The Islands That Never Were

The more you look at maps, the more apparent it becomes that they aren’t always just lifeless, objective depictions of the spatial distribution of objects. Early maps, which began to replace the simple panoramic views of cities which had preceded them, often featured images and lengthy passages describing (and usually praising) the depicted city, country, and ruler. The famous ‘Agas’ map of London from the mid-16th century is one of the first proper maps of the city and features text which lauds the ‘Ancient city’ and alludes to the notion of London as a ‘New Troy’ established by the Trojan Brutus. Landmarks — most notably St Paul’s Cathedral — were drawn almost side-on to emphasise their importance, contradicting the map’s general perspective (the same decision was made by William Morgan in 1682). Some maps even include things that aren’t really there. John Ogilby’s famously detailed map of London from 1677 depicts both the ‘New [Fleet] Canal’ and ‘New [Thames] Key’ as though they were finished when in reality both were under construction and were neither permanently constructed.

Morgan’s 1682 London Actually Survey’d chooses to include an artistic depiction of St Paul’s Cathedral, rather than the shaded boxes to which other buildings are ascribed.

What most maps did not intentionally include, however, were land masses or locations which simply did not exist. One common problem for cartographers since the classical era has been the recorded existence of islands which have later been discovered not to exist. These have become known as phantom islands.

What is a ‘Phantom Island’?

The only necessary requirements of a phantom island are:

  1. The island must have appeared on maps for some period of time
  2. The island must not exist as originally described
In addition to including the island in a world map in 1664, Kircher mapped the island itself as a part of his Mundus Subterraneous (1665)

The second requirement is what makes phantom islands slightly less ridiculous than they might otherwise seem. Although some people did essentially invent islands, such as Athanasius Kircher’s decision to include the island of Atlantis on his 1664 map of the world, phantom islands most commonly arose from simple misunderstandings. Land masses such as shallow sand banks that may have once existed, icebergs which were misidentified as islands, and optical illusions were often behind the creation of phantom islands.

Sometimes phantom islands really did represent permanent land masses but it was simply the ‘island’ descriptor which was untrue. The Baja California Peninsula, which is connected to the US state of California but lies in Mexico and extends parallel to the mainland (separated from it by the Gulf of California) was labelled as the Island of California in some early maps.

Pepys’ Island

One of the most famous examples of a phantom island is that of the mythical Pepys Island discovered by William Ambrose Cowley in December 1683. Crowley (quoted in a work published in 1699) writes that ‘we saw Land; the same being an Island not before known, lying to the Westward of us. It was not inhabited, and I gave it the Name of Pepys Island.’ The island was supposedly situated north of the Falkland Islands yet it could not be located by those who sought to verify its existence and it is now generally believed that Cowley had, rather embarrassingly, misidentified the Falkland Islands. His mistake was not immediately noticed. Upon returning to England, Cowley had William Hacke (a well-known maritime cartographer who historian Katherine Parker argues likely came up with the idea of naming it after Samuel Pepys) create a roll map of the island. This was later included as a part of Hacke’s 1699 Collection of Original Voyages which included an account of Cowley’s travels.

A depiction of Pepys’ Island from William Hacke’s Collection of Original Voyages (1699)

Although phantom islands sound mysterious and it’s tempting to picture fantastical scenes of islands sinking below the waves without a trace, the reality is slightly more boring. Even the most experienced explorers make mistakes and many explorers during the Age of Exploration (and beyond) were not even that experienced but wanted to make a name for themselves. This willingness to discover new lands combined with the possibility of human error made phantom islands inevitable. This phenomena occurred up until the late 19th century but our technology has become so advanced and our world so thoroughly understood that it is hard for any experienced cartographer or explorer to make such a mistake nowadays.

In a way, phantom islands are indicative of a time when much of the world was still to be explored and the absence of satellite technology meant that verifying (or falsifying) an island’s existence required much more effort. As with the maps of London referenced at the beginning, the existence of phantom islands reminds us that although maps often purport to be truthful depictions of our world, there’s often a little more to them than meets the eye.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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