Galapagos Islands History
The Galapagos were discovered in 1535 by Fray Toms de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama. This was the time of Spanish exploration and discovery, and followed Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe by a just a dozen years and Balboa's discovery of the Pacific by two dozen. de Berlanga, however, was no explorer. He had been sailing to Peru, recently conquered by Pizzaro, when his ship became becalmed and was carried west by currents; his discovery was entirely accidental. de Berlanga saw little value in the islands. He wrote that the land there, inhabited only by birds, seals and reptiles, was "dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass, but only some thistles." By the time de Berlanga sighted the first of islands, his ship had only a two day supply of water. They found no fresh water on the first island they landed on. They sailed on to a second (one with high peaks, possibly Santa Cruz) but ran out of water by the time they reached it. After several days they succeeded in finding water "in a ravine among rocks" (later visitors learned to find water by following tortoise paths into the highlands). In the meantime, de Berlanga's men were reduced to squeezing water from prickly pear cactus pads. Two men and ten horses died of thirst before water was found. de Berlanga reported sighting two more large islands, possibly Santiago and Isabela, and landed on the smaller of the two. In his report to the King of Spain, de Berlanga did not refer to the islands by name, but they appear on Ortelius's 1570 world map as "Insulae de los Galopegos", named for the saddleback giant tortoises de Berlanga and subsequent early visitors reported seeing.
It is possible that the islands were discoved some 60 years earlier by the Inca king Tupac Yupanqui, as Incan oral history tells of his voyage to the west and discovery of two "Islands of Fire". If there is truth to this, and there are some inconsistencies in the story, it is perhaps more likely he discovered Easter Island.
The fabulous wealth of the growing Spanish Empire caught the attention of Spain's European rivals, who wanted to limit Spanish power and grab some of the wealth for themselves. England in particular gave its blessing to pirates and buccaneers who attacked Spanish galleons returning to Spain from the New World laden with treasure. The Galapagos lay not far from the route between the conquered Inca Empire of the Andes and Panama and New Spain (Mexico), the center of Spanish activity in the New World. So beginning in the late 16th century, the Galapagos became a base of operations for many English pirates. In 1684, one of these buccaneers, Ambrose Cowley, made the first crude map of the islands and named each of them, mainly after English kings and noblemen (these names have largely been supplanted by Spanish ones; a small islet east of Isabela, however, still bears Cowley's name). Though fresh water is scarce in the Galapagos, it can be found in a few localities. One particularly favored spot was Buccaneer Cove on the northwest end of Santiago. Fresh meat, in the form of the giant tortioses, was another valuable commodity to be had in the Galapagos. The giant tortoises were highly prized by mariners because they could be kept alive in the holds of ships for many months without food or water.