The Galapagos islands in the Pacific Ocean were once natural stopovers for 18-century whalers, who were drawn to the remote islands by fresh water and a variety of food sources. These whalers would spend months and sometimes years on the job, hunting whales and processing them for the oil and would return only when the ship’s hold was full with barrels of whale oil, which at that time was a valuable commodity widely used in oil lamps and making soaps. Islands like the Galapagos provided sailors an escape from the monotony of sea-life and from the relentless heaving of the rough seas, and also an opportunity to bring a variety of exotic meat to their plates, such as that of the Galápagos giant tortoises.
The mail box in a barrel in Floreana Island. Photo credit: Mark Anthony Ray/Shutterstock.com
Floreana Island, then known as Charles Island, was one such pit-stop. Back then, homesick seamen devised a clever method to deliver letters to their families. They erected a wooden barrel and left their mails there in the hope that the next seamen who come along might be headed in the direction of their letters’ destinations, and thus pick them up and deliver them on their way. More than a century letter, this unusual honor-based postal service is still in operation.
Everyday, boatloads of tourists land on Floreana Island’s Post Office Bay, and after walking a few dozen yards through the sandy beach, arrive at the wooden barrel crammed with postcards and notes left by past visitors. They sift through the letters looking for addresses that are within delivery distance of their homes and pick those up. The letters doesn’t have any stamps so they need to be hand-delivered, although occasionally, those who pick up the letters would put a stamp and mail them instead. These travelling postmen also drop their own messages for others to pick up.
Photo credit: NH53/Flickr
But there is more to Floreana Island than just the mailbox.
The Sinking of The Essex
In 1820, an American whaling ship named Essex landed on Floreana Island for repairs and to restock their food supplies. They captured about 60 giant tortoises to supplement the already 300 on hold, which they had captured on another island in the Galapagos. One day while others went looking for tortoises to catch, one of the sailors set fire to an underbrush as a prank. It was the height of the dry season and the fire soon burned out of control, surrounding the tortoise hunters and forcing them to run through the flames. By the time the men returned to Essex, almost the entire island was burning.
Many years later, when one of the sailors—a young cabin boy at that time, named Thomas Nickerson, who later published an account of the Essex’s sinking—returned to Floreana Island, he found a blackened wasteland where “neither trees, shrubbery, nor grass have since appeared.”
“There can be no estimate of the destruction caused by this fire to the animal creation.” he wrote. “There must have been thousands upon thousands of terrapin, birds, lizards, and snakes destroyed and it probably burned until the rainy season again set in.”
When Charles Darwin visited the island fifteen years later, life had sprung back on the island but there was no sign of the giant native tortoise because whalers and pirates had hunted it to extinction. By then the island had been annexed by Ecuador and had been turned into a penal colony, which further devastated life on the island.
Meanwhile, the Essex, after leaving the smoldering Floreana Island, went in search of new hunting ground in the South Pacific, where an enormous sperm whale delivered poetic justice—it rammed the vessel repeatedly until it broke to pieces and sank. The surviving crew drifted around the open ocean for a month, and landed on an uninhabited island, where they gorged themselves on every available birds, crabs, eggs, and peppergrass. When the island’s resources were exhausted, the shipwrecked sailors set sail again. Only three decided to stay behind.
An illustration by Rockwell Kent that appeared on a special edition of “Moby-Dick” published in 1930.
For months, seventeen sailors drifted helplessly in lifeboats. The food they had stockpiled before leaving had long been exhausted, and one by one the men began to die. Eventually, they began to consume the bodies of their dead mates in order to stay alive. When that too was gone, the men resorted to drawing straws to determine who became food for the rest. Then they drew straws again to decided who would kill that person.
Of the original twenty men, only eight survived the ordeal, including the three that chose to stay behind on the island. When they were rescued three months later, seven sailors had been consumed. Herman Melville’s legendary novel, Moby-Dick, is partially inspired by the story of Essex’s encounter with the killer whale.
The Galapagos Affair
More than a century later, in 1929, a German doctor named Frederick Ritter and his lover Dore Strauch arrived at Floreana Island to settle just like early European pioneers did in North America and elsewhere. Their story was widely covered in the press encouraging many others to follow. In 1932 Heinz and Margret Wittmer arrived with their son Harry, and shortly afterwards their son Rolf was born there, becoming the first citizen of the Galápagos. Later the same year, the self-described “Baroness” Eloise von Wagner Bosquet arrived. She brought along with her, her two lovers, Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz, and an Ecuadorian servant. She announced her plan to build a luxury hotel which horrified the doctor and the Wittmers, both of who were enjoying the reclusive lifestyle.
Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch at their home in Floreana Island.
The Baroness was an attention seeker, who trotted about the island wearing a skimpy outfit and greeted every passing ship with elaborate tall tales. She carried a whip and a pistol which she liked to point at anyone who displeased her. She bad-mouthed the other settlers, and sometimes even stole their things. But visitors seemed to like her—she was an attractive woman, after all—and yachts went out of their way to meet her.
Then one day in 1934, the Baroness and Philippson disappeared. The Wittmers and Lorenz claimed the Baroness and Philippson went away to Tahiti with her friends. But the story didn’t hold water as the Baroness had left behind most of her possessions, and neither Frederick Ritter nor Dore Strauch reported seeing any visiting yacht that could have taken them away.
Shortly after, Lorenze, who had for some time fallen out of favor of the Baroness and had frequently quarreled with Philippson, became suspiciously eager to go back to Germany. He hastily departed to the island of San Cristobal, but his boat disappeared. His mummified remains were discovered months later washed ashore along with his boat on Marchena Island.
The Baroness and her two lovers.
The strange happenings didn’t end there. In November of the same year, Dr. Ritter died, apparently of food poisoning due to eating some poorly-preserved chicken. This is odd because Ritter was a vegetarian. According to Margret Wittmer, before dying Ritter told that Strauch had poisoned him, although Strauch denied the accusation. She returned back to Germany leaving the Wittmers sole residents of Floreana Island.
The Wittmers lived on the island for many years and became wealthy years later when tourism on the Galapagos boomed, even opening up a hotel. Their descendants still own valuable land and business there.
Both Dore Strauch and Margret Wittmer wrote books describing their experiences and the hardship as early settlers, as well as their own interpretation of the mysterious deaths and disappearances on this remote tropical island. The sordid tales of the “Galapagos affair” has also been told and retold countless number of times by historians and there is at least one documentary on the subject.
Today, Floreana Island has a permanent population of about one hundred who live on the island’s only town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra on the northwest side of the island. The Wittmer family’s hotel is located here.
Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter.
Heinz Wittmer, baby Rolf, son Harry, and wife Margaret Wittmer.
The Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet.
Rudolph Lorenz near the barrel post box at Post Office Bay, prior to the Baroness’ disappearance. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives