Review of Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands

Originally published in World Ocean Journal 2 (2015): 16–23

Book Review: Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will.

According to one estimate, there are upwards of 8.8 million islands in the world.[1] As Christian Depraetere, a leading practitioner of nissology (the study of islands) has put it, “islands are the rule rather than the exception.”[2] From a nissological perspective, the visible land of our bluewater orb constitutes nothing more than a sprawling archipelago, dominated by the big islands of America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica to be sure, but a cluster of islands nonetheless. If this were not the case, ships would not be central to world trade. Perceptions matter, of course, but while we may scoff at the apocryphal British newspaper headline, “Fog in the Channel. Continent Cut Off,” the people of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) call their island Te Pito Te Henua, “the navel of the world.”[3]

In any case, the supercontinent Pangaea was an aberration, an accidental confluence of landmasses rather than an Edenic norm that came apart at the seams. Then again, in a geologically perfect world whose constituent elements were distributed in even layers like a spherical pousse café, there would be no bits “of the earth’s crust from the bottom of the ocean that just happened to shoot up above sea level, a veterbra of an undersea spine” like Macquerie Island between New Zealand, Australia, and Antarctica.[4] Without land, we would not exist. But we live in an imperfect world, some of whose more jagged contours Judith Schalansky has artfully delineated in her Atlas of Remote Islands.

Their pretensions to systematic coherence notwithstanding, all reference books are idiosyncratic, but Schalansky’s compendium of Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will—Fifty out of millions? What gall!—is stunningly so. The presentation is impeccable. The islands are drawn to the same scale (1:125,000) and each, from the smallest (Tromelin, a 0.7 square kilometer “French” crumb in the Indian Ocean) to the largest (Russia’s uninhabited Rudolf Island, 297 sq. km.) sits in solitary splendor on its own right-hand page. The facing page includes the island’s latitude and longitude, scale bars showing its distance from three often equally remote landfalls, and a timeline of significant events since 1500—sometimes only one, never more than four—and a written sketch. She concludes with a multilingual glossary of geographical terms, from the French arête (crest or ridge) to the Japanese yama (mountain), and an index of about 1,100 place names—points, bays, capes, peaks, settlements—and the names of the hundred or so people who haunt these pages.

If the heart of the book is Schalansky’s beautifully executed cartography, the soul is in the text, especially the narrative captions, none more than about 400 words, drawn from a careful reading of innumerable though unnamed sources. A pair of faint gold slashes indicates a change from one writer or theme to another. “All text in the book,” she writes in her preface, a subtle and succinct meditation on cartography, art, and the human condition, “is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything.”[5] The last claim gives me hope for Schalansky, but inspires little confidence in humankind as a going concern.

This is because the Atlas says as much about people as it does about islands, even though the average population of the 31 inhabited islands is 1,095 and the median only 277. Nineteen of those she describes are uninhabited. Schalansky seems not to have made her choices to prove a point or advance an agenda. Her love of maps is rooted in an East German childhood spent poring over an atlas with “a map of the world, carefully positioned on a double page spread so that the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic fell on two separate pages.” She only discovered “the provisional nature of the GDR” after unification, when she saw West German atlases that marked her homeland as “Soviet-occupied territory…. Ever since then I have not trusted political world maps, in which countries float on the blue ocean like vivid scarves”[6]—or like clusters of islands huddled on the land.

The randomness of Schalansky’s selections suits her subject. Only a small minority of readers will have heard of all these islands, yet what is striking is how many names are familiar. Some islands we know because our eye has chanced upon them repeatedly while looking for something else: Bear, Amsterdam, St. Paul, and Trinidade Islands, for instance. Others are known as the locus of events of wider historical interest: Howland, near where Amelia Earhart’s plane went down on her failed circumnavigation; Norfolk, which served as a penal colony for Australia; Iwo Jima, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater in World War II; Diego Garcia, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory whose 2,000 native inhabitants were forcibly removed between 1968 and 1973 to give the United States a military base in the Indian Ocean.

Still others are known simply because they are named for someone of renown. These are the celebs of the island world, famous for being famous. Sometimes the relationship was complementary, and Schalansky notes that discoverers who put islands and their names on maps could become as famous “as if they had not merely found new worlds but actually invented them.”[7] Explorers, as givers of names, were well aware of this. In the words of HMS Beagle’s Captain John Lord Stokes, who named Port Darwin, Australia, after his former shipmate, “monuments may crumble, but a name endures as long as the world.”[8] At least sometimes: Alexander Selkirk gave his name to an island (also known as Más a Tierra, 630 km. from Chile) where he was marooned for four years, but in 1970 the Chilean government, ever alert to marketing opportunities, renamed it for his fictional Doppelgänger, Robinson Crusoe. In compensation, they gave Selkirk’s name to the still more remote Más Afuera, on which he never set foot.

Discoverers, their shipmates, and their sponsors might serve as the mapmaker’s muse, but the cartographer is essential to bringing the world into two-dimensional being. Playing on the medieval mariner’s motto “to sail is necessary, to live is not,” Schalansky reminds us “only that which is written about has really happened…. Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and exercise of colonial violence.”[9]

Schalansky’s colonialism is not the narrow, geopolitical form familiar from history books, but the broader human project to control the world by defiance of the unknown and conquest of . . . what? Nature? Fear? Oneself? Mapmakers charted our progress as terrae incognitae became known and we drove “sea monsters and other creatures” from the darkest corners of the page.[10] She advances no grand theory to explain the ancient human drive to go in search of and colonize, when possible, even the smallest, remotest islands. She is less concerned with the Terra Australis Incognita of human ambition than with the outcomes of our restless urges, the deep and all-too-often toxic ambition to go our own way. John Donne’s meditation on the idea that “No man is an island” gets no play here, for that suggests the potentially beneficial, or at least benign, interconnectedness people have with one another.

There is a dark side to the human web, yet despite the wealth of contrary evidence, we remain inclined to associate much of this with the corruptions of, or resistance to, Western modernity, and to feel, as early European explorers did, that island societies preserved “the state of natural man, born essentially good, free from all preconceptions, and following, without suspicion and without remorse, the gentle impulse of an instinct that is always sure because it has not yet degenerated into reason.”[11] The testimony Schalansky elicits from her sources can be read as counterblast to this enlightened naiveté and an indictment of the moral ease with which we degrade each other and our environment. It also makes the reader obliquely aware of the enormous effort required to lead honorable, respectful lives.

The difficulties islanders face are not unique to them, but many of these remote islands represent if not microcosms of human society, then at least controlled experiments whose subjects have followed corrupt, or corruptible, Pied Pipers to the hearts of darkness at the ends of the earth. For isolation—from the Latin, insula, island—can be a form of individual and collective torture, and there is no shortage of examples here. Whether inhabited or not, remote islands do not bring out the best in people, and the lines between proud self-sufficiency, arrogance, and depravity seem as arbitrary as the drawing of the prime meridian, or the printer’s gutter between West and East Germany. Hence the truth of the title she gives her introduction: “Paradise is an island. So is Hell.”[12]

Provisionality is an underlying theme in the majority of these miniature case studies, which invariably touch on the fragility of island life. The archipelago of St. Kilda, a clutch of islands forty miles from the Outer Hebrides, was inhabited for two thousand years, and is home to two ancient breeds of sheep. The St. Kildans were in intermittent contact with outsiders before the nineteenth century, when steamer service made the main island, Hirta, readily accessible to tourists fascinated by this disconnected people. Yet they also introduced smallpox and other diseases that wrought havoc on the small population, while tetanus infantum claimed two-thirds of the islands’ newborn children. Faced with these perennial threats and diminishing agricultural yields, the last of the St. Kildans went into voluntary exile and evacuated the island in 1930.

On the far side of the world in the Solomon Islands lies Tikopia, first settled a thousand years before St. Kilda. Life here is precarious in the extreme, for the land is able to support no more than 1,200 people, a fact of which everyone is acutely aware and which has an enormous impact on society. Only the oldest sons may have children, for they must be fed from the land they own. “The younger sons stay single and are careful not to produce any children…. [T]he men practice coitus interruptus, and if this does not work, the women press hot stones to their pregnant bellies.”[13] There is no postponing the inevitable; unwanted babies are left to die.

Among history’s greatest mysteries, of particular interest to nissologists, is what prompted the migrations that led, over the course of 3,000 years, to the settlement of almost every island capable—if only barely, like Tikopia—of supporting life in Oceania. Necessity? Land hunger? Exile? Disinheritance? Exploration? The search for fish? Charismatic megalomania? What we do know for certain is that Melanesians, Polynesians, and Micronesians were every bit as susceptible to the destructive forces of greed, jealousy, and prejudice as anyone else. At the navel of the world, the most remote of remote islands—2,000 kilometers (1,400 miles) from its nearest neighbor—the people of Easter Island divided themselves into twelve tribes, utterly denuded their island of trees, and saw their population plummet, from 10,000 to 4,000 today, only a hundred of whom are described as native.

With an area of only 4.5 sq. km. (1/36 that of Easter Island), Pitcairn is not an imposing neighbor. Polynesians once lived on the island, but by the time of its European rediscovery in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, they had either died off or moved on. It rose to outsize fame as the hideaway of Fletcher Christian, his nine fellow Bounty mutineers, and eighteen Tahitians, eleven of them women. Despite the miniscule population and the absolute certainty they could never leave—they burned their ship to ensure it—unrest was widespread and only one of the original men survived to greet the next ship to call at Pitcairn, eighteen years later. The population peaked at 233 in the 1930s, the same decade that Pitcairn gained international renown following the release of Mutiny on the Bounty, the most expensive movie made to that time, and winner of the 1935 Academy Award for best picture. (This was the third of five cinematic tellings of the story so far, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton; not the infamous 1962 version featuring Marlon Brando’s theatrics and to which Schalansky refers.)

The world gazed again on Pitcairn in 2004, when thirteen current and former islanders were tried on charges of rape and other sexual offenses, most of them involving girls as young as ten, or even younger. The trial was a collision of British law (and imperial neglect) and a people who were without law as we know it, and one that laid bare a culture of rampant promiscuity in which carnal knowledge of a minor— twelve? fifteen? it’s unclear—was theoretically punishable by a hundred days in jail, though the crime was routinely ignored. And consent was often no more than apathy: “After a while I stopped saying no. There was no point to saying no. So I just lay there and let him get it over and done with. The quicker he did that, the quicker I was able to go.”[14] After three years of abuse, that future plaintiff left the island. She was fifteen.

The origins and circumstances of the Pitcairn islanders are unique, but living at a remove from society, whether on islands or in continental interiors, lends itself to indifference towards societal norms, and worse. In 1929, Dr. Friedrich Ritter and a patient, Dore Strauch, separated from their respective spouses and moved from Berlin to Floreana, one of the more demonstrably inhospitable of the Galapagos Islands. Eschewing clothing and other obvious trappings of twentieth-century society, they attracted a steady stream of emulous visitors and homesteaders and voyeuristic journalists eager to report on this highly evolved couple, whom the press dubbed—catchilly but without irony—“Adam and Eve on Galapagos.” Three years later, they were joined by an Austrian “baroness” and her two young lovers armed with ambitious plans to erect a hotel for millionaires. Two years later, Strauch returned to Berlin alone. Her doctor was dead, reportedly of food poisoning, the baroness and one of her lovers had disappeared, and the remains of the other was found several islands away. The mystery of what happened was never solved, but Schalansky does not exaggerate when she writes, “human beings travelling far and wide have turned into the very monsters they chased off the maps.”[15]

At its best, the discovery of remote islands results in a brisk failure, a leaving well enough alone: Step away from the island, and no one gets hurt. The whole venture can seem almost absurd, as in the case of Peter I Island, a massive heap of extruded rock 460 kilometers from Antarctica. Discovered in 1821 by a Russian explorer who named it for Peter the Great, who died more than a century before, it was not landed on for another 108 years, by crew from a Norwegian ship. On the strength of this, Norway claimed Peter I Island and mapped it; Schalansky records the Norwegian names of twenty-four topographical features. But the Antarctic Treaty suspends Norway’s territorial claim to the 156 sq. km. basalt pile, which is neither habitable nor inhabited. So there it sits, named and all but unknown, an outsized drop of ink on even the smallest maps.

Five decades ago, the cartoonist Walt Kelly drew a poster for the first Earth Day captioned “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Nowhere is this more obvious than on islands. But islands are also the canaries in the coal mine of global warming. In 2009, members of the cabinet of the Maldives, the most low-lying country in the world, donned scuba gear to convene an underwater cabinet meeting in an effort to illustrate the perils of global warming. The government of Kiribati seeks to buy land on Fiji so its people have a place to relocate when their land goes under.

Yet not everyone believes in sea level rise, much less that the earth—the earth under their very feet—is in peril. The outlook for the Papua New Guinean atoll of Takuu (Mortlock Islands) is especially dire, and the people seem torn between an attachment to life as it should be, indifference in the face of inevitable and catastrophic change, and a grudging willingness to consider leaving for the safety of Bougainville Island, 220 kilometers to the southwest. Traditionally reluctant to admit outsiders—missionaries, anthropologists, and others—they have in recent years eased restrictions on foreigners, so if nothing else the people’s last days as Takuu islanders will be well recorded.

What about the rest of us, cosmopolitan denizens of coastal islands and vast landmasses? We are in grave danger of following the isolationist creed of our insular counterparts. The difference between them and us is that as a species, humans have no practical alternatives to where we live, no fallback territory just over the horizon. Yet having exhausted our curiosity about oceanic islands, we are now launching ourselves towards celestial islands—planets, moons, asteroids—in search ultimately of refuge from the hard work of being ourselves and the acknowledgment that none of us is an island. It is no coincidence that many of the most celebrated manned spacecraft have been named for ships of exploration that island-hopped their way to fame: Discovery, Endurance, Columbia, and Challenger, Mir and Vostok. Yet in plotting our way to what we once called the heavens, the realm of an imagined paradise, we have grown too sure of ourselves. Maps of the universe harbor no monsters, and few unknowns. The possibility that some dusky corner of space should be marked “Here be dragons” is left to the authors of science fiction, who invariably let humanity win.

If celestial explorers find themselves crashing back to earth, they can console themselves that the airstrip on Easter Island is “so enormous that a space shuttle could touch down on it in an emergency.” But, Schalansky continues, “The end of the world is an accepted fact, and Easter Island is a case in point with its chain of unfortunate events that led to self-destruction; a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean.”[16]


[1] Christian Depraetere and Arthur Dahl, “Locations and Concentrations,” in A World of Islands: An Island Studies Reader, edited by Godfrey Baldacchino (2007), cited by Baldacchino at

[2] “islands are the rule”: Christian Depraetere and Grant McCall, “Nissology: Overview and Future Directions for XXIst Century Island Issues.” The Inaugural Meeting of the IGU Commission on Islands—“Island Geographies” International Conference, October 29–November 3, 2007, Taipei, Taiwan.

[3] “the naval of the world”: Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will, translated by Christine Lo (New York: Penguin, 2010), 100.

[4] “of the earth’s crust”: ibid., 78.

[5] “All text”: ibid., 20.

[6] “map of the world”: ibid., 9.

[7] “as if they”: ibid., 20.

[8] “monuments may crumble”: John Lort Stokes, Discoveries in Australia…during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in the years 1837–[18]43 (London: 1846) in Lincoln Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 55.

[9] “only that”: Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands, 20–21.

[10] “sea monsters”: ibid., 11.

[11] “the state of natural man”: Philibert Commerson, in Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 499.

[12] “Paradise is an island”: Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands, 6.

[13] “The younger sons”: ibid., 116.

[14] “After a while”: Unnamed witness for the prosecution, in William Prochnau and Laura Parker, “Trouble in Paradise,” Vanity Fair (January 2008);, accessed December 11, 2014.

[15] “Human beings”: Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands, 19.

[16] “so enormous”: ibid., 100.

Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will. Translated by Christine Lo. New York: Penguin, 2010. 144 pages. Hardcover, ISBN 9780143118206, $30. Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands (2014), 240 pages. Hardcover, ISBN 9780143126676, $20. Originally published in German as Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln.