Standing four feet tall and weighing over 450 pounds, these massive shelled reptiles live, on average, a hundred years or more, perhaps much more. In the world of wildlife conservation, there are even rumors of an old-timer who was a hatchling at the time of Charles Darwin’s famous visit to the Galápagos Islands in 1835. Whether the story is true or not is beside the point. It serves to show how we mark the history of these tortoises through events in human history; we treat them as living timelines.
For millennia, a great many tortoise species inhabited the Galápagos archipelago — until their populations were decimated by 18th- and 19th-century pirates and whalers who used tortoises as sources of food. In the mid-to-late 20th century, aggressive conservation efforts kicked in, with the giant tortoises serving as an easily recognizable symbol for the archipelago’s endangered species. And when the charismatic Lonesome George died on the islands in 2011, he put a face and persona to a bitter moment in tortoise evolutionary history and wildlife conservation — he was an endling, the last known member of his species. He was mourned.
In On the Backs of Tortoises, environmental historian Elizabeth Hennessy explores the tortoises’ life history, advancing two themes in particular. First, capitalism and consumption are inexorably intertwined with tortoise history; and, second, conservation efforts that focus on “restoring” the islands to a pristine wilderness Eden are in fact disingenuous, sidestepping not only the actual natural history of the archipelago’s tortoises but also utterly dismissing the lives of its human occupants. Like so many good environmental histories, Hennessy’s book advocates, instead, for context and nuance — which the tortoises offer in spades. She is able to plumb historical complexities by drawing on archival sources, texts, and photographs as well as interviews with contemporary scientists, naturalists, and Galápagos residents.
At the outset her research for the book, she is surprised at how “people who live so far from the islands have an emotional stake in them.” It speaks, she writes in the preface, “to the power of our imaginations of this storied place.” But, she continues, “news reports and nature documentaries offer very partial views of life in the archipelago. They portray a world of extremes — either pristine nature or a crisis. Neither is the reality that I’ve seen.”
Not only does neither extreme do justice to the reality, but how we think about or value the islands, their animals and environments, has changed drastically over time. For instance, the Galápagos of the 16th-century Spanish buccaneers is different from the Galápagos of the 19th-century whaling industry, which is, obviously, different from 20th-century attempts to colonize the islands. Throw in 21st-century ecotourism and we begin to glimpse just how much the tortoises have been part of human history, for better or worse, sometimes both at once.
In October 1835, Charles Darwin hiked across Santiago Island (then named James) and was captivated by the giant tortoises in its green highlands.
He watched the tortoises amble along their tortoise paths, timed their gait, and measured their circumferences. When Darwin empirically discovered that he had no hope of lifting them, he tried to estimate how much they weighed. (He also tried to ride them, a practice that, along with a great many other dubious ones he undertook, is “not among the approved ways of following in Darwin’s footsteps” on the islands, Hennessy wryly notes.)
But Hennessy dives deeper into Darwin’s encounter with the Galápagos tortoises through one anecdote in particular, which serves to remind us that history is always more complicated than it might seem. While Darwin was in the Santiago’s highlands, he spent two days camping with local tortoise hunters, eating only tortoise. (The tortoise meat was roasted on the animal’s breastplate and then fried in tortoise fat; Darwin describes the carne con cuero as “very good” but noted that he preferred the “capital soup” made from young tortoises.) Darwin drank from tortoises, too, and found their fluid “only slightly bitter.”
Darwin rediscovered what sailors had long known: the tortoises — both water and meat — were a complete nutritional package. It’s hardly surprising, then, that for centuries they were a major food source for explorers, whalers, pirates, and other ocean travelers. A waypoint in the Galápagos meant that ships could restock their stores with tortoises, which would then serve as fresh meat onboard since live tortoises could survive a months-long voyage. And this is how Hennessy neatly segues into a nuanced discussion of how the history of Galápagos tortoises is, inevitably, a history of consumption and capitalism. It was natural, as it were, to consume nature.
“Today, of course, we look back on this history with chagrin,” she observes. And although we no longer eat the Galápagos tortoises, we consume them in other ways. At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists collected tortoises for natural history collections and taxidermy exhibits; tortoise oil hunters left “graveyards” of tortoise shells across Sierra Negra, Isabela, in the Galápagos.
Twenty-first century tortoise consumption happens through ecotourism. When tourists first step off their boats, they’re invited to imagine that they’re stepping into Darwin’s quaint natural history world. They’re told that contemporary conservation efforts will return the archipelago to the pristine wilderness that Darwin supposedly encountered. “This Darwin is the patron saint of Galápagos science and conservation — someone who, after centuries of human predation of wildlife, taught us that nature is not a God-given resource for human consumption,” Hennessy argues. “The graybeard Darwin is the secular deity in whose steps tourists follow when they visit the Galápagos National Park. But he is not the Darwin who actually walked the islands’ hills.”
Except, of course, that Darwin didn’t step into a land untouched by humans. Trying to erase or overwrite the islands’ human history requires discounting the lived experiences — voluntary and involuntary — of colonists. The Galápagos was used as a penal colony, and, in that history, the tortoises fade into the background. The violence of tortoise exploitation is paralleled by the violence of human incarceration and penal labor. Those decades on the Galápagos Islands start to look awfully grim. To pretend that the Galápagos can simply be “returned” to the time before this or any other event — to think that a pristine “Eden” for the tortoises and their fellow animals could simply sidestep the islands’ humans — is to elide how human history has played out in the islands.
Today, the Galápagos might be how we like to imagine an unspoiled nature. “The Galápagos” — whether experienced as a tourist or through a documentary — offers a tidily scripted nature. As Hennessy suggests, this “edited” version of the islands is ultimately performative.
And of course the story of tortoises in the Galápagos is not yet over. Tortoises reemerge in the Galápagos with active attempts to “re-tortoise” islands where certain species have gone extinct. These re-tortoising efforts bring together scientists from outside the Galápagos Islands and local Galápagos tortoise experts. Concern about tortoise futures, Hennessy suggests, is how people come together. The islands’ people, she reminds us, also deserve to be heard.
In short, it’s easy to think that the history of the Galápagos Islands is one long, unbroken line of events from Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle to today’s ecotourism and celebration of Galápagos biodiversity. And it’s possible to show the giant Galápagos tortoises at every major point in Galápagos history — to consider the animals as caricatures or props for other sorts of histories. But On the Backs of Tortoises offers a much more carefully researched, nuanced, and crafted sort of environmental history. It reminds us that here, in the 21st-century Anthropocene, Galápagos tortoises are emblematic of how we think about and consume the world. This isn’t new; it has been the case for centuries.
It turns out that history really is tortoises all the way down.
Lydia V. Pyne is an American writer and historian, specializing in the history of science and material culture.