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ISLANDS. Islands played a larger role in European history during the early modern period than at any other time before or since. They were crucial to economic and political development, and were no less significant culturally. One must consider not only the physical islands that Europe explored, claimed, and colonized, but also those it imagined and fictionalized.

Until the fifteenth century, Europe had been a sea-fearing, inward-looking civilization, which envisioned itself as but one part of an earth island girdled by a terrifying, impassable river, known to southern Europeans as Oceanus and to the Norse as Uthaf. Whatever the Vikings had learned during their expeditions to the west around the year 1000 had been lost. Knowledge of the oceanic isles was secondhand and largely the product of ancient and medieval legends. But the accumulating tales of rich and paradisiacal isles had become so compelling by the fifteenth century that mariners were venturing into the near Atlantic; and it was but one short step for Christopher Columbus to attempt to reach the fabulous archipelagos of the Indies by extending his voyage west of the Azores. Using maps and texts that assured him that the sea was filled with a vast archipelago, he believed he could island-hop all the way to the Indies. Islands also figured prominently in his apocalyptic visions of bringing nearer the Second Coming of Christ. As far as Columbus was concerned, the isles he reached were the far side of his own earth island. He had no idea he had discovered a new world, and it would be a very long time before geographers decided that the Americas were continents rather islands.

Islands were vital to the age of discovery, not just as provisioning and watering stops, but as cognitive and psychological bridges across a vast, empty oceans. It was imagined as much as real islands that account for Europe's unprecedented seaborne expansion. Exploration expanded the horizons of the known world, but it also produced vast new terrains of terra incognita, filled with unknown isles that excited further speculation. For most of the early modern period Europe's attention was focused on islands rather than continents.

Europe's early modern political ambitions were also insular. Instead of concentrating on the creation of territorial nation-states, rulers extended their sovereignty archipelagically, incorporating many noncontiguous lands and peoples. The period produced a series of island empires, beginning in the Mediterranean and then reaching out into the near Atlantic before incorporating the islands and littorals of the New World. After the initial period of continental conquest led by the Spanish, islands and coasts became the greater political and economic prize. The initial goal had been trade and control of trade routes to the Old World in any case. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries islands proved vital not only to the fur trade and to fishing in the North Atlantic, but also to the slave trade on the African coast and the plantation economies in both the Caribbean and the Pacific.

The growth of commercial capitalism was inextricably bound up with islands. Its most profitable enterprise of the early modern period, sugar production, had originated on Mediterranean islands in the Middle Ages. Transferred to the islands of the eastern Atlantic, it was then perfected in the Caribbean. The slave trade on which it depended for labor was organized from islands on Africa's western coast. Islands were natural prisons, and slave populations became involuntary consumers for European manufactures. If Europe accumulated enormous riches during this period, it owed a good deal of its accumulated capital to islands.

Islands were no less important to early modern culture. They provided a space onto which a Europe that was fragmenting politically and religiously could project a multitude of powerful desires and deep fears. Dreams of paradise, previously focused on golden ages of the past, took on new life on islands located in the distant present. The vast new terra incognita became the location for numerous island edens, first in the Atlantic and later in the Pacific. An unknown island provided Sir Thomas More with the opportunity to outline the first modern utopia in 1516. In the next two centuries, dozens of island utopias and dystopias were written. The remote and bounded nature of islands made them ideal for imagining alternative worlds, and it was no accident that the first modern novel, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), used an island setting to construct the foundation myth of modern masculine individualism. What Europe could not yet conceive of on its own territories, it invented in insular settings. In a certain sense, Europe constructed its modernity archipelagically, using island microcosms to try out new ideas it found more difficult to contemplate on its own shores.

By the eighteenth century European science had become heavily reliant on islands for its understanding of nature. The scientific expeditions of Captain James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville to the isles of the south Pacific paved the way for Charles Darwin's later voyage to the Galápagos Islands (1835). Islands were already being used as laboratories for testing new crops and extending Europe's control over natural resources. They were also the places where Europeans first became aware of the environmental damage caused by ruthless capitalist exploitation of soils and forests. Islands provided a glimpse of the negative as well as the positive sides of economic development long before these were visible in the context of larger landmasses. In the course of the early modern period there came into being an Atlantic world in which islands played a central role. Once remote and isolated from the continent, islands were anything but insular by the eighteenth century. Populated by peoples drawn from the Atlantic littorals, they were perhaps the most cosmopolitan places on earth. Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans commingled, producing new creolized island cultures and societies that had a dynamic all their own. The world of islands was better known and more highly prized than the interiors of mainlands, and for a time it seemed that the future belonged to islands rather than continents. But the political and industrial revolutions of the late eighteenth century changed all that. Capitalism concentrated its productive capacity on the European and North American continents, while states concentrated their power within continental territorial boundaries. Islands became politically peripheral and isolated from modern economic industrial development. They continued to serve as laboratories for science and field stations for anthropology, but they ceased to be places where Europe imagined its future. On the contrary, islands came to be associated with backwardness and primitivism, imagined as fossilized remnants of lost worlds.

See also Atlantic Ocean ; British Colonies ; Capitalism ; Cartography and Geography ; Colonialism ; Columbus, Christopher ; Commerce ; Defoe, Daniel ; Dutch Colonies ; Environment ; Exploration ; French Colonies ; Fur Trade: North America ; More, Thomas ; Pacific Ocean ; Portuguese Colonies ; Slavery and the Slave Trade ; Spanish Colonies ; Sugar ; Triangular Trade Pattern ; Utopia .


Duncan, T. Bentley. Atlantic Islands: Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verdes in Seventeenth-Century Commerce and Navigation. Chicago, 1972.

Flint, Valerie I. J. The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus. Princeton, 1992.

Grove, Richard H. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 16001800. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Lestringant, Frank. Mapping the Renaissance World: The Geographical Imagination in the Age of Discovery. Translated by David Fawcett. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

John R. Gillis

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