Saturday, February 3, 2018

Flyaway Islands

The legend starts with an invasion.  The Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711, pouring northward into Spain.  Easily defeating the Visigoths, they established their own government and spread the Islamic faith, touching off a seven century long Christian crusade to retake the Iberian Peninsula. 

Faced with the growing threat of living under Islamic rule, seven bishops elected to leave Spain, taking their followers with them…

Note.  There are two interesting points in that sentence.  First, a ł most any legend containing either the number seven or forty is probably deliberately signaling the medieval reader that the story is of great religious significance (the Moors would have used the number eight).  Second, we should note that the story is probably long on emotion and short on facts, since the Moors actually practiced religious tolerance in Spain, not caring who infidels prayed to as long as they paid their taxes. 

The seven bishops set sail in caravels to the West, forever leaving Al-Andalus (as the Muslims called Spain).  (We will ignore the fact that the caravel was actually developed by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, not the Spanish in the eighth century.  The Spanish, like a Texan I know, never let facts get in way of a good story, uh, er…legend.)

This was a perilous voyage into an unknown world.  Day after day the tiny ships sailed into the setting sun, trusting in God that land would be found before the fleeing people starved to death.  Even as they fought strange sea monsters and survived horrendous storms, the bishops and their flocks continued on their journey, praying to God for salvation.

Hearing their prayer, God brought them to Antillia, an island with lush forests teeming with game, with snowcapped mountains, and with rivers of clear water and abundant fish.  Everything the refugees could possibly need for survival was available on the island.

More important for our legends, Antillia was fabulously rich.  Precious jewels could be found in the river beds and gold nuggets were turned up every time a farmer plowed his field.  The beaches were golden, and the mountains were rich in silver.  Wealth beyond imagination could be gathered in an afternoon.

Each of the seven bishops built a city on Antillia for his followers, with each bishop competing to build the largest and most beautiful cathedral.  Over time, the wealth of the cities grew until even the most humble peasant dressed in the finest clothes and lived in luxury denied even to the nobles of Europe.  Because of this wealth, the island also became known as the Seven Cities of Gold.

It is not clear just how the people of Europe knew all of these details about Antilia, since no one had ever returned from the island, but Europeans certainly believed in it—every map of the Atlantic (or of the Ocean Sea as it was then called) showed that Antillia, Brendan’s Island, and a long list of other Phantom Islands lay somewhere far to the West of Europe.  Some maps showed another island close to Antillia, Satanzes—the island of demons where instead of an idyllic Christian life, the inhabitants were subjected to a literal Hell on Earth.

The maps carried by Columbus showed Antillia, which he died believing he had discovered;  he mentioned Antillia often in his correspondence with the Spanish Court.  Even today, World maps frequently refer to the Greater Antilles (the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the surrounding area) and the Lesser Antilles (the Windward and Leeward Islands near Venezuela). 

Long after Columbus, Phantom Islands were depicted on most maps.  Actually, increased exploration fostered more mapmaking, and actually increased the number of fictitious islands shown on maps.  The discovery of lands—particularly those with gold and silver—seemed to give credence to the old legends even while it encouraged the creation of new imaginary islands.

As you can imagine, as soon as possible, the Conquistadors eagerly taught Spanish to the natives in order to be able to interrogate them about the location of more gold and more wealth.  When Moctezuma questioned Hernan Cortes about his unreasonable fixation on a metal the Aztecs referred to as the “excrement of the Gods”, Cortes answered that he and his companions “suffered from a disease of the heart that could only be treated with gold.”

The embattled natives did not always tell the truth.  As you can imagine, when strange well-armed men showed up, raped the women, and robbed the locals of anything worth having, all the while asking about the location of more gold, they were quickly told of gold way over there (said direction always being the opposite of where the strange men had come from).

One of my favorite stories of way over there concerns a pair of mythical islands somewhere in the Caribbean.  One island was inhabited only by men while the other island was inhabited only by women.  Once a year, the men rowed canoes over to the other island for a night of wild partying.  Nine months later, the women rowed over to the other island and left the male children to be raised.  Of course, both islands had gold.  Had the creative native added a tale about artesian springs spouting beer, the story would have been exactly what sailors needed to hear.

A staggering amount of time was spent looking for these islands...Or, at least one of them.

These “flyaway island” stories have continued far longer than you might think.  The Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, gave the imaginary Phélypeaux and Pontchartrain Islands—supposedly located in the middle of Lake Superior—to the United States.  As late as 2005, the National Geographic Atlas of the World showed the islands of Wachusett Reef, Jupiter Reef and Rangitiki Reef—none of which actually exist.  (Oops!!!)

Google Earth as late as 2012, showed Sandy Island located just off of New Zealand on both their maps and satellite photos despite the fact that the island simply never existed.  In reality, the depth of the ocean at the supposed location is a little over 4000 feet deep.  Despite this, Sandy Island still shows up regularly—and falsely—on internet maps.  (Double Oops!!!)

Which brings us to the island of Bermeja, located in the Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula.  The tiny island, which still shows up on most maps of the region, was mentioned regularly by Spanish explorers, and if searched for on Google Earth, will take you exactly to the supposed location, 22 degrees, 33 minutes north, 91 degrees, 22 minutes west.  However, not even the earliest satellite photos show such an island. 

Mexico has really looked for the island.  Several expeditions have searched for it both above and below the water.  They need it, since the location of the island would factor into the boundary line separating US and Mexican offshore oil fields.  If the island does not exist, which the government of Mexico now begrudgingly admits, the boundary line moves 100 miles to the advantage of the United States, vastly reducing the size and the value of the Mexican oilfield.

While Mexico has officially admitted the non-existence of the island, you will probably not be surprised to learn that the popular theory south of the border is that, in order to control more of the world’s oil, the American C.I.A. blew it up. 

Yeah, and I bet those bastards at the C.I.A. knows where that island of women is located, too. 

1 comment:

  1. Sailors seem to come from story-telling folk. On long voyages they get bored. There are always gullible cabin boys around and, once the kids catch on to the old "pull my finger" gag, it is not surprising that the old salts begin telling the boys about imaginary islands with nubile women and golden spittoons. By the time they got back home the stories had been embellished and polished to the point that they were the 17 century equivalent of the Star Wars Saga or The Terminator Chronicles. They didn't have televisions so invisible islands had to do.