San Cristobal Island is the fifth largest island in the Galapagos Archipelago, situated on the eastern side. It spans an area of 557 square kilometers and reaches a maximum altitude of 2395 feet. The island is home to approximately 7199 people. The name “San Cristobal” comes from the Patron Saint of the sea, Christopher, while its old English name, Chatham, honors William Pitt, the first Count of Chatham. The capital of the Galapagos Archipelago, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, is located on San Cristobal Island.
In 1835, the renowned scientist Charles Darwin first landed on the Galapagos Islands, starting his exploration on San Cristobal Island. On the upper part of the island, you can find the “Laguna El Junco,” the largest source of fresh water in the entire archipelago. It was discovered years later by Manuel J. Cobos, which paved the way for colonization on San Cristobal Island.
Let’s delve into the history of San Cristobal Island. Manuel J. Cobos, born in the city of Cuenca in 1835, was already involved in the business world at a young age. He established his first company, “Casa Cobos Brothers,” with two partners. In 1862, Cobos visited the Galapagos Islands for the first time, searching for orchilla forests. Orchilla, a lichen widely used for dyeing carpets and fabrics, promised significant economic gains abroad. However, despite their efforts, they were unable to find it, resulting in substantial financial losses.
On September 16th, 1866, Cobos embarked on a journey to what is now Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. Accompanied by several men, he explored the forest and settled eight kilometers inland, acquiring virgin forests at very low prices.
Over time, Cobos’ partners sold their shares, leaving only Manuel J. Cobos and his brother-in-law Monroy as owners of the business for about 40 years. Cobos took charge of production and administration on the island, while Monroy handled merchandise reception and commercialization in Guayaquil. They also brought farmers to the island to cultivate vegetables. Eventually, they discovered that the exploitation of wild cattle and the skins of seals or sea lions could also be a lucrative venture, as their hides were in high demand.
As their business prospered, Cobos became an arrogant and cruel man, particularly towards his workers, many of whom were dangerous criminals exiled from mainland Ecuador to the islands. He subjected them to severe punishments, some of which even resulted in death.
In 1885, Cobos and Monroy took a significant step by establishing a sugar mill called “El Progreso” on an eighty-hectare sugarcane plantation. In 1886, Cobos introduced his own coins made of cowhide, known as “cobonas.” While the workers could use these coins in the island’s store, they were condemned to a life of slavery on the Galapagos since the currency held no value outside the islands.
On January 5th, 1904, J. Manuel Cobos met his demise, as he was assassinated by his workers who had grown tired of his mistreatment. His life came to an end with two gunshots and two blows to his head.