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Pirates have left a legacy in the Galapagos Islands that has lasted for centuries, from names of the islands and words in the English language, to scientific discoveries and places you can visit today.
Why the Galapagos Became a Pirate’s Lair
From the late 16th century to the late 18th century, the Galapagos Islands were a favorite hide-away for marauding pirates, many supported by the English or Dutch crowns. These buccaneers raided Spanish galleons laden with gold and silver from South American mines. The Galapagos, 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) off the coast provided the perfect lair to lay in wait and hide from the Spanish fleet hunting down those thieves. As well as, the Galapagos provided a refuge for making repairs and stocking up on supplies.
The Galapagos Islands provided necessary stores of meat, in the form of giant tortoises. These reptiles could be kept in ships’ holds for over a year without food or water, thus providing fresh meat to crews. Also, liquid-filled sacks beneath the shell provided a suitable substitute for water to thirsty seafarers.
As a source of fresh water, though, the Galapagos Islands proved to be elusive. This vital fluid is available only on three islands with any amount of certainty: Floreana, Santiago and San Cristobal. However, a strong El Niño can dry up the source on the first two.
Famous Galapagos Pirates
English Captain Richard Hawkins was the first buccaneer known to have used these islands, in 1570. James Clipperton was one of the last pirates to visit these shores, in 1720. Other notables include Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and John Cook of England, and Jacob l’Hermite Clerk of Holland.
Some pirates, like William Ambrose Crowley, were instrumental in the mapping of the Galapagos Islands. Others, most notably William Dampier, were important in recording the islands’ unique wildlife.
Naming the Galapagos Islands
The 17th century British buccaneer William Ambrose Crowley was one of the first to map the Galapagos Islands. The monikers Cowley and his mapmaker William Hacke gave to the isles – mostly in honor of English nobility – are still in use today, especially in the species names: Abingdon (Pinta), Bindloe (Marchena), Cowley, Culpepper (Darwin Island), Dean’s (Pinzón), Narborough (Fernandina), Redonda and Wenman (Wolf). Other names have passed out of memory, like Crossman, Ewres, James (Bartolomé) and Norfolk.
Dispelling the Galapagos Enchantment
The Galapagos Islands had earned the name “The Enchanted Isles” – not for its natural beauty, but because early mariners believed the islands were bewitched. The islands seemed to drift, to appear, and then reappear elsewhere. It was very difficult to navigate to them with certainty. Part of this was because of the garúa (fine, misting rain) – that falls between June and November.
Another reason was that early mariners did not understand trade winds and ocean currents, nor have them mapped. William Dampier (1651-1715), a pirate navigator and the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times, discovered the importance of these, thus making it easier to reach the Galapagos Islands with certainty.
Pirates as Natural Historians
Dampier, however, was much more than a mere pirate navigator and hydrographer. His seven books (the most famous being A New Voyage Round the World, published in 1697) were best sellers of the time. In these, he detailed his observations of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands and other regions.
His works influenced Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, who often referred to him in his journals and called him “my dear Dampier.” The Oxford English Dictionary credits Dampier with coining over 80 words, including avocado, banana, barbecue, sea lion and sub-species. He also described the importance of giant tortoises, especially of their oils, both in cooking and as a replacement for lamp oil.
Galapagos Pirates and Literature
Besides William Dampier’s and William Ambrose Crowley’s travelogues to the Galapagos Islands (which still make for fascinating reading), the Galapagos played a role in one of the most famous works of English literature.
In 1709, Dampier returned to sea aboard the Duke, captained by English pirate Woodes Rogers. When passing by the Juan Fernández Islands off the coast of Chile, they encountered Alexander Selkirk who had been marooned there four years earlier. After attacking the city of Guayaquil, the Duke took refuge in the Galapagos Islands. Selkirk’s tale later became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Although pirates hunted giant tortoises, they never stayed for a long time in the Galapagos Islands and the ships’ crews were relatively small. Thus, historians believe their impact on these creatures’ populations was minimal and short-term.
However, the buccaneers’ visits had one major impact on the isles’ fragile environment. This was the accidental introduction of the black rat, which has done immeasurable damage to the environment and its fauna. To this day, the Galapagos National Park and environmental organizations are working to eradicate black rats from the islands, so that the giant tortoise and other sensitive populations may rebound.
In the Footsteps of Galapagos Pirates
During your cruise through the Galapagos Islands, you can visit some of the places where pirates hid out and left their mark.
Buccaneer’s Cove, Santiago – Buccaneer’s Cove (Caleta Bucanero) is one of the most famous of the pirate haunts – and of Galapagos visitor sites. It became an important stop for pirates, as it was near sources of salt for preserving fish and water. They could also rely on finding giant tortoises and wood here. This site may be visited only on a multi-day cruise.
Tagus Cove, Isabela – The cliffs of this natural bay on the west coast of Isabela Island provided shelter from the eyes of the Spanish fleet searching for pirates. Today, you can see the carved graffiti left behind by pirates who hid out here. Tagus Cove is one of the Galapagos Islands’ best snorkeling spots. It may be visited only on multi-day cruises.
Asilo de la Paz, Floreana – Floreana became a regular stop on pirates’ visits to the Galapagos, mainly because it has a fresh-water spring. The Pirates’ Caves were refuges buccaneers had carved out of the rock. In later centuries, castaways used them for shelter. Later, during the 1930s, these came to be known as Asilo de la Paz. This site may be visited on multi-day or day cruises, as well as land-based tours.
San Cristobal – This island has many legends of buried pirate treasure.
According to local lore, pirates hid their treasure on other islands in the Galapagos. Perhaps in your explorations of these Enchanted Isles, you’ll come across some long-lost trove.