Santiago island, Galapagos

Santiago Island: A Hidden History of Colonization

You may already know that humans are allowed to live on only five of the Galapagos Islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Baltra, Floreana and Isabela. But once upon a time, Homo sapiens also colonized a sixth island.

Santiago, which in olden days was called James Island, is the fourth-largest island in the archipelago.

In the 17th through 19th centuries, pirates and whaling ships made regular stops at Buccaneer Cove on Santiago. This island provided ships with long-lasting food on the hoof (giant tortoises, which can live in the hold of a ship for months without food). Its salt flats gave material for salting down fish for the long ocean journeys. And it is one of the few places in the Galapagos where fresh water could be gotten.

The Galapagos are true desert islands. On only three – Santiago, San Cristobal and Floreana – are there permanent sources of fresh water. But in years of a severe El Niño event, these can dry up on Floreana and Santiago.

When Charles Darwin landed on Santiago Island to gather specimens and explore its geology, he encountered a group of Spanish sailors salting fish and tortoise meat. Inland he found two tortoise hunters living in huts and spent a few nights with them. Also passing by Santiago was a U.S. whaling ship.

In the 20th century, salt mining became a big business on Santiago. At Puerto Egas, which was named for the owner of the company, a small company town and roads to the mine were built. The mine operated in the 1920s and again in the 1960s.

In the 1930s, a group of settlers attempted to form a permanent colony on Santiago. Fleeing from the Great Depression and the shadows of another world war, they came to Galapagos to begin anew in this Eden. Among these colonizers were Ainslie and Frances Conway of the U.S., who related their experiences of island life in The Enchanted Islands: A Five-year Adventure in the Galapagos (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1947). After World War II, they attempted to settle again at James Bay.

Since the failure of the salt mine, Galapagos National Park has prohibited human occupation of Santiago Island. However, much damage had already been done. Pigs, goats, rats and donkeys roamed free, destroying tortoise nests. The land iguanas that were so numerous when Darwin visited had become extinct.

Santiago is now protected, offering Galapagos visitors the opportunity to observe its wildlife. Eradication of the pigs, goats and donkeys has been successful. Native plant species are once more flowering and the breeding program has allowed the island’s tortoise population to rebound.

Have you visited Santiago island? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.


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Photo credit: Florent Figon

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