Galápagos on the Map (1535-early 1700s) | Galapagos Unbound

Getting Discovered—Just as Big of a Deal Then as Now

As so many early discovery stories start out, the Galápagos Islands were discovered by accent—all in the search of someplace else.

Panama’s Bishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga set out in 1535 to sail to Peru in the hopes to further inspect the reported violations committed against Peru’s indigenous people by conquistadors. Bishop Berlanga found himself carried astray by the South Equatorial Current, which drifted them right to the shores of the Galápagos.

By that time, the crew were short on fresh water, so they ventured to shore in search for some. Of course, with the Galápagos’ dry, volcanic ecosystem, this was a relatively difficult task. Bishop Berlanga reported back to Spain’s King Carlos V that though the islands were inhospitable, he found giant tortoises, “tame” birds, fur seals, and iguanas. And thus, the tale of Galápagos (a tale of tortoises, in truth) was born.

Galápagos found its way onto the map in 1570, with Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World)—an atlas which labeled the Galápagos Insulae de los Galopegos for Berlanga’s saddle-shaped tortoises.

The South Equatorial Current shortly brought a group of Spanish sailors to the Galápagos Islands—a visit which then dubbed the same islands Islas Encantadas (Bewitched Islands) as they seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

The Word “Sea Lion” Gets its Debut, and Robinson Crusoe Gets its Inspiration

The Galápagos once again found itself in navigational charts and naturalist narratives with the arrival of Englishmen William Ambrosia Crowley and William Dampier. Crowley completed his first chart of the Galápagos archipelago by 1678, with the islands named after his fellow pirates and English noblemen sympathetic to “the buccaneer cause.”

Dampier, more of a naturalist than a pirate, published an account of the islands in A New Voyage Round the World in 1967, in which he originated the word “sea lion” and more than 1,000 other words subsequently added to the English language.

Dampier returned to the Galápagos islands in 1709, piloting the Duke and under the command of privateer Captain Woodes Rogers. The two rescued Scotsman Alexander Selkirk, who had been marooned on the Juan Fernandez Islands.

Selkirk taught the crew how to live off the land (he had over 4 years of know-how) and gave accounts of his solitary time. Captain Rodgers recounted Selkirk’s tales in his 1712 work A Cruising Voyage Round the World: first to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Rodgers’ tales inspired Daniel Defoe for the 1719 Robinson Crusoe’s main protagonist.