Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bouvet Island

Is it reasonable to suggest that, whenever the name of a country comes up that you haven’t heard before, it will turn out to be a coral reef, or a volcanic atoll, or an underwater rock, or simply a fish-pool, somewhere in either the Antarctic or more likely the Pacific, which some country has claimed as national territory in order to have the right to explore for minerals there, and if necessary send their military to defend their “national security” against “rogue” countries who have, unlike their legitimate selves, established “false off-shore bases” and even “uninhabited colonies” in the white ocean? Funny how it turns out you were right! And usually, as we shall see in the development of these pages, the "owner" turns out to be France, the UK or the USA. Not this time however.

Bouvet is Norway’s little piece of Antarctica, a mostly underwater volcanic island only nineteen square miles in size, of which 93% is glacier, so what remains is just about large enough to house a rocket-launcher and a tent for the Antarctic explorers. Not that there are many of these latter. The island remains uninhabited, and is regarded by the people who receive government grants to investigate these matters, as the most remote island on earth. It was discovered in 1739 by Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier, a man who liked to describe himself as a French naval officer, though actually he was a "Lieutenant" of the French East India Company, whose job was to explore the oceans for new trading opportunities, and who ended his life as governor of the Mascarene Islands; he may or may not have been related to that other and more famous Admiral Bouvet, whose flagship for many years was Le Redoutable, which ship later joined Admiral Villeneuve's fleet and was the one, positioned in the centre of the battle-sea, which opened fire on HMS Victory at Trafalgar, and was dismasted and then sunk for its troubles.

Bouvet did not name the island after himself; he preferred - and it will require a course in either psychology or theology or perhaps both to understand why - Isle de la Circoncision, a name that is still used for one of the peninsulas in the north-west of the island (the island, to save you the trouble of either of the suggested courses, was discovered on January 1st 1739, which is the date of the Feast of the Circumcision; Luke 2:21 if you want to check the Biblical confirmation that Jesus, like every Jewish boy, had his peninsula abbreviated to a mere headland on the eighth day of his sojourn on planet Earth). 

Cape Circoncision later provided a location for the base-camp of the 1928-29 Norwegian expedition, led by Harald Horntvedt, which claimed the island for Norway, much to the chagrin of the British, who had made several attempts to find it after Bouvet returned to Europe to say he had reached landfall beyond the 50th Parallel, but nobody believed him. George Norris had proven the point in 1825, even landed, planted a flag to claim it for King George, named it Liverpool Island. Norris also found a second island, forty-five miles away, which he named Thompson Island, and claimed for Britain too. Nobody believed Norris either, and Thompson Island to this day remains to be found, or re-found. Then there was Joseph Fuller in 1893, who said he saw the island, but was unable to land, and the German Carl Chun, who couldn't land either, but did map the place, and brought home some geological remains.

So, effectively, the island of circumcision still awaited its briss, or brit if you prefer the Aramaic pronunciation, as Jesus' father presumably would have done, and while it is hard to imagine why anyone would fight over a large piece of ice the size of a foreskin in the southern reaches of an uninhabitable ocean, these are human beings that we are talking about, and so of course they do. It was on December 1 1927 that Horntvedt proved the existence of the island once and for all by landing on it, photographing it, and claiming it for Norway, whose king made the annexation formal on the 23rd of January 1928. Debate with Britain over the existence or otherwise of Thompson Island lasted several months, but in the end Britain took the wise decision not to go to war over a tiny island in the middle of the Antarctic that quite obviously belonged to someone else, and yielded sovereignty (see also Falkland Islands).

The history of the island since then is not one of great human achievement. The first expedition, as noted, planted a flag. The second expedition, returning in 1929, found the flag broken. That first expedition also put up a hut, the founding moment of future civilisation on the island; the second expedition found the hut had been washed away. The third expedition, led by Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, built a new hut, confirming the tenacity and determination of humanity, by writing a new chapter in the page of Bouvet Island history. In 1977, an automated weather station was constructed, and manned for two full months; sadly, a glacial earthquake, on 23 February 2006, sent the weather station the same way as the flagpole, the hut, and a life raft found close to the island in 1964 by the British frigate HMS Protector; the event may also have provided an explanation for the mysterious unfindability of Thompson Island, though I appear to be the only person yet to have thought of that.

The tenacity and determination of Nature to defeat the evil gremlins of Humanity, whether by earthquake or avalanche, hurricane or tornado, ice-age or global warming, finally proved too much for the Norwegians, who have never formally admitted defeat, though it is apparent in the patronising designation of any piece of land as "a nature reserve" - it is actually we humans who live in reservations, known as towns, villages, cities, and Nature which will still be there, long after we have warred or warmed  ourselves into extermination. The Bouvet Island Nature Reserve is unvisited by humans, and this is as it should be - the place is reserved for Nature. The foraging strategies of polar creatures such as fur seals and penguins are much studied through aerial photography. Early evidence suggests that both the fur seal and the penguin will survive global warming, though not for certain nuclear war.

Marks For: 10

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