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The Isles of Darwin's Discoveries-The Galapagos

Yes, I tend to favor the islands of the colder seas–you know, the places where the bergs are born and leopard seals lurk. However, there are many fascinating isles right on the Equator or thereabouts, which are well worth investigating by philatelists.

One of the most interesting of these archipelagoes–naturally, historically and stampwise–are the Galapagos. You’ll find them about 600 or so miles to the west of Ecuador, the country that has claimed them since 1832.

 Galapagos Card shows wildlife.

There are 13 major islands and a bunch of smaller ones. Isabela is the largest. The other inhabited islands are Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Santa Maria. What often confuses visitors–and stamp collectors–is that each island has at least one other name, by which it is often referred. Isabela is also Albemarle, Santa Cruz is Indefagatable, San Cristobal is Chatham, and Santa Maria is also Floreana or Charles. The islands’ capital is on San Cristobal, but it is not particularly important, at least to tourists. Most of them use the airport on Baltra which is just off Santa Cruz, and visit that island’s largest town, Puerto Ayora.

Until relatively recently, Ecuador did little to capitalize on this erstwhile paradise. One reason is that they were hard to reach (though today there is a usable airfield). Few facilities were available which means that even today, most visitors explore via ship. It also must be realized that Ecuador is a poor country and has barely managed to support the 6,000 or so colonists which have moved to the island.

Yet a steadily increasing stream of visitors have been drawn here. It may be the remoteness, the unique qualities of the animal life, or a desire to see the place which gave Darwin the information for his world-shaking theory of evolution.

Even today, the Galapagos are hardly a mainstream destination, with perhaps 20,000 or so tourists a year. That’s certainly to the benefit of the environment. For philatelists, there’s plenty of material to hunt for, though much of it cannot be called common.

Since 1936, Ecuador has issued over 70 stamps, mostly in sets, with a Galapagos theme. These have included stamp sets, strips, parts of larger sets and miniature sheets. Subjects of these issues range from maps of the islands, to depiction’s of island animals (iguanas are a poplar subject, as well as the famous giant tortoises), plant life (cacti), and lots of birds.

In 1936 Ecuador issued a 6-stamp set with a Galapagos theme. They are listed as 340-345.These stamps are all-encompassing, featuring a map, land iguana, tortoise, and island scene, and portraits of Columbus and Darwin. (Why Columbus was shown I do not know as he never saw these islands).

A 1957 issue of three stamps bore the Galapagos name, and they are listed as L1-3 in a separate subsection at the end of the Ecuador listing. These stamps were usable throughout Ecuador. LC 1-3 were also released in 1957, while LC-4 was released in 1959. All of these had Galapagos subjects.

Between 1961 and 2003, at least a dozen stamp issues have been devoted to the islands. Some of these sets have been as large as 10 stamps. In 1999 two sheets of 10 each (1491 and 1492) showed varieties of island plants and animals. In 2001 a strip of 5 was released (1569) showing island scenes.

 Santa Cruz Tortoise cancel, very hard to read.

History has not been neglected. In 1973 a set noting the 450th anniversary of their discovery was released (115-21). In 2003 a set of 5 (1696) noting the 25th anniversary of the declaration of the islands as a world heritage site came out. #1032-3, from 1983, noted Ecuadorean rule, as well as Darwin. There are a number of other issues to search for as well.

The good news is that, besides the number of stamps about the islands, there are all kinds of postal markings and unusual expeditionary mail uses to hunt for.

Probably the most famous is the notorious Barrel Mail. Back in the 1700’s and 1800’s the islands were a favorite haunt of pirates and later, whalers and sealers. Lonely sailors writing home would leave mail in a large wooden barrel, usually conveniently found at some snug harbor.

 Fahnestock expeditions visited Galapagos several times 1935-1940

Several spots around the Gala-pagos are known to have had such receptacles. The best known–and the one that has the most markings associated with it–is Post Office Bay. This is located on the northern coast of Isla Santa Maria (Floreana).

 Postal Cancel from Santa Cruz Island

No one knows for sure when the first barrel appeared here. It was probably in the late 1700’s, but this is not certain. It is known that from time to time whalers and other ships would leave letters here to be taken by homebound vessels.

Of course over the years the barrel would be replaced. More recently it became a custom to attach planks with ship’s names to be barrel supports.

There are a number of cachets known applied to this "barrel mail". Many have a barrel motif, while others may simply name the place–(Post Office Bay). While a few of these markings may have originated aboard visiting ships, most probably originated with Margaret Wittmer. She was a member of one of several groups of Germans who settled on Floreana in 1932, and her house was close to the bay. However, she probably did not personally mark the letters as she would not have known when visiting vessels arrived.

One of the more common cachets is in a double ring circle, and shows a barrel in the middle. On the outside are the words "Post Office Bay/Galapagos". This is known from 1937, and is believed to be the earliest barrel cachet. Pre-World War II barrel mail is extremely scarce. In the 1950’s and 1960’s as larger cruise ships began to visit, more cachets were available. At least eight are recorded, some of which retain the barrel motif.

Also of interest are the many markings used by the Ecuadorean civilian authorities on the various islands. Unfortunately these tend to wear out, making their designs practically unreadable.

 Various Wittmer barrel mail cachets 1978.

In the late 1960’s, an agency opened in Floreana. This was named Puerto Velasco Ibarra, after one of the Ecuadrean Presidents. There are several markings with this name. One of the largest populations is found on Santa Cruz. It is concentrated on the south coast of the island, at Puerto Ayora. This is also the location of the Charles Darwin Foundation, and there are several hotels as well.

This office usually uses the words "Isla Santa Cruz". It has probably been around since the 1950’’s. Occasionally the name of Puerto Ayora is also used. I have seen several such cancels also with the wording "Archipelago de Colon". Some of these also have a tortoise in the middle.

The largest island, Isabela, also has an agency. This is at Puerto Villamil. It is located on the south coast. The office here is believed to have opened in the early 1950’s. What is almost certainly the oldest post office operates at the group’s capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal (Chatham). Several cancels exist, both with the village and island name.

A third–and most enticing pursuit–involves covers from numerous scientific expeditions, and private yacht excursions, which have investigated the islands. Such famous vessels as "Yankee"–the world-girdling Capt. Johnson vessel–and the royal yacht "Britannnia", have left philatelic records of their visits. A number of these visits were sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

One of the most fascinating is the Fahnestock expedition (actually, there were two of them, one in 1935 and the other in 1940). These expeditions sailed aboard the yachts "Director" and "Director II". Their object was to investigate music in the different islands, especially the Dutch East Indies. (This is rather odd since there is no indigenous music in the Galapagos). This group also used the barrel mail.

It may surprise American collectors, but there is (besides the yacht mail) quite a bit of American military mail associated with the Galapagos. In the late 1930’s, at least 17 visits are recorded from the killer bars of U.S. Naval vessels. These include such famous ships as the U.S.S. Chicago, Houston, and Bear.

During World War II, the U.S. constructed an air base on Baltra Island. Starting in 1942, this base used APO 662. It is believed to have been in use until 1946. There are several different cancels known.

  1973 Ecuador stamps show Galapagos wildlife.

I’ve only covered some of the possible collecting areas here. There are also numerous markings from tourist ships, such as the famous Lindblad Explorer vessels. Even the Ecuadorean military has produced some markings. Every year seems to produce some heretofore unrecorded cancels or cachets, so you just have to ‘dive in’.

Contact's: Steve Pendleton