The remote location of the Galapagos Islands helped them to stay well off the radar of mankind until the 1800s, when naturalist Charles Darwin first arrived. With no strategic function or useful location along historic trade routes, the Galapagos Islands were largely ignored up until Darwin’s visit. This is the main reason the native wildlife of the Galapagos Islands was able to evolve without the interference of humans or the introduction of foreign species of plants and animals.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to pass by the islands in 1535, and by 1570 the Galapagos Islands appeared on the first European maps. Richard Hawkins was the first English explorer to visit the Galapagos Islands in 1593, but for the most part the islands were a hideout for pirates pilfering Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Europe.
The Galapagos Islands were finally deemed useful in the late 1700s and early 1800’s as prime hunting grounds for whalers. James Colnett was the first person to describe the plants and animals of the Galapagos Islands, drawing navigation charts that were then used by whalers. This led to the establishment of the first outpost on the islands, which was mainly a place where mail, goods and information could be stored for traveling whalers.
When Ecuador gained independence from Spain in 1832, it immediately made a claim for the Galapagos Islands. A group of Ecuadorian convicts was brought over to populate Floreana Island, and they were joined soon after by random groups of farmers and craftspeople.
The young Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle, a survey ship charting the region. Darwin stayed just five weeks on the islands, making notes of everything he saw before continuing on his round the world journey. In 1904, another major naturalist survey was conducted on the Galapagos Islands by an American group, adding weight to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
A smattering of European settlers arrived in the Galapagos Islands in the 1920’s and 1930’s seeking a simple way of life. They marked the first real settlement of the main islands, leading in 1959 to the establishment of the archipelago as a national park. Tourism in the Galapagos Islands began shortly after in the 1960’s, and by 1978 UNESCO had awarded the islands World Heritage status.