The Coastal History Blog 4: “Are Islands Insular?”

I’ve received a number of questions about islands this year.  In response, I’m trying to catch up on the scholarship surrounding them.  This will be an ongoing process, but today I can offer a progress report.

Utopias and Lost Worlds

In Eccentric Islands, the poet and travel writer Bill Holm celebrated offbeat destinations like Iceland and Madagascar. [1] I came across this book quite by accident, but it turns out that he is regularly cited in the field of Island Studies, which prides itself on being pluridisciplinary.  Holm, who grew up on the landlocked Minnesota prairies, was intent on finding places that remained unspoiled by what he liked to call continental thinking.  Two of his most memorable island vignettes concern Moloka’i, the former leper colony in Hawai’i, and Drangey off of Iceland’s northern coast, where the legendary outlaw Grettir once found refuge.  Moloka’i has the world’s highest sea cliffs, while Drangey is a “sky meadow” accessible only by a boat trip followed by a forbidding vertical climb. [2]

This sort of austere physical isolation is part of what we mean by insularity. Prolonged physical isolation can lead to many other forms of insularity, of course.  The A World of Islands: An Island Studies Reader, edited by Godfrey Baldacchino, begins with a grand tour of island biogeography, replete with a rich specialized vocabulary of relicts (the adjective form is relictual) and refugia. [3] The dream of a pristine relictual culture has its attractions for some. When W. H. Auden travelled in Iceland in the 1930s, he kept running across Nazi tourists hot on the trail of Nordic authenticity. [4] I am reminded of a fascinating essay by Sara Sohmer about British rule in nineteenth-century Fiji.  Sohmer related how a series of British governors consulted the new discipline of anthropology on how to keep traditional Fijian culture intact, with troubling legacies that still resonate on those islands today. [5]  A belief in insularity suggests the captivating notion that islands are perfect museums where whole societies can—or should—be frozen in time.


What is striking about Island Studies, though, is that it does not follow this approach at all.  One of the hottest debates in the field has been about MIRABs (islands that survive on Migration, Remittances, Aid, and Bureaucracy), which have been joined by more self-explanatory acronyms: PROFITs (islands that cash in on their sovereignty, for example tax havens) and SITEs (islands that subsist on tourism revenue). [6] There is nothing insular about serving as someone else’s “pleasure periphery,” [7] convenient offshore exception, or source of cheap labor.

We could write off the MIRABs, PROFITs, and SITEs as mostly a symptom of improved transportation and our globalized world.  One thing we can learn from the geographers, though, is that most islands are located close to a large landmass, clustered in an archipelago, or both. [8] The truly isolated locations, like Easter Island or St. Helena, are the rarity. [9] Exploiting one’s offshoreness is not as new as it sounds; I have vivid memories of reading Napoleonic-era letters from the Admiralty to the Home Office complaining about how smuggling was rife in the Channel Islands, and you could have just about any document forged, for a price.

I’m looking forward to reading a newer volume edited by Baldacchino entitled Island Enclaves. [10] The focus here is on subnational units like Guantanamo Bay, Prince Edward Island, the Isle of Man, Aruba, and Macao.  New technology has also made it more feasible to build ambitious bridges joining island and mainland.  These “fixed links” have been assailed as insults to the very existence of island exceptionality, but of course they can only be built to islands that were never very far from the mainland in the first place.

The Necessary Island

As a historian, I found the near absence of plantation agriculture in A World of Islands surprising.  It’s a book that exceeds 600 pages, but slavery does not even appear in the index.  For some of us, it’s hard to think about islands for long without remembering Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power, or, for that matter, the important work done more recently in the field of Convict Studies. [11]   Reflecting on the legacy of slavery, indenture, and convict labor can serve to remind us that islands have often served as the convenient offshore exception that allowed the rest of the system to function.  In human affairs, even isolation is a social act.  Moloka’i was the place to put lepers; Drangey was the place where the violent and the estranged could exile themselves from the society that they had offended.

Each weekend, 40,000 Saudis cross a bridge into the island nation of Bahrain, where Islamic law is interpreted in a more generous manner and the liquor flows freely. [12] Is it proper to say that Bahrain is distinct from Saudi Arabia, or that it forms the mainland’s necessary and sufficient periphery?

Here’s my take so far: What typically characterizes islands is not that they are remote, but that they are largely distinct and slightly inaccessible.  The category of “somewhat insular” becomes important here.  As I’ve mentioned before, the problem of fractional identities, reciprocal dances between mostly and partly, is what drove me to think in terms of coastal history in the first place.  The fractions are where the action is.


[1] Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2000).

[2] Holm, Eccentric Islands, 23-58, 185-248; for “sky meadow,” 210.

[3] Andrew Berry, “Evolution on Islands,” in A World of Islands: An Island Studies Reader, ed. Godfrey Baldacchino (Charlottetown, P.E.I.: Institute of Island Studies, 2007), 150; Diana M. Percy, Stephen Blackmore, and Quentin C. B. Cronk, “Flora,” in A World of Islands, 181.

[4] Holm, Eccentric Islands, 189-190.

[5] Sara H. Sohmer, “Governors, Politics, and Anthropology: The Fijian Native Lands Question Revisited,” in Colonialism and the Modern World: Selected Studies, ed. Gregory Blue, Martin Bunton and Ralph Croizier (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002), 234-245.

[6] Geoff Bertram and Bernard Poirine, “Political Economy,” in A World of Islands, 325-378.

[7] Stefan Gösling and Geoffrey Wall, “Tourism,” in A World of Islands, 433.

[8] Christian Depraetere and Arthur L. Dahl, “Locations and Classifications,” in A World of Islands, 71.

[9] Edward Warrington and David Milne, “Governance,” in A World of Islands, 384.

[10] Godfrey Baldacchino, ed., Island Enclaves: Offshoring Strategies, Creative Governance, and Subnational Island Jurisdictions (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010).

[11] Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985); Clare Anderson, Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality, and Colonialism in South Asia (Oxford: Berg, 2004).

[12] Anastasia Kamanos, “The Crossing,” in A World of Islands, 531

, ,

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Port Towns and Urban Cultures

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading