BOOK REVIEW: The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack, illustrated by Katie Scott
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
The title of this book refers to a very specific type of island; not one that is yet to be discovered, but one was believed to be real at some point but is no longer on the map. These are the products of imagination, deception and simple human error. They are phantoms and fakes: an archipelago of ex-isles and forgotten lands.
Gathered in this book are two dozen islands, each covered in a 3-4 page mini-essay within one of several categories:
- Islands of Life and Death
- Setting Out
- The Age of Exploration
- Sunken Lands
- Fraudulent Islands
- Recent Un-Discoveries
To be fair, some islands could appear in a cross-section of these categories, and one cannot envy Tallack the choices he had to make when dividing these islands. And the book itself, while not going too deeply into the history of each island as to lose the reader, also offers an interesting cross-section of information, from geography, to myths and legends to, of course, history.
Having failed to make inroads in South America, the United States then decided to try its luck elsewhere. In 1856, Congress passed a law known as the Guano Act, which essentially gave permission for a land grab.
There were rumoured islands with inhabitants supposedly very far removed from any race we’ve ever encountered outside the worlds of speculative fiction.
For Hui Shen also described another land, further east, which was populated only by women. According to the monk, these women fertilised themselves by running into sacred water, and gave birth just six months later. Mothers fed their newborns from special hairs on the back of their necks – they had no breasts – and children reached adulthood by the age of four.
Helena Blavatsky , co-founder of the occultist Theosophical Society, argued in her book The Secret Doctrine that the Lemurians had been hermaphrodites with four arms, who laid eggs rather than giving birth. They were, she wrote, one of the seven ‘root races’ of the world.
Some of these islands were “discovered” as far back as 400BC, and others remained on the map until as recently as 2012.
Online, it became one of the most widely-shared news stories of the year. But why? The non-existence of a small, uninhabited piece of land in a remote corner of the world is hardly significant, politically or geographically. Yet somehow the idea of a place that was on the map and yet was not real caught the public’s imagination.
From the well-known story of Atlantis to more obscure tales from around the globe; from ancient history right up to the present day. This is an atlas of legend and wonder, of places discovered and then un-discovered.
There is such interesting variety to be found in these islands, and in some cases one island could gather many names and be known by many different countries, and yet still be proven false. Though, for all this variety, there is a common theme running throughout, of people either mistaking one island for another, or presenting a false account of an island and naming it after influential people, in hopes of securing funding for further expeditions.
In the end, this is a book reminiscent of the days of adventure long since gone; a love-letter of sorts to the time when the world was a mysterious place, travel from one country to another could easily take a month or more, and you had no idea what you were going to see along the way.
Today, with maps on our computers and our phones, and with satellites circling above us, it seems all that has gone forever. The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication of uncertainty and the end of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded. We can know where we are and what direction we are travelling with just the click of a button. And though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost.
Today the era of new island discoveries is over, and the age of un-discovery is likewise coming to an end. But that convenience is accompanied by loss. For millennia our oceans have been populated by imagined islands, reflecting back at us something about our understanding of the world. But now these places are endangered and heading for extinction.
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