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“When we look at the sky, we imagine gods, when we look at the ocean, we imagine islands.”
Thus begins the author Malachy Tallack his wonderful book “ The Un-Discovered Islands “ or “ Islands Des-known ” , illustrated by Katie Scott, in which he talks about two dozen islands that were once believed to be real.
And, according to Tallack, ” since people began to create stories, has been inventing islands .”
Some are part of legends, such as Avalón, where King Arthur is buried, that of the round table, but others are surprisingly more “real”, so much so that they have appeared on digital maps.
Tallack divided his archipelago of ‘uncovered’ islands into six groups and asked him to choose one from each group and tell us why he was particularly captivated.
The islands of life and death
In this group, the author talks about mythical places, confined to the world of stories, although they do not stop being real.
“These mythical islands existed throughout the world as part of different cultures, but Hufaidh called my attention particularly because it is an island that was part of the culture of a town until recently, people kept talking and thinking about it until the second half of the twentieth century, “said Tallack.
Indeed, one of the marsh Arabs told the explorer Wilfred Thesiger – on one of his visits in the 50s – that “Hufaidh is an island that is there, somewhere, there are palaces and palm trees and gardens of pomegranates And the buffaloes are bigger than ours, but nobody knows exactly where they are. “
That “there” is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the cradle of modern civilization, where once was the largest wetland of Western Euroasia.
It used to be part of Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq.
“Has not anyone seen it?” Thesiger asked.
“Yes, but whoever sees Hufaidh is bewitched and then nobody can understand his words,” his hosts, the inhabitants of the marshlands, answered him and explained that although he searched, he could not find the island because the jinn(supernatural beings) could to disappear.
However, there was no doubt that it existed. But not anymore .
Since the late 1980s the drainage of the marshes has accelerated. Initially, it had started to earn land for agriculture and oil exploitation, but during the presidency of Saddam Hussein the reason was another: to evict the Arabs from the marshes, for being Shiite Muslims.
By 2003, only 10% of its original size remained.
“It is fascinating the way in which Hufaidh was entangled in politics, because it depended on the existence of the marshes of Mesopotamia but when Saddam Hussein dried them up, in a certain way he put an end to that culture,” says Tallack.
When few knew the world beyond its coasts, the first navigators of the Atlantic and the Pacific, found islands that sometimes were not there.
One of them is extremely familiar to Tallack.
“Thule is the island that I’ve known the longest, because of its connection to the Shetland Islands, where I grew up, and it has a very specific link to the work of Tacitus, which is mentioned on a plaque at the entrance of my school.”
On the plaque read: ” Dispecta est Thule “, which means “Thule was seen” and were some words written by the Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, was governor of Great Britain at the end of the 1st century.
When he sailed north from Scotland, he saw on the horizon the Shetland Islands – the northern end of the North Sea – and believed that he had seen Thule, an island that the Greek explorer Piteas had mentioned after his travels in 330 BC, when for the Mediterranean Great Britain “was a dark and potentially dangerous land, on the edge of the world of humans”.
No one knew where exactly it was , for although Pytheas said he had found it after sailing six days, he did not specify in which direction.
However, it was installed in the collective mind not only as a physical place in the icy waters near the pole of the planet.
“The legacy of his trip (that of Piteas) has not been the discovery of an island – writes Tallack in the book -, it has been the creation of a space: a mysterious and unfathomable hole in which, for two millennia or more, the dreams of the north have been poured out. “
“I like Thule because it’s a place that became an idea: the idea of norteño, from the farthest place, and that development is fascinating,” he told BBC Mundo.
Returning to the book: “Although the desire to erase uncertainty has erased it from the map, Thule continues to exist in the cartography of the mind “.
The era of exploration
What draws attention to Tallack de Las Auroras, three islands located between the Falklands / Malvinas and South Georgia or San Pedro Island, is that “most of the de-covered islands were the result of mistakes by a captain or crew of a ship that thought it had seen something – for bad weather or something like that – the island was then marked on a map that was later to be erased. “
“However, in the case of Las Auroras, its mystery remains .”
This is because “many people saw Las Auroras, several ships, even ships that had advanced navigation systems and nautical cartography of the time”.
The first known record of its location dates from 1762, by a whaling ship named Aurora, from which its name comes. The same ship reported having seen them a decade later and in the midst of their two sightings, the San Miguel confirmed its existence in 1767.
They saw them a fourth time in 1779, twice in 1790, and in 1796 the Spanish research ship La Atrevida, which had the best sailors and scientists and the most advanced equipment, was sent specially to locate and inspect them … and it fulfilled your assignment
The blog of La Atrevida physically describes each of the three islands and their locations were checked using proven chronometers.
No wonder then that since the end of the eighteenth century the nautical charts showed them and that the sailors avoided the area to avoid colliding with them.
But from a time in the nineteenth century, no one else saw them again , even though they went to look for them.
To this day “nobody has been able to give a satisfactory explanation of the appearance or the disappearance of Las Auroras … some of the most inexplicable ghost islands ,” says Tallack.
“Why are so many people wrong, because it seems they were wrong, because they never existed.”
The submerged islands
Although Atlantis is not strictly an island that was discovered, says Tallack, he not only included it in his book but chose it among those of the group that supposedly existed in the depths.
“Atlantis is the island of this type that everyone knows and, in a certain way, it became the model of other mysterious islands,” he told BBC Mundo.
“In addition it continues being an island of which one speaks and one thinks, in spite of the fact that it is a fictitious island invented by Plato “.
“Still today there are people who reject that explanation and believe that it was real at some point,” he added.
And, for that reason, he explained, “Atlantis really exemplifies the fact that these islands really captivate the imagination.”
The fraudulent islands
Among the islands invented by pranksters and liars, Tallack highlighted Phelipeaux Island.
“Like Hufaidh, Phelipeaux Island ended up involved in political events.”
” It is named in the Treaty of Paris as part of the border of a new country called the United States .”
The map used to draw the borders between the British colonies in Canada and the new country after the War of Independence that ended in 1783, known as the Map of Mitchell, was the best that was had at the time.
But I had some mistakes. And when the United Kingdom and the United States They came back to face 30 years later, it became clear that the borders had to be drawn more clearly.
When the experts went to the more complicated area in the north, they found several problems, and one of the most disconcerting was that they did not find Phelipeaux Island anywhere .
But who and why had he invented it?
The culprit of that cartographic fraud had left traces : when exploring the area they found that it was not one but four islands invented, and their names gave him away.
Phelipeaux (or Phelypeaux) was the surname of Jean-Frédéric, the Secretary of State for Maritime Affairs of France from the 1720s to the 1740s. He was also Count of Pontchartrain and Maurepas (names of two of the other false islands) ) and the patron saint of his family was Ana (the fourth island was called Santa Ana).
“It was an invention of an explorer priest and he was trying to get money from a rich sponsor,” Tallack said in conversation with BBC Mundo.
It was not uncommon for sponsor names to be used in geographic locations to flatter them, and the inventor of islands, Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoiz, a Jesuit priest, certainly did not let the detail of his nonexistence become an obstacle.
The recent de-knowledge
Among the discoveries made during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Malachy Tallack especially likes one, because he hopes that technology has not ended forever with the possibility that we continue discovering non-existent islands.
“The Sandy Island is the latest and in some respects the most extraordinary of all these islands that survived to the digitalization of cartography .
It was in Google Maps, Google Earth and all the other systems we use to navigate around the world.
For me, the idea that an error can go through this process and survive all that time is enormously attractive.
Potentially, there is still room for a bit of that mystery on our maps . “