Captain James Colnett’s Barrel & the World’s Most Unusual Post Office

Current mail barrel at Post Office Bay, Floreana Island, Galapagos

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.

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2 Responses to Captain James Colnett’s Barrel & the World’s Most Unusual Post Office

  1. Chris Roche says:

    It was in 1998 in the brigantine Eye of the Wind on our pacific voyage that we came to the Barrel letter box, then called a Pirates letter box, we all deposited our cards to be mailed from somewhere else, I took two which I intended to hand deliver one for Vancouver and another to go to Florida. Some 11 months later when I made it to Canada I took a bus out to an estate and climbed the hill knocked on a door and said I had mail, the lady refused to open the door to me. I told her where I had been and posted the card under the door which she then opened and let me in. A friend of hers came along and drove me back to the city centre explaining her friend could be nervous of strangers. I then made my way down from Vancouver to Seattle crossing the Juan da Fuca Strait into the States. I got a car delivery job and along the way visited Half Moon bay, San Francisco, San Diego, Brownsville and Galveston along the way to see ships driving 4500 miles in 11 days in a horrible little Ford Tempus in UK it would have been an Escort, the car was to be delivered to its owner living in North Atlanta, South Georgia, but I had one card to deliver and that to Florida in the panhandle after getting lost on route somewhere down those parts I found a phone box in the town to which I was going in those days they still had directories in them! I phoned and then drove to the house where I had an entirely different reception, I was invited in and sat down and asked to stay over, with a drink in hand I was told the following tale. We were in Suez with our yacht when a boat came over to us from another yacht, the lad said he was delivery crew and told us how he had sailed as crew in Eye of the Wind a square rigger, and here you are one of Thews shipmates from the Pacific voyage sitting here with my family now. The direct route to deliver that car would have been 3400 miles.

  2. Irwin Bryan says:

    I recall reading about explorers, possibly even the first circumnavigators, who left messages for separated vessels in conspicuous places along their route. The same for shipwrecked sailors.
    While none were in use continuously, Captain Colnett had probably heard about the practice before placing his barrel where other whalers were known to stop.

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