“They ‘ve promised that dreams can come true, but they forgot to mention that dreams are nightmares, too”
A General’s Dream
The Galapagos were also no man’s land. They had not been officially claimed by any nation until 1832. The Spaniards, who wanted the entire American continent all to themselves, shied away from this corner of the Pacific, afraid of its portents (although Galapagos’ coordinates technically belonged to Spain). Described as Enchanted (although a better translation is “Bewitched”), according to certain visitors, the islands purportedly came and went in and out of the physical world, creating a mystique not unlike Bermuda’s infamous Triangle. Not even whalers or pirates made efforts to make these vacant territories their own… The United States government, upon suggestions by Captain David Porter to annex them, deemed the archipelago “useless”. It also slipped by unnoticed as Bolívar reclaimed South America’s freedom. The Galapagos remained virtually neglected —a veritable “history of indifference” shrouds their existence from their very discovery— until one man, General José Villamil, placed his eyes and heart on them. A Louisiana-born, hard-working, intelligent and ambitious Guayaquil merchant, instrumental to Spanish American independence, General Villamil developed an obsession for the islands. As the Republic of Ecuador was in the process of becoming a bona fide independent and autonomous country, Villamil’s dream was to make the Galapagos its first —and only —colony. He pushed forth his Galapagos project on Ecuador’s first president, General Juan José Flores, who accepted, and a small party of pioneers traveled out to work the land and settle there in 1832.
Villamil would become the island’s first official authority. Settlers who gathered for the adventure to Ecuador’s “Newfoundland” were primarily a group of death row political prisoners for whom the General managed to negotiate a most welcome pardon. Once on the islands, the Floreana colony flourished thanks to Villamil’s administration, but reaching true everlasting harmony turned impossible, as mainland authorities conceived the islands as a handy exile and prison site for its most vicious criminals. The Floreana project was doomed for disaster, and Villamil’s idyllic settlement was forced out to the nearby island of San Cristóbal. This also failed dramatically. Villamil never lived to see the extent of the disaster. To the General’s credit, there was really little he could have done alone to keep Ecuador’s only shot at colonialism from going completely awry.
Villamil would surely have been quite appalled at the reign of terror his Galapagos colonies were forced to endure. The stories, and the legendary tyrants and desperados involved, are horrific and fascinating. From Camilo Casanova, who was banished for three and a half years on deserted Santa Cruz with nothing more than a box of matches and a machete, to renegade pirate Manuel Briones who terrorized the Pacific with bayonets and bloodshed. From the islands’ infamous sugar plantation owner and ruthless despot Manuel Cobos, to the man who murdered him and freed decades of relentless oppression, his most trusted friend, Elías Puertas. Murder, mutiny, torture and insanity shrouded the hundred years that followed the Galapagos Islands’ official annexation to Ecuador.
Initial large-scale introduction of feral animals to the Galapagos arrived on the Mercedes, the vessel that brought the first Galapagos “pilgrims” to the islands, on January 20, 1832.
An Empire Made of Sugar
Manuel Cobos created a highly effective production system at his sugar mill plant, securing him success for decades; and he complemented this with an equally effective method of punishing and terrorizing his workers that included bouts of over 500 continuous lashes and mandatory banishment on remote deserted islands…
Muro de Lagrimas
The Wall of Tears was the last penal colony in the Galapagos, which as late as the 1950s continued to operate on Isabela Island, where convicts were forced to build a useless wall of volcanic rocks in punishment for their mischief on the mainland.
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