Experiences in Back-to-Nature Existence on Floreana Island, One of the Galapagos Group, Where the Climate Is Perfect, But Where Insect Pests and Wild Hogs, Asses and Other Animals Destroy the Dream of an Earthly Paradise.
When Dr. Frederick Ritter, a German doctor, abandoned civilization and with a woman companion determined to live like Adam and Eve in a South Sea tropical paradise, nothing had been heard from them until an American yacht happened to visit the island. It was then learned that another Robinson Crusoe, J. F. Schimpff, was living in a pirate cave in another part of the island.
Floreana Island is not very far from the island where the original Robinson Crusoe lived.§ On a palm-fringed beach§§ a barrel is set up on a pole and this is known as Post Office Bay. Passing ships are supposed to stop here and send a boat's crew ashore to look in the barrel in case there is a message from some castaway. That is how the American yachting party got in touch with Dr. Ritter and his Eve.
§ Actually, Floreana is about 2,400 miles from Isla Juan Fernandez.
§§ Compare the “palm-fringed beach” photo in the author's article with a 2 Sucre postage stamp issued in 1936. In Victor Wolfgang von Hagen's Ecuador the Unknown, he claims (p. 97) the stamp and five others were designed by himself.
The American Weekly sent a letter to Mr. Schimpff for news and pictures of life in this Garden of Eden. And after more than a year comes the interesting reply from this modern Robinson Crusoe. And Mr. Schimpff sends along some entertaining diagrams, sketches and a pictorial map of this remarkable island, which was a pirate resort and hiding place of the old buccaneers.
By J. F. Schimpff
©1932 by American Weekly, Inc. Great Britain Rights Reserved.
Galapagos Group, South Pacific.
Everybody has read Robinson Crusoe, and most boys and many men would like to go back to nature and live on a tropical island, where there are no telephones, automobile horns, nuisance laws or taxes. And now and then somebody actually does the thing so many have wanted to do.
I have spent a year watching the latest and, perhaps, most carefully planned of these back-to-nature, tropical islands experiments made by Dr. Frederick Ritter and Fraulein Dore Koerwin. They selected one of the Galapagos Islands, the most perfect climate in the world, right on the equator, but always cooled by the ceaseless trade winds. I was in Patagonia—a pretty remote corner of the world—when I heard of the Adam and Eve experiment of Dr. Ritter and his attractive companion, and I decided at once to try out life as a Robinson Crusoe on that same island.
It was the famous Galapagos Islands where Darwin, the world's greatest naturalist, made his first discoveries, which laid the foundation of the theory of evolution. This group of islands is out in the Pacific Ocean, about five hundred miles off the South American coast, and belongs to the Government of Ecuador. They have an ancient history going back before the days of Darwin to the days of the pirates. When the old buccaneers, hovering about for the rich Spanish galleons, were occasionally pursued by men-of-war, they often found hiding places among these islands. And here they repaired ships, drank rum they had captured and idled about on the coral beaches, resting up or recuperating from wounds of battle.
Indeed, it happens that old Robinson Crusoe himself visited the Galapagos Islands, because the ship that rescued him stopped there for water and turtle meat. In one of the pirate caves I made my home, using the same blackened fireplace the buccaneers used in the old days of the sea rovers. I am enclosing a sketch of it.
Of course the ideal haven for complete escape from all bother and nuisance of this mechanical age is one of the tropical islands of the South Seas, where the climate is so even and balmy that there is no need for clothes or shelter except to keep off the rain. One would suppose that all such paradises had been appropriated long before human beings settled the cold parts of the world, where living is hard, but there are still quite a few without tenants. That, in itself, ought to have made me suspicious.
I have always had a yearning to make a Robinson Crusoe experiment and have roamed around the world a lot, but never till about a year ago did I really try to do it right. Dr. Ritter had picked the Island of Floreana, of the Galapagos group, off the Ecuador coast, and I had no doubt he knew what he was doing when he selected this spot for his Garden of Eden. This man, I read, was a German physician, a vegetarian and a person who had been a hermit by nature since childhood. He ought to make a fine Adam, I thought. Little was said about his mysterious Eve, but I had learned in my travels that, no matter where a man goes, he can find some woman to take a chance and go with him.
Here was a pair doing just what I had always yearned to do, and I determined to see how the scheme worked and do likewise. So I got Captain Alvarado, of the motor schooner, “Manuel F. [sic, "J."] Cobos,” to sail me over for 120 lucres [sic] ($24) to the island, together with some supplies and the materials for a hut. I have put in about a year on Floreana and others of the group, and it was worth it.
Galapagos means tortoises, and this small island, like the bigger ones of the group, once swarmed with gigantic specimens, so powerful that paths they forced through the thorn bushes are the only roads that exist on Floreana today. But the clumsy creatures were such good eating, so easily caught, and so easy to keep alive on shipboard without feed or even water, that visiting ships soon exterminated them.
I was put ashore on the playa, or beach, at Post Office Bay, where Dr. Ritter had also landed, and, like him, I spent my first night in one of the “Pirate Caves,” which the buccaneers had inhabited in the good old days. In these volcanic openings, according to tradition, the pirates used to broach the casks of rum and hold high carnival with the women taken from some of the treasure ships after their men folk had walked the plank. Some of the caves were spacious and dry enough to have served the purpose. Later I built my hut over the lava flags laid by some of those skull-and-bones gentry, and I even baked bread, until my flour gave out, in an old pirate stone oven I discoved in an adjoining cave.
The place I landed is called Post Office Bay because on the beach stands a pole holding a key, with a leather-hinged door. Ships passing close are supposed to send a boat ashore and look in that keg. Sometimes they find a note in it, informing them that castaways are on the island. Lately there has usually been a letter from Dr. Ritter or his mate to someone in civilization.
At the moment of my arrival there happened to be a temporary colony of a dozen native Indian fishermen from the two big populated islands of Isabella and Chatam, but they had no more knowledge of Dr. Ritter, a few miles further along the island, then if he and his Eve had never existed.
It was several days before I got things in order so I was ready to pay my uninvited call on these modern Crusoes. After almost breaking my neck scrambling over the volcanic causeway and climbing a long, steep rise on the other side, I looked down into Ritter's paradise, with a gasp of envy. It was on the inside of a volcanic cone, open on the sea side to the gentle trade winds. The side on which I stood rose high enough to absorb moisture from the low lying sea clouds and running down in little rills that supported a gorgeous green vegetation, suggestive of the Garden of Eden. Surrounded by these great walls of the extinct volcano, it seemed as exclusive and private as an old feudal castle. How could people be so lucky?
In the midst of a thicket of wild lemon trees was his clearing, enclosed by a curious looking wooden fence, and, in its centre a still more curious looking house, built like a locomotive roundhouse, and roofed with corrugated iron. That iron gave me a faint misgiving. It was mechanical and materialistic, and did not look right in the Garden of Eden.
Naturally, I felt somewhat embarrassed at intruding on these people, and thought it best to announce myself. I did this by singing the German national anthem in honor of the fact that Dr. Ritter is from Berlin, and his Eve, Dore Koerwin, I had heard, was the wife of a Dresden school teacher. Before I had finished the second line two absolutely naked figures, beautifully tanned, ran out of the roundhouse, stared at me a moment with open mouths, and then darted back again.
I lingered right were I was, ready to dodge into the thicket in case they had gone back to get a rifle. However, the doctor soon reappeared, dressed in canvas pants and a white shirt. Eve soon followed in a light blue cotton dress, under which there was nothing but Eve. Afterward I learned that this Adam had also paused to insert his false teeth.
Right here let me say a word about those teeth. They were the first thing I noticed about this remarkable man and the last I am likely to forget. They were his own invention, and, I believe, the only ones of their kind in Eden, earth or Heaven above. This medium-sized and heavily-bearded Adam opened his lips in a disarming smile. It was not only disarming, but overwhelming. I have read of savages losing their wits at sight of a white man taking out his glass eye—well, these teeth had almost that effect on me. They were not made of porcelain, to resemble human teeth, but of glittering stainless steel.
Dr. Ritter had tried to devise a remedy for every likely trouble, and thought he could do something for most every ill but a toothache. He could pull, or even fill, one of Eve's teeth, but he doubted if she was competent to perform that service for him. So, before leaving Berlin, the doctor had every tooth in his head extracted and a double set of false ones made. As nobody would be likely to criticize his unusual appearance in the wilderness, he had them made of unbreakable steel. Instead of toothpaste and a brush he shined them up once in a while with steel wool.
With these he could crack open the shell of a clam, or even an oyster, but never did, because he and Dore are vegetarians, but he could and did sometimes tear into a piece of tough sugar cane in a way that I am sure would have impressed a gorilla. Later, when I enjoyed Eve's hospitality at dinner, Adam astonished me by removing these powerful masticators during the meal and eating without them. It seems that, after all, they were useful mostly for decoration and speech. Being vegetarians and putting everything they eat through a meat-grinder, chewing is unnecessary.
That meat-grinder, though used for strictly vegetarian purposes, like the iron roof gave me an uncanny doubt, and there was no end of other mechanical, artificial devices, such as mosquito netting about. In case any reader is contemplating a back-to-nature experiment, let me say that I was all wrong in imagining that vegetarianism is an advantage. It is quite the opposite. In the cities anyone can be a vegetarian and get away with it, because, in seaon and out, a variety of fresh and canned vegetables is available.
It is true that in one of these tropical paradises one may lie under a tree and wait for a ripe fruit to fall down for him, but usually there is some sort of bug or worm in it. Though it is always balmy Summer, these fruit trees do not bear all the year, and when they do bear, usually some early bird, bug or beast gets there ahead of man.
But fish, bird or beast is to be caught or shot all the year around, and, as they are not addled by insects, they fall into your hands in perfectly edible condition. I have never seen any savages who were vegetarians, except from necessity, and many eat insects when they can't get meat. Even Dr. Ritter keeps chickens and eats all the eggs he can get.
“Doctor,” I asked, “which, of all the things here that you brought from civilization, has proved most precious?”
My host swallowed, took a drink of water, inserted his teeth, and replied, pointing to a wheelbarrow:
Something we did not bring, but begged from Mr. Eugene McDonald, of Chicago, when we dropped in on his yacht, the Mizpah. We never leave it outdoors, and there it stands inside with us. It is our dearest possession—we almost worship the thing.
Then he told of the heartbreaking and backbreaking toil, carrying soil by hand from the little swamp at the end of the rivulet which runs from their spring. This had to be transferred to their garden location.
When Dr. Ritter first came to the island he realized, he told me, that it was going to take a lot of hard labor to get his place fixed the way he wanted it. So he got hold of a young “peon,” or peasant, from, I think, the Island of Isabella. The “peon” worked for Dr. Ritter for the first two months. But he was crazy about hunting and went shooting every Sunday. He was not a vegetarian and he somehow made the meat he acquired on these hunting trips last from Sunday to Sunday. He had tamed two of the wild dogs and used these to run with the cattle. Then on Sunday a big wild bull he had wounded attacked him and would have killed him if the two dogs had not driven it away. After that Dr. Ritter did not use any more hired help.
Adam could not shift from eating to talking or back again without juggling his steel teeth, so I asked him no more questions until that meal of boiled eggs, fruits and ground-up vegetables was finished. When I suggested to my hostess that they had no doubt built a circular house because it is the simplest geometrical design, she laughed: “Try and build any other kind with this wood.”
Then I learned that there were only two forms of lumber available, one a wood so hard that nails cannot be driven into it. The other, a species of acacia, is soft enough, but grows only in curves. As usual, man proposes and Nature disposes. It was a roundhouse or nothing.
One of the chief complaints against civilization is that everything is standardized. Well, that is one thing Nature tried never to do, and so no two of those curves were exactly alike, and therefore, I saw cracks and chinks in the walls through which I could stick my arm. However, there were no peeping Toms and the weather is always so even and balmy that holes in the wall didn't matter.
They told me that much of the wood was still alive and in the rainy seasons sprouted leaves and roots, which did not matter either, because the leaves could be stripped off and the roots cut. It had been hard to nail the tarred felt roofing brought from Germany to such curly planks, and, therefore, he had weighted it down with the corrugated iron borrowed from the Captain of a Norwegian tramp steamer. Like most everybody else, this skipper had always cherished a suppressed desire to give up the sea and live like Adam and Eve.
It had been necessary to cut considerable of that iron wood in clearing the garden, and this had been used, together with the acacia, in constructing that fence, whose peculiar appearance had attracted my attention from the start. The thing was a wide, thick tangle, reinforced here and there with blocks of lava, and somehow suggesting barbed wire entanglements and a battlefield.
“Battlefield is right,” said Adam. “The war has been on ever since we moved in. Every night there is an attack, and about once a week the enemy storms the walls and sacks the place. So far we have only had one minor victory.” “Who is the enemy?” I inquired. “The animals, confound them!” said Adam, with more bitterness than I had ever heard from a vegetarian.
“Yes,” Eve added, “all wild animals are communists, except the carnivora, and even those have no respect for any property but their own.”
This was a surprise. Much has been written about the flora and fauna of these islands, and I understood that since the extermination of the giant tortoises there had been no sizeable beasts except some lizards, one of which is the only species known to live in salt water. So I suggested that these must be the foe.
“No,” said Adam, “the lizards are the best behaved creatures on the place. Our persecutors are wild asses, wild pigs, wild dogs and wild descendants of tabby cats.”
How the ancestors of these beasts got on the island is something of a mystery. Some fifty years ago there was an attempt to colonize Floreana, but the settlers gave up, and may have left their domesticated animals behind, cattle, donkeys, dogs, cats and pigs. Some may have been taken ashore sick from visiting ships and left to get well or die. Whatever their origin, they are now as wild as anything the cave man ever faced.
The pigs are rarely seen in the daytime. With the cattle they had somewhat less complaint, perhaps because hunters from a ship some years ago killed quite a few and transported others to the mainland, making them somewhat shy of human beings. Still, only recently a bull had killed a sailor who thought he would explore the island. The chief villains were the asses and the pigs.
Like myself, these pioneers had no suspicion that such big and aggresssive animals were awaiting them, and it really is an outrage that the beasts treated them so shabbily. Both are as devout vegetarians as ever lived, and considered killing an animal just about the same as murder. They got over those scruples soon enough, but, unfortunately, they had brought only a small calibre target rifle.
The pigs' hides are tough. Unless one of the little bullets hit squarely it glanced off, and when it did penetrate went in only far enough to produce a squeal and an attempt to scratch the wound. With a 40-40 rifle and a good healthy appetite for pork, Adam and Eve could have made these visitors an asset instead of a liability.
After so much annoyance from these wild animals, Dr. Ritter had the happy idea of trying to round up the cattle and then send them to the mainland to be sold for meat. But I had been told by Captain Alvarado that others had thought of this plan and had actually tried to carry it into effect. They had found, however, that the Galapagos cattle did not stand the trip well. About three-quarters of them invariably died on the voyage, and those that survived were so weak and emaciated that they brought no prices at all.
This gave Dr. Ritter an even better idea. He thought it would be possible to get a ship with a small canning plant on board. The cattle and pigs and even the asses could be killed on the islands, and be canned right off on board the boat. We estimated, Dr. Ritter and I, there there were 20,000 head of wild cattle on the big island of Isabella. After tinning all this meat, we could finish off the 300 to 400 head of them on Floreana, and take up one by one the other islands. Although Dr. Ritter is a strict vegetarian, he did want to see Floreana cleaned up of these wild animals.
I sounded the owner of Isabella about the cattle on his island, and he would not take less than $10,000 for the right to kill and can them. Of course, this was too much. The plan never went any further.
The labor and ingenuity this man and woman spent in clearing the land and building their house would probably have founded a business and made them rich in civilization, but they did not want to be rich. Dr. Ritter had abandoned a profitable practice and turned over a small fortune to his wife when he left Berlin. Freedom is worth any price one has to pay for it—but did they get it? It took more than a year to toil such as would have broken the heart of a galley slave before it was done. Then they planted every sort of edible thing that might possibly be expected to grow in that climate.
Except rice and maize most everything did grow with unbelievable enthusiasm and then the trouble began. At night the wild asses came to nibble anything that had gotten above the ground and the pigs rooted out what was below. The original Adam and Eve did not have to fence their Eden, but it was clear that this pair had to, and that it must be hog-tight and donkey-high.
Long before their crops were worth raiding these animals had been heard from. Dr. Ritter described to me the first night they slept in their house. Except for mosquitoes it was as perfect an evening as the human mind could imagine. After supper they watched a golden sunset over an ocean ruffled by a cool sea breeze as steady and gentle as if it were from a great electric fan beyond the horizon.
On the Equator there is almost no twilight, and as soon as the sun sank darkness came on with a rush, while the stars appeared almost as if turned on with a switch. Every insect and bird, and even the quiet rustlings of the furtive lizards hushed as if someone has sounded curfew. Adam and Even smiled blissfully at each other. This was the perfect peace thay had promised themselves and almost killed themselves to win, but it was worth it. Under their mosquito canopies they stretched their tired bodies and passed into a dreamless sleep.
About an hour later they leaped up in terror. Pandemonium had broken loose outside. Heavy bodies came crashing through the thorn bushes, asses uttered ear-shattering brays at the door, while hogs grunted and stuck inquisitive snouts through openings in the walls. Cats tried to get at the chickens behind their wire netting in the coop. When they tired of this, male cats fought and howled as a preliminary to lovemaking. About every hour a troop of dogs dashed into the scene, drove the cats up trees, barked at them for a half an hour and went away again.
Bedlam of one kind or another kept up all night. There was not a dull moment till dawn. By going to the door and shouting, Dr. Ritter could drive the serenaders back a few yards, but they quickly returned. Their hope was that after a while the newness would wear off and then the animals would go off and mind their business, leaving the newcomers alone. Vain hope, the racket has kept up every night since. There was nothing to do but get used to it as one does whose bedroom is close to an elevated railroad in the city, but it is hardly the peace they left civilization for, nor is it conducive to healthy nerves.
The animals began knocking the fence down long before it was finished and there was any reason for attacking it. One of the first sections was built across a tortoise road which led to the garden. Fraulein Koerwin was still awake the night after they finished that section when she heard the thunder of approaching hoofs, snorts and braying. Then came a prodigious crash as a cavalcade of asses ran slam-bang into the fence and knocked it over.
Next day it was repaired, strengthened, and Dr. Ritter set up to watch. The donkeys seemed to have forgotten the obstruction, charged it full-tilt again, and knocked it flat. Apparently unable to learn by experience, they crash that barrier every night without fail though now it has been so reinforced with lava that they rebound with snorts of surprise and dismay. After a while they usually manage to get through at some weaker point. Fraulein Koerwin says that whoever named the ass an ass named the animal right. There is nothing between his ears but bone.
There was no such foolishness exhibited by the pigs. These efficient and serious-minded beasts walked around to an unfinished part of the fence and entered without effort. When the fence was completed they waited till their long-eared allies made a breech and then ambled through. Except for their noise the dogs did little harm, because they were not interested in vegetable food. Presumably the dogs came to chase the cats who, being also exclusively meat-eaters, were interested only in the chickens. Not only did their assaults on the chicken coop keep the fowl in terror all night, but once in a while a cat got through the wire or burrowed under to make a kill or two. However, for thorough, systematic destructiveness, the rooting pigs are the champions. The ass is a vegetarian, but the pig eats any sort of food, and will dig deep for it.
If the fence did not yield to its first assault, the asinine cavalry spent the night galloping around and around the enclosure, braying as it went, for all the world like the Children of Israel marching around and around the walls of Jericho, blowing their trumpets and, usually before dawn, some portion of the fence went down. Even when this did not happen there was always some hog which had squeezed through somewhere.
The only thing in the garden that the hogs did not eat was potatoes, but, for some reason, they seemed to annoy them so that they dug them up and destroyed some every night. Such vandalism turned Dr. Ritter's vegetarian love for the animal kingdom to hate and thoughts of bloodshed. Stepping quietly to the door with his little rifle, he let the hogs have it. Even on the darkest night they were too big a target to miss, but the results were negligible. The best he ever got was a squeal, wasting several hundred rounds without discouraging the porkers in the least.
I had many visits with Dr. Ritter and his companion, although it was rather embarrassing to make a call on them. I knew they wore no clothes, and I was afraid, as I approached their little plantation, that I might come face to face with Eve in her birthday suit. So I adopted the expedient of beginning to sing at the top of my voice when I was still a long distance away, and thus I never had the embarrassment of coming upon either one of the Crusoes before they had time to know my approach and get some clothes on.
This interesting couple told me that almost nothing turned out as they had expected it would. Vegetable seed that ought to have done marvelously well in the warmth and moisture of the tropics did not thrive, and all sorts of insect and bird pests arrived to destroy crops and eat the fruits. And, of course, nobody had told Dr. Ritter of these domestic animals which had been turned loose on the island by somebody many generations ago and had become wild and irresistibly hungry.
Dr. Ritter had experienced many disappointments in his Garden of Eden, but it is his Eve, I think, who is the most dissatisfied. I doubt if they continue their experiment much longer.
(Since this was written Dr. Ritter and his companion have abandoned their island “paradise” and returned to Germany.—Editor.) §
§ The editor is of course mistaken. Dr. Ritter died on Floreana in November, 1934, and Dore Strauch returned to Germany the following month.
Soon after I reached the islands, another German arrived, a young druggist from Dresden. He also had read the article about Dr. Ritter and was intent upon stripping off all civilization. He went to Santa Cruz Island with two Norwegian fishermen. He struck into the interior—and never came back. It is now almost a year since his disappearance and, of course, he died alone there.
As I wandered about the island I was greatly interested in the pirate caves, and there are so many of them. But nobody now knows much of their history. Unfortunately the old buccaneers were not often literary persons. During their active careers they were too busy with cutlass and pistol or their rum to bother about writing of their acheivements. And as most of them died with their boots on, they had no leisure years in later life to prepare biographies.
But there was one remarkable buccaneer, John Esquemeling, who had a literary bent, and has left a most detailed and interesting history of the exploits of the pirates of his time. This man had been shipmate with most of the prominent and bloodthirsty of the pirate captains of about 250 years ago. And there is also a written record of a visit to the Galapagos Islands, perhaps this very island of Floreana, by no less a personage than the old original Robinson Crusoe himself.
It was the English sea rover, Captain Woodes Rogers, whoe dropped anchor at the island of Juan Fernandez, and to his astonishment found the Scotch sailor, Alexander Selkirk, most famous of all castaways, whose experiences on this island inspired the novelist Defoe to write his classic, Robinson Crusoe.
Clad in his goatskin clothes, he was welcomed aboard Captain Rogers' little squadron, and they set sail for the Galapagos Islands. Here the buccaneers took a leisurely rest, and among other things is recorded a contest between the crews of the various ships to see who could capture the greatest number of the big turtles that were abundant there in those days. Robinson Crusoe himself was put in command of one of Rogers' ships by this time, and he and his men took part in the contest. The turtles were of enormous size, slow in movement, and very tame. “Two of our men once mounted on the back of one of these, whereupon it easily carried them off at its usual slow pace, not appearing to regard their weight at all,” Captain Rogers records.
On another occasion the notorious Clipperton learned that two Spanish warships were being fitted out to round him up, and he made for this popular pirates' hiding place, where he cleaned his ships, took on water and after ten days sailed on again.
The famous pirate, Esquemeling, sailed on various piratical expeditions in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and among the cheerful exploits of himself and his captains he mentions their cruelties to the natives on both shores of South America. One popular sport was sticking thorns wrapped in oily cotton into their prisoners and setting them afire.
On one of his voyages he sailed with a cutthroat who was called “The Portuguese,” who started out with a small ship of four guns, and soon captured a larger one with twenty guns and 70,000 “pieces of eight.” But his outfit was captured by a still larger vessel and the crew were held prisoners on board. In a moment when he was not watched, this resourceful captain jumped overboard, swam ashore, walked 120 miles through the bush, living mostly on shell-fish, came across a band of fellow pirates and, returning, captured the ship from which he had escaped.
Another buccaneer, “Braziliano,” was in command of a ship, but indulged in especial cruelties when he was drunk. On one occasion he roasted alive a number of Spaniards on wooden spits for not showing him hog yards where he might steal swine.
Some of these famous and infamous buccaneer outfits § used the caves of Floreana Island, where I lived, and built the fireplace that I myself used, and I often wondered what the echoing walls of these caverns could relate if they had voices.
§ With the exception of Woodes Rogers and Alexander Selkirk, none of the bucceneers mentioned above visited Galápagos.