The Whaler’s Barrel Postbox

(c)Family O'Abé (Creative Commons)

In 1793 English Captain James Colnett set sail for the Galapagos to investigate the possibility of whaling in the waters surrounding the islands. Whaling was an essential part of sustaining the industrial revolution and sperm whales in particular were a prized commodity. It would be another 65 years before commercial scale petroleum beneath the ground was discovered. The sea surrounding Galapagos is rich in nutrients due to the archipelago sitting at the confluence of several large oceanic currents, with the Humbolt current bringing nutrient rich waters up from Antarctica. Consequently, this area is perfect breeding territory for sperm whales and fur seals, which abounded here at that time.

It is generally thought that Colnett, having discovered how plentiful these marine mammals were, triggered the whaling activity around the archipelago. The industry lasted for the majority of the 19th century and completely diminished the whale population around the islands, as well as significantly impacting the giant tortoise populations on land, which they targeted for their easily obtainable meat that would keep fresh on-board for many months after capture.

Colnett’s legacy, a consequence of his time with regard to whaling, is not all bad however as he is charged with setting up the islands first ever postal system. On the island of Floreana, on what is now aptly named ‘Post Office Bay’ a barrel that would have originally contained whale oil and had a protective cover was erected on the beach. The barrel became widely used by the whalers. Crew on-board incoming ships would post letters into the barrel when they stopped off at the island for provisions (normally in the form of the tortoises). The men on ships that were returning home would subsequently collect the letters intended for their destination and deliver them. Whalers could be out at sea for up to 2 years at a time and the post office barrel became the primary way of sending news to loved ones back home.

At the height of the Napoleonic wars and the commencement of the War of 1812 between the US and what was then the British Empire, British whaling ships were particularly vulnerable as the oil was needed for the war effort on a number of fronts. US Captain David Porter took advantage of these tumultuous times and sailed his warship, the U.S.S. Essex, to the Galapagos Islands to try and capture British whaling ships. The Post Office barrel played a crucial part in the mission’s intelligence. Porter’s first move was to sail to Post Office Bay and read all of the letters in the barrel. From the contents he was able to deduce exactly where the British ships were whaling. Subsequently he intercepted and captured the British ships, thus changing the whaling industry in Galapagos from predominantly British to predominantly American.

(c) Smithsonian Institution Archives

Towards the end of the 19th century whaling quickly declined. The whalers had extracted the vast majority of the sperm whale population and with that extinguished their source of income. Despite this, the post office barrel remains and it can still be found on Floreana today. Though the barrel is more of a tourist attraction now, the principles that were applied by the whalers are still adopted and letters can be posted in relatively the same manner. No stamps are used and it is up to the goodness of strangers to deliver your postcard. This can result in mail remaining in the barrel for years, but sometimes it can arrive surprisingly quickly.

The Lincolnshire Echo reported on one such case recently. Marine biologist Jon Ashburner used the barrel to send a postcard to his parents in Lincolnshire whilst he was in Galapagos. Remarkably, Jon’s postcard only remained in the barrel for five days as Sarah Parker, a teacher based in Kathmandu whose parents live in Lincoln, found it among many others and decided to deliver it using the original method, by hand.

The Post Office Barrel is a key part of the Galapagos Islands rich and diverse human history so if you happen upon it be sure to take a minute to see if any of the mail is destined for a place near you!

by Kitty Burroughes

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