Making monster island

Humans have long imagined islands populated by bizarre and dangerous monsters. This unsettling speculation has been a vital part of how we came to understand the unknown.

Illustration by Anna Wang

Illustration by Anna Wang

When European explorers first reached the cold seas of the Arctic in the 16th century, they encountered whole islands full of strange birds and vast marine beasts cavorting between the scattered, icy archipelagos. They called these creatures by various names: morses, sea horses, hairy whales and sea elephants. They were, of course, walruses. The explorers returned home with tales of terrible arctic monsters with dreadful tusks, small red eyes, bristling whiskers and mountains of blubbery flesh.

Encountering these creatures, in some ways, was no surprise: the Arctic had long been thought filled with terrors and wonders, like vast whirlpools of ice and fire, cannibals, and monsters the size of islands. While the hunter-explorers may have been beefing up their profits on walrus skins and blubber with some tall tales of fearsome creatures, they were also fitting these new things into an existing mythology of what resided in the world far north of Europe.

The history of science shows that tales of unusual and shocking things found in isolated places can uncover an exception that proves the rule. We need these anomalies, these liminal boundary-breakers, to shake things up and challenge us. Isolated monsters and monstrous islands are important.

 
Early descriptions of the walrus led many to believe there were fantastical monsters living in the far north . Walrus (1521)  Albrecht Dürer  (public domain)

Early descriptions of the walrus led many to believe there were fantastical monsters living in the far north. Walrus (1521) Albrecht Dürer (public domain)

 

Distant islands of the world have long been seen as the haunts of monsters. Classical imagery of monstrous islands, like the Minotaur's labyrinth on the Island of Minos, or the islands of the Cyclopes, the Laestrygonians and the Sirens in Homer's journey of Odysseus, was archetypal across Europe. In the 10th century, the Beowulf manuscript drew on classical images and detailed the islands of monstrous humans in Africa and the East, such as the blemmyae, men with their 'eyes and mouths in their chests', or the polylingual, cannibal Donestre.

These kinds of ancient images of monstrous island dwellers shaped the perspectives of medieval and early modern explorers: they found cyclopean remnants in ancient island pygmy elephant skulls, giants among Patagonian natives, and evidence of the Persian Roc in elephant bird eggshells on Madagascar. Tales from travelers who had been to distant places were very difficult to disprove, nor was there much impetus to do so: the images were valuable, and were a way of mapping out novelty, marrying the new and the familiar by identifying these new things with well-known images from authoritative ancient texts.

We no longer believe that these classical monsters exist, but we still find resonances of them in things we encounter, long after the Scientific Revolution and all of its rationalising and myth-busting. Quite apart from the continued sightings of Nessie in Loch Ness, the plesiosaurus-like Stronsay beast of the Orkney Islands of Scotland, for example, was well documented by early nineteenth century naturalists, perhaps the result of a series of beached whale or shark carcasses.

Physical mermaids made it into serious natural history collections in the nineteenth century. These 'mermaids' were from exotic island locations, composite objects carefully constructed from monkey bones, fish skins and other materials. One of the most illustrious was P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid, supposedly sourced from Japanese sailors in 1822. There was great controversy and debate about the object's authenticity, as there had been about dried ray dragons and other monstrous simulacra in previous centuries. These things were valued as much for their controversial nature as for the fact that they were evidence of magic in the world, relics of the fantastical that were really believed to exist.

 
Although its authenticity is contested to this day, the Feejee Mermaid specimen is still on display as a part of Henry Wellcome’s collection.   Thom Atkinson  (CC BY 4.0)

Although its authenticity is contested to this day, the Feejee Mermaid specimen is still on display as a part of Henry Wellcome’s collection. Thom Atkinson (CC BY 4.0)

 

Even before Barnum's mermaid became famous, Fellows of the Royal Society were poking holes in one of the first platypus specimens to be sent to London in 1799 by John Hunter, the British governor in Australia. They were certain that it was a carefully constructed hoax, and it stimulated decades of debate and scientific rivalry. Was it a mammal-bird hybrid? Did it really lay eggs? Why did it have no teeth?

We might not think that dragons and mermaids exist now, but island monsters do indeed exist. Separated from continental landmasses, islands are natural laboratories full of real, living beasts and plants that muddle taxonomies. They are geographical anomalies full of biologically anomalous species. They are places of evolutionary ferment, rich in bizarre endogenous species such as the long-fingered, bat-eared aye aye of Madagascar, and the lizard-hedgehog pangolins of Sumatra and Java.

These isolated places have been wonderfully valuable to scientists. The most feted example is perhaps the role of Charles Darwin's Galapagos finches and other island creatures he encountered in his theory of evolution by natural selection. Likewise, the almost-freakish monotremes, including the egg-laying echidna and platypus, evolved in the evolutionary seclusion of Australia, have shown us a great deal about the mammalian family tree.

 
The otherworldly features of the aye aye in Madagascar were astounding to 19th-century European explorers.   St. George Mivart, F.R.S.  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The otherworldly features of the aye aye in Madagascar were astounding to 19th-century European explorers. St. George Mivart, F.R.S. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

Such island beasts are also peculiarly vulnerable, because of their strangeness, their isolation, and their limited habitats. This ephemerality adds to the monstrous charm of island species. The dodo was one of many island monsters that have been eliminated by humans: it was discovered and erased all within a single century. Dutch sailors first encountered dodos when they landed on Mauritius by mistake en route to the East Indies, and wondered at the birds' strange form and tameness. Of course, the first thing they did was knock a few on the head and eat them, ravenous after months at sea. Only 80 years later, ground mammals that had been introduced to the island and over-hunting led to the dodo's demise.

Many other island birds have suffered the same fate, with extinctions even reported recently in the Galapagos, a group of islands of great historical and scientific importance. The San Cristóbal Island vermilion flycatcher is the first endemic species to go in the archipelago, probably due to rats and other invasive species. We have decimated and completely erased the populations of many islands around the world, sometimes as species are only just discovered. Perhaps we are really the monsters that the other beasts need to fear?

 
The Galapagos Islands (mapped here in 1836) are home to many creatures that are unique to their isolated environments.   British Admiralty  (public domain)

The Galapagos Islands (mapped here in 1836) are home to many creatures that are unique to their isolated environments. British Admiralty (public domain)

 

The idea that monstrosity is more internal than we might like to think is explored in more recent depictions of the relationship between islands and science. In Mary Shelley's 1823 novel Frankenstein, Dr Frankenstein retreats to a remote Scottish island to undertake the grisly mission of creating a female creature, which he ends up destroying just as it comes to life. The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) by H.G. Wells follows the story of a shipwrecked man who encounters a scientist using horrendous vivisections to try and turn animals into quasi-humans.

Instead of frightening beasties, these stories depict marginal figures seeking out isolation to carry out dark and terrible science experiments. Islands can be the locations where true psychological monstrosity erupts, places where we imagine dangerous knowledge is acquired and risky explorations are conducted. Beyond moral frameworks, taken to extremes, human endeavour can become monstrous, just as it can eliminate monsters, dispelling magic and myths, and eradicating unique species.

When we think about monsters, we think of fantastical, chimerical creatures that belong in the realm of imagination, not in real-world knowledge or science. But weaving stories about monsters in distant places has been an integral part of how we learn about the world and conceptualise it. Images of island monsters, real and imagined, have been important in science throughout history and show us that incredible wonders exist. But what they also explore is whether the real monstrosity lies within ourselves.

Edited by John Back