island trivia roundup volume 2

Rounding up some obliquely island-related trivia…

• • •

1. The Federated States of Micronesia is a group of 607 islands in the western Pacific Ocean that, somehow, accounts for under 300 square miles of land area across more than a million square miles of ocean. The largest of those islands is Pohnpei, clocking in at 130 square miles and a population just over 30,000.

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

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; they would become forefathers of the dynasty. The black lava rocks making up their ceremonial site were hauled by a dragon in thrall of the wizard siblings. And that may well be what actually happened; the Saudeleur Dynasty left behind no writings or carvings, and precious little art beyond a few beads and necklaces. Specifics of their life and culture are hard to find.

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 an average of 150 tons of lava rock moved a month, for four consecutive centuries, done without pulleys, levers, or metal, and 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 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 the culture of Pohnpeians. 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 a symbol of the Saudeleurs power; some of the pools in Nan Madol were eel holding pens, and offerings of turtle were given to the eels therein—symbolically, these were, offerings to the Saudeleurs themselves (this was of course 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’s worship of the bad joke eel.

More on Nan Madol here and here.

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. So, Swiss Family’s title was the equivalent of The Da Vinci Airport Novel (and, for the pedantically inclined, it may have been a misnomer; Swiss Family may not qualify as a Robinsonade, since their island is a bountiful and plenteous semi-utopia).

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. No, he really hated 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 revolves around a crazed doctor on an isolated island who experiments with animal human hybridization and xenotransplantation. The book was very much a product of its time: vivisection, animal experimentation, and animal cruelty were then hot-button topics in Europe, as Victorian-era ideals of scientific and moral progress collided (see, e.g., the brown dog affair). In the book, Moreau is an eminent British physiologist, exiled from civilized society when his experiments with vivisection are revealed to an aghast public.

A 1996 film adaptation went so horribly wrong there is a documentary about the spectacular implosion of its production. The 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.” Jesus, Iceman is right! 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. Go to Key West and head west. 70 miles later you’ll hit Fort Jefferson, a massive unfinished island fortress that is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere (though 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, particularly for POWs and deserters during the Civil War. The total population peaked at nearly 2,000 during the war, but the fort was abandoned by 1872, left behind to serve as a potential quarantine location (never used, so far as I can tell).

Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson

Among the prisoners 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 narrowly avoided the death penalty and was sent to Fort Jefferson. His story was 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 (the sharks also did not have laser beams attached to their heads), 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 event. That’s all circumstantial, to be sure, but certainly the movie’s Fugitive-style “wrong man” tenor rings a bit 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. That is, islands that appeared on maps and were believed to exist, except that they actually do not; existence is a frail thing. Wikipedia entreats us not to confuse phantom islands with lost lands, vanishing islands, Fata Morgana, or mirages.

I’m weirdly fascinated by the myriad ways the phantoms appear. Phelipeaux and Ponchartrain, supposed islands of Lake Superior, for example, 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 also to acquire funds from his backer George Crocker.

Some phantoms were mistaken for other islands due to navigation errors, some were volcanic and erupted, some were illusions of fog or ice. And lest you think this is ancient history, consider Sandy Island, part of the New Caledonia archipelago east of Australia. It was discovered by Captain Cook in 1774, and not “undiscovered” until 2012. 2012! I’m also confused by Ilha de Vera Cruz, discovered in 1500, an “island” that turned out to be Brazil, all 3.3 million square miles of it.


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