Pirates of the Galapagos Islands


The Spanish considered the Galapagos Islands an anathema, calling them "Las Encantadas," the bewitched islands. When enshrouded in mist, they were difficult to find, and the area's gentle winds gave sailors the sensation that the islands themselves were moving instead of their ships. Though conveniently located, the Islands couldn't be relied upon to provide a source of sufficient fresh water, making the Galapagos an unattractive refuge. The pirates (or privateers as they were then called) saw it otherwise since it was usually the Spanish they were eluding after looting their ships. The Galapagos offered them a perfect lair, except for the water problem which they solved by never staying long.

Ship logs show that before the end of the 1500s, pirates began using the Galapagos as a hideout, sometimes stopping only long enough to leave or pick up supplies. The illustrious list of renegades who visited the Islands included some of England's most famous privateers, among them, Sir Henry Morgan whose escapades centered on Jamaica, and Sir Richard Hawkins, cousin to Sir Francis Drake. Hawkins went ashore for just twelve days, finding conditions there too desolate. In 1624, the Dutch landed between plunders of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts.

In 1684, after relieving South American coastal communities of some eight tons of flour and a large amount of quince preserves as well as some ships, the fleet of English Captain John Cook headed back out to sea. His ship was called "Bachelor's Delight." When Cook became ill, the crew took shelter in the Galapagos, seeking a safe place where their captain could recover. They found what they were looking for in Buccaneer cove, just north of James Bay on Santiago Island. It offered a decent spot to land, a large enough flat area for a camp and views to afford them a good look-out.

Some crewmembers put their idle time to productive use. William Ambrose Cowley charted the Islands, and William Dampier, a much feared privateer but also a man of scientific talents, documented the climate and wildlife habits he observed. He wrote of how turtle fat made a good substitute for butter with dumplings, and that the seamen would turn the turtles on their backs so they couldn't get away.

After Captain Cook's death, Captain Edward Davis took over the expedition, returning to the Galapagos for supplies in 1685. While there, the crew subsisted on nothing but turtle for months, according to Dampier's journals. In these early days of turtle cuisine, the meat carried on ships was cured. It wasn't until later that seamen figured out that turtles could live for long periods without food or water, making them an ideal commodity to store on board live. Davis stopped on Floreana Island twice in 1687 where he held an auction to divide the seized cargo among his crew.

Englishman Woodes Rogers started out as a merchant but went on to riskier business. In 1708, he accepted a commission to command an expedition on behalf of his fellow Bristol traders who wished to retaliate for being the victim of pirates themselves. He set sail with two ships and ended up with eight after successful missions against the Spanish and French. As his navigator, he chose William Dampier who by then had turned to hydrology and exploration.

Along the way, Dampier convinced Rogers to rescue a marooned Scottish sailor. Alexander Selkirk had voluntarily disembarked on the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile four years earlier after a fight with his captain. His tale was later immortalized in Daniel Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe. By 1709, Rogers's fleet was on the run from the Spanish and set sail for the Galapagos in search of water. Finding none, their visit was brief.

Another former associate of Dampier, Irish Captain John Clipperton stopped in the Islands in 1720, two years before he died. The next visit to the Galapagos by a privateer was not recorded until almost a hundred years later in 1816. Pirates no doubt landed on the enchanted islands more often than records document.

As the practice of privateering gave way to more legitimate forms of commerce, the Galapagos were eventually left in peace, at least by the privateers. Having formerly engaged in piracy did nothing to jeopardize the job opportunities of these adventurers when they got out of the business. On the contrary, some went on to a life in public office. Woode Rogers became governor of the Bahamas. Henry Morgan was knighted and became lieutenant-governor of Jamaica.