Splendid Isolation

Illustration by Mary Beath

I feel lucky for several opportunities to visit remote islands and reflect on where I would rather be. There is a circular reasoning in this sketch that imagines an individual in a crowded high-rise building with thought bubbles looping upon itself to a desolate island and back again to a crowded city. This daydreaming depends on wide-ranging circumstances ─ age, career, family, finances, hobbies, idle time . . .. Until middle-age I averaged a change of address every 3.5 years for various reasons. For the past two decades I have settled on shuttling between two addresses as an aging snowbird. But in my head the question of endless looping remains.

The term splendid isolation is attributed, according to Wiki, to a Canadian Finance Minister in the late 1800s, “In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe.” Now in this age of Brexit, geopolitics, terrorism, nationalism, global economics, and mass migrations, my recollections turn to a few starkly remote islands ─ of remnant empires.

Solovetskiye Island in the White Sea

. . . 1994. The Solovetskiye Islands are an archipelago of 100 or so islands in the southwestern White Sea. Their claim to fame stems from two important historical events. First, a fifteenth century monastery on the largest island, which boasts a series of onion-topped church towers and a fortress wall reminiscent of St. Basil’s cathedral outside the Kremlin wall in Moscow. Following the Bolshevik Revolution and throughout the Stalin era, the monastery functioned as a notorious prison camp for “counterrevolutionaries” and headquarters for northern prison labor camps known as Gulags.

The main island has about 1,400 inhabitants, all of whom work in the monastery, the museum, or various restoration projects on the island. The town has dirt roads, used primarily by roaming cows and ancient motorcycles with sidecars. About 1,000 tourists visit the monastery each year during two to three summer months when the islands are not cut off by storms and ice. I saw several French and Italian tourists, and a religious group of young Ukrainians commemorating the many Ukrainians who died there during the Stalin gulag era.

Direction Island Cocos Keeling

. . . 1999. The Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean are owned by Australia and made up of two atolls: North Keeling and South Keeling. The one-mile wide, and smaller, North Keeling Island is a nature preserve and off limits to tourists except under a special permit. The South Keeling Islands atoll is a seven-mile wide lagoon ringed by four coral islands. Only two of them are inhabited. About 450 Muslim Malay people live on Home Island while 100 or so “Mainland” Australians live on West Island. We anchored off the uninhabited Direction Island, a telegraph station during British Empire days. It was during the clearance process that we first heard the euphemism “mainland” Australians. On this remote atoll, it distinguishes a white, Christian, European descendant Australians from a Muslim Malay background.

The history of the islands is quite complex. The Dutch during their Spice Island trading days first sighted them in the early 1600s. Since then the islands have been administered by Britain, Ceylon, Singapore, and, most recently, Australia. Queen Victoria granted the islands to a Captain John Clunies-Ross, who started a copra plantation with indentured Malay workers. He came to the islands with his family and fellow sailors in search of paradise. He and his descendants became known as the White Kings. Charles Darwin, on the Beagle, visited the islands and the Malays working for the Clunies-Ross plantation. He said, “The Malays are now nominally in a state of freedom, and certainly are so as regards their personal treatment; but in most other points they are considered slaves.”

The “mainland” Australians on West Island are mostly employed in service jobs stemming from government public works projects. According to locals, it’s a lovely paradise to raise kids and enjoy family life. It is an island paradise partly because it is backed by a first-world welfare system.

Jacob’s Ladder overlooking St. Helena

. . . 2000. St. Helena Island is in the middle of the Southern Atlantic, about fifteen degrees south of the equator. Along with Tristan da Cunha and Acsension islands, these forsaken rocks in the desolate South Atlantic make up a trio of faraway British possessions. As far back as the 1600s, St. Helena was of strategic significance as a re-supply base and military outpost for boats rounding Africa. With the advent of steam ships and the Panama Canal, this advantage was lost. St. Helena is a stark, forty-seven square miles, volcanic island with jagged peaks, deep ravines, and sheer rock walls plunging into the sea. One side is arid and the other lush with tropical plants. In a rare bit of candor for a tourist brochure, St. Helena is described as follows: “There are no white sand beaches, nor are there the palm-fringed lagoons or boulevards of high-rise buildings and pulsating night life that characterize many glitzy island getaways in similar latitudes.”

The island has 5,000 friendly inhabitants of Malay, Chinese, African, and European descent. They call themselves, “Saints.” Many trace their heritage back to former slaves, indentured servants, and Boer War prisoners all brought over by the British. About a third of the inhabitants live in Jamestown, nestled in a ravine between two steep cliffs. Viewed from the top of a 699-step staircase, the short strip of a town looks like a meandering lava flow of narrow streets bordered by Victorian buildings widening as it slopes down to the sea. The town has a quaint, sleepy feeling, a small hotel, a couple of restaurants, several grocery stores, and one or two gift shops. The Saints are proud of a twenty-person prison, featured in their travel brochure. During our visit it held one prisoner. There is talk of an airport and more development for the tourist trade, but the subject is debated with mixed feelings.

In a reversal of former times, a supply ship is now needed to keep the inhabitants stocked. Occasionally the ship is late and people complain over shortages in cigarettes, milk, margarine, and so forth. Very little is raised on the few level places on the island. Every six weeks the ship arrives with supplies and about two dozen tourists, during the summer months. We were one of about 100 sailboats that pass through in a year as well as several small cruise ships. Tourism is the island’s only economy after a failed attempt at raising flax and canning fish. The government remains the main employer on the island and the source of much needed subsidy. With few jobs, most of the young leave. The cultural history of the island revolves around Napoleon, who was imprisoned on the island after his defeat at Waterloo. He died six years after his arrival. He lived well in a private mansion with plenty of servants surrounded by a lovely flower garden. His home and grave are major tourist attractions.

Lonely rocks in the South Atlantic

. . . 2008. Tristan da Cunha Island in the Southern Atlantic is the “remotest community in the world.” Unfortunately, we never set foot on the island due to heavy swells that made dingy operations impossible. Anchored on the Russian trawler Molchanov off the island, we watched three Tristan documentary movies and stared from the anchorage at the lonely community of 250 inhabitants.

We drifting around Tristan da Cunha waiting for a chance to get ashore for two days but huge swells prevent getting off the trawler onto Zodiacs. The harbor master forbids landing in these swell. Many of the 55 passengers eager to collect destinations were hugely disappointed. They placed a foot on a chain link connected to the anchor lying on the seabed to establish a “visit” to Tristan da Cunha while enjoying foggy views of sheer cliffs on another lonely rock in the Atlantic.

Now, long past my days of sailing adventures to remote islands, I fly between a farming village in Bavaria and an urban setting in Florida and continue to ask myself where I would rather be. I also travel in my head recalling moments of splendid isolation and compare them with morning coffee among friends at a waterfront Starbucks or a bike ride along landlocked farm fields watching the amazing growth of corn.

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