Sunday, December 21, 2014


Stephen A. Royle, Professor of Island Geography at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland has written a number of academic explorations of the historical origins and geographical features of islands. His latest book, Islands: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) is a comprehensive excursion to the generally more buoyant destinations of popular science and culture. By no means a lightweight conveyance, this inviting volume covers a lot of water-hemmed ground over its 224 pages. Dr. Royle expertly circumnavigates the topographies, ecosystems, stories, politics, and challenges of a farflung constellation of islands - interspersing brief case studies, personal anecdotes, and colorful photographs to coordinate the Galapagosian variety with a sense of trajectory and coherency. A lifelong admirer of islands and islanders, I doggy-paddled into the great grey ocean of the Internet (to awkwardly refloat a turbid phrase of Harold Bloom’s) for more answers.

- Brad de Roo, who grew up across the river from an island which has alternately been known as: Tecumsh’s headquarters during the War of 1812, an amusement park which delighted many from 1898-1993, a transit point for Americans fleeing the Vietnam War draft into Canada, and the faltering McMansion development once home to one of Tim Allen’s homes

BdR Is there an isolated moment you can remember departing the mainland? In clearer words, when and how did you decide that islands were for you?


It was when we were on holiday to Ireland from our then home in England in 1974, where I was a PhD student in geography. We went to the end of the Beara peninsula and there was Dursey Island connected by a cable car. We went over to find an almost completely deserted village. I climbed into a windowless house and there was a 40 year old newspaper lying amidst the other detritus, this presumably dating its abandonment. On climbing out I vividly recall saying to my wife that I was fascinated by this scene of decline and I wondered if it had anything to do with it being an island. A little later we moved to Ireland when I got a lectureship at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland and I found some rare historical documents about the Aran Islands Co Galway, which I wrote up and I was off. 

Do you carry a short working definition of an island along with you in your academic satchel?

An island is a body of land completely surrounded by water; I think that is the OED definition rather than mine. So it’s simple, but then of course we can add complexities. What if it is bridged? Is Manhattan an island? Is PEI now after the Confederation Bridge? You try telling an Islander there (and, yes, tradition uses the upper case ‘I’) that they live on a functional peninsular. What if it is periodic, can you have an island that you can occasionally walk to? What about ‘islands’ connected by more solid but geomorphologically ephemeral features such as a tombolo? Just how many islands can one count for the Iles de la Madeleine in Quebec? And then we come to the use of ‘island’ as a metaphor. Medics, biologists, planners, kitchen designers, sociologists, psychologists all have island metaphors. Remember that ‘no man is an iland’ (the s was later than Donne’s time). 
How many islands have you set foot on? What is the most incredible thing you have seen on these travels? 

I have been to 807 islands. I keep a list of course, what obsessive doesn’t. Highlights have been the quarry on Easter Island where all the moai were carved and the first sight of St Helena breaking the horizon after 4 days at sea (an airport is only now being built). The most incredible experience was to witness a boat launching ceremony carried out amongst the Tau (or Yami) people of Pongso no Tau (Orchid Island) off Taiwan. This was not commodified, but authentic. 

Orchid Island boat launch.

The most despairing?

Despair? Abandoned islands, empty with just the ruins of houses where a once vibrant community lived. I have been to many of these especially off Ireland where scores of islands have lost all their people. The most despairing was probably Great Blasket because of the knowledge we have of that dead society thanks to the three wonderful autobiographies. 

Blasket ruins.

You outline an alarming number of factors threatening vibrant island lives. Globalism, tourism, colonialism, and global warming are some of the oversized issues in action. Is it possible to prioritize one of these? Or is it more a question of addressing the surrounding pressures in a synchronistic yet idiosyncratic manner?
You put it well with your ‘surrounding pressures’. It’s geography (well I would say that, but it is true). On Mallorca a major problem (and yet a great boon) is tourism; on South Tarawa, Kiribati it is sea level rise and other phenomenon such as increased storminess with dangerous storm surges all associated with climate change/global warming.

Colonialism did blight islanders’ lives including death from introduced disease, slavery, destruction of cultures and the environment but look at the places still in a colonial type relationship now and they don’t want to leave it, notwithstanding identity issues. Sub-national jurisdiction is enough for ‘colonies’ like Bermuda and Cayman Islands to become wealthy from financial services. Elsewhere the presence of the metropolitan power provides financial support (St Helena) or military comfort (Falkland Islands). In Scotland on the island of Great Britain in the September independence referendum there was huge play on the ‘Braveheart’ issue and the English are generally heartily disliked; nonetheless there was a 55%-45% vote for no, it is thought largely for financial reasons.

There are charters, declarations, yes. At the 2014 conference of the International Small Islands Studies Association in the Penghu Islands was published the Penghu Declaration; that followed on from others from the organization when we met on Jeju, Maui, Kinmen and Mauritius in earlier years. More significant are associations for mutual support such as the Alliance of Small Island States, which does look at sustainability issues amongst others. 

You mention many representations of islands in various media such as music, photography, radio, television, and film. What about the internet? In what ways has an increasingly connected digital world affected how islanders see themselves and how they are seen? Is connectivity increasing emigration or attracting more immigrants? Are islanders forming archipelagos of solidarity? 

Islands in literature goes back centuries; the other media in your list joined in often for the same reasons as islands featured in literature: a setting, a stage, a device to constrain the cast list, the dramatic possibilities of isolation, etc. The internet, too. One nice site is The Island Review. Connectivity is hugely important, it overcomes the tyranny of distance; as long as you don’t have to make a living from scarce island resources, you can now live on a small island and make your living via distance if you have the skills and the connectivity. That is for incomers; for traditional islanders the internet shows them what they don’t have and might stir up resentment. I think Majuro in the Marshall Islands, which is in the American sphere of influence but which cannot provide its people with an American standard life style is one of the unhappiest places I have been.

As to archipelagos of solidarity, absolutely. The small Irish islands all banded together to press government for their common needs from the 1980s as just one example. There is an edited book by Godfrey Baldacchino imminently appearing, Archipelago Tourism.

As a Canadian, I’d be nationalistically irresponsible if I didn’t ask your opinion on some of our islands. We’ve got a lot of them, no? You discuss aspects of Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. I’ve grown up mostly familiar with the islands of the Great Lakes. But I have recently become fascinated by the big Arctic islands like Baffin, Victoria, and Ellesmere. Are there any surprising features or traits I should know about the Islands of Canada? 

I have written a book on the Hudson Bay Company period on Vancouver Island so I would say that that is fascinating. I developed a respect for the HBC manager and colonial governor James Douglas so many of whose dispatches I read. I have been to PEI numerous times to work with, sometimes for, the university teaching island studies. Cape Breton and Newfoundland are fascinating for their economic stories and for the resilience of some of the islanders. As to the Arctic Islands, I was once involved in an abortive study (we failed to get the grant) and did background work on Qikiqtaq (King William Island). The HBC were there in the 1920s and the post managers were so rude and dismissive about the local people, it was embarrassing to read the post journals. Now climate change is stirring things up, making access easier and the Northwest Passage more navigable and Canada more of an archipelago than a continental country. I would like to think the changes that will inevitably occur will not be to the detriment of the indigenous people there, but I think my hopes will be dashed. The ‘surprise’ I suppose is just how many of these islands there are and how big they are. Three of the ten largest islands are up there; 18 of the top 100; Devon Island is the largest unpopulated island and is in 27th place.

 If you were stranded on a desert island, which also happened to be a spatially flexible utopia for consistency’s sake, what eight islands would you bring (excluding the aforementioned utopia, of course), and why? 

The 8 islands I would take (this is a different version of Desert Island Discs!) are:

St Helena: So remote (pre-airport) thus it is very special to get there. So insular. Because it is the setting of the book I enjoyed writing most, The Company’s Island

East Falkland: I have been to the Falklands 3 times and have seen them develop away from the awful experiences in 1982. The wonderful light and the fabulous bird life, but that dreadful constant westerly wind does detract!

Easter Island: The moai, what else

Great Blasket: A special place given the autobiographies. As a geographer I suppose I am sensitized to place and space and you can see where it all happened and also appreciate why the place was abandoned.

Norfolk Island: A fascinating history and landscape

Sado Island, Japan: An interesting place with its gold mine, the story of the cranes and the fabulous drumming set up, Kodo. When I was there, there was an outer islands music festival; can I take that to my desert island?

Prince Edward Island: I have been to PEI many times to research and teach at the university’s Institute of Island Studies. It is a familiar and comfortable place for me.

Tristan da Cunha: Perhaps the ultimate island; I have always wanted to go but it is really difficult to get there now and I don’t suppose I will ever see it. So I will take it to my desert island and study it at leisure. 

Lastly, at the risk of being a bit of a mainlander, would it be fair to say that the earth is one big island and that all of our water-locked landforms are excellent indicators of our collective health in the grand laboratory of space-enveloped life? 
Absolutely. An island is a body of land surrounded by water, so the Eurasian-African landmass is an island and it is only convention that says this island is actually three continents; or that Australia is not an island but Greenland is. And think back to the famous blue marble pictures from Apollo spacecraft, the earth as an island in space. It’s all we’ve got, would that we looked after it better!


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