Travel Stories: Human History in the Galapagos Islands

One of the many incorrect assumptions I made about the Galapagos Islands before travelling there was that there would be little in the way of human history.

How wrong I was! One island in particular proved to have some particularly juicy history.

Floreana is one of the oldest islands in the archipelago, and we visited it on a cruise we’d arranged last minute after a few days spent travelling independently.

After visiting Cormorant Bay to see flamingoes, and snorkelling at a volcanic crater called Devil’s Crown, we travelled to Post Office Bay for an opportunity to continue a centuries-long tradition.

In the 1700s, whalers and pirates needed a way to contact friends and family, and as the Galapagos were a frequent stopping place, a small barrel was left on one of the beaches of Floreana for the purposes of providing a method of sending post. A sailor wanting to contact home would leave a message inside the barrel, in the hope that a stranger intending to travel to his home town would collect and deliver it. Whilst he was there, he’d check and see if there were any messages that could be delivered on his own itinerary.

The barrel is still there, but is now used by tourists wishing to send postcards home in an unorthodox manner. We left postcards for my mum and Chris’s auntie, and I collected a postcard for a lady called Vicky from her friend Mary.

Whilst in Floreana, our guide Milton told us of the rich human history. The island has also been known as Mystery Island, because of the strange circumstances surrounding some of its inhabitants throughout the years.

The first known settler in the Galapagos was an Irishman named Patrick. He was marooned on Floreana in 1807, and eventually left after two years of living in a cave. He stole a boat and took some sailors with him, mysteriously arriving alone on the mainland with no explanation of what had happened to the other men.

In 1929, a German doctor with no teeth arrived on Floreana. He had removed them all to avoid any dental complications whilst living on the island. Dr Ritter brought with him his patient Dore Strauch. Before long, they had neighbours – the Germans Mr & Mrs Wittmer. Not exactly friends, they tolerated each other until the arrival of The Baroness.

An Austrian woman, dressed in black with a whip and revolver, The Baroness arrived with her lovers in tow. She was determined to build a luxury hotel upon the island but soon fell into disputes with the other settlers. One day, she apparently told Mrs Wittmer that she was leaving with one of her lovers. The two were never seen again. A second lover set off to the mainland, but his mummified body was found much later on another island.

Dr Ritter soon afterwards died of food poisoning from a chicken – despite being a strict vegetarian. Dore Strauch left the island, leaving the Wittmers as the only inhabitants.

Milton told us the wicked gossip that Mrs Wittmer has been suspected of some dirty deeds, and that it was said her tell-all book about the affair was not exactly tell-all! Chris and I watched a fascinating film called Satan Came to Eden which had original film footage of the characters in this curious mystery.

And what of the postcards? Well, both of ours were delivered within a couple of months. I took Mary’s card to Cambridge so I could deliver it to Vicky. Alas, Vicky had moved house! The new occupant told me that she knew Vicky, and would pass it on. I was really happy when I received this message from Mary a month later – her card had finally arrived after seven months!

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Sarah Jayne

 

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