GALAPAGOS ISLANDS LITERATURE - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS LITERATURE. The Galapagos 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 Tomas 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. Tarn- moor, 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 Galapagos 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 Galapagos” 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 Galapagos 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 Galapagos” in American Naturalist (1891). Early in the twentieth century came the most ambitious scientific excursion to the islands, the California Academy of Sciences Galapagos 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, Galapagos, 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 Galapagos Affair (1983). A related work by a remarkable German, Margret Wittmer’s Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos (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 Galapagos

(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. [See also MAROONED LITERATURE] FURTHER READING: Beebe, William. Galapagos, World’s End. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924; Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. London: John Murray, 1845; Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859; Melville, Herman. The Encantadas, or The Enchanted Islands (1854). Rpt. in The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860. Evanston, IL, and Chicago: Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 1987; Porter, David. Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean in the Frigate Essex (1815). Rpt. Annapolis: Naval Institute P, 1986; Slevin, Joseph R. Log of the Schooner Academy on a Voyage of Scientific Research to the Galapagos Islands, 1905-1906. San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 1931; Traherne, John. The Galapagos Affair. New York: Random, 1983.

Christopher Sten