles V with a mission to visit Peru, and report upon the government of Pizarro. He sailed from Panama on the 23rd of February, 1535. For seven days there were favourable breezes, but after eight succeeding days of calm, during which the vessel was drifted far out to sea, the bishop and his people were reduced to great extremities for want of water, and there were several horses on board. On the 10th of March, 1535, an island was sighted, and next day another, with lofty mountains. The vessel was becalmed for three days between them, all the people suffering terribly from thirst. At last they landed, and searched for water without success for two days. The only relief they could get was by chewing the stalks of a large cactus. On the Sunday the bishop said mass on shore, and afterwards the people wandered away by twos and threes. One party at length found water in a ravine, and they were able to fill all the barrels and jars. But one man and two horses had already died of thirst. The bishop described the great masses of volcanic stones on the beaches. “It looked,” he said, “as if God, at some time, had rained stones.” He mentioned the galapagos or great land tortoises that could carry men on their backs, the iguanas, and numerous birds. He got a very good observation for latitude, and found it to be 0° 30' S. §

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

In returning to the South American coast the bishop and his crew were eleven days without seeing land, and at the end of that time they only had one cask of water left. Half was kept for the horses and the other half was mixed with wine. At length land was sighted, but there were two days of calm, and, although they were cheered by the sight of land, they had no water left, and could only drink wine. They arrived safely at Puerto Viejo, near the place where the Inca, Tupac Yupanqui, had embarked on his voyage of discovery about sixty years before, on the 9th of April, 1535.

Bishop Berlanga gave an account of his discovery to the Emperor Charles V in a letter dated April 26th. The original is preserved in the Archivo de Indias, and there is a copy in the great collection of Muñoz (tom. lxxx. p. 92). It is printed in the Coleccion de documentos ineditos de Indias, tom. xli. pp. 538-544.§

§ An English translation is available on this website.

The second visit to the Galapagos Islands was made in 1546. When Diego Centeno was defeated in the south of Peru by Carbajal, the fierce old lieutenant of Gonzalo Pizarro, he sent an officer to the coast, named Diego de Rivadeneira, to secure a vessel for him in which to escape; but Rivadeneira fearing that Carbajal was chasing him, got on board a little vessel at Arica, and sailed away without waiting for Centeno. He had about a dozen soldiers with him. In April 1546, twenty-five days after leaving Arica, they sighted some islands, and saw smoke rising from a mountain peak. They landed to seek for water, and resumed their voyage to Central America, suffering terribly from want of water and food. They lived on sharks, caught with fizgigs made out of their own spurs, and Rivadeneira and his followers arrived at San José de Istapa, in Guatemala, nearly famished.

The President, Pedro de la Gasca, wrote an account of this visit to the Galapagos to the Council of the Indies in a letter dated May 2nd, 1549 (Coleccion de documentos ineditos, tom. 1. p. 50), and Francisco de Castellanos, the Treasurer of Guatemala, made a report of it to the Emperor on August 26th, 1546. There is also an account of the voyage of Rivadeneira in the Guerra de Quito, by Cieza de Leon, first printed in the Biblioteca Hispano-Ultramarina in 1877.

The first survey of the Galapagos Islands appears to have been made by Ambrose Cowley in 1684.§ He accompanied the buccaneers Cook, Davis, and Dampier in that year. In 1793 a Spanish survey was executed by Don Alonzo de Torres y Guerra§§, captain of the frigate Santa Gertrudis, on his way from Nootka Sound to Callao. The resulting chart is preserved in the Hydrographical Department at Madrid, and Don Marcos Jimenez de la Espada has printed it for the first time in his pamphlet. The Spanish names of the islands are as follows:—

Torres, 1793Cowley, 1684
Carlos IVEarl of Abingdon
GilKing James
GuerraLord Culpeper Island
NuñezLord Wenman Island
QuitasueñoTower [sic, Eure's on Cowley chart] †
Santa GertrudisAlbemarle Island and Narborough
ValdesIndefatigable [sic, Norfolk] ‡
Table sorted alphabetically, according to the island name in column 1.
† Although Tower appeared for the first time on an 1841 Admiralty Chart, Tower's appears in Benjamin Morrell's 1832 Narrative of Four Voyages.
‡ As mentioned on the Notes page, Aaron Arrowsmith (1817 draft chart of Galápagos) may have changed Cowley's Norfolk to Indefatigable.

§ Cowley's original chart may be the “crude Galápagos chart” bound into the Basil Ringrose (translator) South Sea Waggoner. Markham's “first survey of the Galapagos Islands” is more likely that of Herman Moll, 1699: “The Gallapagos Islands, Discovered by Capt. John Eaton.”

§§ Torres y Guerra, 1793: Carta Espherica.

The Government of Ecuador intends to change the names of the islands in the Galapagos group to commemorate the fourth centenary of the discovery of the new world. In that case the Nina-chumpi and Hahua-chumpi of the Inca certainly have the best right to a place in the new nomenclature. The names of Cowley precede those of Torres by more than a century.