The Dark History of the Galapagos Islands

We had an action packed 10 days in the Galapagos Islands doing everything from downhill mountain biking to kayaking with sea lions and swimming with sharks. All that will be coming out in the next few days but for this Friday we wanted to share a little history of the Galapagos. It's a dark one.

We had many an opportunity to learn a lot about the Galapagos. Our guide Sambo was filled with knowledge and eager to share all he knew with us during our visits to museums, conservation projects and information centres on many of the island.

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Uninviting Landscape for Sailors

Discovered in the 1500's quite by accident, sailors saw the Galapagos Islands as worthless and gave it very little thought. The harsh landscape was uninviting making colonization of the island very difficult as it was difficult to grow crops and water was scarce. The islands became a base for pirates who attacked ships leaving from the recently conquered Incan Empire. Having little regard for the wildlife sailors hunted the iguanas and turtles drastically reducing it's population.

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Entrance to the Pirate's Cave

Turtles in particular faced a brutal ending as they can live for months at a time without food or water making them a good choice for mariners to store in their ships for fresh meat while they made their way across the seas.

Like so much of human history, man saw abundance in a land and had to rape and pillage it.  Soon the whalers came and hunted not only the whales to near extinction,  they also hunted some species of turtles to the point of the extinction.  It wasn't only the turtles and whales, fur Seals were hunted for their pelts and nearly disappeared.

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Turtle Populations are Growing Thanks to Great Conservation Efforts

Man alone didn't wipe out the flora and fauna. The livestock that they brought with them contributed as well. Goats, rats and even ants wreaked havoc on the eco system.  Ants devoured hatching turtles, goats ate the vegetation and trampled turtle nests and rats eat the eggs before they even have a chance to hatch.

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Sign from Turtle Sanctuary

Unfortunately even today these non-indigenous species threaten to destroy the ecosystem.

Galapagos Prisons

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Wall of Tears

Over the years the island was used as a penal colony due to it's distance from the mainland making any escape nearly impossible. When prisoners escaped from the first penal colony and killed 28 sailors on a whaling ship, it caused an international incident causing the United States to threaten war if they weren't compensated for the loss of their ship. That prison was eventually folded, but an agriculture centre was opened. It sounds like a good idea, however it turned into a forced labour camp with despicable living conditions which eventually lead to a revolt and assassination of the owner of the centre.

It was after World War II that the Galapagos was once again used as a prison. For 14 years prisoners from the mainland were housed on Isabella Island and forced to build a giant wall of rocks.

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The Ominous Wall of Tears

Known as the Wall of Tears, this wall served no purpose other than to keep the prisoners busy and to make them suffer. There are some theories that the men were building their own prison walls to lock them in. In 14 years they didn't come close to locking themselves inside and the islands were considered impossible to escape from anyway, so the consensus is that it was simply a task to make them pass the time.   

A sign located at the entrance had the quote “Here the strong cry and the weak die.”

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As we stood in the heat I imagined how unbearable it must have been to work on this wall. The men had to carry heavy rocks from high on a hill cutting them out of the earth with crude tools. They had insufficient water and no shade to give them relief from the heat. As Sambo said, there was no sunscreen or proper housing and as my skin burned under the intense mid-day sun, I wondered how anyone could survive under these conditions. Even the guards must have lived miserable lives.

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