The enigmas of islands

Phantom Islands – In Search of Mythical Lands

Dirk Liesemer, trans. by Peter Lewis, London: Haus Publishing, 2019, £14.99

Dirk Liesemer is a writing Wandervögel, an epistolary inheritor of the romantically- imagined movement that flourished in Germany between the late nineteenth century and 1933. The ‘wandering birds’ took their inspiration from medieval myths, and made a cult of the outdoors and walking. Liesemer likewise revels in stories of improbable journeys, and follows ancient and overshadowed trails. His parents’ professions – his father a seafarer, his mother an antique dealer – seem almost to predestine him to antiquarian travellers’ tales. He has written on the November 1918 revolutionaries who triggered the German Revolution of 1918-19, and traced the tank-tracks of the 11th Panzer Division (nicknamed “the Ghost Division”) as it roared through Ukraine during Barbarossa. He is presently writing Wanderings Through the Night, accounts of roaming under Germanic stars – slumbering Leipzig, Zurich’s sadly playing fountains, the snowy tips of the Allgäu.

In Phantom Islands, first published in German in 2016, Dirk Liesemer follows in the wake of explorers and imaginers who over centuries ‘saw’ 30 territories which either never existed, or were mistaken for something else. It is an excellent companion piece to Raymond Ramsay’s No Longer on the Map (1972), Henry Stommel’s Lost Islands (1984), Donald S. Johnson’s Phantom Islands of the Atlantic (1994) and Malachy Tallack’s The Un-Discovered Islands (2016). It would also complement travel classics like Strabo or Hakluyt’s Voyages, or serious histories like Samuel Eliot Morison’s The European Discovery of America (1971). He may not be the first writer to ‘explore’ these outré outcrops, but this is an appealing introduction to an expansive and suggestive theme.

From earliest times, and from Ultima Thule to Terra Australis Incognita, islands have been loci for deep longings. They can be paradises or purgatories – fantastical or forbidding – haunts of ghosts or economic assets – magically set apart or exploration-encouraging halfway-havens. We see them when they’re not there, invent their extents and natures, and often cling to our inventions long after they’ve been lost to hydrography. They hover on mental and physical horizons, mirages of uncertain lights on unceasing waters, frequently seen as Edens or utopias. As another poetically-inclined German geographer, Judith Schalansky, reflected in her 2012 Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands—Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will,

The island seems to be in its element, still in its natural state, unchanged since the beginning, paradise before the fall from grace, innocent and unblushing

Liesemer ‘travels’ to several such prelapsarian places – most famously Atlantis, believed in by the Egyptians, Socrates and Plato – and the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kirchner, whose 1644 Mundus Subterraneus situated it midway between Africa and America. Liesemer goes onto the 6th century Irish monks who wrote of Hy-Brasil, or Isle of the Blest, farther west even than the Skelligs – visible only once every seven years, and not reachable even then, but festooned with flowers and fruits, its ground studded with gems, with gleaming cities of enchanters.

The real-life St Brendan set out in search of Hy-Brasil, and had allegorical adventures by the way, finding islands of pomegranates, magic springs and trees of white birds, and lighting fires on the back of whales. 120 different manuscripts were written in Latin alone about his exploits, and there were also accounts in Anglo-Norman, Catalan, Erse, Flemish, French, German and Norwegian. By 1325, Hy-Brasil had made it to maps, where it stayed (although never in the same position), and was sought by expeditions, including John Cabot’s. In 1674, a Donegal skipper reported seeing sheep, black hares, and a castle, and took off men wearing old-fashioned clothes and speaking an ancient language. By 1825, the once-divine domain had become a drab outcrop, “Brazil Rock”, off Nova Scotia’s Cape Sable – drab but, according to the wry Samuel Eliot Morison, so dangerous, on that fast-tided and foggy coast,

…as to call from mariners sentiments and language highly inappropriate for Hy-Brasil, the Isle of the Blest

One island hell makes it into the book, Devil’s Island, a 15th and 16th century updating of Irish, Norse and other stories of islands populated by remorseless beasts –Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron of 1558 was an especially influential re-telling – or flying demons, or unseen cacophonies of screaming souls shudderingly passed during the night-watches. Screaming soundscapes may have been inspired by cliff-nesting seabirds, whose colonial calls can stun by sheer volume, especially if blaring out of fog or night, preying on the elemental fears of superstitious and weary men far too far from home. While that Devil’s Island gradually fell off charts, in 1763 the French adventurer Jean-Baptiste Thibault de Chanvalon gave the resonant name to a small island off what would become French Guiana, and that Île would become notorious in another way, as the toughest of prisons, disgrace place of the unhappy Captain Dreyfus and innumerable less innocent others.

The focus of Phantom Islands is less on wholly imaginary islands than on those which might almost have existed, or were mislocated, or mistaken for something else. Islands were always inventible to explain anomalies, such as the mysterious material, amber, which enraptured Nero’s Rome, being used for imperial ornament and gladiatorial display. Pliny theorised influentially that amber stemmed from a Baltic island named Basilia. He had taken that idea, and name, from the Greek Pytheas’s reports of 300 years before – reports later lost, making dubious topography still more dubious by being filtered through doxography.

Columbus hoped to make landfall in ‘Antilia’, or Island of the Seven Cities, a Portugal-mirroring island shown on Atlantic maps since 1367, and given a fabulously wealthy and deeply Catholic character in 1474 by Columbus’s fabulist friend, the Florentine scholar Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli. Of course the Genoese never found it, but it was imprinted in his mental atlas when he gave the name Antilles to actual aits.

Other never-existing ‘islands’ had some sort of solidity. Korea was long thought to be an island. So too was California, a territory tangible enough to Cortès’ tough conquistadores, but whose name derives from a 1510 chivalric romance, about a black Amazonian island-queendom (whose queen was named Calafia), guarded by 500 gryphons and woman-warriors bearing gold arms. In 1533, Spaniards who half-believed in Calafia adventured disastrously north along Baja California hoping to round the ‘island’ they wanted it to be, and find the strait that reportedly linked America’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic, and so Europe to Asia. Six years later, other explorers reported disappointedly that California was a peninsula, and maps were amended – but such was the hunger for that so-useful waterway that Drake, Frobisher and many others persisted in the search. A Greek sailor and a Spanish friar insisted they’d been through the strait, and John Speed inked it in on his otherwise state-of-the-cartographer’s-art map of 1626. In 1702, the strait’s existence was disproven again, but as late as 1746 hopeful expeditions were being launched.  

A few islands were invented for very personal reasons – like Byers and Morrell Islands northeast of Hawaii, named and described in 1825 by Captain Benjamin Morrell to flatter his sponsor, and even more to gratify his own boyish wish to have somewhere named after him. The United States later laid claim to the islands, and insisted that the International Date Line should bulge westwards to accommodate its imagined outliers.

The Atlantic island of Friseland was first mentioned by the Venetian Nicolò Zeno in 1380, who said he’d been knighted by its Latin-speaking ruler, Prince Zichmni. The fable was long sustained by the Scottish Sinclairs, hereditary Earls of Orkney, who claimed Zichmni as progenitor and therefore themselves as the real discoverers of America (a claim based chiefly on the fact that Rosslyn Chapel – of Da Vinci Code celebrity – has pre-1492 carvings of what looks like maize, at the time unknown in Europe). 

Byers and Morrell are not the only fake islands to have led to genuine geopolitics. In 1536, one Alonso de Chaves reported a small island of “bright and reddish hue” in the Gulf of Mexico, which he called Bermeja. The island appeared on charts thereafter, even after a careful 1775 naval survey failed to locate it. It suddenly seemed to matter in 2008, when the United States and Mexico were tussling diplomatically over oil-rich territorial waters in the Gulf. There were theories that the island had only ever been a low-lying reef, which had been submerged by rising sea levels – and Mexican nationalist rumours that it had been a real island, but had been destroyed by the CIA. Air and sea surveys in 2009 failed to find any sign, although in the end its non-existence made no difference, thanks to shrewd Mexican diplomacy.

In 1683, the English privateer William Cowley found a fertile island on the 47th Parallel that usefully offered safe riding to “a thousand sail”, and dubbed it Pepys Island after his friend, Samuel, Secretary to the Admiralty and private diarist. Cowley was out in his reckoning, very common before the 18th century’s marine chronometers; what he had really seen was the Falklands, yet his stake in that sea-area facilitated the following century’s British claim to the archipelago.

In 1783, the newly-demarcated United States-Canada border separated the Lake Superior islands of Phélipeaux and Pontchartrain from each other – a far from notional line dividing wholly notional islands, dreamed up by a Parisian geographer to flatter a patron.

Sometimes unreal places are upheld for reasons of prestige. After Sir Hugh Willoughby and the crews of the Bona Confidentia and Bona Esperanza froze to death in the Barents Sea in 1553, it seemed indelicate as well as unpatriotic to point out that the new island in the latitude of 72° mentioned by the national hero appeared not to exist.

At other times, once in-demand islands just fade from history. In 1577, Queen Elizabeth I laid a general claim to Greenland, Friseland and “Estetiland”, based partly on her astrologer-councillor John Dee’s assertion that King Arthur had discovered and conquered all the Atlantic from Britain to the North Pole. In 1675, the hard-headed Hudson’s Bay Company paid £65 to King Charles II for perpetual rights to the island of Buss – perhaps simply because all the imagined landmarks on the imagined island carried the names of Company directors. Sometimes, cartographers added islands to maps because they couldn’t be certain they didn’t exist, and preferred to have a ‘complete’ chart over one which was strictly verifiable.

Some embroidered islands became even more embroidered, unrealities stitched onto unrealities, as when Edgar Allan Poe made his hero Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket set forth in search of the south Atlantic’s Aurora Islands. Another, Kantia in the Caribbean, surfaced on Wikipedia and in the serious pages of mainstream newspapers, with a human interest story of how a thoughtful 19th century German yachtsman and follower of Kant had found the island, lost it, and spent the rest of his life trying to find it again. Kantia’s ‘actual’ origins lay in a box of old photographs found by a Swiss hoaxer, who made up stories to fit the unknown faces. A third, Rupes Nigra, a magnetic mountain at the North Pole, was perhaps the most fabricated of all. It was introduced in an anonymous English mid-14th century text called Inventio Fortunata (now lost), referenced by a Flemish traveller in his Itinerarum (also lost), who cited a third text (also lost); we only know they existed because they were cited by Mercator. A final fictive encrustation came courtesy of Jonathan Swift, who used Rupes Nigra as the model for Laputa.

It is pleasant to consider that even Googled Earth may throw up surprises, for instance in Indonesia, where estimates of island numbers range between 13,677 and 17,000 – while in 2000, a brand-new group was seen in the Andaman Sea by the crew of the space-shuttle Endeavour (named after an even more distinguished exploration vessel). We see in the end that even the least actual of islands are more than attenuated historical oddities, but have long half-lives as emotional symbols, exemplifying inventiveness, obstinacy and restlessness – showing above the world’s waves as seamarks and stepping stones in the unquiet oceans of ourselves.

This review first appeared in the May 2021 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

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