Galapagos: through writers’ eyes


Galapagos: through writers’ eyes


The Galapagos Islands, an ‘enchanted archipelago’ with natural volcanic beauty were made famous by the explorations of Charles Darwin. The near-miraculous survival of unique species of birds and animals on these remote Pacific islands gave birth to his revolutionary theory of evolution. John Hickman, who sailed past them as a young man and later went to serve as British ambassador to both Chile and Ecuador, knew them intimately. He always kept an ear open for the human stories behind the Galapagos, and discovered pirates and buccaneers, writers and exiles, real life Robinson Crusoes and Swiss Family Robinsons as well as the schemes of Spanish Kings, Inca Emperors and American filibusters.

Including: Charles Darwin, Herman Melville, Lord Byron, William Dampier, Fray Tomas, Ambrose Cowley, Alfred Wallace, Captain David Porter, Edward Davis, Woodes Rogers.

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Galapagos: Through Writers' Eyes
Preface by: Katie Hickman
Collected and edited by: John Hickman
Updated by Julian Fitter
ISBN: 978-1906011-10-9
Format: 225pp demi pb
Place: Galapagos

Extract from Introduction

THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS rise out of the Great South Sea, which the Spaniards found when they crossed the Isthmus of Panama and looked out from their ‘peak in Darien’ across the wide Pacific. They are tropical islands, lying across the equator itself, but were desert in 1485 when they were first discovered and remained deserted for another three centuries. Lying 960 kilometres from the western coast of South America in the empty Pacific Ocean, they are too remote and inhospitable to have attracted any permanent settlers in all those years. We know of them largely from the diaries and recollections of mariners, pirates, privateers, whalers, explorers and naval men who visited the archipelago, voluntarily or involuntarily, at irregular intervals. For them the Galapagos provided the only anchorage and source of supply in that vast area of ocean. The Spaniards who came there in the sixteenth century called them Las Islas Encantadas (the Enchanted Islands), and the visionary American author, Herman Melville, used that name as title for his book. But Melville saw them as arid and even sinister:

Take five and twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas.

What then is their enchantment? All islands attract men strongly because they are safe havens from the perils of the sea, and, perhaps, because they are worlds apart and easier, if only through their smallness, for us to comprehend. The Galapagos Islands certainly appear out of this world, moonscapes unchanged since primeval times except by the lava flowing from newly-erupting volcanoes 

While seemingly easier to know and understand, these islands are, in fact, an unpredictable wilderness filled with an extraordinary population of unique species and subspecies, which have developed apart from humans and their dominating influence.

For the vast majority of the known history of the Galapagos, it was hard for people to reach the islands, and harder still to survive on them. Since 1945 access has become easier and considerable numbers of tourists can stay for as long as they want. The United States unlocked the door to the islands in Word War II by the construction of a military airstrip on Seymour Island. This has now been taken over by the Republic of Ecuador as the base for the development of a tourist industry and a vital channel for essential supplies. Those who visit the islands today will probably arrive first at Baltra airfield on Seymour and sleep in comfortable ships or guest houses ashore. They come to see the giant tortoises (in Spanish galapagos), the marine and land iguanas, the flightless cormorants, albatrosses and penguins, and the many other extraordinary creatures which Charles Darwin first observed in detail 150 years ago.

I came first to them in 1959 when, en route to take up a diplomatic post in New Zealand, our ship passed near to the islands and we speculated about the strange inhabitants which had inspired Darwin’s theories of the origin of species. It was not until 1978 that, while serving in Ecuador, I was able to land on the Galapagos. My family and I did this in no ordinary style. I was paying an official visit to the Ecuadorean naval captain who was then Governor of the Archipelago de Colón, a province of Ecuador, and we arrived in our small yacht at the Governor’s headquarters in Puerto Baquerizo to be met and taken ashore in his barge, an elderly lighter normally used for transporting cement. With this formal preliminary behind us, we were free to take off our cement-powdered shirts and sail into the empty archipelago. By night we sailed from island to island and each day we explored a new territory and learnt about new species. For a week at a time, we saw no other people and very few signs of humanity and we experienced every day that feeling of harmony with the rest of the natural world which is the greatest reward of travel in wild places.

The natural history of ‘Darwin’s Islands’ has been described in many books. Few of them dwell much on the strange and haunted lives of the men, and occasionally women, who made their history. This book tries to put the Galapagos archipelago into a human perspective recognizable to the armchair traveller as well as the professional naturalist. Its purpose is to describe the human history: what men have done to the islands and the effect they have had on man himself.