island trivia roundup volume 2

Rounding up more obliquely island-related trivia…

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1. Though they consist of 607 islands across more than a million square miles of ocean, the Federated States of Micronesia comprise less than 300 square miles of land area. The largest island is Pohnpei, clocking in at 130 square miles and a population just over 30,000.

On Pohnpei’s cost is Nan Madol, a ⅓ square mile “city” of canals and artificial islands—92 of them—resting atop a coral reef and constructed of multi-ton slabs of lava rock interlocked like Lincoln logs. Built between the 13th and 17th centuries, Nan Madol was—historians think—a ceremonial and political site; a seat of power and the location of religious and funerary rites, peopled by priestly and upper classes. The city was beautiful and massive but also impractical and purposefully extravagant; food and fresh water had to be imported at all times.

Nan Madol from above
Nan Madol from above

Nan Madol was a product of the Saudeleur Dynasty. Oral history holds that the dynasty began when twin brothers arrived at Pohnpei from a mythical foreign land, with the black lava rocks making up their ceremonial site hauled there by a dragon in thrall of the wizard siblings. For all we know, that is exactly what happened, because the Saudeleur Dynasty left behind no writings or carvings, and little art beyond a few beads and necklaces. Almost no specifics of their life and culture survive.

The big stones of Stonehenge are about 25 tons each; the biggest moai on Easter Island is about 80 tons. The total weight of the lava stones at Nan Madol is about 750,000 tons. That’s 150 tons of lava rock moved per month for almost 5000 consecutive months, done without pulleys, levers, or metal, and with a population of less than 30,000. You will not find a Nan Madol episode of How’s it Made because no one knows. The best current guess is rafts, but the island’s chief archaeologist says: “We did try to put a basalt log on a bamboo raft once. It sank straight to the bottom.”

Nan Madol wall
Nan Madol wall

Eels figured prominently in Pohnpeian culture and mythology. Mwas en Leng, for example, was an eel from whose corpse sprouted a banana native to the island (see Hanlon’s Upon a Stone Altar). The moray eel was considered a symbol of the Saudeleurs power, and some of the pools in Nan Madol were eel holding pens, where offerings of turtle were made—symbolic  offerings to the Saudeleurs themselves (this in addition to the actual food and water offerings that kept the Saudeleurs alive in their floating city). Centuries from now, archaeologists will excavate our hard drives, cataloging and sifting through millions of meme-sherds, developing theories about internet culture and the relevance of bad joke eel.

More on Nan Madol here and here.

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2. The Swiss Family Robinson was published in 1812, and what I didn’t know is that Robinson isn’t the family’s name, it’s the book’s genre. A Robinsonade, named for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, is the classic “desert island” story of a protagonist struggling for survival while stranded in a harsh and unforgiving land. Swiss Family’s title was the equivalent of The Da Vinci Airport Novel—and, for the pedantically inclined, it may have been a misnomer: the book may not be a Robinsonade, because the island is bountiful and plenteous rather than harsh and austere.

James Joyce savaged Robinson Crusoe as “the true symbol of British conquest,” a paean to colonialism; a fairy tale of a Brit who brings civilization to an uncivilized land. He really, really loathed it:

The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.

Joyce of course did not suffer from sexual apathy; his desires ran more to the louche. Dickens, also not a Crusoe fan, dropped this haymaker: “Robinson Crusoe is the only instance of an universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry,” but he never read Dan Brown.

•     •     •

3. HG Wells’s 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau features a crazed doctor on an isolated island who experiments with animal human hybridization and xenotransplantation. In the book, Moreau is an eminent British physiologist, exiled from civilized society when his experiments with vivisection are revealed to an aghast public. The plot was a product of its time: as Victorian-era ideals of scientific and moral progress collided, vivisection, animal experimentation, and animal cruelty were political flashpoints in Europe (see, e.g., the brown dog affair).

A 1996 film adaptation went so horribly awry there’s an entire documentary about its production. The original director was fired three days into filming; he later donned makeup and appeared as a pig-man extra in the film, unbeknownst to the crew. Val Kilmer was such a terror that the director later said he wouldn’t cast him in the Val Kilmer story; an IMDb trivia item says, with no other context: “Val Kilmer burned a crewmember in the face with his cigarette.” Marlon Brando wore an earpiece to feed him his lines; it sometimes picked up chatter on the local police band, which Brando dutifully repeated. He once, inexplicably, demanded to wear a bucket on his head. The movie—not the documentary—rates a 4.4 on IMDb.

the evil dr. moreau
the evil dr. moreau

4. If you go to Key West and head west, about 70 miles later you’ll hit Fort Jefferson, a unfinished island fortress that’s also the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere (but not the tallest, that title goes to the Anaconda Smelter Stack in Montana). The fort takes up virtually the entirety of Key Garden, which covers about 1/10th of a square mile.

The fort itself is hexagonal, about 500 feet on a side, surrounded by a moat/breakwater, and encompassing a massive open courtyard. Construction began in 1842, and while it was intended as a massive gun battery to both prevent invasion and discourage piracy it ultimately served mostly as an island prison during the Civil War. The total population peaked at nearly 2,000 during the war, but by 1872 the fort was abandoned, left behind as a potential quarantine (never used, so far as I can tell).

Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson

Among the prisoners held at Fort Jefferson was Dr. Samuel Mudd, popularly known for having splinted the broken leg of JW Booth during the assassin’s escape. Subsequently convicted for conspiracy, Mudd was sent to Jefferson in lieu of the death penalty. His story was later fictionalized in the delightfully-named 1936 film The Prisoner of Shark Island. Were you to watch it, you would believe that Mudd was a simple country doctor, an innocent bystander railroaded by a hysterical leaderless populace and kangaroo court; you would also believe that Fort Jefferson—the titular Shark Island—was surrounded by a shark-filled moat.

Neither of those is particularly accurate. The moat was not shark-filled, and Mudd was a slave-owning, CSA-sympathizing tobacco farmer who had met Booth and other conspirators on multiple occasions prior to the assassination, and let Booth sleep in his house after the murder. That’s circumstantial evidence to be sure, but the movie’s Fugitive-style “wrong man” tenor rings hollow—one reviewer said it suffered from “an adherence to legend at the expense of facts.”

Notice the lack of sharks.
Notice the lack of sharks.

Mudd later somewhat redeemed himself by stepping in to stem the tide of a yellow fever epidemic ravaging the camp. Either because of that act, or because the mania over Lincoln’s death had died down, or because Andrew Johnson could not be counted to do a single thing right, Mudd was pardoned in 1869. He died in 1883. Fort Jefferson is now a national park; you can visit there or go there to make your last stand in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Your choice.

Side note: The Prisoner of Shark Island was directed by John Ford, famed director of The Grapes of Wrath and Stagecoach, and lesser known for his 1942 army training film Sex Hygiene (no joke; watch it here). You can read the original 1936 NYT movie review here; watch the entire movie here; and read an odd essay here that does the rhetorical equivalent of a thousand angels dancing on the head of a pin by granting the film’s many inaccuracies while simultaneously praising its relevance to miscarriages of justice during the war on terror.


5. Here’s a thing I didn’t know we needed a term for: phantom island. These are islands that appeared on maps and were believed to exist, but in actuality do not. Wikipedia entreats us not to confuse phantom islands with lost lands, vanishing islands, Fata Morgana, or mirages.

One of the most common ways for phantom islands to appear is vanity. For example, Phelipeaux and Ponchartrain, supposed islands of Lake Superior, were presumably “invented” to ego-stroke the funders of the expeditions that “discovered” them. They were not proved nonexistent until 75 years later. Crockerland, similarly, was claimed by polar explorer and dirtbag Robert Peary in 1906; it was later shown to be a hoax, probably aimed at acquiring funds from his backer George Crocker.

Other causes of phantom islands are more mundane: navigation errors, volcanic islands that erupted and disappeared, or illusions of fog and ice. But it is not all ancient history and bad cartography: Sandy Island, part of the New Caledonia archipelago east of Australia, was discovered by Captain Cook in 1774. It was not undiscovered until 2012.

The most confounding of the lot is Ilha de Vera Cruz, an island discovered in 1500. It turned out to be Brazil, all 3.3 million square non-island miles of it.


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