|1||The Islands and their Names|
|2||The Arrival of Life|
|3||The Altitudinal Zones|
|6||Buccaneers and Privateers|
|8||The Villamil Period|
|9||Briones the Pirate|
|10||Valdizán and Cobos|
|16||The War and After|
|17||The Struggle for Conservation|
|18||Conflict of Interests|
The beginnings of commercial sperm whaling. Captain James Colnett's voyage and the first post barrel on Floreana. The first known Galápagos settler—Patrick Watkins of Floreana. The frigate Essex and Captain David Porter. The defeat of the Essex outside Valparaíso at the hands of the British. End of the whaling era in the Galápagos.
While whaling is an ancient activity, the commercial exploitation of the sperm whale did not really take shape in the New England states before the 1690's. The industry grew rapidly, due to the great demand for sperm oil, which was of a much higher quality than the other lamp oils available at the time. Also, there was a considerable demand for ambergris, which is found in the intestines of sperm whales (Bullen, 1898).
The Americans soon became expert whalers, keeping for many years a virtual monopoly on the production of sperm oil. Their main market was Great Britain. However, this trade was later disrupted by the War of Independence, a situation that made the British realize how dependent they had become on the whalers in what had until recently been their colonies.
As early as in 1775, the British began to catch sperm whales. Their most important firm engaged in this activity was that of Samuel Enderby & Sons, which held this prominent position despite increasing competition from enterprising whalers like Alexander Champion, who however never managed to catch up with the Enderbys (Slevin, 1959). All these ship owners benefited from the subsidies that the British government had set up to encourage the industry. Stimulated by government aid and good profits, the British whaling fleet saw an impressive growth until 1791.
This rapid increase in the British whaling fleet caused a serious lack of experienced crews, which led the ship owners to hire American captains and officers, and even deck hands, despite their high cost. In fact, Samuel Enderby Jr. traveled to Boston himself to obtain information on American whaling methods, and to hire seamen in Nantucket. However, despite all this British recruiting, the American whalers always managed to keep ahead of the British competition.
In the early years, the capture of sperm whale was limited to the Atlantic, but the rapid growth of the whaling fleets led to a considerable decline in production per ship, which made it necessary to search for new whaling grounds (Bullen, 1898). In 1788, the Enderbys sent their ship Emilia around Cape Horn, into the Pacific, opening a whole new world to the whaling industry. The Emilia, whose master was Captain James Shields, returned with 140 tons of sperm oil and 888 seal skins.
The same year, three other Enderby ships made this voyage—the Friendship, the Greenwich and the Kent. Others took up the challenge, including the Americans, who were prompt to join in the competition for the Pacific cachalots. As early as in 1791, there were already six American ships operating in the Pacific, but many more would soon make the voyage (Slevin, 1959).
However, there was still a great fear for the Spanish among the British captains, whose country had so often been at war with Spain. Nor were the days of the buccaneers and privateers so far behind that they had been forgotten. Most captains were reluctant to enter the Pacific, knowing that illness, lack of supplies and the need for fresh water might force them to call at South American ports, risking, they thought, capture and work in the mines. For this reason, in 1790, Samuel Enderby requested from the British government copies in Latin and English of the treaty that existed between Great Britain and Spain, which allowed British ships to call at Spanish ports.
In 1792, the Admiralty sent Captain James Colnett R.N. to investigate the Pacific region, in search of harbors and other facilities that could be used by the whalers. He was also to draw charts and gather all sorts of information. For this voyage, the Admiralty released the sloop-of-war Rattler, a 374-ton ship, which was purchased by Samuel Enderby & Sons, since the conversions made on her would make her unsuitable for the Royal Navy.
Captain Colnett arrived to the Galápagos on June 13, 1793, remaining among the islands until the 23rd. Unfavorable wind conditions and lack of water forced him to return to the mainland. During this first visit, teal, turtles, tortoises and fish were captured for food. On March 12, the following year, the Rattler returned, remaining among the islands for a whole month. During this time, Captain Colnett drew the first modern chart of the Galápagos, and gathered much information about the islands. He also reports an abundant supply of firewood, tortoises, turtles, land iguanas and fish, as well as sperm whales and fur seals, making good catches of the last two species.
Captain Colnett is credited with setting up the first post barrel at Post Office Bay, on the north coast of Floreana. Though he makes no mention of it, the barrel appears on his chart of the islands. This barrel served for leaving mail and messages brought by whalers who had come from their home ports. Outgoing mail was picked up by whalers on their return voyage, to be posted to their various destinations. The barrel tradition has survived to our own days. It was continued by British naval vessels that called at the islands in search of shipwrecked seamen, on their way to and from the west coast of Canada. When these voyages were discontinued in 1913, scientific expeditions and visiting yachtsmen had taken over the maintenance and/or replacement of the barrel or box at Post Office Bay. This tradition has in fact survived so well that there were two barrels in the bay towards the end of the 1980's.
The barrel at Post Office Bay was not the only one of its kind in the Pacific; but we do not know if other such barrels have been maintained to the present. As late as in 1950, we found a box covered with painted canvas, secured to a post, at the head of Tagus Cove, on Isabela. We have been unable to find out its story, and it had disappeared on our next visit, some three years later.
It was during the early years of the whalers that the first scientific expedition visited the Galápagos. Charles IV of Spain sent out two ships under the command of the Sicilian nobleman Alessandro Malaspina, who was captain on the corvette Descubierta. The other vessel was the corvette Atrevida, under the command of don José Bustamante y Guerra. Several scientists were aboard these ships, including the botanists don Antonio Pineda and don Luís Neel, and the naturalist Tadeo Haenke. This last gentleman came originally from Bohemia, and had studied under the distinguished Austrian botanist Baron Nikolaus von Jacquin.
Malaspina's expedition left Cádiz on July 30, 1789, reaching Guayaquil in October of the following year. Towards the end of the month, the ships sailed for the Galápagos and beyond. After circumnavigating the world, they again anchored in Cádiz, in September of 1794. Unfortunately, Malaspina's friends in the government had fallen into disfavor. The results of the expedition were not published until a century later (Larrea, 1960).
While not a scientific expedition, the visit of the Santa Getrudis, in 1793, seems worth mentioning. She was under the command of don Alonso de Torres y Guerra, who spent four days among the islands, while on his way from Nootka to Callao. Torres produced a chart of the Galápagos that is much inferior to that drawn by Cowley over a century earlier. This is not at all surprising, considering the short time Torres spent in the islands. Its value to navigation was probably never put to the test, as Colnett's chart became widely used, until superseded by Captain Fitzroy's, drawn a little over four decades after Colnett's.
Captain George Vancouver R.N. visited the Galápagos from February 3 to the 9th, 1795, on the sloop-of-war Discovery. His mobility was greatly hampered by light and variable winds, but Mr. Archibald Menzies, the botanist on board, managed to make a brief visit to the NW side of Isabela, a most desolate area, where he seems to have found little if anything to collect. Vancouver was, as so many visitors before and after him, disappointed at not finding fresh water.
While not a naturalist, Captain Amasa Delano, an American sealer, showed considerable curiosity and great talents of observation in the descriptions he left of his voyages. His first visit to the Galápagos was made in 1801, and from him we have the earliest record of the lava lizard (Tropidurus). Captain Delano also discovered the water hole that is located in a ravine south of Tagus Cove. This would be found most useful, over a century later, by the members of the California Academy of Sciences Expedition of 1905-06 as a watering place (Slevin, 1959).
It was also in those early years that the first known settler of the Galápagos appeared. Patrick Watkins, an Irish seaman, was left on Floreana some time around 1805. Whether this was done at his own request or not is unknown, but he remained on the island for about two years. During this stay, he grew vegetables, which he sold and bartered to the visiting whalers.
A number of stories have been told about Watkins, based mainly on information given in Captain David Porter's journal and Herman Melville's Piazza Tales, under the title of The Encantadas. Neither author had ever met Watkins, and had to rely on stories that had passed from mouth to mouth among the whalers. These were written down by Captain Porter, who is believed to have served as Melville's chief source.
In any case, there remains the fact that Watkins did exist, and that he lived a lonely life, inland from Black Beach, an anchorage on the west side of Floreana, known as “Pat's Landing” among the whalers. While the author is inclined to believe, for obvious reasons, that Watkins probably lived near the little spring, a short distance uphill from the anchorage, there are one or two other sites that have been described as the place where Watkins built his hut, one of them inside a small crater.
Though Watkins must have done relatively well from his trading—or could have done so had he wanted to—and there was still plenty of tortoises and fish to be caught, solitude must have got the better of him. Stealing a boat from a visiting ship, he sailed to the mainland, where he was last seen in the jail at Paita, Perú.
It is possible that other such lonely inhabitants were found on the Galápagos from time to time, some of them seamen, some of them tortoise hunters. The latter would have come for relatively short periods to produce oil for the mainland markets. However, apart from a tragic story told by Melville in his Piazza Tales, we have only one more record. On the act of possession drawn up by Colonel Ignacio Hernández, when he formally took over the Galápagos in the name of Ecuador, one of the witnesses who signed the document is “Juan Johnson, an old inhabitant of this island”. How long he had lived on Floreana is not known.
The whalers did much damage to the tortoise population of Galápagos, each ship carrying away several hundred of these reptiles whenever they called at the islands. Fortunately, not all the whalers in the Pacific visited the Galápagos. In 1819, a British ship, the Siren, discovered the highly profitable whaling grounds to the NW of Japan, which attracted much of the British and American fleets. For many years, the production of this area remained at a yearly average of around forty thousand barrels of sperm oil (Bullen, 1898). These ships usually sailed around Africa,
returning by Cape Horn, following a route that placed them far from the Galápagos Islands.
One of the most interesting chapters from this period is the cruise of the U.S. Frigate Essex, under the command of Captain David Porter. Captain Porter left the east coast of the United States in October of 1812, with orders to join Commodore William Bainbridge in the South Atlantic, where they would attack British shipping in that part of the world. Since Commodore Bainbridge was unable to reach their rendezvous, the rather independent Captain Porter continued around Cape Horn into the Pacific, with the intention of attacking British shipping in that ocean.
Reaching Valparaiso in February 1813, the Essex remained there a short time, to rest the crew and take on supplies. In the company of an American whaler, the Barclay, she reached the Galápagos Islands on April 17. Here, the barrel at Post Office Bay (at that time only a box) was put to good use by taking from it letters and messages containing information on the whereabouts of the British whalers in the area.
Despite this, Porter had to cruise among the islands for over a week, looking in vain for prizes. Finally, on the 29th, he sighted three British whalers. Flying the enemy's flag, a ruse commonly used by naval vessels in those times, he caught up with the Montezuma, capturing her without bloodshed. The other two vessels, the Georgiana and the Policy, suffered the same fate. These vessels not only provided Captain Porter with a larger fleet, but also with much needed supplies, among them freshly caught tortoises, cordage, tar, paint, canvas and other items necessary for the maintenance of a ship. The Georgiana was converted into a man-of-war by placing on her the guns from the other two prizes. Her command was given to Lt. John Downes, who was provided with a crew of forty-one men.
From then on, Captain Porter and his men captured a considerable number of British whalers. This posed the problem of providing them with crews, which Porter solved with characteristic efficiency and imagination. A number of seamen on the prizes were Americans, who had no objections against joining Porter. The British he convinced to man the ships by making it clear to them they would be much better off working above decks than spending their time locked up below, as prisoners. As far as the command of the captured ships went, Porter was forced to spread his officers very thinly indeed. In fact, Captain Porter and the surgeon's mate ended up being the only men above the rank of seaman on the Essex. Even the chaplain and the physician were given command of a prize each, as was the twelve-year old midshipman David Farragut. Farragut had been adopted by Porter at the age of nine, and was to become a naval hero and an admiral in later years.
Still, it was impossible to keep all the captured ships. In the first five months in the Galápagos and the neighboring waters, the Americans seized twelve British vessels. Some of these were taken to the mainland, to be kept there until further notice, while others were sold to the Spaniards.
Captain Porter was an outstanding leader, with a great talent for organization, and considerable imagination. He did not miss the importance of keeping his crews in good health, and did something about it. Among other things, he put to good use several native plants to prevent scurvy. He used a local substitute for spinach, and the juice and skins of cactus fruits—presumably Jasminocereus. The juice was boiled with sugar to make syrup, and the skins were cooked into a pleasant tasting preserve.
Like Dampier, Colnett and Delano before him, Porter was a keen observer. He wrote in detail about the fauna and flora of the Galápagos, and seems to have been the first to notice, or at least record, the differences between tortoises coming from different islands. On the other hand, he also has the doubtful honor of setting ashore the first introduced domestic animals. However, to his credit, it must be said that it was done unintentionally.
On August 4, 1813, the Essex anchored at James Bay, on the west side of Santiago. This is the same anchorage that was such a favorite with some of the buccaneers. Porter had with him four goats and some sheep, which were so tame that he took the risk of having them taken ashore to graze. Water was brought to them daily, and the animals came down to drink. However, one day they did not show up. Some seamen went ashore to search for the animals, but were unable to find them.
The springs in the bay had most likely dried out at that time of the year, except possibly the one at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain, in the south. It is likely that the animals had found their way inland to greener pastures, and may even have run across the small spring that exists there or one of the many rainwater ponds. The goats reproduced and prospered, but the sheep were never seen again (Lundh, 1965).
It was on this same visit to James Bay that Captain Porter lost one of his officers. Lt. John S. Cowan had a disagreement with Lt. John M. Gamble of the Marines. This led to a duel on the beach, where Lt. Cowan was shot dead. He was buried somewhere in the bay. The high bluff across from Albany Island is named after him. The only later record we have found of Cowan's grave is that given by Lt. John Shillibeer of the Royal Marines, who arrived on HMS Britton [sic, Briton] almost a year later. An unsuccessful search for the tomb was made by personnel of the U.S. base at Baltra, during World War II. Attempts at locating the grave were also made by Captain G.N. Baker of the USS Mallard in 1941, with no result.
In 1926, the workers who were extracting salt from the a crater lake in James Bay found a partly mummified corpse, dressed in the tattered remains of a blue uniform. The cloth was so decayed that it fell apart when touched, and the golden epaulettes and buttons were greatly tarnished. This find was made in the vicinity of the spring at Sugar Loaf Mountain. This place is the nearest to the landing in the south of the bay that has enough soil to dig a grave. The other places are at the mouths of some intermittent streams, near the shore itself, and would of course be useless for this purpose. The find was reported to the author by don Hugo Egas Zevallos, son of don Darío Egas Sánchez, the original owner of the western side of the island (Lundh, 1965). However, these are not necessarily the remains of Lt. Cowan, whose grave may be in the part of the bay north of the lava flow. The extensive beach there was often used as a landing, and ships frequently anchored right outside it.
Captain Porter and his fleet caused considerable damage to the British whaling industry. After a voyage to the Marquesas, where he had the Essex refitted and stocked up on supplies, Porter returned in the beginning of 1814. In March of that year, the Essex and the Essex Junior were captured outside Valparaiso by Sir James Hillyer, who was then commanding the British frigate Phoebe.
The two captains had agreed, when they met on land in Valparaiso, that they would not engage in combat inside the harbor, to avoid damaging property in the city. Hillyer left the harbor with his ship and the sloop Cherub, then cruised outside, waiting for Porter to come out. Though the Essex was a frigate of 860 tons, armed with thirty-two guns, she and her companion were somewhat outgunned by the British. For this reason, Porter was reluctant to abandon the anchorage. Hillyer kept the Americans bottled up in Valparaiso for about a month, until a storm forced them out. A fierce battle followed, in which the Essex suffered great losses and much damage.
After Porter's defeat, he, Farragut and the surviving Americans were allowed to sail to the United States on the Essex Junior, which had been stripped of her guns. Both Captain Porter and Midshipman Farragut would continue to distinguish themselves in years to come.
The American whalers continued to prosper, and their fleet increased greatly. Then, the Civil War (1861-65) broke out. The Confederate steamer Alabama attacked and burnt so many of the New England whaling ships, that the industry never fully recovered from its losses. In the meantime, catches became less and less profitable, until a point was reached where whaling became a poor investment. Cheaper petroleum derived products also began to replace both the lubricants and the lamp oil that had been the backbone of the sperm whale industry.
The days of hunting for the sperm whale were largely over. An era in the history of the Pacific was closed. However, in its wake was left the decimation of the Galápagos tortoises and the islands' fur seals. Still, we cannot give the whalers all the blame. Others were equally shortsighted—the skippers carrying tortoises to California to sell for meat, the tortoise hunters who produced oil for the inland markets, and the settlers, who had already begun to arrive in the days of the whalers.
General José Villamil's background, and his arrival in Guayaquil. Villamil's role in the wars against the Spaniards. Ecuador's separation from Gran Colombia and Villamil's efforts towards the annexation of Galápagos. Villamil's colony on Floreana. The exploitation of tortoises for trading with visiting vessels and for oil production. Darwin's visit and the charting of the islands by Captain Fitzroy. Villamil resigns as governor in 1837. Villamil's return in 1842. Decline of the Galápagos settlements.
In the 19th century, other visitors besides the whalers were becoming interested in the Galápagos. In 1822, Captain Basil Hall R.N., commanding HMS Conway, visited the islands, setting up his instruments on the south side of Pinta, to determine the compression of the earth at the equator. His stay was relatively short. He remained only long enough to take his measurements and stock up on tortoises, which were still common on that island.
The year of 1825 saw increased activity in the Galápagos. On January 9, the brig William and Ann of the Hudson Bay Company, under the command of Captain Henry Hanwell, stopped at the islands on her way to the northwestern parts of North America. Aboard were two naturalists, David Douglas and Dr. John Scouler. The former had been sent out to collect plants and seeds for the Royal Horticultural Society, while the latter had signed on as surgeon, hoping to make collections of both plants and animals during the long voyage.
Douglas and Scouler made the first botanical collections on record for the Galápagos, though much of this material was lost, probably damaged by humidity. However, Sir Joseph Hooker reported thirteen of Scouler's plants and five of Douglas' from their Galápagos collections, in his paper on Darwin's plants, published in 1847 (Wiggins & Porter, 1971).
In this same paper by Hooker there are also some plants collected by James Macrae on Isabela, somewhat later in the year, as well as a few of those brought back from the islands by Hugh Cuming, who visited them on a cruise with his yacht, in 1829.
On February 14, 1825, at two in the morning, Captain Benjamin Morrell witnessed and recorded a tremendous eruption on Fernandina, the westernmost of the Galápagos. His ship, the Tartar, was anchored at Banks Bay, on the NW side of Isabela, right across from Fernandina. Morrell gives a vivid description of this impressive eruption (Morrell, 1832).
Awakened by a shattering explosion, the crew of the Tartar went on deck, from where they later saw a river of fiery lava pouring over the rim of the crater, winding its incandescent way down to the shore. Here, it made the sea boil into dense clouds of steam. The air around the ship and the sea itself began to warm up at their anchorage, so that the pitch in the seams of the Tartar became soft, and the crew felt suffocated by the heat. To make the most of a weak breeze, Captain Morrell was forced to sail through the relatively narrow Canal Bolívar, which separates the two islands. On the 15th, at eleven in the night, the Tartar found anchorage at a seemingly safe distance, in Elizabeth Bay, on the west side of Isabela.
At eight o'clock the following morning, the temperature at Elizabeth Bay had also become intolerable, and Captain Morrell decided to set sail for Floreana. On his return from Hawaii, on October 27, Morrell again anchored in Elizabeth Bay. From here, he could see that the volcano on Fernandina was still boiling over with lava, but much of its violence had subsided (Morrell, 1832).
In March of the same year, the Rt. Hon. Lord George Anson Byron had anchored at Tagus Cove. He was in command of HMS Blonde, which was on her way to Hawaii with the remains of King Kamehameha II and his queen, who had died during an official visit to England. Though the eruption on Fernandina impressed the British aristocrat greatly, it must by then have abated considerably, for the Blonde was anchored closer to it than Morrell had been when it started. Lord Byron made no mention of being inconvenienced by the heat from the volcano. He commented however on the tameness of the Galápagos animals, but, unlike most visitors, he makes no mention of the tortoises. He found the water hole that Captain Delano had discovered, south of Tagus Cove, but it was completely dry (Slevin, 1959). It is easy to imagine the extent of the destruction such an eruption must have caused to the flora and fauna on Fernandina.
Though the French and, to a much greater extent, the British had called at the islands in their naval vessels, neither showed interest in taking possession of them. The only visitor who seems to have considered such a possibility in those early years appears to have been Captain David Porter, who wanted to place them under the American flag. However, the United States government had been against it. Theoretically, the islands belonged to Spain, until the South American nations became independent. After this, because of their position, the Galápagos should naturally come under Ecuador. However, neither Spain nor General Bolívar's Gran Colombia (the former Nueva Granada) had ever taken formal possession of the islands.
In fact, the general attitude to this matter was one of indifference. The only exception to this was General José Villamil, a prosperous Guayaquil merchant, who had been one of the founding fathers of the short-lived Republic of Guayaquil. Villamil had been much engaged in the struggle for independence, contributing generously with his money and personal services to the revolution. He even brought a whole division from Panama, largely at his own expense. These soldiers, the División Córdoba, distinguished themselves at the Battle of Pichincha, outside Quito, on May 24, 1822, when the Spaniards were definitively routed in what would become Gran Colombia.
General Villamil had an interesting career. He was born in Louisiana, in 1789, when the colony belonged to Spain. His father was a prosperous businessman, who came originally from Asturias, in the north of Spain. His mother was a French Creole lady. Young José got an excellent education, and showed considerable intelligence and an adventurous spirit. This latter induced him to join the volunteer forces that had been organized to repel pirate attacks in the area. He soon became known for his outstanding marksmanship and great fearlessness.
While studying in Spain, Villamil befriended several of the South American patriots who yearned for independence from the Mother Country. After returning to the New World, he stayed with two of his brothers, who lived in Venezuela. It was here, in 1810, that he became involved in a conspiracy against the colonial administration in Maracaibo. The plot was discovered and Villamil had to flee.
The young man then settled in Guayaquil, where he forgot for a while his political ideas, devoting himself to business, and marrying one of the city's society belles, the distinguished doña Ana de Garaicoa. It was during this relatively peaceful period of his life that Villamil earned the gratitude of the Spanish officials by warning them of a privateer attack against the city.
In February of 1816, while on his way to Callao, José Villamil sighted several ships at anchor off Puná Island, across from the mouths of the Guayas River. These formed a small fleet under Commodore William Brown, an Irishman who had joined the fight for independence of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata—later to become the Argentine Republic—becoming commander-in-chief of their navy. With him was his companion of many battles, the French Captain Hippolyte Bouchard. The two had gained considerable merit fighting against the Spanish along the Argentinean coast, and had played a key role in the taking of Montevideo, in May of 1814. The following year, Brown and Bouchard rounded Cape Horn on a privateering expedition against Spanish shipping in the Pacific.
Suspecting the strangers to be pirates, Villamil ordered his schooner, the Alcance, to return upriver to Guayaquil, so he could warn the city. At the fort of Punta de Piedra, he alerted the garrison, ordering them in the governor's name that they must fire on the approaching ships, doing their best to delay them. Then, he continued up to the city, where he arrived in time to get its defenses organized. The fort at Punta de Piedra was unable to stop the privateers, but its guns caused them enough delay before they were silenced. The incredible good luck that had followed Commodore Brown in his earlier undertakings seemed to have left him. Just below the city, his ship, the barkentine Trinidad, was grounded on one of the mud bars in the river. It was then boarded and taken by the defenders of the city, who captured Brown and forty-eight of his men (Larrea, 1960).
After this, the Spaniards began negotiations with the privateers. A cease-fire was agreed on, and an exchange of prisoners was carried out. Commodore Brown and his men were exchanged for some prisoners the privateers had taken in Callao and the Gulf of Guayaquil. The mail that had been taken from four captured Spanish ships was handed over to the city officials. The privateers then agreed to abandon the port and the Gulf of Guayaquil.
Brown and Bouchard sailed with their ships to the Galápagos Islands, as the Frenchman's crew were opposed to returning by way of Cape Horn, and wanted to divide the booty taken during their expedition. Brown did his very best to keep the fleet together, but failed. Bouchard and his men sailed to the Philippines, while Brown headed for Buenaventura to repair his ship and obtain supplies. Later in the year, he returned to the Galápagos to stock up on tortoises for his voyage around Cape Horn.
Another hero of the South American struggle for independence who sought temporary refuge in the Galápagos, was John Illingworth. This British naval officer, born in Stockton, commanded the schooner Rosa de los Andes. After a battle with the Spanish frigate Piedad, near the Island of Puná, on June 24, 1819, Illingworth sailed to the islands to repair his much damaged ship. He spent two months there, and captured the Spanish barkentine Cantón while in the archipelago (Larrea, 1960). Illingworth's descendants still live in Guayaquil.
Eventually, José Villamil became once more involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Spanish rule in his locality. His home became a meeting place for the plotters, and he contributed generously to the purchase of armament. In 1820, he personally took part in a coup, which had been carefully planned and was carried out with remarkable efficiency. Then, as the war spread, the Republic of Guayaquil became part of Bolívar's Gran Colombia. Villamil continued distinguishing himself, rising rapidly to the rank of brigadier general in the republican armies. He was respected for his honesty and efficiency in fulfilling the various official duties that he was entrusted with through the years, until his death at the age of seventy-seven years, in 1866.
However, General Villamil is best remembered as the man who convinced the Ecuadorian government to take formal possession of the Galápagos Islands. As soon as Ecuador broke away from Gran Colombia, in 1830, General Villamil set in motion his plans to colonize the archipelago. In October of the following year, he sent out a commission to investigate the economic possibilities offered by the islands, especially the availability of orchil—actually several species of lichens that were in much demand for the production of dyes. As expected, orchil proved to be abundant in the Galápagos.
After contacting several members of the government, Villamil organized the Sociedad Colonizadora del Archipiélago de Galápagos, filing a claim on the lands he expected to use on November 14, 1831. General Juan José Flores, Ecuador's first president, favored Villamil's project, and ordered the Prefect of Guayas Province, the patriot and poet don José Joaquín de Olmedo, to make the necessary arrangements for taking possession of the Galápagos.
On January 20, 1832, the schooner Mercedes sailed from Guayaquil with an expedition under the command of Colonel Ignacio Hernández. On Floreana, on February 12, a ceremony took place whereby Colonel Hernández declared the Galápagos a territory of the Republic of Ecuador, in the presence of the passengers and crew of the schooner Mercedes, Juan Johnson (at the time the island's only inhabitant), and the captains and crews of the American frigates Levant and Richmond. Colonel Hernández gave new names to some of the larger islands, renaming the archipelago itself Islas del Ecuador. Only one of his names has survived and is still in use—that of Floreana, which was named after President Flores.
Among those who stayed behind after the Mercedes returned to the mainland were Colonel Hernández, who was justice of the peace to the colony, and Dr. Eugenio Ortiz, the chaplain. The two of them distributed the lands that the settlers would use. Also, two of Villamil's partners, Joaquín Villamil and Lorenzo Bark stayed, besides a small group of settlers. Most of these last were soldiers who had taken part in a conspiracy to overthrow General Flores. They had been sentenced to death, but, hearing of their fate, General Villamil had interceded for them, obtaining their pardon on the condition that they should leave for Galápagos as settlers (Larrea, 1960). This set an unfortunate precedent, which would in time turn Galápagos into a place of political banishment and, soon after, into a regular penal colony.
In April and June, new settlers arrived and, in October, General José Villamil came out with eighty colonists, to take office as governor of the islands. The location chosen for the settlement by Colonel Hernández and Dr. Ortiz was the best possible, being on the fertile central plateau, near the largest and most reliable of the springs. The place was named Asilo de la Paz—Haven of Peace—a name that would be perpetuated by the Wittmer family, who established themselves near the spring in 1932, and gave this same name to their farm (Lundh, 1965).
Under the guidance of General Villamil, who took great interest in the welfare of the settlers, the colony seems to have prospered. Villamil had his house built near the small spring above Black Beach, where he was fairly close to the anchorage, enjoyed a milder and drier climate than on the plateau, and still could be within reasonable distance from the farmlands, which are a little more than an hour's hike inland.
General Villamil had brought with him domestic animals of different sorts—donkeys, goats, pigs and cattle. In fact, all the feral animals found in the Galápagos are attributed to him, as if he had made the rounds of the islands, setting ashore a few specimens here and there. Since the governor was busy trying to establish a viable colony on Floreana, he is unlikely to have even considered this scheme. Besides, the history of the introduction of feral animals varies from place to place around the islands. While goats were introduced at James Bay in 1813, they did not even exist on Santa Cruz before the 1920's, being introduced there at about the same time as pigs. Wild donkeys were however found on Santa Cruz and many other places from the early days of colonization, having been landed by the tortoise hunters.
The introduced animals—those brought intentionally and those that had arrived accidentally, such as rats and cockroaches—would in time cause much damage to the flora and fauna of Floreana and other places around the Galápagos. The plant eating species have destroyed much sheltering vegetation and compete for food with the native animals, especially during dry periods. Pigs, dogs and cats are likely to have done even more damage by eating native animal species, their young and their eggs. It is a well known fact that both pigs and dogs feed on small tortoises, the former also rooting up their nests to get at the eggs. However, at least in the beginning, the greatest destruction by far was done by man. The inland forests on Floreana were cut down to plant crops and establish pastures for the cattle. This and a number of introduced cultivated species such as oranges and limes, as well as the numerous weeds that came with the settlers and their goods, completely altered the landscape of the inland plateau.
Since the whalers were still visiting the islands, a considerable trade in fruits, vegetables and tortoises developed. Purchasing tortoises was to the advantage of the whalers, as the more accessible habitats of these reptiles had been largely depleted, and obtaining them had therefore become much harder and time consuming. The settlers brought tortoises from several places around the islands, keeping them alive in pens for this trade. On the other hand, tortoise hunters were very active, butchering animals for the extraction of oil, as tortoise oil had an excellent market on the mainland. Other products exported aside from oil were orchil, jerked beef, hides, dry fish, dried tortoise meat and possibly coffee.
It did not take many years before tortoises became extinct on Floreana. The tortoise population there had probably been much exploited from earlier times, because of the relatively easy access to the inland areas, but there were still some left in 1835, when Charles Darwin visited the island. However, they were no longer numerous enough for commercial exploitation. Darwin met tortoise hunters inland from James Bay, and the area inland from Whale Bay, in the NW of Santa Cruz, was also exploited for tortoises in the 1830's.
If one considers how far these two places are from Floreana and what a long haul it must have been to get there with the boats available to the settlers, using sail and oars for propulsion, it is evident that the much closer tortoise habitats on Hood and San Cristóbal had become unprofitable at a very early date. This is not to say that tortoises were no longer numerous in some of the remoter parts of the latter island.
We have mentioned Darwin's visit to the islands. From the point of view of science, this visit marks the real beginning of research on the Galápagos flora and fauna. As we have seen, he was not the first naturalist to visit the islands, but he was certainly the first to bring back collections of such size that the uniqueness of the insular flora and fauna could begin to be fully appreciated.
HMS Beagle remained in the Galápagos from September 15 to October 20 of 1835, visiting San Cristóbal, Floreana, Santiago and Isabela. The ship was commanded by Captain Robert Fitzroy, noted navigator and meteorologist, who had surveyed the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. He also drew the chart of the Galápagos Islands that would replace the one made by Captain Colnett. Fitzroy's chart was, with few modifications, in use until after World War II, when the survey made by the USS Bowditch became generally available. It is remarkable how little difference there is between these two charts, especially if one considers the instruments available to Captain Fitzroy and all the modern equipment found on the “Bowditch”. Fitzroy was in fact known in his time as an outstanding surveyor (Lundh, 1965).
Charles Darwin, the young naturalist of the expedition, was then unknown, but his work would make him far more famous than Captain Fitzroy. To such a degree in fact that he has become the central character in the voyage of the “Beagle”, as far as posterity is concerned. It was not only the collections and notes that he brought back, but also the conclusions he eventually came to, after studying the fossils he had collected in South America, and realizing the great differentiation that had taken place within the groups of species he found in the Galápagos.
The sudden revelation that overcame Darwin while in the Galápagos is of course a myth. It is true that he noticed differences between the mockingbirds he saw on the different islands. Also, Captain Nicholas Lawson, the English vice-governor, who was in charge during General Villamil's absence, had pointed out to Darwin that it was possible to tell which island a tortoise came from by noticing details in its appearance. Darwin however had only seen races that showed no major differences. It was only years later, when he had studied his South American fossils, learnt from Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker about the endemism of many of the plant specimens he had brought home, and from John Gould about the uniqueness of many of his bird specimens, that Darwin began to realize what all this information could lead to. In the meantime, he had also read Porter's narrative of the Essex's adventures, finding confirmation of Captain Lawson's information on the differences among tortoises from the various islands. In fact, Darwin's theory of evolution was built on much and long reflection, backed by a wealth of evidence.
Darwin recorded a certain amount of discontent among the settlers, who complained of poverty, though they were obviously better fed and in many ways better off than most of their fellow citizens of similar social rank on the mainland. He describes the settlement as a number of houses scattered irregularly over a flat area, which was cultivated with sweet potatoes and bananas. “The inhabitants, although complaining of poverty, obtain, without much trouble the means of subsistence. In the woods there are many wild pigs and goats; but the staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises. Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced on this island , but the people yet count on two days' hunting giving them food for the rest of the week.” (Darwin, 1839). In 1838, Dupetit-Thouars found the population of Floreana to consist of about three hundred people, half of them deportees.
As early as in 1833, there had been an increase in the population of Floreana by the arrival of more political deportees. But worse was to come, for soon the ranks of the deportees included all manner of lawbreakers, regular convicts—thieves, assassins and prostitutes. The government's purpose of increasing the population was however successful only for a relatively short period.
In 1837, General Villamil resigned as governor, returning to the mainland. He was succeeded by Colonel José Williams, a ruthless man, who surrounded himself with a guard of deserters from whaling ships, setting up a dictatorship on the island. He exploited the colony for his own benefit, forcing the inhabitants to sell him all their produce, which he then resold at considerable profit to the whalers or exported to the mainland. Fines and floggings became frequent forms of punishment. General Mena, one of General Villamil's partners, who had been left in charge of the latter's interests, soon quarreled with the new governor, moving over to San Cristóbal with some of the settlers. Mena also took with him a number of domestic animals (Lundh, 1965).
The identity of this Colonel Williams is a bit hazy. Latorre (1992) calls him “James Williams” and gives him American nationality. Most other sources name him simply “J. Williams”, saying nothing about his origin, with one or two exceptions who claim he was British. In 1847, there were about twenty people living at Puerto Baquerizo (San Cristóbal). Among these was an Englishman called Willliams, who kept two-three hundred tortoises on hand for trading with the whalers. Whether he was our Colonel Williams is hard to say.
Williams became governor at a time that was most favorable to a man of his sort. The government had to cope with a very unstable political situation on the mainland, which left such remote places as Galápagos at the lowest level in the official priorities. The only time Galápagos was remembered was when the mainland authorities wanted to get rid of some convicts or a group of troublesome political opponents. Occasionally, concessions of one kind or another would also be granted, in exchange for some form of revenue or a percentage of the expected profits. A typical case is that of don Miguel Andrade Fuentefría, who obtained from Congress, in 1839, a concession for exploiting the oil of tortoises and sea lions.
In 1841 the people of Floreana had had enough of their despotic governor. A revolt broke out on May 6, and Colonel Williams and his gang had to flee the island to save their lives. It had to go that far before the mainland officials reacted to the colonists' plight, though numerous complaints had been made. In April of the following year, the schooner Diligencia was sent to the islands, and an inquiry was carried out by Lieutenant José María Muñoz. His report on the Williams administration shocked the mainland officials. But, by then, only about eighty of the approximately three hundred inhabitants still remained on the island (Bognoly & Espinosa, 1905).
General Villamil returned in 1842 to take over again, in an attempt at saving his settlement. However, he soon gave up. Taking with him the remaining free settlers and some of his cattle, he moved over to San Cristóbal, to join General Mena. By 1845 there were only twenty-five convicts left on Floreana, and no free settlers at all.
However, when HMS Herald, commanded by Captain (later Sir) Henry Kellett, accompanied by the tender Pandora, visited Floreana at the beginning of 1846, they were told by Guerney, an Englishman, that there were about forty people on the island, and that there had been a number of political deportees there a year earlier. These had been returned to the mainland when General Juan José Flores was ousted by a coup.
This Guerney is probably the same Guillermo (William) Guerney who is mentioned by Captain de Gueydon as having lived on San Cristóbal for several years, who piloted the Frenchman's brig into Puerto Baquerizo, in 1846. When the British met him on Floreana, he was married to the Ecuadorian administrator's sister.
Captain Kellett found an abundance of cattle, pigs, goats and dogs roaming the island. There were no tortoises left. However, farm products were abundant—melons, bananas, pumpkins, etc. The British visitors also called at San Cristóbal to supply themselves with water, buying some tortoises at Puerto Baquerizo. After a visit to James Bay (Santiago), the ships continued to the mainland. At Súa, not far from Atacames, the young botanist of the expedition, Thomas Edmonston, was accidentally shot, ending at twenty-one what promised to become a distinguished career in science. He was buried ashore (Perry, 1980).
In the meantime, General José Villamil had been recalled to active duty with the appointment of Commandant General of the Guayas District. He held this position until March of 1847, when he requested and got a six-month leave, to return to the Galápagos to recuperate from an illness. He also asked to be allowed to purchase the barkentine Ecuatoriano from the Ecuadorian Navy. He intended to outfit her for whaling; but the purchase was never made.
In the 1850's Ecuador barely kept a presence in the Galápagos. There was a handful of settlers left on San Cristóbal, headed by General Mena, who was governor of the archipelago. On Floreana there were a few convicts and a very small garrison. The convicts roamed more or less at will about the island, so it is not surprising that, in 1851, some of them saw the opportunity to steal a boat from a visiting whaler, escaping with the intention of reaching the mainland. Nobody ever heard from them again. However, it is in the following year that the most spectacular escape in the history of Galápagos takes place, giving the notorious Manuel Briones his place in history as the “Pirate of the Guayas”.
The bandit Manuel Briones and his gang. Capture and banishment to the Galápagos. The seizing of the American whaler George Howland by Briones and his men. Capture of Briones and his gang and their public execution in Guayaquil. Visit of the Swedish frigate Eugenie to the Galápagos. State of the islands at the time of the visit.
One of the most interesting chapters in the history of Galápagos begins in the Guayas River basin. Here, one Manuel Briones terrorized the region from 1847 to 1851. Born in Daule, one of the towns of the district, Briones followed in the footsteps of his father, a notorious bandit with a long career in crime.
Manuel Briones was ruthless and bloodthirsty. He was also fearless. Not satisfied with plundering the relatively isolated settlements and the scattered farms and plantations, he began seeking the larger towns, attacking such important centers as Babahoyo, Vinces and his native Daule.
Finally, the authorities were forced to organize a large scale manhunt. After considerable efforts, Manuel Briones and his gang were captured and brought to trial. With all the evidence against them, the judge felt no doubts about sentencing the criminals to eight years of deportation to Floreana. The convicts were then placed on the first ship sailing to the Galápagos.
As we have seen, the colony on Floreana had already disintegrated. While a few settlers still remained on San Cristóbal, the great majority had, by this time, returned to the mainland. At the time Briones and his gang were deported, in 1851, there remained only a very small garrison on Floreana, which kept a rather lax control over a small number of convicts. In fact, being deported to the island was not half as bad as what it was reputed to be.
The population elsewhere in the Galápagos was also small. General Villamil's old partner and friend, General Mena, was still on San Cristóbal, ruling as governor over less than half a dozen settlers and a handful of soldiers. At Whale Bay, on the NW side of Santa Cruz, there was a little group of men and a woman, who probably made a living hunting tortoises. They must have supplied themselves with fresh water from the little spring at Santa Rosa Hill, a considerable distance inland. The colonization of the Galápagos Islands had indeed reached its lowest point since the islands were first settled. Our Ecuadorian sources (Larrea and others) have been rather sketchy about the Briones story, dwelling mostly on its international repercussions. In fact, some of the available data from usually reliable sources is even in disagreement with eyewitness accounts from the period. Strange to say, the best sources we have so far found about the escape of Briones and his gang, and the events that followed up to their execution, are two contemporary Swedish authors, who happened to become involved in the last chapter of the criminal's career. One of these authors is Prof. Nils Johan Andersson, who wrote a series of letters during his voyage around the world. Prof. Andersson was the botanist on His Swedish Majesty's Frigate Eugenie, while she was sailing around the world, a voyage that lasted from 1851 to 1853, under the command of Captain (later Rear Admiral) Christian Adolf Virgin, a distinguished officer and diplomat. During their visit to the Galápagos, Prof. Andersson became the first botanist to collect on Santa Cruz, the second largest island in the Galápagos. Prof. Andersson mentions the Briones case and gives a brief account of the capture of the American whaler George Howland by the bandits (Andersson, 1854).
More detailed material is found in the Swedish two-volume narrative of the voyage, written by Lieutenant Carl Johan Skogman, a Swedish-Finish nobleman who was an officer on the frigate. Lt. Skogman gives a wealth of information about Briones and the George Howland (Skogman, 1854). Lt. Skogman knew Spanish and had therefore access to both the Ecuadorian officials involved and other sources such as letters and documents.
Manuel Briones, a large, brutal bully of considerable strength, managed easily to maintain his leadership over the gang, after the criminals arrived on Floreana. Enjoying relative freedom, these men roamed the island more or less at will, having even access to a small boat, probably because they were engaged in fishing. The officer in charge does not seem to have worried about the convicts escaping, as it was well known that a few prisoners who had got away recently had never been heard of again.
It is claimed that Briones and his men seized an American schooner that arrived to the islands from California (Skogman, 1854). Whether this vessel had come to stock up on tortoises for the California market or to hunt seals is not known. It is said that Briones and his gang murdered everybody aboard and sank the schooner, after securing a considerable amount of money that was found on the vessel. The capture of this schooner may later have led the scoundrels to think of the possibility of embarking on a career in piracy.
At the time of these events, General Juan José Flores, who had been president when General Villamil began colonizing the islands, lived in exile in Perú. Flores was constantly plotting to overthrow the current Ecuadorian government, headed by General José Urbina. General Urbina, a liberal, had pushed through a number of reforms, including the abolition of slavery. Flores, a conservative, had ruled the country from 1830 to 1835 and, after a liberal interlude, from 1839 to 1845, when he was deposed.
Nearly all our sources claim that Briones planned his escape from Floreana with the purpose of intercepting an expedition sent by Flores from Perú with the intention of starting an uprising in Ecuador. By intercepting the revolutionaries, it is claimed that Briones hoped to gain a pardon for himself and his gang. That Flores was plotting to return to power was a well known fact, for he had been trying for some time to get together an army of sorts. He had also tried unsuccessfully to enlist the aid of several foreign countries for his come-back to power. Since this had been going on for some time, it would be surprising if Briones had not heard about it, even before his deportation.
None of our sources explains how Briones got to know when Flores was about to send an expedition from Perú. That he should have obtained such information while on Floreana may seem a bit farfetched. However, it is not as impossible as it might appear. Nearly all the whalers coming around Cape Horn or the Straits of Magellan called at Peruvian ports on their way to Galápagos and beyond. Also, there were smaller vessels coming out for tortoises and tortoise oil and at least some of them could have been Peruvian. On the other hand, Briones could have learnt about the Flores expedition after he returned to the mainland, where he first reached the Peruvian coast. He could have found this knowledge and the interception of the revolutionaries a convenient excuse to justify the capture of the George Howland and the murder of the Flores followers he met with in the Gulf of Guayaquil. But Briones' behavior after the capture of one of the Flores vessels completely disagrees with his purported intentions. The story of Briones and his men heading directly to Guayaquil, where they expected to be welcomed as heroes, happens to be untrue. Briones and his gang did no such thing.
Regardless of what Briones may have claimed or not after his capture, it is obvious that he had already decided to get hold of a ship, when the New Bedford whaler George Howland anchored off Floreana. Captain Cromwell, her master, could not have suspected any danger when he sent four of his men ashore to collect firewood. These men were captured by the convicts, failing therefore to return aboard.
From this point on, we shall have to rely largely on the account made by the ship's cooper, Mr. Peacock, as recorded by Lt. Skogman (Skogman, 1854). Peacock is after all the only eyewitness whose account, as far as we know, is still on record for this part of the story. According to him, a boat came alongside the Howland and the visitors asked Captain Cromwell if he would be willing to send the ship's carpenter ashore, to help them repair their boat. Cromwell, who intended to sail as soon as the firewood party returned, refused to do this. Instead, he offered to pay the visitors for locating the missing crew members, whom he thought might have lost their way in the woods.
It is reasonable to assume that the men in the boat had only come out on a scouting mission. After agreeing to look for the missing men, they returned to the island, coming back later with a larger number of convicts. The unsuspecting Americans were taken completely by surprise, and the vessel was seized without bloodshed. Captain Cromwell was bound hand and foot, and set ashore with part of his crew. The remaining seamen were forced to set sail, and Briones and his gang headed for San Cristóbal.
While on their way, Briones ordered the mate and two of the seamen to paint the sides of the ship. This was a mistake, as the three men saw the opportunity to lower a boat, escaping towards Floreana and their stranded shipmates. Peacock's attempt to join them was checked by one of the bandits, who hit him over the head with the flat side of a cutlass, stunning him.
On arriving to San Cristóbal, Manuel Briones sent a party ashore, where General Mena, a woman (mistakenly thought by Peacock to be the general's daughter), and four soldiers were captured. Among these last was a Lt. Barroterán, who is mentioned in most of our Ecuadorian sources, and may have been in command of the small garrison.
These prisoners, a considerable amount of money belonging to the governor, and a quantity of supplies were brought out to the ship. Here, several of the convicts raped the woman, who was later taken ashore in an uncharacteristic gesture of kindness. The male prisoners were all shot. Peacock (in Skogman, 1854) tells how three shots were fired at General Mena, wounding him. The old gentleman stood there, unflinching, and tapped his chest with his fist, as he repeated scornfully, “Here! Here!”, while the convicts reloaded for a second attempt. Four more shots were fired at the old general before he finally fell dead.
The governor's body was thrown over the side, along with those of the four soldiers. Two of the latter were only wounded, and grabbed hold of the ship's side. The convicts hit and stabbed their hands, forcing them to let go. Soon after, they could be seen in the wake of the ship, struggling to stay afloat, then finally going under.
The convicts had taken with them from Floreana a Frenchman, Hieron, who was living on the island at the time. Whether he was a convict or a settler is not known, but he was obviously not one of Briones' men, as he had come along against his will. They had brought him because he had some knowledge of navigation. On the day after the George Howland sailed from San Cristóbal, Hieron warned Peacock that the convicts were talking about killing him, for they considered the cooper was of no use to them. On hearing this, the American hid himself in the hold, among some oil barrels. He survived the rest of the voyage eating blubber and whatever the Frenchman managed to smuggle down to him. With his knife, he dug a hole in one of the water casks so he could have something to drink.
Living in constant fear of being discovered, Peacock spent all his time in the darkness of the hold, thus losing count of the days. He could not tell afterwards whether he had been sixteen or eighteen days below. In the meantime, the whaler had reached the vicinity of Túmbez, where the convicts sold two barrels of sperm oil. Peacock's Spanish seems to have been rather limited, and his opportunity to overhear what was being said above decks must have been even more so. Obviously, what little he could tell later about what happened after he hid in the hold must have come to him through Hieron. He did learn of the escape of two of his shipmates, who managed to get away in one of the boats, while they were near the Peruvian coast (This left only Peacock and the carpenter from the original crew). Apparently, the cooper did not learn about the two women the convicts had met on the beach near Túmbez, for he told nothing about them in his statement. These, a mother and her daughter, were seized by some of the convicts, raped and murdered.
The convicts continued along the coast, heading for the Gulf of Guayaquil. Shortly after reaching this latter area, they overtook two vessels that were headed for some unknown destination in Ecuador. One of the small ships managed to escape into waters that were too shallow for the whaler, but the other one was boarded, and twenty-three of the forty-two men aboard her were killed by Briones and his gang. Among the victims were Colonel Manuel Tamayo and the lieutenants Moreno and Guerrero, as well as several other officers. Like those who had managed to escape, the men on the captured vessel belonged to an expedition sent north by General Flores.
The nineteen whose lives were spared were taken aboard the George Howland. They later left the whaler in two boats, heading for Túmbez. It is not clear whether they escaped or were just sent ashore by Briones for some unknown reason.
While at anchor in the inner parts of the Gulf of Guayaquil, the escaped convicts sighted an approaching frigate. Since such a ship was too well armed and too large for them to tackle, and seeing their only escape route blocked, the Briones gang abandoned the George Howland, where Peacock still remained hidden in the hold.
Briones and his men were later captured by a detachment of Ecuadorian soldiers who had been sent out to watch for any vessels sent by General Flores. Four of the convicts were taken on the Island of Puná, at the mouth of the Guayas River. Eleven men were overtaken when they were aboard a whaleboat. Among these were the prisoners still held by the convicts—the ship's carpenter, the Frenchman Hieron, and the two caretakers of the lighthouse on Santa Clara Island, at the entrance to the gulf, who had been brought along as pilots for the neighboring waters.
Both Briones and his lieutenant, a huge mulatto called Antonio Huncho, were among those captured. The convicts were promptly sent upriver to Guayaquil, where the officials apparently saw no merit in their gruesome attack on the Flores expedition, and wasted no time in judging them and sentencing them to be shot for piracy and cold-blooded murder.
The frigate that was seen approaching the George Howland happened to be His Swedish Majesty's Frigate Eugenie. She had left Callao in Perú on March 18, 1852, at seven in the evening. From there, she worked her way up the coast, making the best possible use of the unstable breezes and light winds, anchoring whenever there was calm. Thus, she entered the Gulf of Guayaquil two days later. Lt. Skogman remarks, as so many other travelers, on the dramatic change in scenery that is experienced after leaving behind the desolation of the Peruvian coast, to discover the vivid green of the mangroves along the shore of the Ecuadorian side of the border (Skogman, 1854).
A bark was sighted just inside the gulf. The stranger aroused some curiosity because of her unusual maneuvers. At first, she seemed bent on getting as much distance as possible between herself and the frigate. Then, she headed back, to finally anchor a short distance from where the Eugenie was waiting for a favorable breeze.
After hoisting the flag of Hamburg, the strangers lowered a boat, and the bark's master came over. The visitor seemed scared and very upset. He told Captain Virgin and his officers that an American whaler had been captured in the Galápagos by some escaped convicts, who killed all the crew, and sailed to the mainland to embark on a career of piracy. He had also heard that they were terrorizing the neighboring waters. The master of the bark was understandably shaken by the gory tales he had heard, and the approaching frigate had scared him at first. After realizing his mistake, he had approached to seek her protection. He requested to be allowed to sail in the company of the Swedes, so that his crew and cargo would be safe. Captain Virgin obligingly invited him to do so.
No time was lost in lowering a launch, a sloop and one of the boats. These were made ready for combat, then sent out under the command of Lt. C.A. Sundin to locate the pirates. In the meantime, the George Howland was sighted, lying at anchor farther in. Lt. Sundin was instructed to take up a position that would block any attempt by the pirates to escape. At daybreak, the boats were recalled. The George Howland was still at anchor. There was no sign of life on her decks. Suddenly, some men appeared, embarking on two balsa rafts that headed for the shore. These men may have been local fishermen, as the convicts seemed to have left in one or two of the whaler's boats, probably while it was still dark.
There being no wind, the frigate was unable to move any closer. It was decided that there was no point in sending the boats after the men on the rafts. The distance was too great for rowing and, should the seamen have managed to catch up with the rafts, they would by then have been too exhausted by the heat and the effort to put up a good fight. It was one o'clock in the afternoon when a breeze finally came, allowing the Eugenie to approach the whaler. As the Swedes came closer, they discovered a smaller sailing vessel secured to the whaler's stern. By then, the American flag had been hoisted up-side-down, aft on the Howland—a distress signal. Around four o'clock, the wind had died, returning with increased force later. This allowed the frigate to move rather close before sunset.
Lieutenant Sundin was sent over with the launch and the sloop. This time, his orders were to board and seize the pirate ship. There were still no signs of life on board, until a man suddenly appeared, approaching the Swedes in a friendly manner. He introduced himself as Mr. Peacock, cooper of the George Howland. Despite his assurances that nobody else was aboard, the Swedes took no chances. All hatches were battened down, armed guards were posted next to them as well as near every other exit. Then, the ship was thoroughly searched. A six-pounder was found on the starboard side, loaded with bits and pieces of old harpoons, chisels and other junk. The ship's papers were found and taken to the frigate. The sails, which had been left lying on the deck, were properly furled and secured. Peacock was taken to the frigate for questioning. Aside from telling his story, he informed that the ship had 280 barrels of sperm oil on board.
The George Howland seems to have been well outfitted, but the conditions the Swedes found on her were shocking. There was a terrible stench and much filth everywhere. The smaller vessel was even worse. She was obviously the one that had belonged to the Flores expedition. On her, the Swedes found spoilt food, broken crockery, filthy and tattered clothes and all sorts of rubbish. The ballast in her bilges was covered with dried blood, as were large parts of her deck. The stench the men from the Eugenie met with was even worse than that they had experienced in the cabins of the larger ship.
On March 26, Captain Virgin went upriver with one of the boats, headed for Guayaquil, where he intended to contact the local officials and the American consul. Early the following morning, a French corvette anchored near the Eugenie. She had come from Guayaquil with the purpose of capturing the pirates who were said to be operating in the gulf. Her commanding officer was obviously disappointed when he found out that the Swedes had already taken charge of the George Howland. The corvette returned upriver that same morning. In the afternoon, the George Howland sailed for Guayaquil, under the command of Lt. A. Fries, to be handed over to the American consul. Lt. Skogman was left behind on the frigate, to go through all the papers and letters that had been found on the smaller vessel.
The correspondence found on her is of considerable interest, as it gives much information about the human side of the intended coup against General Urbina's government. There were letters to Colonel Tamayo from his wife and his sister-in-law. In the former the longing and love between husband and wife is movingly obvious. Also, there is a fierce loyalty towards General Flores, for whom the Tamayo family had sacrificed everything they had and all they could scrape together from relatives and friends, in order to help their leader's cause. Such compromising documents could of course not be handed over to the authorities without harming the Tamayo family and their relations. Ever a gentleman, Captain Virgin arranged with a trusted person in Guayaquil to have the letters forwarded to the colonel's widow.
General Flores knew about the Swedish frigate's presence in the Gulf of Guayaquil, and hastened to send messengers to contact Captain Virgin, in an attempt to gain his support. One of his main arguments was that he had been deposed while the legally elected president of his country, which in fact was true when it had happened several years earlier, in 1845. However, Captain Virgin had no intention of getting involved in the politics of any country the frigate visited, so he politely refused his help. Later in the year, Flores attempted to seize Guayaquil with the aid of the Peruvian government. This operation was a total failure. General Flores was allowed to return to Ecuador in 1863, as a private citizen. He died the following year.
Briones, Huncho and four other pirates were executed on March 29. Their execution was witnessed by two officers from the Eugenie, who had come upriver on the George Howland. Nils Johan Andersson, the botanist to the expedition, was also present and describes the execution as follows: “At our arrival to Guayaquil, we became at once the witnesses to a ghastly scene. Six of the captured pirates were to be shot. On a plaza, where Ecuador's flag waved with its two white stripes separated by a horizontal blue one with seven stars—the number of provinces—there were six stakes planted in the ground. A troop of soldiers formed a tight circle, surrounded by a dense mob. Side streets, lightposts, carriages, horses, balconies, windows swarmed with onlookers. The criminals, each accompanied by a friar, came walking one after the other, dressed in white shirts and wearing red caps. They were tied with their backs to the stakes, blindfolded; a detachment of soldiers with guns was placed in front of them at a distance of about a yard, and the guns were fired. The leader, a strong, gigantic figure, fell at the first shot; two Negroes were hardier, and on one of them four or five shots had to fired before all was over.” (Andersson, 1854).
Lt. Skogman tells how Huncho, Briones' second in command, gave away some money he had managed to conceal from the authorities, dividing it among the soldiers who were to execute him. He was about to give one of them a pair of dice, but decided to keep them, saying, “Maybe they play dice in Hell. I may as well keep them.” (Skogman, 1854). By the time the Eugenie left Ecuador, all the escaped convicts had been captured by the Ecuadorian authorities.
On her way to San Francisco, the frigate called at Panama and, after taking on water at the Islas Perlas, she made a detour to the Galápagos Islands. This was decided by Captain Virgin at the suggestion of Prof. Andersson and Dr. Johan Gustaf Kinberg, who besides being the ship's surgeon was a physician, a veterinary and a zoologist. At that time, Galápagos was already of much interest to naturalists. Andersson made the most extensive botanical collections from the archipelago up to that date, while Dr. Kinberg brought back a wide assortment of specimens from the animal kingdom.
The Swedes visited the handful of people still living on San Cristóbal, among them the woman who had been raped by the convicts and her husband. These two as well as the other settlers were overjoyed to hear about the capture and execution of Briones and his men. A banquet of tortoise meat was prepared in honor of the Swedish officers, who found the meat delicious, if one is to believe Lt. Skogman. It was accompanied with fine French wine, brought ashore from the frigate.
The visitors found Floreana totally abandoned. The tiny garrison and the officer in charge had left on a sailing vessel that had called on her way to Perú. Andersson also landed at Whale Bay, on the NW side of Santa Cruz, where he found two huts, at the foot of a steep hill by the beach. When he and his party had approached in their boat (the frigate was not in the area), they saw a small group of men leaving the huts and fleeing inland. After landing, the Swedes discovered a woman in one of the miserable dwellings. Nobody could communicate with her, as she spoke only Spanish, a language none of the visitors understood. Andersson tells however that he had heard on San Cristóbal about a small party of criminals who lived on Santa Cruz, under the leadership of a woman (Andersson, 1854).
At this stage, the colonization of Galápagos seemed to hold little if any promise. Only an optimist like General José Villamil could still harbor any dreams about the future of these islands. Until his death, in 1866, the old patriot continued trying to get something going on the islands. All was in vain, especially since his projects were based on false information, like his plans of exploiting the vast guano reserves that someone had reported existed on the Galápagos. These, like the even more farfetched rumors of great coal deposits, proved to be pure fantasy. However, it was during the last years of the old general's life that the first seeds of permanent settlement were planted. But nobody could have told then what they would lead to.
The Compañía Orchillera and its breaking-up. José Valdizán settles on Floreana. The murder of Valdizán in 1878. San Cristóbal, a summary of its colonization. The establishment of Cobos on the island and his sugar plantation. The Floreana uprising and Valdizán's death give Cobos the opportunity to bring over about one hundred settlers to his island and begin his project. The sugar harvest from «January to January» becomes a reality in 1889. Elías Puertas' uprising and the murders of Cobos and Governor Reina.
While diplomats and politicians discussed the fate of the Galápagos Islands—a subject we shall return to later—a few other men, very few indeed, were busy exploiting whatever could be taken away from the archipelago to be sold on the mainland at a profit—the cattle that had multiplied on Floreana, tortoise oil, live tortoises, orchil and salted fish. Unfortunately, there is very little information available about these people. Most were undoubtedly illiterate, and those who could write have left us no records, as they were too busy trying to make a profit to bother with something that produced them no gain. It is a pity that this period did not have its Dampier or its Woodes Rogers, who felt interested in everything that surrounded them, regardless of whether it was profitable or not. These must have certainly been among the most interesting years in the history of Galápagos. They were the prelude to their definitive colonization, as well as a time of much destruction of their fauna. But more than anything else, this lost period of history consisted of the lives of men and a very few women whose fates we shall never know.
There was an unknown number of small operators who produced oil for the mainland markets. These came and went, mere shades on the edge of the main events, and there is little hope of learning more about them than that they existed. A little more is known about the Compañía Orchillera, formed by a few mainlanders with the purpose of collecting and exporting orchil—lichens of the genus Roccella and others that were used for the production of dyes, mainly for the textile industry. The company, formed in the 1860's, operated in Galápagos and the drier areas along the mainland coast, where these lichens are fairly common.
Undoubtedly, this company added to its income by using all the resources the islands could offer, shipping along with the orchil tortoise oil, jerked beef, hides and dry fish. It is also likely that iguana skins and even seal skins were occasionally added to their cargoes. In fact, they are also believed to have engaged in contraband, which was easy, since their ship ostensibly came to Guayaquil from Galápagos, which is in Ecuadorian waters.
It was during this period that the distinguished naturalist Simeon Habel spent six months on the islands, in 1868. He collected numerous specimens of many kinds, making copious notes on the flora and fauna. Though Habel's visit no doubt was important to science, the most important historical event that took place at that time was the establishment of the first settlement that would survive to the present —Progreso in the San Cristóbal highlands. At the time however Progreso was neither known by this name nor gave much promise of one day deserving it.
Among the owners of the Compañía Orchillera was don José Valdizán, who apparently outbid his partners, when the firm's concession for exploiting orchil came up for renewal. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find any information about what happened between Valdizán and his partners that led to his breaking away from them in this manner. However, the fact remains that don José secured for himself the concession from the government, and the company broke up. The same year, 1870, Valdizán settled on Floreana, which he had rented from General Villamil's heirs for an annual payment of US$ 4,000.00.
In the meantime, two other partners of the Orchillera, don Manuel Julián Cobos and don José Monroy, had begun growing sugar cane in the San Cristóbal highlands, hoping to develop a plantation there. Monroy seems to have dropped out of the partnership some time later, probably discouraged by the slow progress that was being made.
It seems that Valdizán did well for a while. Like those before him, he made use of every resource the islands had to offer besides the orchil. From nearly all our sources one gets the impression that the years Valdizán spent on Floreana were a period of increasing prosperity, a steady progress and a general well-being for all concerned. The usual version of the Valdizán story is that trouble began to brew only towards the end, as he became more careless in recruiting workers from the mainland, pressed by the fact that his enterprise was growing faster than the possibility of obtaining reliable labor.
His problem in this respect is not unique. It is found throughout the history of Galápagos and that of other places with a small population where someone enterprising gets started on a project that requires a more or less large labor force. However, the currently accepted story about Valdizán cannot be wholly true. Regarding the difficulty of recruiting men it is undoubtedly correct; but there was not an ever-increasing prosperity, steadily growing from the beginning to the very end. Nor were his subjects contented during his whole reign over Floreana.
It appears that Valdizán had serious problems from the very start, and that his project went through its ups and downs. It is the lack of information that has created the myth of a sort of earthly paradise on Floreana. The source of this belief is most likely Dr. Theodor Wolf, a noted German scientist who taught at the Polytechnic College in Quito. However, to his credit, Dr. Wolf only told what he had seen.
This distinguished German geologist visited Galápagos from August to November of 1875, traveling on the schooner Venecia. This ship belonged to Valdizán, and had as her master a Captain Nicolás Petersen. At that time, Valdizán's colony on Floreana seems to have been doing quite well. Dr. Wolf returned a second time, in August 1878; but don José Valdizán was no longer there to welcome him. The master of Floreana had died about a month earlier.
Our claim that all was not well with Valdizán's colony throughout its history is based largely on a very reliable source— J. Henry Blake, the conchologist of the Hassler expedition. This expedition was headed by the famous Professor Louis Agassiz. It arrived to Post Office Bay, on the north coast of Floreana, on June 10, 1872, and remained there two days, collecting specimens of all sorts. The scientists also bought a number of tortoises from the inhabitants (Blake, in Slevin, 1959). These reptiles must have come from another island, as they had been extinct on Floreana for the previous three decades. Their presence indicates that tortoises were still kept on hand to trade with visiting ships, as in earlier times.
According to Blake, only seven people lived on the island at the time, which is far from the flourishing colony that most of our sources have led us to believe existed there. The settlers were short of provisions due to a prolonged drought. The “Chief” of the island came to visit the Hassler, spending the night aboard. He told the visitors there had been about sixty people living on Floreana. Mutiny and other reasons had reduced the population to those few still remaining (Blake, in Slevin, 1959). Whether the “Chief” of the island was Valdizán himself or a foreman he had left in charge is not clear, as no name is given.
However, the population of Floreana did recover and increase in the succeeding years. While we have no records as to the number of inhabitants the island finally reached under Valdizán, we believe they could not have exceeded two hundred. We know for certain that about one hundred people were removed from the island by don Manuel J. Cobos in 1878, and that some people were killed in the uprising in that year. Even allowing that many decided to return to the mainland, disappointed and maybe even scared because of the recent events, it is still hard to reach a count of two hundred.
Like General Villamil before him, Valdizán built his house in the vicinity of the small spring above Black Beach, away from the chilly fogs and the drizzle of the cool season. Its construction was not unlike that of the general's house. The floor was made of thick planking, placed at a convenient height above the ground, supported by short posts. The walls were of split bamboo, secured inside and outside the framing, forming hollow double walls. The rough inside part of the bamboo would have been placed towards the outside, to provide a better holding surface for the plaster. The plaster was most likely the usual mixture of mud, dung and straw, smoothed and whitewashed. The roof was of corrugated, galvanized steel sheets. There was a porch built along the front, with a Bougainvillea climbing up one of its sides. It was one of those unadorned, sparsely furnished houses used by the higher classes in the rural areas of the drier districts along the mainland coast of Ecuador. These houses, despite their apparent austerity, are reasonably comfortable and adequate for the climate. The bamboo, timber and roofing were of course imported from the mainland.
It was while living in this house that Valdizán saw his dream of a fairly prosperous colony on Floreana finally come true. To reach this goal had not been easy. The difficulties had been greater than expected; but he had persisted and succeeded. In fact, it seemed as if his path was finally clear and he would inevitably continue on his way to an even better future. Thus, it appeared on that fateful morning of July 23, 1878. It was then that Lucas Alvarado, one of the laborers, came down to the house in the little oasis inland from Black Beach, with his heart filled with hate and an evil purpose.
Alvarado most likely lived in one of the little huts that formed the tiny village, at the site of the old Villamil settlement, at Asilo de la Paz, below the main spring (The village was on the central plateau, where the farmlands are located). Alvarado had planned an uprising together with a handful of malcontents. Their opportunity had finally arrived, as there was a small ship anchored off the island, in which they could escape to the mainland. Alvarado would murder Valdizán, causing confusion and demoralizing the other people on the island. This would allow Alvarado and his followers to take over, seize the ship and sail away.
To murder Valdizán, Alvarado would have to get close to him, as his only weapon was a knife. He therefore went to Valdizán's house to ask for the day off. Don José refused him this in a kindly manner, and offered him a drink, as it was a cold morning. After serving him some rum, he turned to put away the bottle. Alvarado promptly drew out his knife, shoving it into his master's left side. Though mortally wounded, Valdizán managed to get away, seeking refuge in the almost impenetrable shrubbery surrounding the oasis. Here, his dead body was found some time later.
Up to this point, our sources are largely in agreement, as is the version told by some of the older settlers on San Cristóbal. All versions also agree on who took command of the loyal farm hands in the fight against Alvarado and his followers—the Englishman Captain Thomas Levick. However, the rather detailed story told by Latorre (1992) is much more elaborate, and we have omitted it as Latorre not only fails to give a source for it, but it disagrees on a number of important points with other existing versions. Not that we distrust Latorre, a serious author, but we are, in this particular case, unsure of the reliability of his sources.
While according to Latorre's version Levick was a foreman on Valdizán's hacienda, Bognoly and Espinosa (1905) make him the skipper of a ship that belonged to Valdizán. San Cristóbal tradition makes him the master of one of Cobos' vessels. Aside from this unimportant detail, the two latter versions are in full agreement, as are those currently accepted.
It is not clear from either story whether Captain Levick suspected something amiss or was warned by someone from the island. In any case, he left an armed guard on his ship, landing to warn Valdizán and his family. Unfortunately, the Englishman was late, but he managed to find Mrs. Valdizán and her daughter, taking them to the safety of his ship. Then, he returned inland, organized the loyal laborers and hunted down the mutineers.
The need for secrecy had no doubt prevented Lucas Alvarado from sounding out more than a few trusted companions about support for his mutiny. It seems likely that he must have overestimated the seriousness of the complaints voiced by many of the laborers, forgetting the fact that people often complain even when they are actually more or less contented at heart. To make matters worse for him, an unexpected leader had appeared, becoming a rallying point by filling the void left by the murdered Valdizán. If Alvarado had thought about Captain Levick at all, he must have dismissed him as a potential victim, a foreigner and outsider who could not possibly have carried any weight with the people on the island.
It was not long before Lucas Alvarado and his followers found out how mistaken they had been. The opposition they met was overwhelming under the capable leadership of Captain Levick and fueled by the outrage of the farm hands, the majority of whom seem to have loved their dead master. The fighting is said to have been fierce and bloody. Only one of Alvarado's followers survived.
It is told by some that Captain Levick tried to save the Floreana colony from breaking up. If this is so, it would indicate that he was indeed in the service of don José Valdizán. However, the facts point in another direction. Shortly after the uprising, about a hundred of the Floreana settlers were moved over to San Cristóbal by Manuel J. Cobos, to work on his plantation. This no doubt contributed greatly towards the survival and success of Progreso, the oldest existing settlement in the Galápagos.
When the French corvette Decres visited Galápagos in 1887, she anchored at Black Beach, on May 16. The French found no trace of human habitation on the central plateau, where the maps showed a small village. They assumed that any remains of construction were hidden in the tall grass and weeds covering the area. At Black Beach, they found two beams and a girder still standing—all that remained of a house that had existed there (Slevin, 1959).
But near the small water hole that is located a little inland from the anchorage, still stood the house that had belonged to Valdizán. The Bougainvillea still climbed the side of the deteriorating porch, while the roof and walls of the dwelling clearly showed the neglect of almost a decade. Some fifty feet from the house, was don José Valdizán's grave, surrounded by a wooden railing and surmounted by a black cross. In 1904 his remains would be taken to Guayaquil, to be reburied closer to his family. Another grave near by had a cross with the name “P. Posa”. According to Latorre (1992), Posa was a youth, the nephew of Mrs. Valdizán, who had been murdered by the Alvarado gang. No mention is made of other graves on the island, which makes one suspect that Lucas Alvarado and his fallen comrades had been dumped into a common grave that was left unmarked.
Floreana would remain uninhabited for many years. If anyone settled there, it must have been for shorter periods, for there are neither records nor remains of any settlers. In the meantime, the cattle, the pigs, the donkeys, the wild cats, dogs, goats and rats multiplied, undisturbed save by occasional visitors, mostly fishermen and cattle hunters from San Cristóbal, where Cobos was prospering.
In 1893 don Antonio Gil, a former governor of Guayas Province and member of a prominent Guayaquil family, attempted to resettle Floreana. He found the island inadequate for his purposes, abandoning it in 1897, when he moved to the much larger Isabela. Here, he founded Puerto Villamil, on the southeast coast, and the village of Santo Tomás inland. As for Floreana, only one or two modest attempts were made to establish a farm there, between Gil's short-lived colony and the arrival of the Norwegians, in 1925.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
As we have seen, the first colonization of San Cristóbal took place only about a decade after General Villamil established the first settlement on Floreana. However, there was considerable traffic between the two islands even before then. Villamil himself and General Mena seem to have been frequent visitors to Wreck Bay, as the whalers called what today is known as Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. General Villamil seems to have disliked the sinister English name of the anchorage, nor did he appreciate the old Spanish one of Bahía de la Servida. He named it instead Puerto Cabello, after a Venezuelan port he had known in his younger years. At the time of Cobos it would become Puerto Chico, because it was so much smaller than the large Stephens Bay (Puerto Grande) to the northeast. The name Puerto Chico (Small Harbor) was still in use among the older settlers on the island until recently.
When the Compte de Gueydon, commanding the French brig-of-war Le Genie visited Wreck Bay, where he arrived on August 14, 1846, there were three or four huts there. He was piloted into the anchorage by a resident Englishman, Guillermo (William) Guerney, who had lived on the island several years (Slevin, 1959). There is no mention of an inland settlement, though some subsistence farming probably was practiced. However, it is likely that the few settlers were primarily engaged in tortoise hunting and orchil gathering.
While Floreana was gradually abandoned in the 1850's, and again in the 1870's, there seems to have been a more or less permanent population on San Cristóbal, perhaps even before General Mena moved there in 1842. However, this population was most of the time very small, despite the fact that San Cristóbal had many advantages over Floreana, not the least of them a far more abundant supply of fresh water in the highlands, where several springs give birth to a number of small brooks that flow even in most dry years. There were still tortoises to be found in the interior, a very important fact in those days, though it was becoming increasingly necessary to hunt for these reptiles elsewhere in the islands, at least for commercial purposes.
At exceptionally high tides, human bones are often washed up in the part of the beach towards the middle of the village of Puerto Baquerizo. When the nearby houses were built, the men digging holes for posts frequently found such remains. Apparently, there was once a cemetery at this place. Since the oldest settlers had never heard of one, we must assume that it was in use before the Cobos plantation was started, and may go back as far as the early whalers.
After the Briones gang murdered General Mena, in 1852, the few remaining settlers expressed no desire to abandon San Cristóbal, as far as can be understood from existing records. It is not unlikely that some of them later worked for the Compañía Orchillera. Island tradition claims that Cobos had a small farm started near the site of Progreso, where food was grown for his orchil collectors and tortoise hunters even before he started to grow cane. This is not surprising, as Cobos did the same on Santa Cruz, at Santa Rosa and Salazaca, inland from Whale Bay, to supply his crews working in the central parts of the archipelago.
As early as in 1869, ten people were working on San Cristóbal for Cobos and his partner José Monroy, where they lived in six huts in the highlands. These people probably grew most of their own food, besides supplying themselves with meat from the large herds of cattle, goats and pigs that roamed the island. Tortoises could also be obtained from a few remote places. Though we do not know anything much about these people, we do know their names, thanks to Bognoly and Espinosa (1905), who have recorded them.
They were Antonio Alejandro, Victoriano Pizarro, José Ramírez, Patricio Cardoza, Tomás Beltrán, Lorenzo Lucín, Juan Chile, Lorenzo Gonzambay Pizarro, Pedro Regalado Banchón and his wife Aurelia Baquerizo. Beltrán is a common surname around the Tumaco area, in the southwest of Colombia. Banchón and Baquerizo are common in the coastal lowlands, in the Guayas River basin and its vicinity. Gonzambay is distinctly Andean. The surname Pizarro still exists on San Cristóbal, but we have no evidence that the few people bearing this name descend from Victoriano. In any case, several of the above surnames suggest that these settlers had their origin in several parts of the mainland.
It is possible that Cobos and Monroy already had thought of a sugar plantation on San Cristóbal even before the Orchillera broke up, for it is said that they had cane growing there before 1870. They had a small, primitive cane press, powered by a pair of oxen. It is doubtful that any white sugar was produced at this early stage. Most likely the cane juice was boiled down to make panela or raspadura, those blocks of raw sugar, wrapped in banana leaves, that are such a common sight in the market places of the mainland. Some rum may also have been distilled.
Knowing how enterprising don Manuel J. Cobos was, it can be safely assumed that he wanted to expand this project; but there was the ever present difficulty of finding workers willing to move from the mainland to those then very distant and isolated islands. One cannot help admiring his persistence, while at the same time understanding why Monroy gave up at some point, during those uncertain years.
It is however certain that the budding sugar plantation on San Cristóbal was not Cobos' only source of income. Tortoise oil, live tortoises, and the wild cattle on the island undoubtedly contributed regularly to his coffers, as did salted, dried fish in its season. It is also said that his ships carried contraband. They ranged far enough to do this, if one is to believe a San Cristóbal tradition that tells of how Cobos ran afoul of officials on the Pacific coast of Mexico, finding himself suddenly in one of their jails. The reason behind this is not clear, but may have had something to do with smuggling or could equally well stem from some minor disagreement. With the bad and slow communications of the times, and their superiors far away, local petty officials frequently wielded more power than they were entitled to. In any case, Felipe Lastre, a Mexican working for Cobos, received instructions from him to make ready his ship for sailing. Then, in the dark of night, Lastre helped his master escape. Promptly, they set sail for more friendly shores. There is no indication as to when this is supposed to have taken place; but the faithful Lastre remained in Cobos' service for the duration of the latter's life.
Don Manuel J. Cobos managed to get a few laborers now and then. Most of them were foreigners and people in desperate economic straits, who hoped to find a better life on his island—in other words, people who were convinced they had nothing to lose. Another form of recruitment was to buy the debts of plantation hands from their masters. These laborers became, in practice, little more than the personal property of Don Manuel Cobos. Later, there came also those who had been banished to the island for various reasons, often political.
As had happened on Floreana in the 1830's, the political deportees gradually formed the beginnings of a penal colony. The same pattern developed on San Cristóbal as in General Villamil's colony—first came the political prisoners, then the thieves and the whores, and finally the murderers. However, unlike what had happened on Floreana, this development was slow, for in the early years the criminal element seems to have been rather small or, at first, non-existent.
The increase of the San Cristóbal population was for this reason extremely slow, until the uprising on Floreana, in 1878. With the about one hundred settlers Cobos had brought over from the latter island, the San Cristóbal population suddenly increased to nearly a hundred and fifty souls. The time was now ripe. Cobos moved out from the mainland to live permanently on his island, so he could fully devote himself to his dream of creating a sugar plantation that would be in production, as he expressed it, “from January to January,” instead of seasonally, as was usual elsewhere.
Still, it took Cobos about ten years to reach his intended goal. The old, primitive presses were replaced with modern steam machinery. Seven kilometers of rail were laid for the ox-drawn cars that carried the cut cane from the fields to the sugar mill. The one-year long cane season had become a reality in 1889, and the monthly production of thirty thousand pounds of refined sugar was reached, and would continue to be produced until over two decades after don Manuel had died. To celebrate his success, the master of San Cristóbal changed the name of his plantation from Hacienda Chatham to Hacienda Progreso (The English name for the island was still in current use in the Galápagos until the late 1930's and, among the older fishermen of San Cristóbal and Isabela, until well into the 1960's).
During his long rule over the island, Cobos issued his own currency. There is supposed to have been an early “coin” made of leather, with a coarse design stamped on it. In the 1870's there came into circulation a round coin that was made of lead, worth five centavos. Towards the end of the 1880's, appeared an elliptic copper coin worth eighty centavos. Its value (“80 c.”) was stamped on one side, with “M. Cobos” above it and “Progreso” below. On the other side, was a serial number. There was also paper money—a one-sucre note and a fifty-centavo one.
By 1889, that most memorable year, the population of San Cristóbal had increased to 213 men, 54 women and 20 children (Bognoly & Espinosa, 1905). The numerical disproportion between the sexes must have created considerable social problems. Certain peculiar customs came soon into being. The lack of a priest led to a sort of baptismal ceremony that was performed by one of the laborers, who also carried out a rough parody of a church wedding for those who wanted it. Quite often, the “wedding ceremony” was repeated for a man and/or a woman who had previously been through it with another partner. No “annulment” or “divorce” was necessary (In fact, divorce was not made legal in Ecuador until the early 1930's). The laborer Pablo Quiñones was “acting priest” towards the end of the Cobos era. There were several women whom he had “married” up to seven times to different men (Bognoly & Espinosa, 1905).
The above authors tell about witnessing a San Cristóbal baptism: “...On the wall parallel to the door of a room was stretched a white sheet, decorated with a few flowers and leaves, secured to it with pins. On a table against the wall stood a lopsided cross with a termite-eaten Christ (the best one on the island), in front of which were burning three stearin candles, supported in their respective bottles. On the same table were an enamelware wash basin and a pitcher, a saucer with ground salt, a small piece of cloth, an unlit candle, a box of matches, a bottle of mallorca (anise-flavored white rum), a few bottles of local beer and some empty ones. In a short while, the ceremony began. A child took the small piece of cloth from the table, lit the candle, taking it in his right hand and taking the saucer with the salt in his left one. The godfather received the baby, approaching the “altar”, and without delay put some salt in the baby's mouth. After this, he pronounced the sacramental words as he saw fit, immediately pouring all the water in the pitcher over the baby's head. The child was baptized! Thus he informed the parents, and after this the usual dance commenced.”
It is possible that the traditional Galápagos “wedding”—actually an elopement without the benefit of a following wedding ceremony—had its origin during this period or soon after. While variants of it do occur on the mainland, and elopements of one sort or another are known from the other islands, the practice developed such a set pattern on San Cristóbal, and was so widely practiced on this island, that it was still by far the most usual form for “marriage” until very recent times. In fact, it was as late as the end of the 1940's that the Franciscan monks began their persistent efforts to uproot this practice, talking people into a more conventional form of marriage. Their efforts eventually succeeded—up to a point. As far as we know, the custom was never totally eliminated.
The traditional practice on San Cristóbal is for the young couple to get together some food, a blanket or two, and a few other necessary items. Then, after meeting at some agreed place, they will disappear into the woods together. About a fortnight later, they will return to start clearing land and building a hut, setting up their own subsistence farm.
On rare occasions, the young man may come back earlier, to return his “bride” to her parents, with the complaint that she had not been a virgin. We have even heard of the extreme case in which a couple stayed out the full fortnight, and the boy claimed his girl had not been a virgin, returning her to her parents. It is amazing how long it took him to discover the fact! Such cases are however very unusual. Until relatively recent times, men outnumbered women on the island, and most young men were so delighted to have secured themselves a woman, that they did not worry about such a minor detail as a damaged hymen.
A woman who has lived with a man does not have to go through with an elopement of this sort. She simply takes her children and moves in with her new man. More often, the new man moves in with her. The reason for this latter is that men frequently leave their families for a new woman, move alone to another island or take off to the mainland, abandoning the family and farm for what they believe to be greener pastures.
Some respect for conventions has always existed. Thus, the girl's parents and brothers feel bound to go out in search of the scoundrel who has seduced the innocent child, to rescue her from the clutches of the amoral rascal. Whether they may actually like the young man has nothing to do with their actions. The point is to show the proper amount of outrage, which is usually great. Hearing them, the uninitiated has every reason to fear for the safety of the “groom”, should he be caught. Strange to say, in all our years in the Galápagos—a number of them in close contact with the local population of San Cristóbal—we have never heard of anyone being caught, despite the feverish searching that so often takes place.
Since it is impossible for a couple to carry enough supplies, a part of their logistics is taken over by the boy's male relatives and/or friends. These bring the couple food and information about what is going on in the settlement, and what the girl's family are up to. The need for such aid is vital, as it is almost impossible to live off the land in the Galápagos highlands. Before the guava and other fruit trees spread, and with the tortoises gone from the readily accessible places, the only available food would have been pigs and cattle. Without dogs and/or firearms, these animals could not be counted on as a food supply. There is no trapping tradition on the islands, so the capture of wild pigs or birds was out of question.
When the Hacienda Progreso was at its greatest, the cane fields began just above the escarpment where the road to Progreso enters the moist region, at the foot of José Herrera Hill, above which the present Progreso cemetery is located. Except for the occasional banana plantings and the coffee plantation, which then was much smaller than today, the cane fields extended from here past the village of Progreso, and in some parts reached almost to the lower limits of the grasslands that cover the top of the island. The cane fields covered most of the western, southwestern and a part of the southern sides of the moist region, an extensive area that is now largely covered with small trees and bushes of guava (Psidium guajava). This species is said to have come from three plants that don Manuel Julián Cobos had brought from the mainland to have them planted in his garden.
Manuel Julián Cobos is invariably remembered as a cruel, ruthless despot, a memory that completely overshadows his merits as a colonizer. While we shall never know the whole truth about this man, and much of his evil reputation may stem from exaggerations, there is enough credible evidence to make it impossible to whitewash the elder Cobos. Still, there were some men who were completely loyal to him, like the devoted Felipe Lastre and the equally faithful Francisco Valverde. Even the man who killed Cobos, the Colombian Elías Puertas, had for many years been his blindly loyal foreman. It is also told by some of the oldest settlers that Cobos was not such a bad master in the beginning, but became increasingly harsher as the island turned into a regular penal colony.
Be this as it may, the outrage of the mainland newspapers in the fatal year of 1904 seems not a little hypocritical, when one considers that the conditions under which the farm hands and plantation laborers on the mainland lived were little better than outright slavery. This was also the case elsewhere in Latin America, where a feudal system had remained very much alive, long after the Spaniards, who had established it, were gone. In some areas, such conditions continued until fairly recent times, some abuses even surviving until after 1938, when the present labor laws were signed by General Alberto Enríquez Gallo.
The farther an estate was removed from urban centers, the worse off its laborers were likely to be. Near cities there was always the fear of unfavorable publicity. Thus, the more extreme forms of exploitation and punishment survived longest in the more remote places.
It seems like a paradox that the rather advanced labor laws that came towards the close of the 1930's should bear the signature of a military dictator; but General Enríquez was a liberal and an honest man, who had seized power with the purpose of cleaning up the existing corruption. Once he had done what he thought was needed, he called elections and retired from the presidency and the army. Ecuador's workers owe this man very much. The labor laws could never have passed through a democratically elected congress, as voting for them would have alienated the legislators' sponsors, depriving the former of their campaign money. However, once in force, the law could not be tampered with, as doing so would have meant the loss of votes at election time. After all, the great majority of the votes are cast by those who benefit from the labor laws.
If it is true that Cobos changed so much after the establishment of the penal colony, one is tempted to believe that he either resorted to terror to keep the convicts in line and/or became increasingly paranoid. There is no doubt that he remembered well what had happened to Valdizán on Floreana. The situation was even more precarious on San Cristóbal, where the population had not only become greater, but the undesirable elements gradually became a majority. Only a handful of trusted men surrounded Cobos, whose only protection was this small group and, possibly, the tiny garrison under the governor's orders. On the other hand, conditions and the environment were favorable to make almost anyone paranoid. He had much time to think and brood. Haunted by the memory of Valdizán's fate, surrounded by criminals, many of them dangerous, his life was in constant danger. But he was also owner and master of all that surrounded him. The elements for paranoia were there, ready to stimulate the slightest predisposition, causing it to blossom to the fullest.
What seems strange is that whoever happened to be governor at any given time invariably allowed Cobos to rule the island in the manner he did. It would have been a relatively simple matter to arrest him, place him on the first ship, and have him charged with murder or whatever other violation he might have been guilty of. Fear and/or corruption could have had something to do with it.
His son, don Manuel Augusto Cobos, who strongly disapproved of the way his father ruled the island, has been of little help. He was a small child at the time of don Manuel Julián's death. He lived then on the mainland, seldom seeing his father. He knew nothing of what was going on San Cristóbal. All he could tell was what he had heard on the island, when he first came there, after completing his education in London and Paris. An intellectually inclined young man of great sensibility, he found the stories circulating on the island most painful; but he had no way of proving that any of them were untrue.
Bognoly and Espinosa (1905) name several men who died after being flogged by orders from the elder Cobos. They also name some of those who were marooned on uninhabited islands. Of these, several are supposed to have died during their banishment. There were also men who vanished from the plantation; but nothing is said of whether Cobos had anything to do with their disappearance. They could very well have tried to escape from the plantation, dying in the woods. Some could have been murdered by their fellow workers. Fights and rivalries over women seem to have been frequent, especially during and after dances, when much drunkenness was common. Then, it is doubtful that Cobos himself would have bothered to have someone killed and his body hidden. For him this latter would have been quite unnecessary.
The most famous of the marooned men is Camilo Casanova. The reason for this is that Bognoly and Espinosa met the man at the time of his rescue by the gunboat Cotopaxi, which had been sent out for the inquiry into the assassination of Cobos and Governor Reina.
This Casanova seems to have been a rebellious soul. He had been in the army, and was later deported to San Cristóbal for some now unknown reason. Here, he held different jobs, including that of caretaker of the beacon at Puerto Chico (Wreck Bay). Finally, he ended up as a plantation laborer, frequently clashing with his foremen. According to his own reckoning, Casanova had received a total of over eight hundred lashes while on the island. He had also been marooned for shorter periods on several of the uninhabited islands. At the time of the visit of Bognoly and Espinosa, he had spent three and a half years on Santa Cruz.
Casanova's problems became really serious when he attacked the ageing Francisco Valverde, one of Cobos' most trusted men, with a machete, causing him several wounds. For this, he was given four hundred lashes. Casanova, who seems to have had great trouble controlling his temper, swore in public that he would kill Cobos at the first opportunity. This threat could of course not go unheeded. Cobos had him arrested and sent to Santa Cruz, where he was put ashore by the foreman Elías Puertas, Estanislao and Juan Pablo Solórzano, Fermín Quinde and Víctor Chalén. Casanova was supplied with some fresh water, a knife, a machete and a hatchet. Some of his companions had collected eighteen match boxes and some clothing for him.
The story tells that Casanova survived catching groupers (unlikely since he had no boat), doves and hawks. That he ate raw iguana meat and raw fish, though the story also tells that he kept a fire constantly going during his banishment, using the trunks of dead trees, in order to save his precious matches. Casanova is supposed to have quenched his thirst with the blood of turtles. Later, he also used cactus juice, which undoubtedly would have irritated his mouth and throat beyond endurance.
After some time, he went inland to explore the island. He wandered a fortnight in the forest, finally discovering the farms at Salazaca and Santa Rosa, where he found many cultivated plants. There is no mention of the spring at the latter place; but there are important inconsistencies in this part of the story as well. For one who has wandered in the Galápagos bush, it strains credibility that he could have spent two weeks on this walkabout. Someone better equipped and traveling only during the coolest hours of the day, carrying all the fresh water possible, would most likely have had trouble surviving more than a week. Then, Santa Rosa and Salazaca were well known to the people of San Cristóbal, even if they no longer visited them so often as in the past. The chances are that Casanova headed there soon after he was put ashore.
However, there is no question as to the harshness of his punishment. Three and a half years as the only inhabitant of this great island must have been sheer hell, especially for a man with the limited education of Casanova, who had little intellectual equipment to fall back on during those endless, lonely months.
Camilo Casanova's troubles were not quite over after his rescue. The Galápagos authorities sent him at once to Guayaquil, so he could be judged for the death of Emilio Viteri, a fellow worker with whom he had been marooned on Floreana. Casanova and Viteri were known to have got along very badly, and the latter had disappeared without trace on Floreana. It was believed that Casanova had done away with him. However, Camilo Casanova was released by the Guayaquil court, the evidence against him being purely circumstantial.
Don Manuel Julián Cobos was murdered by one of his most trusted men, the Colombian foreman Elías Puertas. According to island tradition, Cobos' trust in Puertas was so great, that one of the plantation managers became jealous. When don Manuel absented himself to Perú for a longer period, this manager, who had always pretended friendliness towards Puertas, saw his opportunity to poison the latter's mind. He would read Cobos' letters to the Colombian, changing the text in such a manner that it appeared as if don Manuel had lost his trust in the faithful Puertas. He even showed the Colombian the passages he had misread, well knowing that the foreman was completely illiterate, and would have to accept what he was told or suffer the humiliation of having to admit that he did not know how to read.
The effect of these lies was probably more devastating than the disloyal manager had intended. Puertas, who had felt a fierce loyalty towards Cobos, now felt deeply hurt and betrayed by the master he had been so devoted to. A burning hate took hold of Puertas, and he promised himself he would kill the man who had repaid his faithfulness with such gross ingratitude. He decided to organize an uprising, taking advantage of the great number of discontented laborers.
There is also a tradition about how Puertas got hold of the murder weapon. Shortly after Cobos returned, he and the Colombian went on an inspection of the cane fields. At one point, they dismounted. While getting off his horse, Cobos lost his revolver, which slid unnoticed from its holster, falling noiselessly on the thick carpet of litter covering the ground. Puertas however saw it fall, and waited until his master walked away, picking it up and hiding it under his poncho.
There were more than enough people willing to take part in an uprising. All they needed was a leader. However, though he knew this well, Puertas also realized that he must be careful, for there were also those willing to report the smallest irregularity to the master. It is told that the women on the island were fond of going to Cobos with all sorts of gossip and news. As if the relative abundance of informers were not enough, there was also the memory of what had happened in 1883. These events were over twenty years old, but the dread attached to them remained as great as ever, even among those who had arrived to the island much later.
Five men had come together to plan an uprising against Cobos. They had been grimly determined to overthrow him, to rid the island of him for good. These men were José Salinas, Pedro Torres, Felipe Rodríguez, José Rodríguez and José Antonio Plaza (Bognoly & Espinosa, 1905). Since they all suffered the same fate, it is obvious that none of them had betrayed his companions. Someone must have overheard them or one of their number had trusted their secret to the wrong person. Be this as it may, Cobos somehow got news of their plans, had them seized, and ordered their execution. All five died in front of a firing squad, on a rise near the village.
Therefore, Elías Puertas got together only a very small group of trusted men, with whom he planned his mutiny. Their plan was simple. They would set fire to the cane fields to cause confusion and to bring Cobos out, where it was easier to kill him. After this, they would sail to the mainland on the Josefina Cobos a sloop-rigged vessel that was then fishing near the island.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, one of them, the Colombian José Prieto, was tipsy when he came to work on January 14 of that fatal year of 1904. Stupidly, he repeated that he would like to see the cane fields on fire. Víctor Higuera, one of the plantation hands, reported this to Cobos, who suspected that there was more behind this than the empty mutterings of an intoxicated, foolish farm hand. He had Prieto seized and locked up, sentencing him to four hundred lashes. These were to be given him at seven o'clock the following morning, in the presence of Cobos himself.
The news of this greatly alarmed the plotters. They knew it was customary to stop the punishment after every hundred lashes, to give the victim a chance to report anything of interest he happened to know, in the hope of reducing his sentence. The conspirators feared that Prieto would break down and tell everything. Puertas, being a trusted foreman who had betrayed his master, could only expect to pay with his life. The others were equally certain to end in front of a firing squad.
Elías Puertas hastened to Cobos, to plead for his countryman, arguing that Prieto was only a harmless fool, whose only fault had been to get drunk before coming to work. All he had said, the foreman insisted, was the senseless talk of a man who could not hold his booze. Cobos was not convinced. He told Puertas in no uncertain terms that he was certain there was more to it than Puertas seemed to believe. José Prieto would get all that was coming to him.
That night, the plotters held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation. It was decided that the cane fields would not burn. Instead, Puertas would make a last attempt to intercede for Prieto. This failing, he would shoot Cobos. As far as Puertas was concerned, this was his only possible choice if Prieto was not pardoned. It would then be either him or Cobos.
At four in the morning, as usual, Elías Puertas headed for the Cobos house, which was close to his own. As he was arriving, he met Daniel Campbell, one of the administration employees. They greeted each other. Campbell would later tell that Puertas showed no signs of being nervous, appearing his usual self. Puertas made certain that Campbell continued on his way, before entering Cobos' house. Once inside, he went to the kitchen to find Francisco Valverde, one of the master's most trusted men. He at once asked him to intercede for Prieto.
The tall, lean Valverde moved his white-haired head from side to side in a mournful negative, telling Puertas about his premonitions that this was going to be an evil day for the island. He added, “It is useless, Mayordomo. The Master's convinced that something is going on, and he wants to find out everything about it. There'll be no end of trouble on this accursed hacienda before the day is over. I'd rather be dead than see what's coming.”
Puertas acted as if he accepted that nothing could be done. After learning that Cobos was still in bed, he said, “I want to ask for a day off for several of the hands, and get instructions for the day's work.”
At this point, Uldarico García, one of the laborers, appeared. They sent him to wake Cobos. The master came out in his underwear, seating himself on a rocking chair, in the main room. Here, he relaxed, while a servant, Carlos Romero, changed the bandages on an ulcer Cobos had on his left leg. Puertas came in, wearing his poncho against the chill of the early hour.
First, the Colombian requested a day off for several of the hands, which Cobos granted unwillingly, as he had given leave to several men the previous day. Then, the day's work was discussed. When this had been done, Puertas repeated his plea on behalf of Prieto. This made Cobos very angry. His voice became hard, when he replied, “You know damn well that my orders must be obeyed to the letter. Prieto will be flogged today, at seven o'clock sharp, in my presence. Whomever is found guilty of planning to set fire to the cane fields will be shot at once.”
It is told that Puertas hesitated a moment. He was now alone with the master, and Cobos sat there, completely defenseless. Puertas could not have wished for a better opportunity. But the years of obedience and respect for this man must have inhibited him. On the other hand, whatever he did now was a matter of life and death to himself. If he did not murder his master, he would have to face his own execution. Cobos himself had just confirmed it. Making a great effort, the foreman cried out, “You'll never punish anyone again! Today you'll die or I'll die!”
Taking out the gun, Puertas shot Cobos twice, wounding him in the stomach and in the face, near the mouth. Without a word, Cobos got to his feet, throwing himself at his attacker, struggling with him. Cobos was no longer a young man, but he was large and solidly built, with considerable strength. Though seriously wounded, he threw Puertas to the floor, falling with him. After some further struggling, Cobos managed to get up, leaving the stunned Puertas with his poncho torn to shreds.
Moving quickly, don Manuel Cobos fled towards his bedroom, where he kept a carbine. He no doubt realized that Puertas and Prieto were not the only people behind the plot he had suspected. In the meantime, the shots had attracted a number of people to the house. These had assembled downstairs, where they were trying in vain to find out what was going on. Nobody had as yet dared to go upstairs. Pedro José Jiménez was the first one to come up. He was most likely in on the plot, and arrived in time to see the Colombian foreman on the floor and Cobos hurrying to his bedroom.
Jiménez did not hesitate. He ran after Cobos, attempting to cut him down with his machete. He managed to slash him twice, inflicting two shallow wounds in his scalp. Cobos did not even turn, intent on reaching the relative safety of his bedroom. In a few seconds, he was slamming shut the door and bolting it behind him. Getting hold of his carbine, don Manuel looked out through a little window in his door. He caught sight of Elías Ramírez, a laborer who had just arrived. Cobos fired once, wounding him.
In the meantime, Puertas got up from the floor, aimed towards the bedroom door, and squeezed the trigger. All he got was a click—he had no more bullets left. Cobos however did not shoot again. It was later discovered that his carbine had jammed and was useless; but his silence was taken as a sign that he either was dead or dying. Therefore, the mutineers felt safe as they headed towards the accounting office, next to Cobos' bedroom, where the garrison's arms and ammunition were kept. Those who got in first, armed themselves, while the rest had to make do with their machetes. Thus equipped, they went to the governor's house.
Cobos was in the meantime bleeding to death in his room. The stomach wound had affected several internal organs, including the liver, which caused him a considerable loss of blood. There was also a chest wound, not mentioned in the inquiry, but appearing in the post mortem, which must have been caused by a third shot fired by Puertas. This wound had perforated the left lung, producing massive internal bleeding.
In his statement to the officials who later came to investigate the events of the uprising, Daniel Campbell told that the governor, don Leonardo Reina, could possibly have saved himself. Campbell had warned him that there was an uprising, and that he believed Cobos to be dead. He had advised the governor to seek safety in the forest. However, the aging Reina did not seem to believe that anyone would dare lay hands on the representative of the national government. Besides, he had two policemen to protect him. Despite this reasoning, Governor Reina panicked when he saw an armed mob coming towards his house. He fled to the opposite side of the building and jumped out of a second floor window. He was caught at once, while he still lay on the ground. Some of the plantation hands felt sorry for the old gentleman, while others wanted him dead. The discussion was soon settled. A voice in the mob shouted, “Shoot him!”
A shot was heard. The governor collapsed on the ground where he was still lying, a large wound on his throat. The bullet had gone in from the right hand side, crossing through to the left, where it severed the carotid and the jugular, coming out between the fifth and the sixth ribs, fracturing the latter. Gerónimo Beltrán, one of the laborers, bent over, stabbing the governor in the stomach, inflicting a large, deep wound that would have been equally mortal, had the victim still been alive. They left him there, heading back to the plantation house, to check if Cobos was still alive.
In the meantime, don Manuel Cobos had lost most of his strength and was close to his end; but there was still a little life left in him. When he heard the mutineers breaking down the bedroom door, he made a supreme effort to reach the window. Clambering over the sill, he jumped out, landing on the cobblestones below. The fall broke his left femoral bone. While he lay there, drawing his last breath, he was seen from one of the windows by Miguel Angulo, who alerted his companions.
Those who had guns began firing at the prostrate figure in the yard. It was a wasted effort. Don Manuel Julián Cobos was already dead. The man who had ruled the island for almost four decades as an absolute monarch was no more. However, some felt so much hate for him, that they kicked his dead body, gave it an occasional stab, threw stones at him, and hit him with the butts of their guns, breaking his teeth and his jaw. However, this went on for only a very short while, as they soon realized that Cobos was already out of reach from anything they could do to him. Slowly, they walked away, leaving him there.
While all this was going on, Daniel Campbell and another administration employee, Federico Lemberg, realizing they could do nothing to stop the uprising, sought safety in the woods. They were certain that Cobos was dead. Governor Reina had not wanted to come with them. All they could do was to attempt saving themselves, for it was hard to tell what an unruly mob might do to them. However, Campbell and Lemberg were soon located by Elías Puertas and his men; but the Colombian assured them that they could return safely to the village. He would personally see to it that they were safe. The two agreed to accompany Puertas back to Progreso. After all, they had no choice but to trust his word and hope for the best.
Judging from an old photograph, Elías Puertas looked like a brutal, cruel and murderous scoundrel of limited intelligence. In fact, his appearance is more like what one could have expected of a portrait of the bloodthirsty Manuel Briones. But Puertas' looks were misleading. Once old grievances were settled with the two men who had ruled the island, Elías Puertas showed himself reasonable, intelligent, foresighted and responsible to an unusual degree. One of his first orders was that all the tanks containing rum should be emptied on the ground. He was taking no chances with a drunken, unruly mob. After this, he organized guards to protect the refinery from vandalism, and saw to it that the plantation buildings and the governor's house were not damaged in any way.
Obviously, he also realized that the men needed to give further expression to their anger, for he let them sack the plantation commissary, and seize all the records of the workers' debts. These documents were carried out into the yard, where Carlos and Ricardo Valencia set fire to them, amidst the shouts of approval of their companions.
Once the mutineers had been satisfied that Cobos and Reina were really dead, they had lost interest in them. Their bodies remained where they had fallen. Seeing this, Daniel Campbell approached Puertas about the need to give them proper burial. Puertas promptly called in the two carpenters, Federico Salazar and Antonio Ramírez, asking them to make two coffins. This they did with obvious reluctance. It is told that Salazar had made the coffin for Valdizán, after the Floreana uprising in 1878.
Cobos and Reina were soon shrouded and laid out in their respective houses, surrounded by burning candles and flowers. A few people went there to pay their respects, the larger number coming out of curiosity or simply to gloat over the dead men's fate. As the warm season was on and the mutineers were anxious to leave the island, the funeral was held the same day, at five in the afternoon. As a last act of retribution, the two graves were dug at the same place where the five of the 1883 plot had been executed.
The Josefina Cobos was fishing along the coast of the island. Puertas and four other men set out in a small boat to locate and capture her. They did not have to row far, as the vessel happened to be on her way back to Puerto Chico, as Wreck Bay was then called. On January 19, Puertas and his companions arrived with the captured ship, and those who wanted to leave the island could begin preparations for the voyage to the mainland. Food, water, two hundred bags of sugar, and most of the arms and ammunition were taken aboard. Before sailing, the Josefina Cobos was renamed Libertad, and a German by the name of Hansel, who had some knowledge of navigation, was made her captain. Whether he accepted this honor willingly is not known.
The following day, the 20th, seventy-eight men, eight women and four children sailed on a course for the mainland. Eventually, they reached Cabo Manglares, on the coast of Colombia. Here, they were promptly taken into custody by the local officials, who found their clearance papers suspicious. When arms, ammunition and an unusually large amount of sugar were discovered aboard, the suspicions increased so much that several of the travelers were subjected to close questioning. The story of the uprising became thus known for the first time on the mainland. The fugitives were sent to Guayaquil on the first ship that called on its way there, the British steamer Ecuador. An officer and several policemen were sent along to deliver them to the Ecuadorian authorities. The ship arrived to Guayaquil on February 19, turning the mutineers over to the local police officials. Their freedom had indeed been short.
For the events relating to the murders of don Manuel Julián Cobos and don Leonardo Reina, we have relied largely on Bognoly and Espinosa (1905). These authors had access to the statements of the mutineers, the post mortems of the two victims, and they accompanied the official commission that was sent to Galápagos to investigate the uprising. Additional information came from old San Cristóbal settlers, two of whom, don Manuel Gutiérrez and don Angel Serrano, were most generous in sharing their memories and the stories they had heard in their youth. Some of the oral traditions come from doña Augustina Buenaño, an old Santa Cruz matriarch, who had grown up on San Cristóbal. None of these three had known the elder Cobos personally, but were not far removed from him in time. Another interesting source was Boilermaker Vallejo, who came out as Cobos' houseboy, before he began his apprenticeship at the sugar refinery. We consider ourselves most fortunate to have known these old settlers, not only for the valuable information they provided, but, more than anything else, because they were such fine human beings in every respect. Most of today's population is of very recent origin, and few if any have been interested in listening to and remembering what these older people could tell—if they ever had the privilege of meeting them at all.
Few remember who Elías Puertas was. Nobody recalls the names of his followers. However, even the most recent arrivals have heard of don Manuel Julián Cobos. They may even have heard that he is supposed to still ride his large, white stallion in the night, haunting the roads that were built for him so long ago. But his remains are no longer in the soil near the village, at the site of the 1883 executions. His heirs had his remains taken to Guayaquil, where they had built him a fine mausoleum, worthy of a great man. In it, there was place provided for his daughter Josefina and her husband, don Rogelio Alvarado, who have rested next to don Manuel for many years now. There was also a place provided for don Manuel Augusto Cobos, the old colonizer's son. However, the younger Cobos wrote the author, shortly after turning eighty-six, in 1983, that he wanted to be buried on San Cristóbal, where he belongs. But his wish was not fulfilled—he died in Los Angeles, while visiting his children there in February, 1994, and was buried in that city. Like his father, who most certainly would have wished to rest on his island, he was deprived of this wish. As the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have said, “Nobody knows where his grave will be.”
Antonio Gil's Floreana colony. Its removal to Isabela and the founding of Puerto Villamil. Gil's property and the earlier inhabitants of the island. The products from the Gil settlement—tortoise oil, sulphur, hides, dry meat and fish. Decline of the colony. A penal colony is established on Isabela in 1944. The uprising of the convicts and the capture of the American yacht Valinda. The last convicts leave in 1959.
We have seen how don Antonio Gil established a small colony on Floreana in 1893. He was disappointed by the results, and moved to the southeastern side of Isabela in 1897. Here, he founded the village of Puerto Villamil, by the seashore, and established a cattle ranch in the highlands. Isabela was not wholly uninhabited, as may appear from most of the literature that mentions the island's colonization. One David Mora was already established at Santo Tomás, in the upper parts of the moist region, and we know about him only from the legal documents relating to the sale of Mora's property to don Antonio. However, the official registration of Mora's property is dated as late as 1906, when don Antonio Gil had been in possession of the property for several years.
What is likely to have happened is that David Mora had no other rights to the property than that of de facto possession, which, incidentally, carries considerable weight in Ecuador, especially where unsettled government land is concerned. Finding it convenient to get everything properly legalized and registered, don Antonio probably had David Mora go through the movements of an official claim, which was granted him by the government in 1906, to be followed up by a pro-forma sale, made solely to get the older, original sale properly registered.
The extent of the claim also appears to prove the above as it is unusually large, and we seriously doubt if Mora ever claimed all the land that is included in the official description of its limits, which is as follows: “ … the lands situated in the south-southeast of the Island of Isabela or Albemarle, including the mountain range of Cerro Azul, which includes the extension of lands between the said range, from Iguana Cove to Cape Woodford, and the Pacific Ocean. …” This is taken from the resolution handed down by Dr. Luís Felipe Borja, the Attorney General, on February 27, 1937, in which he declares the Gil family's claims as perfectly legal, on the basis of the documents presented by them. His geography is a bit hazy in that he places the lands in the south-southeastern side of the island, when they actually include everything between the crest of the range that crosses southern Isabela from east-northeast to west-southwest, and the Pacific Ocean, as Cape Woodford is at one end of this range and Iguana Cove is at the other. Cerro Azul is not the name of the range, but the name of the 1,680 m. high volcano that towers above Iguana Cove. The range also includes Mt. Santo Tomás (Volcán Sierra Negra), another great mountain, with its 1,490 meter altitude and a nine and a half kilometer wide caldera. This enormous extent of territory covers all the arable land on Isabela, aside from many extensive, useless lava fields.
We have been unable to find out anything about David Mora, except that even he may not have been the first inhabitant of Isabela. Slevin (1931) mentions several times the “Cobos settlement”, the remains of which still existed in 1905, to the west of Puerto Villamil, at Puerto Barahona. These remains consisted of a tortoise pen and several thatched houses, just back of the beach, presumably between the latter and the salt lagoon that exists there. In 1905, cattle, tortoises and wild dogs were still numerous in this area as elsewhere along this coast, as far west as Cape Rose.
The Cobos settlement was undoubtedly the base of tortoise hunters, who may also have been engaged in collecting orchil, as is suggested by the name of a conspicuous hill to the east of Puerto Barahona, somewhat nearer Puerto Villamil, called Cerro de la Orchilla. This name is likely to date from much earlier than the Gil settlement, from a time when orchil still had considerable demand, a demand that had largely disappeared at the time don Antonio Gil settled on the island.
That the Cobos settlement was abandoned before tortoises became scarce in this part of Isabela is not so strange as it may appear. As don Manuel J. Cobos became increasingly involved with his sugar plantation, he seems to have gradually abandoned most of his earlier activities. In fact, the settlement at Puerto Barahona may have been deserted at a fairly early date, as we have been unable to find any traditions about it on San Cristóbal, though one survived here about the plantings at Santa Rosa and Salazaca, on Santa Cruz, and the trail that led to them from Whale Bay.
When David Mora settled on Isabela is not known. He could have arrived there as an employee of Cobos, remaining on the island after the Puerto Barahona settlement was abandoned. That he settled as far away from the coast and as high up as Santo Tomás seems strange, as the moist region on this side of the island begins at about 107 meters above sea level, while Santo Tomás is at about 390 meters, not far below the grasslands (These begin at an altitude of 460 meters, extending all the way to the rim of the main crater.) It is likely that Mora was more interested in tortoise hunting than farming, as these reptiles could be easily hunted in the grasslands. However, at the time Mora owned Hacienda Santo Tomás, tortoises were also common at lower altitudes.
Cattle hunting comes to mind as an additional source of income, and, though cattle were abundant in 1905 also at lower altitudes, they are much easier to hunt in the open grasslands. However, we cannot be certain whether wild cattle existed on Isabela at the time. Don Carlos Gil, one of don Antonio's sons, presented documentation and witness declarations, in the 1960's, proving that his father had imported sixty head of cattle to Isabela from the Province of Manabí, on the mainland. Don Carlos claimed that all the cattle on the island descended from these animals. On the other hand, the great number of cattle found on the island by the California Academy of Sciences expedition, in 1905, seems excessive if they only descended from this herd, especially if we consider that the Gil family had been exploiting their cattle almost since their introduction, just before the turn of the century.
It would not be strange that don Antonio Gil should import sixty head of cattle to an island where wild cattle was abundant. If he planned to export cattle on the hoof to the mainland, this would be the best way to go about it. Wild cattle take a lot of effort and time to get domesticated, and to export them while still wild is not a simple matter. In addition to the trauma of capture, would come the transportation from the highlands to the shore, swimming out to the ship while tied to a boat, being hoisted aboard by the horns, and then the long voyage to the mainland. All this is a brutal experience even for the tamest of domesticated animals. Wild cattle would not be likely to survive all this in large enough numbers to make the venture profitable. It is more likely that wild cattle here, as on Floreana, were killed for their hides and to make jerked beef. However, all this speculation leaves us still with the question as to who brought the very first cattle to Isabela and for what purpose—if it was not don Antonio Gil.
It has been occasionally claimed that, when Villamil moved from Floreana to San Cristóbal he also placed some domestic animals on a few of the other islands. This seems unlikely where Isabela is concerned. In fact, it makes no sense that Villamil should have had animals unloaded on Isabela without doing so also on Santa Cruz. This latter island is closer to Floreana and San Cristóbal than is Isabela. The only feral domestic animals found on Santa Cruz when the first Norwegian settlers arrived in 1926 were wild donkeys.
Don Antonio Gil had solved his transportation problems with the aid of two vessels—the Tomasita, a small sloop-rigged ship, and the somewhat larger brigantine Nellie, which had a wood burning auxiliary steam engine. The Tomasita was lost in 1908, when she hit a shoal in the north of Isabela. Captain Chiapella, his wife and their little son were left behind, while the crew undertook the grueling march south, to the inhabited part of the island. When help was sent to the captain and his family, it was too late. They had all died of thirst.
In the history of Galápagos and in the island traditions there are numerous stories of vessels at the mercy of unreliable winds and strong currents. In the 1830's, General Mena almost perished at sea. He had sailed from Floreana on a course for San Cristóbal in a whaleboat. With him were a woman and some laborers. About halfway, they were overtaken by night, and as it was too dark to make a safe arrival, Mena decided to take down the sail and get a good night's rest out on the open sea.
It is obvious that this had been done before without any complications, for he and his crew slept soundly. Not that they could have seen much in the darkness if they had kept watch. At daybreak, the travelers found themselves drifting out of sight of land, with no idea as to their position. They had no supplies and very little water. Somehow, they managed to survive on rawhide and whatever rain water they could collect. When rescued by a passing American whaler, twenty-three days later, they were about two hundred nautical miles east of their destination. Their boat was sinking, and they were more dead than alive. So much for relying on the usual set of the Galápagos currents and the prevailing winds.
Much larger and better equipped vessels have also met with trouble in these waters. In the logbook of the schooner Academy (Slevin, 1931) has told the ordeal of the crew and passengers of the brigantine Nellie. The Academy had called at Puerto Villamil on April 30, 1906. Here, she found the Ecuadorian gunboat Cotopaxi, which provided the visiting scientists with their first news about the San Francisco earthquake. After burying a crew member who had died of yellow fever, the Cotopaxi sailed for San Cristóbal (Yellow fever was then quite common in Guayaquil, where the seaman must have contracted it.) The following days, the men on the Academy divided their efforts between collecting specimens and taking in water, bananas, taro and coffee. They also purchased some chocolate and sulfur from don Antonio Gil. The sulfur came from the main crater above Santo Tomás, and was to be used for fumigating the schooner, in yet another attempt to get rid of the bedbugs that had tormented the Americans during their whole voyage.
On May 3, the Academy set sail for San Cristóbal, making little headway, as she met with changing and fitful breezes, and periods of calm. It was not before the 14th that a good breeze blew up. Since the vessel had drifted close to Floreana, a course was shaped for Black Beach. Here, the scientists found the Nellie at anchor, learning of her unsuccessful voyage to Guayaquil.
The brigantine had spent sixty-seven days at sea, experiencing mostly dead calms and head winds. The fuel for her engine had been used up. Then, they ran out of food and water. The crew condensed sea water, caught some fish, and captured an occasional turtle; but during their last week at sea they had obtained neither fish nor turtles. The cattle they had carried had long since died and been thrown over the side. All they had left was some molasses. Drifting south of Galápagos, their sails in poor condition, they somehow managed to make it to Black Beach, where they had arrived that same morning.
Without delay, two parties were sent ashore. One of them set about to gather firewood for the boiler, while the other went inland to attempt finding some food. This latter group was headed by the engineer, and consisted of him, two seamen and a young man named Cruz, who had been born on Floreana twenty years earlier. They had three dogs with them, and the engineer had tied a knife to the end of a boathook, with the purpose of using it to kill a pig, should the dogs get hold of one. They headed for the main spring, towards the center of the island. The party had no luck; but they met with some of the scientists from the Academy, who shot a wild bull for them. The following day, Rollo H. Beck, the leader of the American expedition, provided the Nellie with some supplies. Limes and oranges were taken aboard, and the brigantine set sail for Puerto Villamil at midnight.
We have no description of Puerto Villamil as it was at the time of don Antonio Gil. However, it seems that the latter as well as his German bookkeeper, Mr. Brugermann, spent much of their time at the place. There may have been a few thatched houses for the workmen, though these no doubt spent most of their time in the highlands. There must certainly have been some sort of warehouse, and a building or two for don Antonio and Mr. Brugermann to live in, with space for an office. In 1906, there were two corrugated steel buildings and a few thatched houses up at Santo Tomás. Altogether, there were about one hundred people on the whole island, all free settlers.
It is obvious that much tortoise hunting had at one time been carried out at lower altitudes. This is attested by the remains of hundreds of tortoises that were spread along both sides of the trail from Puerto Villamil to Santo Tomás. However, prior to 1906, much of the tortoise hunting was already being done inland. Despite the great butchering of tortoises witnessed earlier by Beck, at the turn of the century, tortoises were still common in the grasslands on the top of the island.
It is hard to say exactly what brought about the economic decline of Gil's colony on Isabela, as we have no statistics to assess the different sources of income of the settlement. As tortoises became harder to get in sufficient numbers without going to remote areas of difficult access, the production of oil must have fallen considerably. It is possible that tortoise oil was such an important source of income that its decline had a greater effect than is generally realized. By the 1920's tortoise oil was certainly no longer important, except for local consumption. Tortoise meat was used regularly on Isabela for much longer than that, as was the oil. Small tortoises and the dried hind feet of adult reptiles were still sold as souvenirs as late as the early 1960's, though their economic significance was very slight.
Some sulfur had been exported from Isabela from early on, but, despite its good quality, it had never been an important trade item. Obtaining it involved considerable work, as it was found inside the main crater, where it was extracted by hand, then carried on donkeys all the way down to distant Puerto Villamil, to be shipped to the mainland. It is hard to believe that it could ever have competed favorably against the mainland product.
Eventually, some dry fish—sold seasonally—a little coffee and some cattle were all that could be counted on as sources of cash. Cattle on the hoof did not have a good market on the mainland, as cattle was produced many places there and came to the markets in a much better condition than the Galápagos animals. The voyage on sailing vessels was too long, and the animals were often in an emaciated condition on arrival, a number even dying on the way. In addition, the people on Isabela became dependent on the plantation schooner from San Cristóbal, as maintaining and later replacing the Nellie was too much of an investment with the existing cargo. This was tragic, for the old Manuel J. Cobos only visited islands other than San Cristóbal when there was not enough cargo for her on the latter island. As long as the sugar plantation there was in operation, until the early 1930's, there was a good amount of cargo for the schooner on that island, most of the time, making things difficult for the people on Isabela and the few settlers that had become established on Santa Cruz and Floreana.
As don Antonio Gil concentrated himself increasingly on his mainland interests, the administration of the Isabela property was largely left in the hands of don Antonio Jr., who had been living permanently on the island for a number of years (from 1904 until his death in 1921). From 1921 until 1930 his brothers, don Enrique and don Carlos, were left in charge (Gordillo, 1998). In 1909, the property had been registered under joint ownership, as belonging to don Antonio Sr. and his sons don Enrique and don Carlos (Acuerdo No. 10, Ministry of Defense, published in the Registro Oficial No. 390 of December 12, 1941. Don Antonio Jr. is not mentioned, which seems surprising.
Don Carlos lived most of his life on the mainland, though he regularly visited the island. In later years, he came out only occasionally, whenever he had got together some project that he believed could bring prosperity to Isabela and improve the family fortunes. In 1941, the heirs of don Enrique Gil—he had died a few years earlier—sold their rights to a gentleman in Guayaquil, don Carlos Seminario Tejada, who thus became don Carlos Gil's partner, as the property remained undivided. However, it would still be don Carlos Gil who tried to promote different ventures on Isabela. He kept at it well into the 1960's, until his death, when he was in his eighties. Like General José Villamil a century earlier, don Carlos Gil Quezada could never quite forget the Galápagos, though nothing ever seemed to come out of his efforts.
It seems as if politicians and officials are poor students of history. They too often keep making the same mistakes as their predecessors. This is the case everywhere in the world, not only in Latin America. Another common trait among them is their inclination to see the human beings affected by their decisions as statistical numbers rather than people. There are of course praiseworthy exceptions in the Galápagos, as attested by the health service and the school system, which are far beyond what could be expected in an area with such a small population. Still, some crucial decisions have been made from time to time that have resulted in much grief, despite the fact that past experiences could have warned of what would happen. We are thinking of the penal colonies.
The first penal establishment on Floreana should have served as a warning of what will sooner or later happen. Valdizán's carelessness in recruiting workmen gave further evidence of what undesirable elements could cause in a small and isolated community. The Cobos story was a further warning. As if all this were not enough, there was the 1924 uprising on San Cristóbal, which seemed finally to bring mainland officialdom to their senses. In fact, the inhabitants of Galápagos were led to believe that they had seen the last convict disappear over the horizon.
In the late 1930's, a small number of political deportees were sent out, and distributed between San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz. One of them, a Lt. Cueva, who had been blocking an intersection in downtown Quito with a machine gun, during a coup that failed, spent his evenings playing poker with the officers of the Santa Cruz garrison. Another one, a Mr. Cruz, a portly dark gentleman who owned a bookstore in Quito, became quite popular on San Cristóbal. In fact, he was such a nice, amiable person, that it was hard to believe he could seriously contemplate the violent overthrow of the established order; but that was exactly what he had been plotting all his adult life, as a most active member of the Communist Party, until he died in Quito, in the 1950's.
However, the occasional political deportee was never viewed with any alarm in Galápagos or elsewhere in other isolated parts of Ecuador, where such were sent from time to time to get them out of the way. In those happy days before terrorism and the wanton killing of innocent people with randomly placed bombs, revolutionaries were not regarded as maddened criminals, save under the most extreme dictatorships.
But these occasional visitors, whose main punishment was the boredom they had to face, were soon to be replaced with the advent of a regular penal colony, dedicated to thieves and assassins. In 1944, Isabela, where all men and women had formerly arrived of their own free will, except for a small number of deportees who had remained there briefly in the 1920's, became the site of the most infamous penal establishment in Ecuador. It was hailed as a breakthrough by some—all of them living on the mainland—for the purpose of the colony was to “re-educate” those poor men who had strayed from the path of the law-abiding citizenry.
As it turned out, “re-education” was a term for whitewashing the whole sorry scheme. The Ecuadorian Army, who were administrating the islands at the time, turned over Isabela to the police—both the administration of the free settlers and the convicts. When the Navy took over in 1947, they did not even bother to send a port captain to Puerto Villamil, leaving such affairs as clearance papers to the police. It seems as if nobody wanted to know anything about what was taking place on Isabela.
While it is true that some of the police commandants were responsible, reasonable human beings, there were others who seemed to make every effort to contribute to the penal colony's dismal reputation. In fact, all that is remembered about it, in Galápagos and elsewhere, is its darkest sides. And they were indeed many.
The number of convicts of course varied from time to time, but there were in the beginning about two hundred and thirty, who with their guards made a total equaling the numbers of the free population of the island at that time. One can speculate endlessly as to why an uninhabited island like Santiago was not chosen. One can also wonder why not Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal or Floreana. Some claim that the reason was the great number of wild cattle on Isabela. These not only provided a good source of meat to the colony, but it is believed that the police made good profits shipping jerked beef and hides to the mainland. In any case, there was certainly a lot of cargo going to the mainland from the penal colony, and not all was dried fish. But the Navy never inspected police cargo, though they resented the presence of the police, viewing them as intruders in a region that was supposed to be wholly under naval jurisdiction. However, having no authority over the police and their establishment, they chose a cold hands-off policy.
When we visited the inhabited part of Isabela in 1953, there were three convict camps on the island. Those near the completion of their sentences lived in a large wooden building a short distance down the beach from Puerto Villamil. They were allowed to move about freely in the daytime, and were often used as crew on the local fishing boats, since it was assumed that they had no sensible reason for seizing a boat and attempting an escape. It would indeed have been foolish, for Isabela boats were relatively small, and were, during the greater part of this period, propelled by oars.
Two other groups were placed inland, one at Santo Tomás, some eighteen kilometers up the main mountain. The other, formed by the toughest convicts and others with long sentences, was placed at Alemania, which is a considerable distance to the west of Santo Tomás, and some six hours on foot from Puerto Villamil. At an earlier period, there had been a camp to the west of Puerto Villamil, behind Cerro de la Orchilla, at the site of the abandoned American radar station. This camp was called Porvenir, a rather cynical name, as porvenir means future, often in a positive significance.
Under the more despotic commandants—and there seems to have been enough of them—there was much use of floggings, jobs requiring excessive physical effort, fasting and other forms of punishment that were outright sadistic. Then, there was the ley de fuga—“law of flight”—based on the law that allows shooting an escaping person who refuses to halt, especially in the case of an escaping prisoner. This law was often stretced far beyond its real intention.
There is still a monument standing to the perversity and unbelievable stupidity of the most extreme of the commandants of the penal colony. Behind Cerro de la Orchilla is a huge wall of volcanic rocks, built without mortar. Its base is about six meters thick, tapering gradually as it reaches its full altitude of nine or ten meters. The wall is about one hundred and twenty meters long. Its construction cost the lives of at least a dozen prisoners, some dying of extreme fatigue and dehydration, others from beatings given them by the guards, and a few from falling down the side of the wall while carrying heavy rocks. The purpose of this wall was supposedly to keep the convicts from escaping. It was never finished. The idiocy of the project was not lost on later commandants, who saw no point in continuing its construction. The wall is widely known as el Muro de las Lágrimas—the Wall of Tears.
During the time of the penal colony, a number of settlers left Isabela, a few moving to the mainland, others settling on San Cristóbal, where such Isabela names as Mora, Jaime and Jaramillo are now common, especially in Puerto Baquerizo. Some of these migrants were at least third generation Isabela islanders. Their leaving their home island is usually blamed solely on the presence of the penal colony, but there was also the added incentive of finding employment with the freezer plant in Puerto Baquerizo and the boats fishing for it. The population of Isabela showed very little increase in the 1940's and 1950's.
There was considerable friction between the free settlers and the police. In fact, much more than between the islanders and the convicts. At times however the relations could be good, but all too often the police behaved arrogantly, if not outright aggressively. We met a young man on Santa Cruz, who had lost several front teeth in an argument with a policeman. The latter had hit him with the butt of a Mauser. His complaints to the policeman's superiors had been useless, so he prudently removed himself to Santa Cruz, where he lived for a while, until the incident had been largely forgotten.
Manuel Pareja Concha, who became senator for the Galápagos in the 1950's, worked hard to get the penal colony removed from Galápagos. Pareja knew conditions in the islands well. He had been a clerk at the freezing plant on San Cristóbal. Later, he had spent some time in a similar capacity on Isabela, employed in one of don Carlos Gil's projects. During this latter period, he got a close view of the daily life of the settlers and the convicts. As a senator, he did much for the Galápagos, and would have done more, had not his health forced him to resign during his third period in congress. His heart, already struggling to keep an overweight body working, could not cope with the added strain of Quito's altitude, where he had to live while congress was in session.
In the late 1950's we had the opportunity to get detailed information on Pareja's many projects for Galápagos, while we spent some days together as guests of the late Captain Nathaniel (Mike) Mann and his wife Betty, at Machalilla, a half deserted and peaceful village on the coast of Manabí. Pareja told enthusiastically about the many projects he was trying to get through congress. Several of these, like a regular air service to Galápagos and a road across Santa Cruz, would not become a reality until several years after he had resigned, others getting credit for his ideas. Some of his proposals had been approved in congress, but there were no funds on the budget for them to be carried out. However, there was one bright point that made up for all his frustration—he had finally succeeded in getting through the decision to eliminate the penal colony on Isabela. Unfortunately, this had not been published yet in the Registro Oficial, and could not become effective until this happened. There were those who wanted the penal colony to continue, and Pareja had to fight every inch of the way to get this far. The fact that the decision to terminate the colony had not been published yet only showed that his opponents were powerful. However, Senator Pareja only laughed at this delay. Once a law or resolution has successfully gone through congress, its publication cannot be delayed longer than to the following year.
But the end of the penal colony did not have to wait that long. On February 8, 1958, there was an uprising among the convicts of Isabela. It was led by a mulatto from Esmeraldas, who was accepted as their leader by the convicts at Alemania. He was known as Patecuco, a contraction of Pata de Cuco, which can be translated as “Bogeyman's Foot”. This name is said to have originated because of his light, silent walk. Two mutinies had failed recently, and it is rumored that their leaders had been assassinated by the guards. Still, Patecuco managed to convince twenty of his fellow convicts to take the risk of making another attempt.
On that bright February day, towards evening, the convicts struck, taking their guards completely by surprise. These had probably felt overconfident because they had nipped the previous two mutinies in the bud. After locking up the guards and taking their arms, the convicts went to Santo Tomás, where they arrived before daybreak of the 9th, now secure in the knowledge that they had something with which to defend themselves. At Santo Tomás they also succeeded in taking the guards by surprise, locking them up, after seizing their weapons. The convicts must have been tired by then, but that did not prevent them from pressing on to Puerto Villamil, where they repeated what had been accomplished inland.
The Franciscan parish priest, Father León Gordillo, was alarmed at the thought of what could happen, especially to the local women, if the mutineers got out of control. Getting together the small population of Puerto Villamil, he led them to the mission's property, placing himself at the gate, where he told the convicts that they would have to pass over his dead body to get in. However, no convict would have dared raise a hand against Father Gordillo. This slight, intellectual priest was the only person on the island who had had the courage to stand up to the police, time after time, in his attempts at improving the conditions in which the convicts lived.
Though Patecuco and some of the others assured Father Gordillo that the convicts would do no harm to any of the settlers, the Franciscan kept the colonists inside the mission grounds until the mutineers had left Puerto Villamil. Patecuco and the others kept their word. In fact, Patecuco destroyed all the bottles of alcoholic drinks in the small local store, to avoid any drunkenness that could lead to trouble. He however allowed his companions to help themselves to whatever merchandise that caught their fancy. He showed the same foresight that had been shown by Elías Puertas during the 1904 uprising on San Cristóbal.
All the local boats were out fishing at the time, so there were no vessels in which to effect their escape. But two boats appeared in the morning of February 11. They were seized as soon as they got in. One of them belonged to Enrique Cisneros, the local storekeeper, the other to don Bolívar Gil, a grandson of don Antonio Sr. The convicts intended to set out in the search for a larger vessel, one that could be used for sailing to the mainland. With this in mind, they left on the following day, taking with them the two vessels and four crew members. These were also to serve as pilots among the islands.
They sailed towards the west, no doubt hoping to locate an American tuna clipper. On they way, they met with a small vessel from Santa Cruz, which they seized, transferring to it all that was aboard one of the Villamil vessels, which they sent back. At Tagus Cove, they sighted an American ship, but on discovering that she belonged to a military academy, they chose to continue on their way, rounding the north side of the island. As they traveled down the eastern coast, before daybreak, on the 15th, they discovered lights near Cape Nepean, on Santiago Island.
On arriving to Santiago, they discovered a luxurious American yacht, the Valinda, anchored near James Bay.§ Boarding her, the convicts took the five people aboard completely by surprise, ordering them to sail on a course for the mainland. Before they sailed, Enrique Fuentes, one of their hostages, pleaded with Patecuco to let him return to his wife and children on Santa Cruz. If not, he might as well kill him, Fuentes argued. Deeply moved, the convict let both Fuentes and Pancho Jaramillo, who also had a young family, go free. The other two settlers, Víctor López and Arnaldo Tupiza, were kept as hostages.
§ A Life Magazine feature article by Valinda owner William Rhodes Hervey, Jr. gives more details about the incident.
The convicts behaved reasonably well towards the Americans, except for helping themselves to everything aboard that caught their fancy. Generously, they invited López and Tupiza to do the same, something these two refused to do. Not wanting to draw undue attention to themselves, the fugitives did not approach the city of Esmeraldas, near which they sighted land again. Instead, they had the Americans anchor near Punta Galera, some distance to the south. There is a small cove with a good landing in the vicinity.
Here, a number of canoes came out to trade with the Valinda, believing those aboard to be smugglers. This provided the convicts with the means to get ashore. Loading their loot, the arms and the ammunition into the visiting dugouts, they headed for the beach. In the meantime, making the most of the initial confusion, López and Tupiza had hidden themselves. Fortunately, the convicts were in too much of a hurry to get ashore and disappear into the forest. Gordillo (1998) has published the story as told by Tupiza, a story that is deeply moving and, of course, more detailed than the version we give here.
While shaping a course for Panama, where they took López and Tupiza, the Americans attempted unsuccessfully to contact Guayaquil, to report the events of the last few days. Finally, they managed to get in touch with a station in Panama, which promptly reported to Esmeraldas. There, the rural police went quickly into action, sending patrols into the rain forest. It was not long before nineteen convicts had been captured, but it cost the life of one policeman. The remaining two fugitives were taken somewhat later, one of them being wounded while trying to escape.
The Valinda incident caused considerable embarrassment to the Ecuadorian authorities. The government of don Camilo Ponce Enríquez began at once to relocate the convicts in mainland jails. The author had the doubtful honor of traveling with the last group of convicts who left the Galápagos in May of 1959.
We have mentioned the brave Franciscan León Gordillo, who lived so many years on Isabela. He and his devoted assistant, Brother Buenaventura Espinoza, worked with great dedication on the island. Father Gordillo founded, taught and directed the school at Puerto Villamil, a solid building constructed of local volcanic rock, surrounded by a stone fence and a hedge of button mangrove (Conocarpus erecta). The building materials and the hedge tell much about this Franciscan's rare sense for what is beautiful in the islands. More often than not, the volcanic rocks would have been seen as ugly and worthless, the button mangrove, at best, as a source of firewood.
The Ecuadorian Navy had the Franciscan missionaries on their payroll, in order to support their work in the islands. Since the Church and State had been separated before the turn of the century, such an arrangement was very unusual. However, the Franciscan monks were appointed as chaplains and given ranks of commissioned officers, while the lay brothers were listed as non-commissioned, thus getting around the existing laws. Ecuadorians are, as a rule, very practical and pragmatic, with a strong inclination for tolerance. Thus, Father Gordillo could make good use of his officer's pay, managing among other things to build the local school, which was operated jointly by the government and the mission—another exceptional arrangement in a country where religious and official schools are kept rigorously apart.
Unfortunately, Father Gordillo could not see his greatest dream come true—the church and monastery of volcanic rocks that he had designed and started to build. When he began it, he had made good use of cheap convict labor and whatever funds he could set aside, erecting most of the walls and the cloister, the arches of which opened towards the mission's coconut palms and a view of the open sea beyond. It was not a large building, but it would have taken a great deal of work to finish it. Still, it could easily have been ready by the end of the 1950's, had not Father Gordillo given priority to the needs of the settlers above his own dream. Thus the school was built and the road to Santo Tomás improved to the point where he could drive an ancient jeep all the way up by the middle of the 1960's.
It was in fact this road that got the good priest into trouble. He had managed to talk the local authorities into putting people to work on the road instead of fining them, whenever anyone had disturbed the public order. A number of the Isabela settlers, especially those few who had been punished, resented this form of punishment and sent a petition to the priest's superiors in Quito, requesting his removal. For good measure, several slanderous accusations were also included. Father Gordillo was at once recalled to the mainland, while a high ranking member of his order came out to investigate his case. Rumors reached the islands that Father Gordillo had been transferred to the rain forests east of the Andes.
The report that resulted from the investigation must have been favorable. While it is true that Father Gordillo had indeed spent some weeks at one of the missions in the rain forest, he soon returned to Isabela, to resume his work with his old enthusiasm. He continued, among other things, with the work on the Santo Tomás road. A lesser man would naturally have felt some resentment against those settlers who had requested his removal, but Father Gordillo laughed at the whole incident, dismissing it as unimportant.
In 1965, Father León Gordillo made what was possibly the most difficult decision in his life. He requested his superiors to relieve him of his vows. After his many years of dedicated service, he wished to abandon his order and become a settler on the island he loved so much. He had become identified with the people and the place to such a degree that it only seems natural that he should have taken this step. Nor is it strange that he afterwards married a lovely young woman from Santo Tomás, the charming descendant of Isabela's earliest settlers.