GALA ´ PAGOS ISLANDS LITERATURE. The Gala ´pagos Islands, despite their remoteness and inhospitality to travelers, have been a subject of
meditation for many writers, including several Americans, over the past four
and a half centuries. Located 600 miles west of Ecuador and straddling the
equator, the archipelago was first discovered for the European world accidentally in 1535 by the bishop of Panama, Father Toma ´s de Berlanga, who
wrote to Charles V, emperor of the Spains, of the strange fauna he stumbled
upon there and the difficulties of finding water. Three hundred years later,
in 1836, not long after the first settlement, a penal colony, was established
on Floreana (1832), Charles Darwin conducted his scientific research there
into some of those very same plants and animals. Darwin’s findings, reported
informally in Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of
the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle (1839), led eventually to the
revolutionary theory of natural selection announced in On the Origin of Species (1859), establishing the islands as one of the most important research
sites in the history of science.
In the intervening centuries, the mysterious islands became a refuge for
buccaneers and other adventurers and a frequent stopping place for whalers,
who eventually decimated the tortoise population of the islands in their
search for fresh meat and water. The navigator William Dampier, whose The
New Voyage around the World (1697) includes the first description of the
islands by an Englishman, is the most famous of the pirate* adventurers, a
man with a scientific cast of mind and a rich prose style that left its mark
on several prominent writers of the eighteenth century, including Daniel
Defoe. Herman Melville,* whose sketches “The Encantadas,* or Enchanted
Isles” (1854) capture the volcanic desolation and shape-shifting of the archipelago, is the most famous whaler and along with Darwin, whose Beagle
narrative Melville owned, is the most famous author ever to write about the
islands. Originally published serially under the pseudonym Salvator R. Tarnmoor, Melville’s sketches portray a fallen world of hissing reptiles, diabolical
hermits, and tragic castaways trapped in changeless misery.
The first Americans known to visit the Gala ´pagos were ship captains.
Amasa Delano,* author of A Narrative of Voyages and Travels (1817),
stopped there three times starting in 1800, commenting on the islands’
distinctive natural history, especially the land tortoises and iguanas. George
Little, captain of a merchant ship and author of Life on the Ocean, or Twenty
Years at Sea (1843), touched on Chatham and James Islands in 1808 in
search of turtles, terrapin, and water, while seeking to avoid the predations
of Spanish men-of-war. Benjamin Morrell* in Narrative of Four Voyages to
the South Seas (1832) reported saving several starving castaways from one of
the islands. David Porter,* author of Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific
Ocean in the Frigate Essex (1815), made several stops at various islands
during the War of 1812, spectacularly fulfilling orders to destroy British
whaling in the area. Porter’s skills at scientific observation led him to anticipate several of the findings regarding species differentiation and the geological history of the islands later investigated by Darwin. His work also
proved an important source for several scenes in Herman Melville’s* “The
Encantadas”* (1854).
In the years after the Civil War, American scientists, following the lead of
Darwin, began to explore the islands in a series of scientific expeditions.
Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, wife of Harvard geologist Louis Agassiz, published “A Cruise through the Gala ´pagos” in The Atlantic Monthly (1873),
while their son, Alexander, wrote a “General Sketch of the Expedition of
the Albatross from February to May 1891; The Gala ´pagos Islands,” for the
Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (1892). At about the same
time, Professor George Baur published his “On the Origins of the Gala ´pagos” in American Naturalist (1891). Early in the twentieth century came
the most ambitious scientific excursion to the islands, the California Academy of Sciences Gala ´pagos Expedition (1905–1906), led by Rollo H. Beck
and captured memorably by Joseph R. Slevin in his Log of the Schooner
Academy (1931). Other expeditions, by Americans and others, have followed with regularity almost every decade since then, spawning a rich scientific and historical literature.
One of the most important of these expeditions was engaged by William
Beebe* of the New York Zoological Society, who in 1924 published a massive, colorful study, Gala ´pagos, World’s End. This provocative work enjoyed
great popularity in the United States and abroad and inspired a rash of
informal tours of the islands and even a few efforts at settlement. One notable settlement, dating from the 1930s on Floreana and involving a series
of mysterious murders unsolved to this day, is captured by John Traherne
in The Gala ´pagos Affair (1983). A related work by a remarkable German,
Margret Wittmer’s Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Gala ´pagos (first
pub. in German [1959]; Eng. trans. 1961; rpt. 1989), gives a close-up account of these events and tells the story of a lifetime of struggle and adventure on the island. Significant recent work by Americans inspired by the
mysterious archipelago includes Kurt Vonnegut’s* fantasy novel Gala ´pagos
(1985), Cathleen Schine’s novel The Evolution of Jane (1998), and a haunting composition for chamber orchestra, narrator, and dancers, The Encantadas (1983), by Tobias Picker.