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Voyage of the Potomac

Jeremiah Reynolds


Chapter XXVII

Galapagos Islands—Charles's Island, or La Floriana—Governor Vilamil's Colony—Its origin and advance—Description of the island—Its productions—Pure and wholesome water—Prohibition of spirituous liquors—fowls, terapins, &c.—Climate and temperature—Abuses connected with our whale-fisheries—Improvements and reforms suggested.

On Monday, the twenty-sixth of August, we sailed from Payta for the Galapagos, and arrived at Charles's Island on the thirty-first. We came to anchor in Essex Bay, on the north end of the island, a place rendered somewhat famous as the anchorage of the old Essex, Commodore Porter, during the late war with Great Britain. Commodore Downes was then first lieutenant of that frigate; but commanded an armed prize, called the Essex, junior, during Porter's glorious but unfortunate action with the Phoebe and Cherub. We remained at Charles's Island, which the new colonists call La Floriana, for the period of ten or twelve days; and every one on board was agreeably disappointed with the visit.

During the frigate's stay, we passed the time very pleasantly at the residence of Governor J.Vilamil, a native of Louisiana, in the United States, but for many years a resident of Guayaquil. Believing that some account of this infant establishment may be interesting to the reader, we shall particularly allude to it, in a very short and hasty description of the Galapagos Islands.

This, in some respects, interesting group, which comprise a large number of small islands, is situated nearly under the equator, between the eighty-ninth and ninety-second degrees of west longitude-about two hundred and forty leagues west of the American continent. A majority of these islands are situated a little south of the equinoctial-line, though a few scattering islands are found north of it. Albemarle Island, which is the largest of the cluster, is more than seventy miles in length, and stretches north and south, with an eastern coast that is nearly straight; but its western side is deeply concave, embracing the volcanic Island of Narborough . The north head of Albemarle terminates westwardly in Cape Berkley, which is exactly on the line. South and east of Albemarle are Charles's Island, Hood's, Chatham's, Barrington's, Downes's, Porter's, and James's Islands.

The name of this group is derived from the Spanish word galapago, a fresh water tortoise,§ and it was given to these islands because they abound with the largest class of these animals, a species of terapin, to which Commodore Porter has given the name of elephant tortoise, as their legs, feet, and clumsy movements strongly resemble those of the elephant. Their flesh is most excellent food, and they seem to have been placed here, in these lonely regions, for the sole purpose of refreshing the adventurous mariner, whose hazardous calling is the pursuit of the great leviathan of the deep. Many of them weigh from three to four hundred pounds, and they will live in the hold of a vessel a remarkable length of time without sustenance, and still retain much of their original fatness and richness of flavour. Their drink is pure water, which they carry with them in a vessel provided by nature for that purpose, containing about two gallons, which remains cool, fresh, and sweet for a long time after they are made prisoners.

§ Galápago is of course a land tortoise. The fresh-water tortoise does not exist in Galápagos.

The hillsides of these islands, near the shore, are covered with prickly pear-trees, upon which these terapin feed, and thrive in a most wonderful manner. These animals have doubtless saved the lives of many seamen employed in the whale-fisheries in those seas, who would otherwise have perished or suffered much with the scurvy. They sometimes take from six to nine hundred of the smallest of these tortoises on board, when about leaving the islands for their cruising grounds; thus providing themselves with fresh and wholesome provisions for six or eight months, and securing the men from the attacks of scurvy.

Charles's Island, or Floriana, at the northern end of which is Essex Bay, in which the Potomac lay at anchor, is about eighteen or twenty miles southeast of Cape Woodford, which projects from the south head of Albemarle Island. The centre of Charles's Island is in latitude 1°17' south, longitude 90°30' west; and is about twenty miles in length from north to south, and fifteen in breadth from east to west;§ giving a superficial area of more than three hundred miles. Like every other island in the Galapagos group, it was uninhabited until eighteen hundred and thirty-two, when Vilamil first established his long-projected colony. He informed us that be had this enterprise in view as long ago as the year eighteen hundred and eleven; two years previous to the appearance of Commodore Porter in these seas, during the late war with Great Britain.

§ Actually, about 9⅛ miles north to south, and 9¾ east to west.

At this early period, the infonnation which Vilamil had acquired of the Galapagos Islands was so interesting, that at one time he thought of applying to the government of Spain for permission to make a settlement on one of them; but was deterred from this design, being assured by the Spanish authorities in Peru that the court of Seville would never permit a settlement to be made on this group of islands.

On the establishment of the government of Colombia, and its entire independence of the dominion of Spain, his attention was again turned to an enterprise he had had so long in contemplation. His friends at this time did everything to dissuade him, pronouncing the plan to be chimerical and rash. Though not entirely discouraged, he remained inactive until the year eighteen hundred and twenty, when he suffered severe misfortunes in his family, in the death of his wife and two children, in the short space of twenty-one days. Tired of society, and worn down with afflictions, he turned his whole mind and energies towards his favourite scheme, the establishment of a colony. The government of the equator was at once petitioned, and in the year eighteen hundred and thirty-one, a charter in due form was granted, conceding the possession of the islands, and authorizing the establishment of a colony.

In January, eighteen hundred and thirty-two, Colonel Hernandez, with only twelve colonists, was despatched to take formal possession of Charles's Island; and in April and June, settlers of both sexes followed the first. Vilamil, in person, accompanied by eighty colonists, arrived in October, and at once assumed his station as proprietor and governor of the island. Previous to his arrival, little or no improvement had been made; but with this accession, all took greater courage, and began to labour with much zeal; more especially when they found that the whale-ships would be likely to consume their surplus produce; and, taking all circumstances into consideration, their labours have been really successful. Nor do we deem the remark extravagant, that at this time [September, eighteen hundred and thirty-three] the productions of the island are sufficient for several hundred additional inhabitants; and during the coming year, many of our whale-ships may receive an abundance of vegetable supplies.

This island is not fertile near the shore; for the space of three miles towards the interior, the soil is sterile in the summer, or dry season; but capable of yielding one good crop in the winter, or wet season; and during the whole year, this portion of the island is good for raising hogs, goats, &c., as the ground abounds with the carib-tree, the fruit of which, with the tree and juice of the prickly pear, form for these animals an excellent nutriment.

Penetrating towards the interior, there is a beautiful upland valley, spreading from northeast to southwest, in the form of a parallelogram, about five miles in length and three in breadth. From the middle of the valley, another opens to the southeast and inclines gradually to the south, and is nearly equal in extent to the first. In both, the soil is of a superior mould, and is covered with a rich carpet of luxuriant vegetation, shrubbery, and trees. The formation of the island is exclusively volcanic; there is not a rock that does not bear the evidence of fire, and the soil, in all parts, is composed of the decomposition of lava and vegetable matter.

Not only these valleys, but the sides of the higher mountains, may be cultivated from January to December, one crop following another in rapid succession; moistened in summer by continued and heavy dews, and by rains in winter. From the black beach, the place of disembarcation, and so named from immense quantities of lava forming the shore, like massive pot-metal, the road, by continued ascent, leads to the main settlement, at the distance of about five miles; and on the same road there is a fine spring of fresh water, which the governor contemplates conveying to the beach, where he believes it will yield seventy or eighty gallons per hour, for the use of ships.

The eastern skirts of the high hills produce the paja, a long coarse grass, used by the inhabitants for covering their houses; and for which reason they have named it the Serra [sic, Cerro] de la Paja. Here a fine view of the first valley is presented, and rising from the sterile parts of the coast, the eye dwells with pleasure on the prospect, embracing no less than fifty little chacras, or farms, with nearly an equal number of houses; small and rude, it is true, yet not unfit for the climate, and surrounded with plenty, which the fertility of the soil produces at a small expense of labour on the part of man.

On the southeastern extremity of the first valley, a magnificent volcanic mountain rises, around the summit of which, and others of less elevation, the clouds may be constantly seen gathering in mist, which impart to the higher portions of the island a degree of humidity not to be expected from a view of the coast, and certainly in direct contradiction to all previous accounts given of this archipelago.

From one side of this mountain the water, delicious, and of crystal purity, may be seen trickling down from the rocks. One of these destiladeras is a real curiosity. That part of the rock yielding most water presents an exterior entirely dry, and is surrounded and clothed by shrubbery, flowers, and aromatic herbs; and the water, which issues by numerous little filtering streams, is as pure as that which gushed from the rock of old, when smitten by the rod of the prophet.

The governor, who may with great justice be called the father and founder of the colony, has adopted, certainly, one wise measure. He has prohibited, under the severest penalties, the introduction of all kinds of liquor onto the island; and this measure is no doubt the secret cause of the successful experiment already made by the Florianas. At a small party given by the governor to Commodore Downes, water was the only beverage to be seen on the table. He apologized for the want of wine, and remarked, that he adopted it as a rule, not to partake of any luxury that policy required him to prohibit in the island; which apology was deemed good by the commodore and all present. It was very easy, however, to perceive that our host had not spent his whole life in such society; as the number and variety of the dishes brought to the table, formed exclusively of the productions of the island, would have done credit to the good taste of a person surrounded by many more adnntages.

In the valleys there have been found nine small lakes of sweet water, which fail not the whole year; and others which dry up from August to October. In November they again commence filling with water. In these lakes are found many varieties of ducks, galleneta del monte, and also one species of the snipe. Other lakes are also met with, near the ocean, of much greater extent; but the water is brackish to the taste, and these abound with ducks and flamingoes. The number of doves on the island is almost incredible, and their flesh is sweet and very tender. They are so tame, that any number may be knocked over with a pole, without trouble. Nearly two hundred were brought on board by the men and officers of a single boat, from an afternoon's excursion on shore; and we have heard the governor, when sending out a servant to procure a few dozen for dinner, direct him to select only the fat ones; and the boy went and did accordingly.

The temperature of the island, from the end of May to December, is from fifty-two to seventy-four degrees of Fahrenheit, which gives a medium of sixty-eight degrees, rendering woollen clothes the most agreeable. From January to the first of May, the thermometer stands from seventy-four to eighty-four degrees, giving a medium of seventy-nine degrees, and the heat is consequently rather opprenive. During the ten days we lay in Essex Bay, in September, the thermometer ranged from seventy-one to seventy­ eight degrees in the shade, on board ship; and the barometer stood from 29°70' to 29°78'.

The climate we should deem healthy; as during the nineteen months since the arrival of the first colonists, there have been only five deaths. Three of these came sick from Guayaquil; one died of a disease difficult to cure in any clime-that of eighty years of age! and the fifth was shot, on account of an outrageous attack he had made on the life of the captain of an American whale-ship. This severity was of indispensable necessity in an establishment of so recent origin, and which can be sustained by moral force alone. It has done much to teach the colonists their true interests; that peace among themselves, justice and good faith towards the vessels which may visit the islands for the purchase of their surplus produce, will alone promote their prosperity. At the present time, on the arrival of a whale-ship (which the Florianas call their ships), the whole settlement is filled with delight; and the captains and crews, when on shore, often participate in the labours and amusements of the inhabitants.

It is easy to perceive, that this island may at no distant day become a place of importance, at least to the whaling interests of the United States. By referring to this group of islands on the chart,§ it will be found to lie immediately in the neighbourhood of what is called the off-shore whaling ground; indeed, to occupy the centre of a circle, around which the hardy wights of the harpoon are fishing up individual wealth, and adding to our national prosperity, by treasures procured from the depths of the sea.

§ Reynolds does not identify the chart, and there is no chart in his book.

The freedom of the port, and the productions of the island, as well as the absence of all grog-shops, and that miserable gang of worthless keepers, who first intoxicate the sailor and afterward induce him to desert from his ship, seem strongly to recommend this place, at least to the trial of our whalers; to say nothing of terapin, the best of all sea-stores, and which would almost repay the voyage of an alderman to the South Sea.*

* From the thirteenth of October, eighteen hundred and thirty-two, to the twentieth of August in the following year, thirty-one whale-ships touched, or were reported at La Floriana, with more than nineteen thousand barrels of oil. These vessels were all from the United States, with the exception of two, and belonged to the following places:—one to Hudson; one to Poughkeepsie; three to Newport, R. I.; three to Bristol, and one to Warren, R. I.; thirteen to New-Bedford; six to Nantucket; one to New-London,and two to London. These had been out from six months to two and a half years; and one of them had two thousand four hundred and fifty barrels of oil; one nineteen hundred and fifty; one sixteen hundred, one fourteen hundred, one thirteen hundred, and several from seven hundred to one thousand barrels. The amount of tonnage and capital employed in the South Sea fisheries has so much augmented within a few years past, that the general impression in the United States is, that everything connected with this great interest is going on prosperously and well. But such, unfortunately, is not the case. Abuses of the most serious nature not only exist, but are of daily occurrence in the whale fleet. The cause of some of these abuses can be corrected by the owners, and others can only be reached by the strong arm of our government.

Our public vessels do all in their power to redress these disorders; but, having the interests of an extensive coast to look after, are often distant from the ports frequented by whalers. Hence, the number of disordered ships, and of protracted, if not broken voyages, with which some of our readers are but too well acquainted. The few consuls we have or have had on the coast are merchants, who probably hold their commissions for the security they yield to their own interests, and to consignments made to their respective houses; while the whaler, who brings them no profit, can receive but little of their attention. Their own occupations do not allow them to look after his interests, or very particularly to inquire into his difficulties; and yet, in a national point of view, the mercantile transactions of our citizens on this coast, and in these seas, are greatly inferior to the interest of those engaged in the fisheries.

The amount of tonnage of our whale-ships which entered the single port of Payta in the year eighteen hundred and thirty-one, was twenty-four thousand four hundred and thirty-nine; having on board forty-six thousand two hundred and ten barrels of oil. For the year eighteen hundred and thirty-two, twenty-seven thousand one hundred tons of shipping, and forty thousand eight hundred and ninety-five barrels of oil. For the year eighteen hundred and thirty-three, up to October, twenty thousand two hundred and seventy-six tons, and thirty-six thousand four hundred and fifty­five barrels of oil. And yet, at a point that is and ever must be of so much importance, so often the seat of abuse and irregularity, as well on the part of the local authorities as among our own shipping, we have never had, up to this day (October, 1833), even an accredited agent to look after these immense interests!

J. C. Jones, Esq., the United States consul at Oahu, in a letter to Commodore Downes, says:—“I have never before seen so much the importance of having a vessel of war stationed at these islands, for the protection of the whale-fishery; there has hardly been one vessel in the harbour that has not had more or less difficulties. I have at one time had sixty Americans confined in irons at the fort; and hardly a day has passed that I have not been compelled to visit one or more ships to quell a mutiny, or compel by force whole crews to their duty, who had united to work no longer. I should say, too, that there were over one hundred deserters now on shore from the American ships this season, regular outlaws, ready to embark in any adventure. Had we a ship­ of-war here, at the season the whale-ships visit the islands, much trouble could be avoided. In fact, I think it almost indispensably required. I hope you will be disposed to send us one of your squadron the next spring, as I feel assured that a vessel of war will then be required more than ever.”

The commodore received a similar request from J. Lenox Kennedy, United States consul at the port of Mazatlan, dated the sixteenth of May, eighteen hundred and thirty-three, on account of the frequent revolutions which were at that time taking place in the country. He also received a pressing letter, signed by five American ship-masters, in the port of Callao, complaining of the abuses they suffer “from a class of worthless keepers of grog­ shops, who entice away and conceal their men, to the great hazard, and even ruin of their voyages.”

Immediately ou the receipt this letter from the masters of the whale ships, Commodore Downes made a communication to the commandant of marines at Callao, which was by him transmitted to the government at Lima; and in the course of a few days, such regulations were introduced, under the superintendence of the captain the port, as effectually checked for the time the abuses complained of. The readiness with which the local authorities interfered in this matter on the representation of Commodore Downes, is an evidence of what might be effected, if we had commercial agents who attended to their duties.

The mere appointment of a consul, as our consuls are appointed and supported in other places, will not answer for our extended commercial operations of these seas. We require a consul at the islands, one in Payta, and another in Talcuahana, Chili, on salaries which shall command the services of able men, and make them independent in action; to which add one more sloop-of-war to our present squadron, to cruise among the islands; and then, and not till then, will our interests be properly protected in the Pacific.

In Payta we should have an hospital, on a simple and economical plan: there is not a foreign port on the globe which needs one so much. Let it be remembered, that there are more than six thousand seamen traversing the ocean from Japan to this coast, visiting each, in the alternate changes of season, engaged in a business at all times adventurous, and often exceedingly hazardous; and yet, within this mighty range, there is not a spot where the disabled or infirm sailor can be placed, with perfect assurance of being well attended to. The consequence is, frequent instances of suffering and death, under the most melancholy circumstances, but for which neither the owners nor the captains are responsible. The mild and healthy climate of Payta would be in its favour; and the expense would be very small, as could easily be shown. We could say much more on this subject, but think it high time to return to La Floriana.

The arrival of the Potomac brought the first intelligence to Governor Vilamil, that he had been appointed United States consul for the port of Guayaquil. He remarked, that under any other circumstances, he would have received with pride this mark of confidence on the part of his native country; but having engaged in his present enterprise, nothing could induce him to abandon it; and seated, as it were, upon a rock, separated from all the world, he hoped he should be able to render more important services, at least to one branch of our commerce, than he could in the consulate of Guayaquil.

As governor of the island his power is absolute, and his right in the soil is without limit of time. Crimes are punished severely, and minor offences by sending the delinquent six, eight, or ten months on board any whaler in need of men, to be returned to the island previously to the departure of the ship for the United States. By this policy the whaler is benefited, the offender punished, and also improved by a knowledge of a new business, and by earning something for himself.