In 1793, Captain James Colnett of the merchant ship Rattler placed a barrel a short distance from a bay on the island of Floreana in the Galapagos archipelago. Captain Colnett was a British Naval officer, an explorer, and a maritime fur trader. On this voyage, he had been hired by British whaling interests to chart the Galapagos. In the barrel, he left the ship’s mail with the request of any homeward-bound ship that they would deliver the mail on their return to England. A replica of the barrel exists to this day, as does the free-lance postal service established by Colnett.
Why did Captain Colnett place his barrel on this island in a remote and generally arid archipelago? The Galapagos are a chain of volcanic islands roughly 600 nm from the coast of South America. Relatively speaking, the only area more remote might be the Pacific whaling grounds. The whaling ground which in the 18th and 19th centuries was rich with sperm whales were roughly thousand miles west of the South American coast approximately at the equator, which was only around 400 miles from the Galapagos.
Whalers in the Pacific were drawn to the Galapagos, not for their water, most islands have none, or for their wood or vegetation, which is also sparse. The reason that whaling ships called on the Galapagos was for the giant tortoises. Weighing up to almost 1000 pounds, the tortoises were an excellent source of both fresh meat and oil rendered from their fat. Turned over on their back the tortoises would stay alive for anywhere between a few months to up to a year, providing fresh provisions to the ship’s crews.
The tortoises are estimated to have numbered around 250,000 in the 16th century and to have been driven almost to extinction by the 1970s when they numbered around 3,000. In Colnett’s time, there were tortoises on the island of Floreana. The island also had a small freshwater spring, a rarity in the Galapagos. By the time Darwin arrived in the 1830s, the Floreana tortoises were gone, hunted to extinction.
Captain Colnett’s barrel rotted away long ago but has been replaced with others and the tradition of hand delivering postcards and letters left in the barrel survives to this day. It has been rightly called the “World’s Most Unusual Post Office.” When my wife and I recently visited what is now called Post Office Bay on the Floreana, we picked up a postcard written to the Brooklyn based two granddaughters of recent cruise ship passengers. My wife tracked down the family and delivered postcard. I wonder what Captain Colnett would think if he learned that his post office barrel was still delivering the mail after 224 years.