In an era of email, text messages, and Twitter, sending an internationally-bound letter—which can take weeks to arrive—can seem slightly inefficient. But it’s this sense of quaintness and questionable delivery that helps makes Post Office Bay in the Galapagos such a popular attraction.
The site is a symbol of the archipelago’s human history, an aspect often overshadowed by fascinating endemic species and striking volcanic landscapes. The Post Office dates back to 1793, when whalers who frequented the island placed a wooden barrel on the northwest shore of Floreana Island. Whalers and buccaneers would leave addressed letters in the barrel. Subsequent sailors would shift through the mail and select those destined for an upcoming port of call. This informal system of selective hand delivery allowed travelers to correspond with friends and family back home.
The tradition continues today. Though “Post Office” is probably too generous a title and the barrel is not the original, an assortment of driftwood, graffiti, and a replacement wooden barrel serve as a small mail deposit at Post Office Bay. Twenty-first century guests can leave letters and are asked to select a couple to hand deliver, thereby maintaining a means of correspondence dependent on trust and goodwill.
Pirates, Sailors, and Explorers
How did such an odd system end up in the Galapagos in the first place? The original barrel is credited to James Colnett, an officer in the British Royal Navy who sailed on trade expeditions. He made one of the first accurate maps of the Galapagos, though many had passed through the islands prior.
The first European record of the islands dates back to the 1500s when explorers were racing between the Old World and the New, discovering and conquering empires in Peru and Mexico. Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, was sailing to Peru—where the Inca Empire had recently fallen—to settle a dispute when winds blew him off course. He ended up among the archipelago, which he later described as desolate and full of birds and tame reptiles.
Berlanga was followed by a slew of pirates and buccaneers, including the English Captain Cook. His crew docked on the islands in 1684 and one of these buccaneers, Ambrose Cowley, made the first crude map of the area (not nearly as accurate as Colnett’s, which would come a century later). Crewmate William Dampier, also part of Cook’s crew, took the first scientific records of the islands, including observation on climate and how to eat and store tortoises, which were so common on the islands.
Dampier would become quite familiar with the Galapagos. In fact, he is responsible for bringing another famous character to the islands. Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who knew Dampier from prior expeditions, is believed to be the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk found himself marooned on an island 400 miles off the coast of Chile for 4 years. He was eventually rescued in 1709 by a boat commanded by Dampier, who then made a short stop at the Galapagos during the return voyage.
Other famous visitors included Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Melville spent several years aboard trading and whaling vessels, which later provided inspiration for his now classic novel. He visited the Galapagos in 1841 and even published a series of short articles about his time there called, "The Encantadas."
Making an appearance in Melville’s stories is a character based off Patrick Watkins, the first long-term inhabitant of the islands. Watkins settled on Floreana Island in 1805 and spent his time farming, drinking, and being generally odd. He left the islands in 1809.
A Visit from Charles Darwin
Despite the interesting precursors, Charles Darwin made the most famous visit to the islands in 1835. He was aboard the HMS Beagle, a ship captained by Robert FitzRoy on a five-year mission to survey the coast of South America. Darwin was only 26-years-old and on-board as a naturalist. He spent five weeks exploring four of the islands in the archipelago, during which he observed the their unusual wildlife.
By the time Darwin visited the Galapagos, they had already been picked over by pirates and sailors, who found the giant turtles to be particularly tasty. It is possible rats, an invasive species, had already been introduced and fires set by malicious or careless visitors. The islands were not untouched.
Regardless, the variation of animals on a set of islands 600 miles from mainland inspired Darwin. He made detailed notes, particularly of the avian wildlife. On Floreana, home to Post Office Bay, Darwin “industriously collected all the animals, plants, insects, & reptiles from this Island,” as he wrote in his diary. The "Origin of Species,” in which he explores the theory of evolution through natural selection, was not published until 1859.
Human Settlement in the Galapagos
The Galapagos became part of Ecuador in 1832, annexed by the country’s first president. The initial settlements were dreary, populated largely by convicts. The town of El Progreso on San Cristóbal Island sprung up in 1879 under the cruel reign of Manuel J. Cobos. He used prisoners and indentured workers in various enterprises, including sugar cane plantations and leather production. He paid them with invented money only valid in his personal store and treated the men so poorly that they rebelled. They hacked Cobos to death in 1904.
From the late 1800s throughout the 1900s, people slowly started to settle in the Galapagos and by 1905 there were 200 people living on Isabela. However odd these adventurers, profiteers, and condemned convicts were, there is one group that stands out from the rest.
The story is a bit convoluted, but in the mid-1900s Isabelea Island was host to the “Galapgaos Affair.” The characters start with a nudist German doctor Friedrich Ritter and his mistress, who arrived in 1929. They were joined by the Wittmer family, a couple with a sick son looking to live simply off the land. Tossed into the mix was an extremely eccentric Austrian lady named Baroness Eloise Wagner de Bosquet, who arrived with her two German lovers and an Ecuadorian handyman.
The Baroness declared herself queen of the island, a position that didn’t sit well with the other inhabitants. The three families did not get along and it all ended poorly in 1934. The Baroness went missing along with one of her lovers and the doctor was poisoned. Someone ended up mummified. To this day no one is exactly sure what happened, though descendants of the Baroness still live on the islands.
Modern Day in the Galapagos
Slowly, people realized the Galapagos were more than just a refueling station or a place to stock up on tasty turtle snacks. After the establishment and then dismantlement of a massive US air force base in the 1940s, the shift went toward conservation.
In 1959 Ecuador established the Galapagos National Parks and the Charles Darwin Foundation was founded. By 1979, UNESCO recognized the islands as a World Heritage Site. Today, 97% of the islands are protected and visitors must be with guides in delicate locations.
But, you can still send a letter.
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Thanks to hdeb89 for the title image of this blog.