Sea Birds, Castaways, and Phantom Islands off Newfoundland

[This year the British Library Americas Blog and U.S. Studies Online are publishing a series of posts as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars 2015 series. The articles are based on talks given by a range of writers and scholars conducting research at the British Library thanks to generous research fellowships and grants awarded by the Eccles Centre. Several of these have a scientific flavour, and in this post the Canadian artist and writer JR Carpenter discusses the phenomenon of ‘Phantom Islands’ in early exploration of the American coastland, taken from her talk which took place on 7th August.]

Detail from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio, “La Nuova Francia,” Delle Navigatione et Viaggi, 1556. BL 566.k.3.

Detail from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio, “La Nuova Francia,” Delle Navigatione et Viaggi, 1556. BL 566.k.3.

On the twentieth of April 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed from St. Malo, France, with two ships and sixty-one men aboard each. On the tenth of May they came to Newfoundland at Cape Bonavista. On the twenty-first of May they sailed Northeast until they came upon an island encompassed by a jumble of broken ice which Cartier named l’Isle des Ouaisseaulx (Isle of Birds), as its surface was covered with nesting sea birds and the cries of thousands more filled the air overhead.

Many sixteenth-century maps show some variation of an Isle of Birds off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. In a map of 1555, the French privateer, explorer, and navigator Guillaume le Testu calls an island in this region I. Puanto (Stinking Island), in reference to the evil odour of the guano of the millions of large sea birds accumulated over centuries. Until the 1800s, English maps commonly showed an Isle of Penguin. The narrator of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 voyage for the colonisation of Newfoundland for England remarks: “We had sight of an island named Penguin, of a fowl there breeding in abundance, almost incredible, which cannot fly, their wings not able to carry their body, being very large… and exceedingly fat” (Hakluyt). The narrator is not confusing the Great Auk with the large flightless bird of the southern hemisphere. Quite the contrary. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘penguin’ is of Welsh origin, from pen gwyn meaning ‘white head,’ and refers to the Great Auk, which once nested in the thousands on the islands off Newfoundland. It would be another 250 years before humans of any nationality would set foot on Antarctica. By the time they arrived, the Great Auk had been hunted out of existence. The southern bird we now know as Penguin is haunted by the ghost of its northern namesake.

Modern maps show an island called Funk off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. A scrap of a place, this small, barren island is home to an ecological reserve and remains populated exclusively by birds. The name Funk is redolent of the evil odour of guano.

Would Funk Island by any other name smell as fowl?

Since the first European voyages to the rich cod-fishing grounds off Newfoundland there have been also been reports of an Island of Demons in the region, reputedly inhabited by a curious mixture of wild animals, mythological creatures, evil spirits, devils, and demons. An inscription on the second oldest known printed map depicting the new world, published by Johannes Ruysch in Rome in 1507, notes: “Demons assaulted ships near these islands, which were avoided, but not without peril.” On the first printed map devoted exclusively to New England and New France, published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in Venice in 1556 (pictured above), an Isola de Demoni is populated by curious combination of seabirds, hunters, natives, and winged devils of whom Ramusio makes no direct textual mention, observing only: “Between Ras Cape and Brettoni Cape lives severe and cruel people with whom it is impossible to speak.” An island of demons appears on the famous Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator’s world map of 1569. An isle des oyse aus (Island of Birds) and an isle dos demonios (Island of Demons) appear in the equally famous Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ 1569 map of the new world (pictured below).

Detail from: Abraham Ortelius, Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio, 1569. BL Maps C.2.c.1.

Detail from: Abraham Ortelius, Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio, 1569. BL Maps C.2.c.1.

In Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique (1558) an account of a voyage along the coast of the Americas undertaken in 1555, the French Royal Cosmographer, explorer, scholar, and Franciscan Friar André Thevet notes passing “the islands they call the Isles of the Devils.” Thevet is unlikely to have sailed as far north at Newfoundland. He makes no mention of hearing or seeing devils or demons, observing only that the region is “merueilleusemêt froide”, unfortunately cold, which, he reasons, is why those who discovered didn’t stay long. By the time of the publication of his Cosmographie Universelle in 1575, Thevet has completely rewritten this coastline:

I have been told so by not just one but by numberless pilots and mariners with whom I have long travelled; that when they passed by this coast, when they were plagued by a big storm, they heard in the air, as if on the crow’s nest or masts of their vessels, these human voices making a great noise, without their being able to discern intelligible words… These voices caused them a hundred times more astonishment then the tempest around them. They well knew that they were close to the Isle of Demons… (Schlesinger & Stabler 1986: 61-62)

Frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest from Nicolas Rowe's 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tempest#/media/File:Rowe_Tempest.JPG

Frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest from Nicolas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tempest#/media/File:Rowe_Tempest.JPG

There are echoes of Thevet’s tale in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610–11), published thirty-five years later, by which time  Cosmographie Universelle was widely available in English translation. The winged devils in the air above the ship in the frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest in Nicolas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays (pictured above) bear an uncanny resemblance to those hovering above the Isola de Demoni in Ramusio’s map of 1556 (pictured above). When Prospero asks the spirit Ariel, “Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?”, Ariel replies:

 …Now on the beak, 

Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin

I flamed amazement. Sometime I’d divide,

And burn in many places. On the topmast,

The yards, and boresprit…

Delighted, Prospero presses Ariel, keen to know if this storm performed infected its intended victims’ reason. Ariel proudly reports that, indeed, the King’s son Ferdinand leapt up and cried: “Hell is empty, And all the devils are here!”

Although much of Thevet’s fanciful if highly inconsistent writing has been widely discredited by later historians, his shifting account of the Isle of Demons cannot be entirely dismissed as a tall tale as it’s based upon an eye-witness account. In 1542 Jean-Francois de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, Viceroy of Canada, sailed for Newfoundland with three ships, two hundred colonists, and a young noble woman named Marguerite de La Roque, who may have been Roberval’s cousin or his niece. On grounds that she had entered into an affair with one of the young officers on board, Roberval set Marguerite, her lover, her nurse, and four guns ashore on a small, deserted island somewhere off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland, which Roberval refers to as the Island of Demons in an attempt to scare off any would-be rescuers. Two years and five months later a passing Basque fishing boat rescued Marguerite, the sole survivor of this ordeal. Upon her return to France she narrated her tale to a number of people, including none other than Thevet, who relates:

it was a pity to hear the ravages which those evil spirits made around them and how they tried to destroy their little dwelling, appearing as divers kinds and shapes of frightful animals… at night they often heard such loud cries that it seemed as if there were more than 100,000 men together (Schlesinger & Stabler 1986: 64).

The story of Marguerite de La Roque on the Island of Demons continues to resonate in contemporary Canadian literature. In Douglas Glover’s Governor General’s Award-winning novel Elle (2003), an un-named first-person narrator based on Marguerite states: “The wind screams like a hundred hundred demons, far worse than the screaming of the birds. And in bpNichol’s poem “Lament” (1985) it is the wind that lends the island it’s demonic moniker:

…the isle of demons
so called because the wind howled over the rocks
drowned in sound the three of them

Listen to bpNichol’s poem “Lament” at Penn Sound

The sound of voices figures prominently in Thevet’s published account of Marguerite’s orally recounted ordeal. These sounds locate this narrative within one the most advanced communications network of the day, that of shipping. Sixteenth-century sailing ships were small, fragile by twenty-first century standards. Transatlantic expeditions were timed to avoid the worst of the seasonal flows of icebergs in the North Atlantic, to arrive after the breakup of the thick pack ice in the Strait of Belle Isle. After many weeks on the open ocean, arrival at Newfoundland coincided with thick fogs coming off the warming continent, and with the breading season of the great flocks of seabirds that inhabit the coastal cliffs and off-shore islands. When mating, Great Auks utter utterly demonic sounds, low moans and guttural growls. Considered in this context, the Isle Demons assumes a more tangible form. Passing pilots and mariners were plagued, not by the human voices of 100,000 men but rather, by the moans and growls of thousands of mating sea birds. Among the strange beasts Marguerite encountered were walruses and snow white polar bears. Among the evil spirits – salt mists, sea frets, sleet, snow, gale-force winds, and the stink of centuries-worth of gauno.

Detail from Odysseus and the Sirens, an Attic red-figured vase from 480-470 BC. British Museum. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siren_%28mythology%29#/media/File:Odysseus_Sirens_BM_E440_n2.jpg

Detail from Odysseus and the Sirens, an Attic red-figured vase from 480-470 BC. British Museum. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siren_%28mythology%29#/media/File:Odysseus_Sirens_BM_E440_n2.jpg

Though it is almost certainly from a malodorous genealogy that the name of the modern-day Funk Island descends, it is interesting to note that in German, the word ‘funk’ means radio or wireless. This false genealogy, with its association with sound and broadcast, resonates with the Greek myth of the Isle of Sirens. The winged creatures depicted tormenting the ship of Odysseus on the Attic vase pictured above date from over 2000 years before the winged devils shown on Ramusio’s map. In Classical times the perils of sea travel rationalised by the invention of dangerous beautiful creatures who lured passing sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. In the early sixteenth-century, the Island of Demons was born of a similar necessity. Where better to place the fears, desires, rumours, and superstitions of an Early Modern Europe than on a phantom island hovering just offshore of this strange new world?

Further Reading:

Glover, Douglas (2003) Elle. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions

Hakluyt, Richard (1903 [1598-1600]) The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation Made by Sea or Over-land to the Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at any time within the compasse of these 1600 Yeeres. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons

Schlesinger, R. & Stabler, A. P., eds. (1986) André Thevet’s North America: A Sixteenth-Century View. An edition-translation, with notes and introduction. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press

JR Carpenter

J. R. Carpenter is a Canadian artist, writer, researcher, performer and maker of maps, zines, books, poetry, short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction, and non-linear, intertextual, hypermedia, and computer-generated narratives. Her pioneering works of digital literature have been exhibited, published, performed, and presented in journals, galleries, museums, and festivals around the world. She is a winner of the CBC Quebec Writing Competition (2003 & 2005), the QWF Carte Blanche Quebec Award (2008), and the Expozine Alternative Press Award for Best English Book for her first novel, Words the Dog Knows (2008). She lives in South Devon, England.

Latest posts by JR Carpenter (see all)

About JR Carpenter

J. R. Carpenter is a Canadian artist, writer, researcher, performer and maker of maps, zines, books, poetry, short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction, and non-linear, intertextual, hypermedia, and computer-generated narratives. Her pioneering works of digital literature have been exhibited, published, performed, and presented in journals, galleries, museums, and festivals around the world. She is a winner of the CBC Quebec Writing Competition (2003 & 2005), the QWF Carte Blanche Quebec Award (2008), and the Expozine Alternative Press Award for Best English Book for her first novel, Words the Dog Knows (2008). She lives in South Devon, England.
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