Islands Research Paper

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Islands are almost as diverse as they are numerous: large or small, rich or poor, inhabited or populated. From the earliest times, as populations settled ever farther around the globe, humans have coveted islands as stepping stones and colonies. Islands have served as trading posts, warehouses, naval bases, and refueling stations. They are still valued today for their often exotic environments and remote locales.

Geographers tell us there are 5,675 islands on the Earth measuring from 10 square kilometers (3.86 square miles) to 1 million square kilometers (3.86 million square miles), plus almost another eight million smaller islets. Islands cover only 7 percent of the planet’s surface but hold 10 percent of its population and constitute 22 percent of its sovereign states, whose claims to territorial waters extend to a quarter of the oceans.

Islands are almost as various as they are numerous. A “continental” island is part of a continental shelf (Great Britain and Ireland, for instance, are continental islands attached to the European continental shelf); “oceanic” islands are the product of deep sea volcanic eruptions. Some islands stand alone; others belong to archipelagoes. Islands host a vast range of flora and fauna. There are islands that have never been inhabited and those that have seen a sequence of occupations. There are tropical and arctic islands whose temperatures remain about the same year round and temperate islands that experience changing seasons. There are islands linked to the mainland by bridges and tunnels and islands that can only be reached by water or air. Economically, there are poor and rich islands, islands that are sovereign and those that are dependent on other nations. Islands come in all kinds of political persuasions, from democracies to dictatorships. Britain and Japan can be considered the two most prominent island nations in world history, but many islands have attained levels of development that are the envy of mainlands.

Defining Islands

Despite their variation, we tend to stereotype islands. Their history and geography have been defined by mainlanders, who are in the habit of thinking of them as uniformly small, peripheral, remote, isolated, and timeless. Islands and islanders have suffered the enormous condescension of continents. Up to the fifteenth century, Western geographers considered the world to consist only of islands—one large one, Orbis Terrarum, and many smaller ones. Early European explorers assumed that every land they encountered was an island, and it was not until the sixteenth century that continents and islands were finally distinguished from one another, islands being defined as any land completely surrounded by water.

Even now it is hard to separate islands from continents, as the latter are also seagirt (surrounded by the sea), and there has been a systematic questioning of the metageography of both islands and continents. It is now clear that islands have never been wholly peripheral or remote—nor have they been isolated or static. Considering them in the context of history reveals what a huge role islands have played in every stage in the mental as well as physical development of humanity. The species we know as Homo sapiens originated at the edge of the sea. Once humans left east Africa behind, they began a process of island hopping that did not end until the whole Earth was occupied. Water has been the greatest facilitator of human movement and contact, an advantage that explains why islands have often been at the forefront of development. Prehistoric foragers used islands as fishing camps and trading posts. The fruits of the inland agriculture revolution in the Levant (eastern Mediterranean region) were transferred to Europe by way of the island of Cyprus about 6000 bce.

Island Importance

Islands were vital to the ancients’ mastery of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, where Phoenicians and then Greeks established colonies on islands. The first conquest of the Pacific, which began in remote Oceania about 4000 bce, and was completed on the shores of New Zealand in 700 ce, was accomplished by island hopping. Pacific islanders think of themselves as occupying a great sea of islands they consider not at all remote or peripheral. Atlantic voyaging came much later but was accomplished in a similar manner. The Vikings islandhopped, and, had Columbus not imagined the sea to be filled with islands (most of them legendary), he would never have set out westward. He was so convinced he had reached the offshore islands of India, that he misnamed the Caribbean Islands the West Indies. Until the early nineteenth century, searches for a sea route to India were inspired by the idea that North America was archipelagic and therefore passable by water.

From the earliest times, islands have been coveted as colonies. The Phoenicians and Greeks used them as access points to hinterlands. The European seaborne empires of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all used islands extensively. They served as fishing stations and fur trading posts. Sugar planting was transferred from the isles of the Mediterranean to the Madeiras and Canaries, and then to the Caribbean. Trading for slaves from the islands off the west coast of Africa made it unnecessary for Europeans to risk their health in the tropical interior. As European empires spread to the Indian and Pacific oceans, islands were vital as entrepots (intermediary centers of trade and transshipment), victualing stops, and naval bases. For the next years, they were the most fought over properties in the world, at the very center of commercial, capitalist development. By the eighteenth century, the Atlantic had become its own sea of islands, brought close together by advances in navigation and a shared cosmopolitan culture. Until the nineteenth century, continents—not islands— were truly insular.

Cultural Significance

Islands have played an exceptionally large role in Western minds. They have long been the object of spiritual quests, both pagan and Christian. They have frequently been identified with paradise, but also with hell (as in the case of the Galapagos Islands as described by Herman Melville). Thomas More used a fictional island to envision the first great utopia. William Shakespeare chose an island as the setting for his play, The Tempest, while Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, is about a sailor shipwrecked on an island. Anthropology got its start on islands that served as laboratories for the naturalists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, founders of the science of evolution. Fascination with islands, sometimes referred to as islomania, continues to be a major theme in Western culture, and is a cornerstone of the modern tourist industry.

But even as the cultural significance of islands increased, their economic and political centrality declined. In the nineteenth century, the shift from commercial to industrial capitalism coincided with the rise of continents at the expense of islands. The new industrial cities were located on mainlands. The end of slavery in the nineteenth century produced a labor crisis in many island plantation systems. With the rise of steam power and the spread of railroads, the age-old advantage of water transport was much diminished. The value of islands as entrepots, victualing stops, and fishing stations declined. In the twentieth century, islands all around the world lost population. Politics as well as economies of scale put islands at a disadvantage. In the wave of decolonization that followed World War II, many islands became politically independent only to find that they were still economically tied to their old imperial masters. In the postwar era, islands came to be seen as peripheral, isolated, and backward.

Island Challenges

Islands today find themselves challenged in a number of ways. Of all Earth’s land forms, they are most affected by rising sea levels and the frequency of storms caused by global warming. They continue to lose population to mainlands. Islanders constitute one of the world’s largest diaspora populations, and many islanders left behind by relatives striking out for new lands are dependent on private remittances for survival. (Cuba’s economy, for instance, has long depended on remittances, many of which are sent from Cuban Americans; the U.S. government placed further caps, in 2004 and again in 2009, on the amount allowed, and tightened standards so that remittances can be sent only to immediate family members.) On the other hand, islands have seen an in-migration of tourists and mainlanders looking for holiday homes. Assisted by bridge and tunnel building, this influx has led to the gentrification of islands nearest to mainland population centers. While the new arrivals come seeking the “island way of life,” older residents fear the disappearance of their way of life.


In earlier phases of globalization, islands were often the facilitators of international trade and economic development. Today, they continue to play this role, though in a different manner. The world’s largest single industry—tourism—is heavily dependent on them. Their offshore locations make them ideal headquarters not only for legitimate multinational businesses but also for drug smugglers, pirates, and spy operations. As so much of the world’s commerce is carried by ship, their importance as naval and air bases is again growing. Because of their small size, many islands have proved exceptionally nimble in adopting new technologies. But, as the experience of Iceland has shown, when islands become models of interconnectivity they can become vulnerable to world economic crises. Iceland’s economic boom, low unemployment, and relatively equal distribution of wealth—a result of the rapid global expansion of its financial sector in the early 2000s—proved unsustainable; exposure to the world market resulted in the sharp depreciation of the krona and the subsequent failure of Iceland’s three largest banks in 2008.

Today, few islands are truly remote, peripheral, or insular. Islands certainly do not exist in stasis. It no longer makes sense to distinguish islands and continents or to stereotype them or their inhabitants. The Earth is itself can be seen as an island in a larger universe. Its inhabitants occupy a sea of islands, some large, some small, but all intensely interconnected and interdependent. The future of both mainlands and islands depends on how well that fact can be reconciled. Only by viewing islands in the proper context of world history can their agency and significance be appreciated.


  1. Baldacchino, G. (Ed.). (2007). A world of islands: An island studies reader. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: Institute of Island Studies.
  2. Cosgrove, D. (2001). Apollo’s eye: A cartographic genealogy of the Earth in the Western imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  3. D’Arcy, P. (2006). The people of the sea: Environment, identity, and history in Oceania. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  4. Gillis, J. R. (2004). Islands of the mind: How the human imagination created the Atlantic world. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Wigen, K. E., & Lewis, M. W. (1997). The myth of continents: A critique of metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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