Review | Phantom Islands: In Search of Mythical Lands

G.T. Dempsey


This is a rather quirky book, but ‘quirky’ in the sense of delightful.  The quirky is due to the subject-matter; our delight, as readers, to the author’s presentational skills.  He gives us – in accounts mostly shortish but rich in historically illuminating detail – the life-stories of islands, some thirty of them, which though thought to exist in some cases for many centuries turned out to either not be an island or to have never existed to start with. 

I live in one of the first sort:  California.

California as an Island

The ‘island called California’ first appeared in a Spanish romance novel from 1510:  situated to the west of the Indies, it was said to be inhabited by a race of Amazons, ‘robust of stature, possessed of great strength and spirited courage,’ ruled by a queen named Califia and armed with ‘weapons all made of gold.’  Indeed, the ‘whole island is full of gold and precious stones.’  No wonder the conquistadores thought it worth looking for. 

The first Spaniards to travel up the west coast of Mexico and discover Baja California thought it the island they sought; a landing party was massacred by the natives.  A follow-up party, in 1539, hugged the Mexican coast all the way north to the mouth of the Colorado River and then hugged the Baja California coast-line all the way back south to its tip, discovering, to their great disappointment, that the ‘island’ was really simply an ‘elongated peninsula.’  That should have been it, but the legend of a fabulous island of riches and Amazons persisted, with Baja still appearing as an island on European-made maps well into the seventeenth century. 

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It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the myth was definitively debunked.  There was no such island.  Still, a century later (in 1848), gold was discovered.  As for the precious stones and the Amazons….

Dirk Liesemer Phantom Islands: In Search of Mythical Lands, trans. by Peter Lewis (ET:  London: Haus Publishing, 2019), pp. 159.  ISBN:  9781912208326  $24.95


Many of the other ‘islands’ covered by our author had their origins in similar stories or ancient myths, such as Thule first described in a travel report by the Greek astronomer Pytheas in the late fourth century B.C. (he may, in fact, have been describing an actual trading voyage to Iceland) or Saint Brendan’s Islands from the hagiographical life of the sixth-century Irish saint (Brendan was real, as his propensity to wander might also have been, but his islands proved imaginary, though there were many sightings of them reported by explorers, particularly in the eighteenth century). 

The Island of Atlantis

Perhaps the most famous myth-created island was Atlantis, claimed by Plato to have been a continent-sized island sunk into the mid-Atlantic by earthquake and tidal wave some seven millennia into the past.   Long thought to be simply a myth, Atlantis was included in a global map in the mid-seventeenth century by Athanasius Kircher, a noted polymath and scientist, who postulated its existence from his theory of mountain ranges acting as the Earth’s skeleton to hold the planet together.

Scanned black and white map from 1665 showing the mythical island of Atlantis.
[Map of the lost island of Atlantis] Situs Insulae Atlantidis, a mari olim obsorptae ex mente Aegyptiorum et Platonis discriptio, 1665 by Athanasius Kircher. Map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection, Stanford University.

Other phantom islands sprung up from ‘curious logbook entries, shimmering mirages and simple misunderstandings, or even subtle jokes.’  Their survival, via word of mouth, could prove tenacious. 

Bermeja Island

For instance, the ‘island’ of Bermeja, off the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico.  First described by a Spanish cartographer in 1536, the island was mentioned on numerous maps over the next few hundred years until efforts to find the map weren’t fruitful.

An old map from 1846 of the United States and Mexico with an inset map showing part of the map in detail.
Henry Tanner’s 1846 map showing the location of Bermeja Island. Map: “A map of the United States of Mexico : as organized and defined by the several acts of the Congress of that Republic” by Henry S. Tanner, 1846, Library of Congress.

For a while, Bermeja Island was forgotten.

Until 2008-9, that is, when concern over sovereign rights regarding oil-rich maritime regions and potential American counter-claims, caused the Mexican parliament to request a search; no one, including the Mexican Air Force, could find it.  Reportedly, some parliamentarians claimed that the CIA had preemptively blown it up.

Other Island Map Myths

A final category of would-be islands includes the products of a hoax or even of ‘downright deception and reprehensible grandstanding.’   Some such hoaxes could be light-hearted, such as the newspaper report in February 2000 that American astronauts on the shuttle Endeavour had sighted an unknown archipelago, a chain of seven islands, in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand.  They were fictitious. 

Other hoaxes were less benevolent, such as the two Pacific islands supposedly discovered in 1825 by the American sea-captain Benjamin Morrell.  By the time of his death in 1839, he ‘was widely regarded as a consummate fantasist.’  The possibility also exists that he was an out-and-out fabricator attempting to justify the costs of his exploration to his financial backer.  The result was noxious, resulting in a near century of diplomatic haggling over the International Date Line (which needed to bulge westward to take in the two islands).

Indeed, beyond the persistence, over centuries, of simple human credulity, the pervasive lesson this book conveys is the trouble caused by these imaginary islands and the subsequent attempts to verify their existence.  More than the financial costs incurred, such attempts could involve great physical danger and even cost lives, particularly the early twentieth-century attempts to find Crocker Land in the Arctic. 

Still, it must be acknowledged, some proved useful.  It may well be that the claimed existence of an island named Antilia, shown on a portolan map (an early maritime chart of the Atlantic) to be within easy reach of Spain, convinced Christopher Columbus that it would provide a final port-of-call for re-victualling on his way to Asia (when he did reach landfall in the Caribbean, he named the archipelago the Antilles). 

And, then, we have the Lake Superior islands of Phélipeaux and Pontchartrain.  In 1782-83, in the peace negotiations to end our Revolutionary War, it proved most convenient to run the territorial demarcation line between the United States and Canada between the two.  A half-century later, when joint efforts were made to fix, definitively, the U.S.-Canada border, it turned out that they were simply an invention by a French cartographer in 1744 and named in honor of his patron.  By then, it didn’t matter.  Perhaps, with an estimated 130,000 to 180,000 islands in our world (a huge number and a huge differential), the most surprising aspect should be that there aren’t more phantom islands to be discovered.

Dirk Liesemer Phantom Islands: In Search of Mythical Lands, trans. by Peter Lewis (ET:  London: Haus Publishing, 2019), pp. 159.  ISBN:  9781912208326  $24.95


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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.