An Unwilling Colonist


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Before 1807, no human being was a resident on the Galápagos Islands. So who were the ones to colonize first? It was one man named Patrick Watkins, and he didn’t do so willingly. There isn’t much in terms of first-hand accounts about the man, but a Captain David Porter (of the US Navy) wrote a detailed account from his own research in 1822. Most of today’s story comes from that record.

Portrait of Captain David Porter, who was enamored with Patrick Watkins' story
Portrait of Captain David Porter, who was enamored with Patrick Watkins’ story

Patrick Watkins was aboard an English ship when he had a disagreement with his captain, large enough to cause his marooning on Charles Island (now known as Floreana). The red-headed Irishman didn’t waste time and built a hut for himself just a little inland. There he could keep watch for ships on the horizon and possibly farm. Which he did manage to grow a substantial number of potatoes and pumpkins.

Black Beach, the likely point of marooning for Patrick Watkins Photo credit: Stef of foodandphotosrtw ************
Black Beach, the likely point of marooning for Patrick Watkins
Photo credit: Stef of foodandphotosrtw

When a ship finally arrived, he immediately began to barter for a ride home. What he ended up with was a trade of potatoes and pumpkins for liquor. This happened often. In fact, every ship that arrived denied him passage off the island, but many took him up on more trades for liquor. As time wore on, his condition grew worse and each ship would be less likely to offer passage simply due to his appearance.

The appearance of this man, from the accounts I have received of him, was the most dreadful that can be imagined; ragged clothes, scarce sufficient to cover his nakedness, and covered with vermin; his red hair and beard matted, his skin much burnt, from constant exposure to the sun, and so wild and savage in his manner and appearance, that he struck every one with horror.

-Captain Porter, Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, 1822

At this point, Patrick decided to find other ways to leave the island. Finding a black man tending a boat on the shore, Patrick approached and took aim with a musket (for which he only had two rounds). He demanded that the man become his companion, but was met again with a refusal. So he fired twice, and missed… twice. The poor black gentleman was startled, so he decided to follow Patrick (who now claimed him as a slave). Before even reaching the hut, the slave took Patrick down, carried him back to shore and tied him up.


Pat was given lashings, by the captain, for this attempt at stealing his men. Following the lashings, the captain took much of Patrick’s supplies, any money inside the island hut, and destroyed the home. Angered, Patrick was not going to give up. Instead, he continued his dealings with ships and built up a supply of alcohol. Using the same, he got four sailors black-out drunk and hid them, forcing the ship to leave without them on board. When they awoke, they had to rely on Patrick’s leadership to survive.


Though his original plan may have been to overtake a crew using his own new crew, this changed for some unknown reason. When a ship arrived to make a deal for vegetables, he requested they land two boats (for the enormous amount). Arriving at his hut, there was no one inside, but there was a letter:


I have made repeated applications to captains of vessels to sell me a boat, or to take me from this place, but in every instance met with a refusal. An opportunity presented itself to possess myself of one, and I took advantage of it. I have been a long time endeavouring, by hard labour and suffering, to accumulate wherewith to make myself comfortable; but at different times have been robbed and maltreated, and in a late instance by captain Paddock, whose conduct in punishing me, and robbing me of about five hundred dollars, in cash and other articles, neither agrees with the principles he professes, nor is it such as his sleek coat would lead one to expect.
On the 29th of May, 1809, I sail from the enchanted island in the Black Prince, bound to the Marquesas.
Do not kill the old hen; she is now sitting, and will soon have chickens.


Fatherless Oberlus

The sailors returned to the beach and found one boat smashed, and the other missing. Patrick had made his escape. When he arrived on the coast of Ecuador, he was alone (the fates of the other sailors unknown). Unfortunately, he was seen as suspicious and immediately put in prison. Whether he was released seems to be lost to history (as he was still there at the time of Captain Porter’s account in 1822). However, his life on the island may have had a larger impact on its very future.

We have seen, from what Patrick effected, that potatoes, pumpkins, &c., may be raised of a superior quality, and with proper industry the state of these islands might be much improved.

Captain Porter, Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, 1822

Previously, no one believed the islands could sustain human life. With Patrick’s survival, a seed of colonization was planted. Today, there are nearly 27,000 residents living there. It’s possible history could look very different had poor Watkins been carried away with the first ship he found.


You can read more from Captain Porter’s journal, including his full account of Patrick Watkins, online at the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Music: Piano Sonata no. 17 in D minor by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by Paul Pitman

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