Time for a roundup of obliquely island related trivia…
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1. Am I alone in not realizing that Island of the Blue Dolphins, the book everyone reads in middle school about the girl living alone on a deserted island, is based on a true story? I’m staring into the yawning chasm of my own ignorance here.
The Channel Islands are a group of eight islands 25 miles or so off the coast of California, between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Despite their small size and appreciable distance from the coast, they offer some of the earliest evidence of human settlement and seafaring in North America. The northern islands were home to tribes of Chumash people, who may have numbered 15,000 at their peak, fished for swordfish, and by one lightly-regarded hypothesis were visited by seafaring Polynesians in 500 AD. The southern islands, meanwhile, were home to tribes of Tongva people.
The area around LA, and especially the islands, was mostly ignored by the Spanish until the arrival of missionaries near the end of the 18th century (weird to think of this happening while the Revolutionary War was going on on the other coast). Spanish diseases and forcible relocation quickly decimated both tribes. The Nicoleño (Tongva), on the island of St. Nicolas, had mostly escaped this fate until 1811. That’s when a group of Alaskan fur traders rolled in and started a miniature war over sea otters, a detail largely mirrored in Blue Dolphins. By the 1830s as few as seven Nicoleños were left. In what was meant as an act of Christian compassion, a “rescue” ship was sent for them, but the ship’s captain panicked in the face of a storm and left one woman behind.
She stayed there for eighteen years, until a mountain man found her. She was doing just fine, thank you, full of seal meat and ensconced in a whale-bone hut, looking hardly worse for the wear. She went back to the mainland with the man, where contemporaneous accounts tell us she was happy to eat fresh fruit and see, you know, other human beings.
Unfortunately we don’t actually know whether she was happy, distressed, or had been rendered quite mad from two decades of isolation, since there was no one left who spoke her dialect. The others who’d left the island had died within a year of reaching the mainland, and Juana Maria—a name given to her out of convenience since we don’t know hers—died within two months. Christ that’s depressing.
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2. In 1787, the HMS Bounty was sent to Tahiti to bring back bountiful breadfruit trees, but had to wait five months for them to grow large enough for transport. After five months on an island paradise, the crew was something less than excited to return to a life of hardtack, motion sickness, and ceaseless poopdeck swabbing.
It was probably this taste of island life more than the castigations of Captain Bligh that led to the famed mutiny— he wasn’t shy about administering floggings, but that didn’t make him unique. Bligh and 18 compatriots were set adrift on a small boat, and whatever Bligh’s shortcomings as a leader of men he did not have any as a seaman: without charts or maps he navigated the 23-foot boat more than 4,000 miles to the Dutch East Indies. The mutineers, meanwhile, returned to Tahiti. A few stayed there; they were arrested a year later. A second group of nine, along with six Polynesian men, kidnapped 18 women and absconded to Pitcairn Island, some 1400 miles away. Here’s where I remind you that the film version depicts Marlon Brando, the head mutineer, as the heroic party.
When they landed, the 1.8 square mile Pitcairn Island was empty. But from the 10th to the 15th centuries, Pitcairn was just one part of a group of four volcanic islands inhabited by thousands of Polynesian people. These were the sea-conquering “wayfinders,” who probably got to Pitcairn via Tahiti (here is a cool article about them). About 120 miles away from Pitcairn was Henderson Island, later to be the landing spot of castaways from the whaleship Essex, having come out on the losing end of a skirmish with sperm whale. They were rescued after six months, but at one point they found a cave filled with skeletons, which can’t be a big confidence booster when you end up stranded on a remote desert island.
The central hub of the island culture was Mangareva, several hundred miles to the west, larger, forested, and encompassing a lagoon filled with shellfish. The Mangarevans sent trees and mollusks to Pitcairn and Henderson, in exchange for stone and volcanic glass—trades that required several hundred mile canoe trips over open ocean. These islands are remote now, it’s almost impossible to imagine them as a thriving culture a millennium ago.
In fact, the culture thrived too much: the population peaked in the several thousands, which far exceeded the land’s capacity to sustain. By the 15th century, Mangareva was deforested, and the culture disintegrated, died out or escaped to somewhere else. The islands were, so far as anyone knows, untouched for centuries until blundered into by globe-trotting Europeans.
The mutineers and their captives arrived on Pitcairn in 1789. This was not a social experiment in egalitarian, utopian communal living; it was British guys running a personal fiefdom. By 1800, eight of the nine original mutineers were dead, six at the hands of rebellion, one by asthma, and one who figured out how to make alcohol and drank himself to death. It wasn’t until 1808 that the islanders had any contact with the outside world. The current population of 56 is mostly descendants from that initial settlement; all are seventh-day adventists thanks to a successful 19th-century mission. The British government just spent $14.1 million on a massive criminal trial in which virtually every adult man on the island was convicted of sexual abuse.
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3. 1200 miles from the nearest inhabited land and 1500 miles off the Atlantic coast of South Africa sits the 38 square-mile island of Tristan da Cunha. Unlike the Channels or Pitcairn, Tristan was uninhabited, perhaps even totally unknown, until 1506—just in time to end up on Mercator’s map. For a few centuries, it was nothing more than a stop on the way from Europe to the Indian Ocean, but by the early 1800s so many whalers were criss-crossing the globe that Tristan became a routine resting point.
In 1810, Jonathan Lambert stepped off a whaleship with a friend and declared Tristan his own, naming the chain the Islands of Refreshment. They had a flag and everything! His rule lasted naught but two years, when the three citizens of the Refreshments drowned in a tragic fishing accident. The island was by then a strategically valuable waypoint for US ships during the War of 1812, so the British claimed it to keep the US away. And if you believe the rumors, they also wanted to keep the French from using the island as a staging point in some harebrained scheme to spring Napoleon from his exile on St. Helena, which was 1400 miles away. High-stakes diplomatic intrigue! I bet secret government communiques were involved.
A small civilian population built up even while the opening of canals and the decrease in whaling rendered the island ever more remote. The current population is just over 300, and they have internet. Further reading here and here.
Side note: Tristan da Cunha is located within the ominously-named “South Atlantic Anomaly,” which despite the X-Files name is just a spot on earth with a weaker magnetic field…although experiments show that it has abnormally high levels of antiprotons, so…
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4. Cobra Island is a five square mile volcanic atoll located in the Gulf of Mexico, which first appeared following an earthquake in 1982. The cause of that earthquake? A massive bomb dropped by GI Joe forces, who’d been suckered into bombing that precise location by Cobra’s resident mad scientist Professor Appel. The bombs landed on a faultline, triggered an earthquake and plate shift, forcing the island up out of the sea—bringing with it a sunken Cobra freighter, now landlocked on the island. A remarkably devious scheme realized!
The Joes, realizing their folly, tried to forcibly evict Cobra from the island fortress. Proving the twin virtues of the rule of law and very high-priced attorneys—even for a terrorist militia bent on world domination—Cobra’s lawyers convinced the UN to grant them sovereignty, thereby rendering the Joe attack illegal. Cobra Commander was thus free to build the Terror Drome, a space shuttle launch pad, and a luxury hotel for visiting dignitaries there to buy arms. They would also get comped at the buffet.
The first Cobra Civil War, pitting Serpentor’s mutant constitutional monarchy against a totalitarian impostor Cobra Commander, nearly rent the island and its inhabitants asunder before it ended with Serpentor’s assassination. The real Cobra Commander returned and converted the freighter into a prison for subversives and counterrevolutionaries, including the notorious Doctor Mindbender. Of course, the prison was not enough retribution for the vengeful Commander, so he triggered a volcanic eruption, burying the prison and its captives in liquid hot magma (don’t cry for Mindbender, he was later reanimated. As was Serpentor. No one ever really dies). When Cobra was temporarily defeated in 1994, the island was transferred to the UN; Cobra later reestablished operations at Monolith Base in Badhikistan. By the way, all of that story is GI Joe canon. I can’t make that up.
The creator of the Cobra Commander character, by the by, claims to have drawn inspiration for it from William F. Buckley, which is maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. In the comics, CC was a used car salesman / pyramid schemer who railed against big government as he slowly morphed into a a cult leader cum orthodox laissez-faire capitalist cum itinerant madman. The creator describes him as “in love with the sound of his own voice.” Buckley also once triggered a volcano eruption to bury his enemies in a pyroclastic flow. That last part’s not true, so far as I know, but still the resemblance is uncanny.
Short list of amazing GI Joe place names: Wolkekuckukkland (a German transliteration of cloud-cuckoo-land), which borders Darklonia, which borders Trans-Carpathia; Frusenland (where Cobra’s paranoia ray instilled fear and increased arms sales); and Trucial Abysmia, a country in northern Africa.