Island holds a unique place within what we might call the meta-geographical vocabulary: that lexicon of terms used to classify physical phenomena across the earth’s surface. Unlike elemental, environmental or topographic terms such as ocean, mountain, desert, valley, river or lake, island denotes a class of geographic phenomena defined solely by their spatial characteristics. Such physical features of an island as geology, relief, drainage, vegetation or climate are irrelevant to its primary definition. Topology – boundedness and shape – and scale are the only determinants of islandness. (The denotation of ‘island’ may of course be stretched to include spaces on land, such as oases within a desert or settlements surrounded by unpeopled nature, but these are really metaphorical extensions from the foundational meaning of island as land surrounded by water.) Both topology and scale are spatial attributes: boundedness and shape are absolute, scale is more flexible and complex. On a planetary surface that is more than seventy percent water, even the greatest landmasses are islands at the largest scale. Even geographical islandness is a relative condition. In this respect the dialectic in English between island and mainland or ‘main’ (as in the Spanish Main or in John Donne’s famous claim that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself / Every man is … a part of the main’) more accurately captures the actual nature of geographical relations between water-bound land masses of different sizes, than an arbitrarily fixed category such as ‘continent’. An unconscious recognition of the ubiquity of the island condition is apparent in the world maps of many different cultures: medieval Europe, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist, and the cosmographic images of many non-literate peoples that also map the world as an island surrounded by water. Modern cartographic conventions of world mapping tend to obscure the insular nature of planetary space by cutting out much of the southern ocean and by distinguishing polar ice regions in white rather than sea-blue, regardless of whether it covers sea or land.In fact, a land-centered view of Earth is historically quite recent. The Greek word archipelago that described the Hellenes’ primary geographical space accurately conveys the relative spatiality of the island condition. Now extended in theory to any large group of islands, the Greek word means ‘greater sea’, and it denoted what we now call the Aegean, whose geographical characteristics are quite singular. The Greek-speaking world was made up of a complex scatter of islands and peninsulas varying greatly in size, orientation, elevation and landscape, all enclosed within a perimeter of lands whose extent was unknown. The Greek seafarer was never out of sight of land, often visible only as mountain peaks such as Athos rising like islands on the horizon, while Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ constituted the primary surface of Greek cognitive space. Lesser seas were the straits, and bays and passages between individual islands. Exploration – by sea, of course – beyond the Aegean revealed to the Greeks more extensive but similarly configured worlds: the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Ocean signified elemental chaos. The Greek empire was constituted by isolated settlements organized according to the conventions of the polis, located on the shores of islands, peninsulas and coastlines and oriented towards the sea: an archipelago of cities united by culture and language, and connected by maritime passages. The West’s literary history thus opens with an archipelagic tale, as Ulysses navigates a peripatetic life, punctuated by unique island experiences, to be sure, but coherent only in its passage through the archipelago.
Today, archipelago draws on the model of Aegean spatiality to refer to any massed grouping of islands. Its usage reminds us that the spatial relations of islands are multiple and complex, of which those between anindividual island and its mainland constitute only a small subset, whose significance is a product of quite recent changes in spatial experience and cognition. Cartographically, the term archipelago seems not to be attached to all island groupings. The Scottish Hebrides, the Philippines and Indonesia, the islands of the Canadian Arctic and the Bonaparte islands off the northwest coast of Australia are all referred to as archipelagos, as are island groupings that have no collective name, such as those that line the coasts of southern Chile, Croatia or British Columbia. But closer knit island groupings with fewer members, such as the Falklands/Malvinas, the Galapagos, the Canaries or the Balearics seem not to merit the designation, being simply pluralized as ‘islands’. Widely scattered islands, and those whose spatial arrangement is linear rather than random, such as the Leewards, the Solomons and the Maldives, also merit only plural designation rather than archipelagic status, despite their numbers. No one refers to the Caribbean or the Hawaiian archipelagos. An archipelago, it seems, should have some proximity to a large land mass. This suggests perhaps that the relation of an island to other land is ultimately more significant in determining its nature than the common property of a bounded relation to water.
The point about insular relativity and anxieties over internal difference being interwoven with those over the mainland, reinforces my suggestion that the purely spatial character ofisland as a geographical designation always measured against the main, opens a passage upon which an infinity of social and historical narratives and passages can be inscribed, but which can never be completely bridged.