Tour Of The Caribbean - Vanishing Island
( Originally Published 1925 )
As the Azores are approached the steamer traverses that ocean area which was the favourite haunt of the Vanishing Island. This island, so full of interest to the ancient mariner, was less definite or more careless as to its precise position than are most tracks of land. In a French chart, bearing the date 1755, it is placed in latitude 29° N. and longitude 25° W. It was called, for reasons which will be explained later, the Isle of St. Brandum, or St. Borondam. It was a mountainous island of great physical attractions and of some ninety leagues in length. Considering its massive size it was curiously shy, for it almost invariably vanished when approached by strangers. Some suppose that it flew away, like a leaf in a wind ; others were content to affirm that it merely disappeared. The matter-of-fact John Sparke, who was one of Hawkins' companions in the voyage of 1564, writes, "About these parts are certain flitting islands, which have been often-times seen, and when men approached near them they vanished." Sparke reverently adds, " it would seem that he is not yet born to whom God hath appointed the finding of them."
Innumerable honest folk had, however, seen St. Brandum. Among them was Alonzo de Espinosa, the governor of Ferro. He issued a statement, supported by the testimony of no less than a hundred reliable witnesses, that he had observed the island forty leagues to the north-west of Ferro, and, more than that, that he and certain of his friends had watched the sun set behind one of its capes.
It was in every way a most desirable island to visit. In the first place it was the retreat of King Rodrigo, which many were curious to see. It contained besides the beautiful palace and pleasure gardens of Armida. Readers of Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered will remember that when the crusaders reached the Holy City, Satan employed this lady, who was a professional sorceress, to abduct Rinaldo, the valiant leader. Rinaldo was led away by Armida to this very island, amidst the delights of which he forgot his vow, and the object to which he had devoted his life. To rid him of the lady two soldiers from the Christian army, named Carlo and Ubaldo, were dispatched to the island, which seems then to have been much less timid than it was in later years. They took with them a talisman so exceedingly powerful, or of such voltage, that the witchcraft of Armida became as nought. Rinaldo returned, performed very fearful feats of arms, persuaded Armida to become a Christian, and so all ended well. Whether it was in consequence of this visit of Carlo and Ubaldo that the island became suspicious and took to vanishing on the approach of strangers is not known.
More definite details of St. Brandum are furnished by a Portuguese observer, one Pedro Vello. This Pedro was a pilot who had the good fortune to take the coy island by surprise and actually land upon it. He saw on the sands, as he stepped ashore, the prints of gigantic human feet, at least twice the size of a man's. This was most important evidence, which fully corroborated certain details in the earlier history of the settlement. Vello also found on the beach a cross nailed to a tree, the ashes of a fire, and the usual properties with which most mysterious islands are furnished. Two of his men wandered into the woods, either in search of Armida's garden or at least of a tavern patronised by the giants. They had not been long away when a breeze sprang up. Pedro Vello, after whistling and shouting, was reluctantly compelled to push his boat off and make for the ship. He had no sooner stepped on board than, turning round, he perceived to his horror that the island had disappeared. It does not seem to have either sunk into the sea or to have flown away into the air. It simply was not. As nothing whatever was to be seen of the two men, it is clear that they must have become transparent or at least soluble at the moment that the island faded ; otherwise they must have been seen, for an appreciable second, as two black dots against the now unobstructed horizon. The disconsolate Pedro Vello sailed to and fro for days searching for the island but he never came upon it, nor did he find any material of note floating upon the sea. It would have been a great comfort to him if only he could have picked up the hats his two lost men were wearing.
Many expeditions—some of them very costly and elaborate—were sent out from Europe in search of St. Brandum, but the adventurers were never blessed by a sight of its diffident shores, although the captain of the last exploring party, Don Gaspar Dominguez, took with him two holy friars, in case Satan should be in any way concerned with the island's behaviour.
It is curious that this very part of the world, which has been geographically so much favoured, should have been the habitat of another vanishing island of unimpeachable character and undoubted bona fides. Just off the most westerly point of St. Michael's—a point passed by the steamer—there is marked in the chart a shoal, showing fifteen fathoms of water on it, called the Sabrina Shoal. On the night of February 1, 1811, the inhabitants of the west end of St. Michael's were awakened by the sound of a fearful explosion at sea, while those who were within sight of the point saw rise out of the ocean a column of fire and cinders, together with an immense cloud of smoke and of flying ash. Inquisitive boatmen who rowed over the site of this strange manifestation, when all was still again, picked up dead and broiled fish.
On June 12, 1811, H.M. sloop Sabrina, when cruising off St. Michael's, witnessed clouds of smoke rising from the sea near the west of the island. The captain of the sloop was filled with joy when to the smoke was added a noise as of cannon. He felt assured that an engagement was in progress, and set all sail upon his ship in the hope that he might reach the scene of the engagement in time to take part therein. The deck was cleared for action and the guns run out. On nearing the spot, however, there was only to be seen an immense body of smoke revolving on the water horizontally in varied and tortured convolutions. Suddenly out of these coils shot up a hideous column of water, stones, cinders and steam, attended by loud explosions and the flashing of lightning. It was evident that they had come upon a submarine volcano. The phenomena continued and by June 14, to the delight of the curious, the mouth of a crater, still belching fire and cinders, rose out of the sea. It rose until it attained the height of twenty feet. By June 16 the crater—which was as active as ever—had reached an altitude of 150 feet.
The Sabrinc was compelled to proceed on her mission—which was not that of watching volcanoes—but came back to the same spot again on July 4. She then found a complete volcanic island, quiet and pleasant to look upon, for nothing but a faint steam now rose from its peak. The height of the island had increased to 250 feet. The captain and some of the officers landed, stepping out of the boat upon a narrow beach of ashes. It must have been a moment never to be forgotten. They found the shore steep and the ground hot, while those who had the curiosity to climb up to the edge of the crater reported that the same was filled with steaming water. The captain walked round the newly born island with the assurance that, so far as this piece of the world was concerned, he was the first man. It was an afternoon walk without a parallel. Some time after the sloop had sailed away the island suddenly vanished into the sea, leaving nothing to mark its site but the Sabrina Shoal, which lies now no less than ninety feet below the level of the ocean.
The vanishing island of the Middle Ages came by its name of St. Brandum after this manner. In the sixth century an Irish abbot named St. Brandum, a man of very exceptional piety, left Limerick or Galway, or some such town, for the purpose of discovering the islands of Paradise. On this voyage the devout Irishman was accompanied by his favourite disciple, St. Malo, who was an enthusiast filled with the missionary spirit. They landed on an island in these waters. The first thing that St. Malo came upon, after stepping out of the boat, was a sepulchre containing the body of a dead giant. Without being in any way surprised at this uncommon "object of the sea-shore," he proceeded at once to resuscitate the deceased native.
The dead man moved in a while, lifted his head, stared about him, and began to ask " where he was." Being reassured by the disciple he crawled out of the sepulchre and sat down on the sand, arranging his scanty grave clothes about him with a proper modesty. He yawned heavily, no doubt, and rubbed his eyes, blinking the while for the sun was bright. He would like to have heard how things had gone on in his household and in the village since his death, but St. Malo would talk of nothing but religion. He put the poor, famished giant through a catechism which would have daunted a student of divinity. It is stated that, in the progress of this discourse, St. Malo obtained from the giant the admission that the islanders had some notions of the Trinity, and was gratified to find that the great man himself was sound in his views as to the torments reserved in Hell for Jews and Pagans. It is to be assumed that this highly specialised conversation was conducted in Erse or Ancient Irish After an harangue on the doctrines of Christianity which lasted many hours St. Malo succeeded in converting the giant, and at once baptised him in the name of Mildum.
One gathers from the records of this mission that Mildum soon became bored almost to tears. He found, one may infer, that things had not gone on after his death quite as he expected. His friends had fled to the hills, his secret store of liquor had been looted, and his but was practically up for sale. Moreover wherever he went he would be sure to meet St. Malo, who would at once insist upon addressing him, " in a few words," upon such topics as Transubstantiation, Original Sin, and the Authority of the Church.
At the end of fifteen days Mildum could stand this no longer. So he went to St. Malo, hat in hand, and, while thanking him for all he had done during this improving fortnight, begged that he might be allowed to die again. St Malo was not hurt by the request. He ascribed it to a creditable eagerness on Mildum's part to see those Heavens to which he now had access by reason of his conversion. He accordingly gave his permission for the giant's second decease.
With a smile of relief Mildum said " Good-bye ! " and walked back to the sepulchre which he had already put in order. Here, kicking off his shoes and begging St Malo to kindly arrange the stone as he found it, he crept in and settled himself down, with a sigh of great satisfaction, to resume that sleep which the well-meaning Irishman had so rudely interrupted.