The Millions

Island Time: On the Poetics of the Isle

“The isle is full of noises, /Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.”
—Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610)

“Is our island a prison or a hermitage?”
—Miranda in Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête (1969)

In 1810 a struggling whaler by the name of Jonathan Lambert, “late of Salem…and citizen thereof,” set out for torrid waters. By December of 1811, Lambert and his crew of three alighted upon an unpopulated volcanic island in the south Atlantic that Portuguese navigators had christened Ilha de Tristão da Cunha three centuries before. Lambert, in a spirit of boot-strapping individualism, declared himself to be king. A solitary monarchy, this Massachusettsian and his three subjects on that rocky shoal of penguins and guano. Still, Lambert exhibited utopian panache, not just in spite of such remoteness, but because of it. Contrary to the British maritime charts that listed the archipelago as “Tristan de Cunha,” the American renamed them a far more paradisiacal “Islands of Refreshment.”

This whaler’s small kingdom promised not just refreshment from Lambert’s old life, where he explained that “embarrassments…have hitherto constantly attended me,” but from the affairs of all people. Lambert’s Islands of Refreshment were, and are, the most distant habitation on the planet, laying 2,166 miles from the Falkland Islands, 1,511 miles from Cape Town, South Africa, and 1,343 miles from St. Helena where lonely Napoleon Bonaparte would soon expire. And for the whaler’s sake, Lambert’s new home was 10,649 miles from Salem, Massachusetts.

Parliamentary records quote Lambert as claiming that he had “the desire and determination of preparing myself and family a home where I can enjoy life.” Here on the Islands of Refreshment, where he subsisted on the greasy blubber of elephant seals, Lambert prayed that he would be “removed beyond the reach of chicanery and ordinary misfortune.” As it was, all utopias are deigned to fail sooner or later, and ordinary misfortune was precisely what would end Lambert’s life, the experienced sailor drowning five months after arriving, such final regicide belonging to the sea.

Four years after Lambert’s drowning, the British navy claimed the Islands of Refreshment for king, England, and St. George, hoping to prevent the use of the archipelago by either the Americans (whose ships trolled those waters during the War of 1812) or any French who wished to launch a rescue

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