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Erik Oberg/Island Conservation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Erik Oberg/Island Conservation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

10 Uninhabited Islands and Why Nobody Lives on Them

Erik Oberg/Island Conservation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Erik Oberg/Island Conservation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Brendon Grimshaw purchased Moyenne Island in the Indian Ocean in 1964 for $20,000, quit his job in 1973 to move there, and spent the next 40 years developing it into a paradise, cultivating and protecting flora and fauna native to the Seychelles. Now 86, Grimshaw's island is worth millions to developers, but he is determined that it remain a nature preserve after his death.

There are still many abandoned and uninhabited islands around the world. Why isn't there anyone living on them? After all, 270 people live on Tristan de Cunha, which is 2430 kilometers from the next inhabited island! The reasons islands remain uninhabited are financial, political, environmental, or religious -or a combination of those reasons.

1. ŌKUNOSHIMA ISLAND

Okunoshima Island, Japan
Get Hiroshima.com, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Three kilometers off the coast of Japan, Ōkunoshima Island is overrun with rabbits, which are not a native species. But there are no human residents on Ōkunoshima Island. It was once the site of a chemical weapons plant, turning out poison gas for the Japanese Imperial Army from 1929 to 1945. The Allied Occupation Forces dismantled the plant and let laboratory animals go free (hence the rabbits). Japan did not speak of Ōkunoshima for many years. Then in 1988, the Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum was opened on the site. Tourists take the ferry to the island to interact with the friendly rabbits more than to see the museum.

2. ANTIPODES ISLANDS

Castaway Hut in Antipodes Islands, New Zealand
LawrieM, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Antipodes are a group of volcanic islands south of New Zealand. The cold climate and harsh winds make the islands too inhospitable a place to live. It is known for numerous shipwrecks and deaths, some from trying to survive on the islands, despite supplies being left there in castaway huts, as seen in the photograph. Two people died by shipwreck there as recently as 1999.

3. JACO ISLAND

Jaco Island
Isabel Nolasco, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Jaco Island in East Timor has no permanent inhabitants because locals consider it sacred land. However, that does not mean they won't accommodate tourists. Day trips as well as camping on the island is encouraged. Local fishermen double as vendors to the tourists. Since 2007, Jaco Island is part of Nino Konis Santana National Park.

4. CLIPPERTON ISLAND

Clipperton Island
Shannon Rankin, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Clipperton Island is actually a coral atoll south of Mexico and west of Guatemala in the Pacific. It was claimed first by the French, then Americans, who mined it for guano. Mexico took possession in 1897, and allowed a British company to mine guano there. In 1914, the Mexican civil war caused the island's 100 or so residents to be cut off from transportation and supplies. In 1917, the last surviving islanders, three women, were rescued and evacuated. Ownership reverted to France, which manned a lighthouse on Clipperton Island, but after World War II it was completely abandoned. There are occasional scientific expeditions to the atoll.

5. NORTH BROTHER ISLAND

How can an island in the East River in New York City be forgotten? Ah, because it’s a protected bird sancutary, and therefore off-limits to the public. Still, North Brother Island has quite a history. Riverside Hospital opened a quarantine facility for smallpox patients on the 20-acre island in 1885. The hospital later took in patients with other communicable diseases, such as venereal disease and typhoid. It was here that Typhoid Mary was housed for two decades until her death in 1938. The hospital closed in 1942, but the buildings were used for veteran's housing for a while, then as a rehab center for young drug addicts, but corruption, abuse, and rights violations forced the facility to close for good in 1963. The buildings still stand in their ruined state, and are said to be haunted by the many who died or suffered there.

6. BATTLESHIP ISLAND

Hashima Island in Japan is often referred to as Battleship Island because that's what it looks like. About 15 kilometers from Nagasaki, the island sat above a profitable coal seam that was mined from 1887 until 1974. Miners and their families lived on the island, which is only around 15 acres. At its height, Hashima Island had over 5000 residents, densely packed into large apartment blocks. When the coal business fizzled, those buildings were left empty and derelict. It became dangerous to even set foot on the island. However, the uninhabited island was opened to tourism in 2009.

7. FORT CARROLL ISLAND

Fort Carroll, Baltimore
WorldIslandInfo.com, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1847, the U.S. military built Fort Carroll to protect Baltimore right in the middle of the Patapsco River. The site was selected because experience showed that a defensive fort built too close to a city created more problems than it solved. The artificial island was built under the supervision of a young Robert E. Lee, who also designed the island's hexagonal shape. The fort was still incomplete by the time the Civil War began. Construction was halted, and by the time the war was over, the facility's insufficiency became obvious. The fort was modernized, but not in time to be of much use during the Spanish-American War. Every time the fort was slowly modernized, it became obsolete again. By 1921, the army had abandoned Fort Carroll for good. The island was sold to a private developer in 1958, but various plans to use it proved too difficult and expensive to carry out. The fort remains, though slowly crumbling into ruin

8. LAZZARETTO NUOVO

Lazzaretto Nuovo, Venice, Italy
Carlo Volebele Vay, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Lazzaretto Nuovo is an island situated at the entrance of the lagoon that envelops Venice, Italy. It was a monastery in medieval times, then in 1468 was designated as a quarantine area for any ships approaching Venice, to protect the city from the plague. This continued until the 18th century, when the quarantine facilities were abandoned, and the Lazzeretto Nuovo eventually became a military base. The Italian Army abandoned the site in 1975, and it suffered years of neglect. Then community efforts turned it into a cultural museum site, now supported by the Italian Ministry of Arts and Culture. The island is now open for tourism.

9. TREE ISLAND

Tree Island among the Paracel Islands, South China Sea
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tree Island in the South China Sea is one of the Paracel Islands under disputed ownership. It is administered by China's Hainan Province, but like the other Paracel Islands, is claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan as well. Tourists can visit the island with permission, but the only inhabitants are military troops who are stationed there temporarily.

10. PALMYRA ATOLL

Palmyra Atoll
Erik Oberg/Island Conservation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Palmyra Atoll is 1000 miles south of Hawaii, and is a territory owned by the United States. However, as isolated as it is, it is officially uninhabited and unorganized. The U.S. military built an airstrip there during World War II, which has fallen into ruin. The atoll now is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency, with the exception of Cooper Island, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Palmyra Atoll was the setting for a double murder in 1974 which became the basis for the novel and then miniseries called And the Sea Will Tell.

If you want to buy an island for yourself, there are real estate agents who specialize in such deals. And there are plenty of islands for sale -just make sure you find out why it is uninhabited or for sale before you close the deal!

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How a Scottish Swindler Lured His Countrymen to a Fake City of Untold Riches
Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Mythological mountain ranges, illusory oceans, and apocryphal islands crowded the maps of early navigators. Some imaginary features, though, remained on charts well after satellite imagery and GPS should have confirmed their nonexistence. As Edward Brooke-Hitching writes in his new book, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps (Chronicle Books), some fake places made a lasting impression simply because their promoters were so brazen. In this excerpt, Brooke-Hitching describes one scoundrel's scheme to lure settlers to a fictional Central American city of untold riches—with disastrous results.

There are shameless liars, there are bold-as-brass fraudsters, and then there is a level of mendacity so magnificent it is inhabited by one man alone: ‘Sir’ Gregor MacGregor. In 1822, South American nations such as Colombia, Chile, and Peru were a new vogue in a sluggish investor’s market, being lands of opportunity, offering bonds with rates of interest too profitable to pass up. And so, when the charismatic ‘Cazique of Poyais’ sauntered into London, resplendent in medals and honors bestowed on him by George Frederic Augustus, king of the Mosquito Coast, and waving a land grant from said monarch that endowed him his own kingdom, he was met with an almost salivary welcome.

Perhaps if he had been a total stranger there might have been more wariness, but this was a man of reputation: Sir Gregor MacGregor of the clan MacGregor, great-great-nephew of Rob Roy, was famous from overseas dispatches for his service with the ‘Die-Hards,’ the 57th Foot regiment that had fought so valiantly at the Battle of Albuera in 1811. As a soldier of fortune, he had bled for Francisco de Miranda and for Simón Bolívar against the Spanish; the man was a hero. And now here he was in London, fresh from adventure, with the glamorous Princess Josefa of Poyais on his arm, looking for investment in his inchoate nation.

And the tales he told of his new homeland! Some 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of abundant natural resources and exquisite beauty; rich soil crying out for skilled farming; seas alive with fish and turtles, and countryside crowded with game; rivers choked with ‘native Globules of pure Gold.’ A promotional guide to the region was published, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore: Including the Territory of Poyais (1822), featuring the utopian vista below and further details of ‘many very rich Gold Mines in the Country, particularly that of Albrapoyer, which might be wrought to great benefit.’ Best of all, for a modest sum you too could claim your own piece of paradise.

Map of the imaginary Territory of Poyais
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

For a mere 2 shillings and 3 pence, MacGregor told his rapt audience, 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of Poyais land would be theirs. This meant that, if you were able to scrape together just over £11, you could own a plot of 100 acres (40 hectares). Poyais was in need of skilled labor—the plentiful timber had great commercial potential; the fields could yield great bounty if worked properly. A man could live like a king for a fraction of the British cost of living. For those too ‘noble’ for manual labor, there were positions with prestigious titles available to the highest bidder. A city financier named Mauger was thrilled to receive the appointment of manager of the Bank of Poyais; a cobbler rushed home to tell his wife of his new role as official shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais. Families keen to secure an advantage for their young men purchased commissions in Poyais’s army and navy.

MacGregor himself had got his start this way in the British Army at the age of 16, when his family purchased for him a commission as ensign in 1803, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. Within a year he was promoted to lieutenant, and began to develop an obsession with rank and dress. He retired from the army in 1810 after an argument with a superior officer ‘of a trivial nature,’ and it was at this point that his imagination began to take a more dominant role in his behavior. He awarded himself the rank of colonel and the badge of a Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ. Rejected from Edinburgh high society, in London he polished his credentials by presenting himself as ‘Sir Gregor MacGregor.’ He decided to head for South America, to add some New World spice to his reputation and return a hero. Arriving in Venezuela, by way of Jamaica, he was greeted warmly by Francisco de Miranda and given a battalion to help fight the Spanish in the Venezuelan War of Independence. He then fought for Simón Bolívar when Miranda was imprisoned. Operations extended to Florida, where he devised a nascent form of what he was later to orchestrate in London, raising $160,000 by selling ‘scripts’ to investors representing parcels of Floridian territory. As Spanish forces closed in, he bid farewell to his men and fled to the Bahamas, never repaying the money.

MacGregor was intelligent, persuasive, charisma personified, with a craving for popularity, wealth, and acceptance of the elite. This was the man to whom the prospective Poyais colonists were faithfully handing their every penny. Every detail of his scheme was planned to perfection. They never stood a chance.

On September 10, 1822, the Honduras Packet left London docks, bound for the territory of Poyais, carrying 70 excited passengers, plenty of supplies and a chest full of Poyais dollars made by the official printer to the Bank of Scotland, for which the emigrants happily traded their gold and legal tender.

Having waved off the Honduras, MacGregor headed to Edinburgh and Glasgow to make the same offer to the Scots. The dramatic failure of the Darien scheme in the late 17th century (in which the kingdom of Scotland had attempted to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama) had virtually bankrupted the country, and any indication of history repeating itself would have been met with extreme caution. But MacGregor was a Scotsman himself, a patriot and soldier. Unfortunately, he was also in possession of a tongue of pure silver. A second swath of Poyais real estate was sold off, and a second passenger ship filled. Under the captaincy of Henry Crouch, the Kennersley Castle left the port of Leith, Scotland on January 14, 1823, carrying 200 future citizens of Poyais, eager to join the Honduras Packet travelers in their new home.

Phantom Atlas book jacket cover
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

To their utter confusion, when the colonists arrived at their destination, they found only malarial swampland and thick vegetation with no trace of civilization. There was no Poyais, no land of plenty, no capital city. They had been fooled by a conniving fantasist. Unable to afford the journey home, they had no choice but to unload their supplies and set up camp on the shore. By April, nothing had changed. No town had been found, no help had arrived, and the camp was in total despair. Disease was rife and claimed the lives of eight colonists that month. The cobbler who had been promised the role of ‘Shoemaker to the Princess’ gave up hope of ever seeing his family again, and shot himself in the head.

At this lowest point, a vessel appeared on the horizon—what’s more, it flew a British flag. The Mexican Eagle from Belize had been passing nearby on a diplomatic mission when it had caught sight of the camp. The weak settlers were brought aboard and began their slow and awful journey back to London, via the hospitals of Belize. Of the 270 or so men and women who had set out for Poyais, fewer than 50 made it back to Britain. By this time MacGregor had high-tailed it to France, where he tried and failed to run the scam again. (He was foiled when the French government noticed the rush of applications for visas to a country that didn’t exist.) He was eventually forced to flee to Venezuela, where he later died in 1845, never properly brought to answer for his extraordinary and terrible crime.

From The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, published by Chronicle Books.

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Is This Route in North Dakota the Longest Straight Road in America?
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When planning a road trip, you might scope out the route with the most roadside attractions or the prettiest scenery—or, if you're interested in activating cruise control and giving your feet a break, you might look for something straight. According to Ken Jennings, writing for Condé Nast Traveler, North Dakota claims to be home to the longest straight road in the country.

State Highway 46 covers 124 miles of Midwestern prairie between the communities of Streeter and Lithia. A quick glance at a map suggests that the road does unfold in a straight line as advertised, but closer examination reveals that its status is more complicated than North Dakota would like to admit. There are places where highway 46 diverges off its narrow path slightly, like the spot where it runs over the Sheyenne River, for example. If you're sticking to the strictest definition of the word "straight," 40 unbroken miles of the highway is the longest stretch that qualifies.

Forty miles of driving in the same exact direction is impressive, but for an even smoother ride you'll need to travel west to Utah. There you'll find a 30-mile section of Interstate 80 that crosses the Bonneville Salt Flats. Not only is this route straight, it also falls along one of the flattest spots in the country.

Of course, not every road tripper is looking for the route that takes the least effort to drive. Roads with insane hairpin turns built in treacherous locations aren't hard to find if you know where to look.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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