“We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance” – John Archibald Wheeler
In Umberto Eco’s novel The Island of the Day Before, 17th Century Italian nobleman Roberto della Griva, marooned on an abandoned ship in the harbor of an island he cannot reach due to his inability to swim, imagines a conversation between two men, each convinced the other is protecting valuable knowledge, describing the scene as, “Thus we have on stage two men, each of whom knows nothing of what he believes the other knows, and to deceive each other reciprocally both speak in allusions, each of the two hoping (in vain) that the other holds the key to his puzzle”. The imaginary realm of allusion may be the only kingdom where our minds can truly meet, our consciousness a self-contained Rube Goldberg machine (or if you resolutely insist on a logical basis, an eternal “Prisoner’s Dilemma”) designed to generate models of reality based on what we believe our senses are communicating and those scraps of metaphor we can glean about what’s going on in the heads of our fellow humans. Succeeding generations stack metaphor upon metaphor until consensus reality emerges as if the finest mortar at the top of the tower can overcome the fundamental instability of the foundation. The reliance of our intellects on this consensus about what is conceivable vs. inconceivable based on presumed agreement, a hypothesized congruence with other isolated minds that is solely a figment of our imagination, since there is no guarantee that my metaphor is precisely the same as your metaphor, drives us to continuously tune those things which we are willing to encompass in our philosophies. And it is a small price to pay that every once in a while we have to sacrifice an island. The South Atlantic Island of Saxemberg once had the unmitigated gall to exist, complete with documented flora and fauna, and then just as rudely decided not to exist, consensually marched straight off the pages of our maps and into unreality.
The wholly fabricated nature of consensus reality is not a comic fantasy I whipped up on the spot for our mutual amusement. Researchers in artificial intelligence note that a central impediment to a true artificial mind is lack of common sense. Not among the researchers, mind you, since we should probably suspect that the main motivation behind wanting to create artificial intelligence is a disdain for the general level of biological intelligence, but that an artificial intelligence is hampered by what us folks with the traditional “wet works” call “street smarts”, and what those stodgy anthropologists call cultural competence. In short, in order to be a useful substitute for human intelligence, our artificial brains must cognitively participate in a consensus reality, the most rudimentary form of which many scientists maintain needs to be a sufficiently robust knowledge base. “This Knowledge Base would contain the ‘consensus reality’ that one needs in order to understand everything in a newspaper (including the ads, advice columns, etc.) and everything in a desktop encyclopedia. In other words, it tackles head-on the problem of world and common-sense knowledge which has been previously described as such a barrier to AI” (Travis, 1992, p229). Thus, if we expect to make a machine that can think as we do, we must feed it a crash course in our consensus reality, without which it cannot truly share in our metaphorical universe. This roughly translates into the tacit recognition that at any given time, the sum of our metaphors, those guesses at what moves the minds of other men, constitute our reality. And screw those gods, creatures, continents, or islands that once rated a serious entry in our cultural encyclopedias, but have slipped from our grasp. Serves them right for being so elusive.
If you don’t count scurvy, poor quality rum, sodomy, and the lash as perks to European seafaring in the Age of Exploration, you could always take solace in the fact that geographically speaking, there was a whole lot of undiscovered stuff loitering about the ocean blue. This is because, prior to the 15th Century (and the Portuguese-driven proliferation of the compass and maritime astrolabe), open-seas navigation was considered an unhealthy proposition. Basically, prior to the invention of a means for fixing one’s position on the great briny when out of sight of land, you tried to make sure you kept a few prominent landmarks in sight. Once our navigators sold us on the idea that they could get us back from the middle of nowhere with a few tools and a head for math, all bets were off, and the race for the naming rights to every reef, rock, and remote desert isle was on. Consequently, a lot of things got discovered, only to later be undiscovered. Much of this had to do with the fact that until the late 18th Century, shipboard navigators were aces at figuring out latitude (angular distance from the equator – usually calculable to within a degree), but complete rubbish at determining longitude, which believe it or not requires a reliable clock, and those were way too expensive until the 19th Century. Sailors often had to rely on “dead reckoning” – starting from a known fixed position, then repeatedly calculating speed and direction to estimate current position, which of course results in massive cumulative errors. While etymologists generally think the origin of the term dead reckoning is unclear, it seems pretty likely that with enough accumulated errors, your likelihood of winding up in Davy Jones Locker increased (say, when a reef appeared out of nowhere because you were hundreds of miles from where you thought you were). So, for a while there, islands would appear and disappear on maps, either because mythical kingdoms turned out not to be where everyone was sure they were, or because captains weren’t always exactly sure where they were when they cited coordinates for a newly discovered island, nor was the next guy who sailed to the reported discovery and found nothing but open sea in all directions.
The fourteen mile long and two mile wide Saxemberg Island was said to have been first discovered and sketched by Dutch seafarer John Lindestz Lindeman in 1670. Lindeman reported the island’s coordinates as 30°45′S 19°40′W. The island was reported as sighted, or not sighted for roughly 200 years after that, remaining on maps until well into the 19th Century. Of course, nobody actually landed on the island, and each captain who sighted it casually noted its position to the best of his ability, and each captain who failed to discern it credited previous captains with inferior navigation skills.
An island, by him named Saxemburg, is said to have been first seen by J. L. Lindeman, of Monnikendam, 23d of August, 1670, who has given a view of it, as taken at sun-set of that day, when bearing N.E. by N., distant about seven leagues. He represents it as having a remarkable narrow peak, like a column, near the middle of the island; and, from his account, it was laid down in the charts at about 30° 45’S. and 19° W. Captain Galloway, in the American ship Fanny, outward-bound to China, in 1804, supposed that he saw it at a great distance. He states that it was four hours in sight, from the masthead, without changing its appearance; which exhibited a peaked hill in the centre, and a bluff at one of the extremities; situated in the parallel above mentioned, but two degrees more to the eastward. Captain Flinders, in the year 1801, unsuccessfully sought for this island, in the parallel assigned. From longitude 26°, he proceeded eastward to 20° 28′, and then E.S.E. nearly over the situation described in the charts. His precautions were such as to leave no doubt of the non-existence of the island within the limits here mentioned. Captain Horsburgh also states that he had, at two different times, endeavoured to gain a sight of this doubtful island, by crossing the longitude 19° W. at one time, a few miles to the southward of its latitude in the charts, and at another time a little more northerly than the same. This gentleman is of opinion that, if an island, moderately elevated, had any existence near the place assigned to Saxemberg, it certainly would have been frequently seen; and he adds that clouds, exactly like land, sometimes remain stationary at the horizon, for a great length of time, in this, part of the ocean, and may be mistaken for distant islands. On the 17th of January, 1821, the ship Cornwallis, Captain Rowland Bourke, passed over the assigned position of Saxemburg, and ascertained that no island could exist in that situation; a good look-out being kept. But Captain Flinders says, “At the Cape of Good-Hope, in 1810, his Excellency the Earl of Caledon favoured me with the following extract from the log-book of the sloop Columbus,—Long, Master; returning to the Cape from the Coast of Brasil. “September 22d, 1809, at five p.m. saw the island of Saxonberg, bearing E.S.E. first about 4.5 leagues distant; clear weather. Steered for the said island, and found it to be in the latitude of 30° 18′ S., longitude 28° 20′ W., or thereabout. “The island of Saxonberg is about four leagues in length, N.W. and S.E., and about two miles and a half in breadth. The N.W. end is a high bluff of about seventy feet, perpendicular form, and runs along to the S.E. about eight miles. You will see trees at about a mile and a half distance, and a sandy beach.” It is to be observed that the situation of this island is about eleven degrees to the westward of the situation lately assigned to the doubtful Saxemberg. The longitude given by Mr. Long is, however, so near the track of Captain Cook, in 1776, and other navigators, that we are apprehensive it is not quite correct (Purdy, 1822, p26).
Phantom islands are not unheard of in the annals of exploration, with all manner of possible explanations offered for the presumed appearance of land where no land is found to be at a later date, and often these shy creatures are populated with all the fearsome critters, lavish cities, and bizarre phenomena that always lurk at the margins of our maps, but puzzlingly, sketches of Saxemberg Island seem to have been widely available in the 18th-19th Century, detailed enough for naturalists to draw some conclusions about particular species of Saxemberg trees that were also known to exist on the considerably less spectral and less questionably substantial islands of St. Helena and Tristan d’Acunha, in the same relative region of the South Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, geographic catechisms routinely included Saxemberg as in Nathaniel Dwight’s 1817 A System of Universal Geography, for Common Schools, which rather blandly asked: “Question. Where are Gough’s Island, Diego, Tristran de Cunha, and Saxemberg? Answer. W. of the Cape of Good Hope and nearly its latitude (Dwight, 1817, p147). Hey, textbooks never lie, right?
It is very remarkable and well deserving the attention of naturalists, that a species of gum-wood tree (Cony zagummifera), which is indigenous to the climate of St. Helena, and which has not, I believe, been discovered upon the opposite continent of Africa, has been found upon Gough’s Island and Tristan d’Acunha, I have in my possession a sketch of the Island of Saxemberg, upon which some trees are also represented; of what sort I am not informed. But, if it should be ascertained hereafter, that they are of the same species as those on the other three islands, this might be an additional reason for supposing that all those islands, and perhaps Ascension, which has now no trees upon it, may have been, at some remote period, united. If the possibility of this connection be, for a moment, admitted, the question of immersion, according to M. Buffon’s hypothesis, might readily be solved. “History,” says this celebrated naturalist, “informs us of inundations and deluges of an extensive nature. Ought not all this to convince us, that the surface of the earth has experienced very great revolutions? Let us suppose, for example, that the old and new worlds were formerly but one continent; and that, by an earthquake, the ancient Atlantis of Plato was sunk; the consequence of this mighty revolution must necessarily be, that the sea would rush in from all quarters, and form what is now called the Atlantic Ocean” (Beatson, 1816, pXIII).
As Saxemberg kept appearing and disappearing, it gained some association with other esoteric Islands, some 19th Century scholars of the catastrophic school suggesting that the peculiar chain of Islands that included the very real St. Helena and the somewhat doubtful Saxemberg represented the remnants of what might have been the mythical Atlantis, now sunk beneath the waves. I mean, if a whole continent could sink, it stands to reason that a mere island could whimsically come and go.
Some writers have entertained the idea that the islands of St. Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, Gough, and Saxemberg, constituting a chain 1800 miles in length and 500 in breadth, were mountainous remnants of a submerged continent. The ﬁrst-named island presents traces of volcanic action, and its aspect is altogether extraordinary (Lees, 1833, p11).
Ultimately, on the authority of a number of captains who made earnest unsuccessful searches for the Island of Saxemberg, the consensus reality of the mapmakers and geographers leaned towards the possibility that it never actually existed at all. Maybe they missed the detail that Captain Flinders’ astronomer (presumably the guy who told him where in the world he was) wasn’t operating in peak condition.
In sailing to the Cape of Good Hope, Captain Flinders made search for an island in the south Atlantic named Saxemberg, the situation of which has been so badly described as to have rendered its existence doubtful. He did not find this island: but, on arriving at the Cape, he received information that Mr. Long, commanding a sloop named the Columbus, in sailing from Brazil to the Cape of Good Hope, had seen Saxemberg, situated in latitude 30* 18′ S., and longitude 280 20′ W.; ‘which situation differs about half a degree in latitude, and almost nine degrees in longitude, from the place assigned to it in the tables and charts.’ At the Cape of Good Hope, Captain Flinders had the misfortune to be deprived of the assistance of Mr. Crosley, the astronomer, who for some time before had been in a bad state of health, and now found it necessary on that account to relinquish the expedition (Griffiths & Griffiths, 1815, p162).
Look up Gough Island (one of the islands in the area associated with Saxemberg) on Google Earth, and you will see a little speck, surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. Zoom out enough and you eventually can see St. Helena and Tristan d’Acunha, also surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. Try as you might, you won’t find a trace of the Island of Saxemberg. Volcanism, earthquakes, sea-level changes, and plain old hallucinations or mirages have been credited with the disappearance of Saxemberg, but the simple truth is that a number of captains from the 17-19th Century reported it was there or reported its curious absence. Personally, I think Saxemberg finally got fed up with our navigational incompetence and slipped off to join the Isle of Mam (last seen in 1362), New South Greenland, St. Brendan’s Island, and Bermeja in the far less judgmental Super-Sargasso Sea when our consensus reality began to waffle at its existence. We seem to have a historical compulsion to find and then exorcise phantoms that haunt our reality; perhaps because we don’t want to admit to the unbearable solitude locked inside our own skull, for as Italian poet Antonio Porchia warned, “He who does not fill his world with phantoms remains alone”.
Beatson, Alexander, 1759-1833. Tracts Relative to the Island of St. Helena: Written During a Residence of Five Years. London: Printed by W. Bulmer and co., 1816.
Dwight, Nathaniel, 1770-1831. A System of Universal Geography, for Common Schools: In Which Europe Is Divided According to the Late Act of the Congress At Vienna … Albany: Printed by Websters and Skinners, 1817.
Griffiths, G. E, and Ralph Griffiths. “Flinder’s Voyage to Terra Australis”. The Monthly Review 2:76, 1815.
Lees, Edwin, 1800-1887. The Affinities of Plants With Man And Animals: Their Analogies And Associations; a Lecture Delivered Before the Worcestershire Natural History Society, November 26, 1833 … With Additional Notes And Illustrations .. London: Williams Edwards, 1834.
Purdy, John, 1773-1843. Memoir, Descriptive And Explanatory, to Accompany the New Chart of the Ethiopic Or Southern Atlantic Ocean, With the Western Coasts of South-America, From Cape Horn to Panama ..: Composed From a Great Variety of Documents, As Enumerated In the Work. London: R.H. Laurie, 1822.
Travis, Irene L. Clinic on Library Applications of Data Processing University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Artificial Intelligence And Expert Systems: Will They Change the Library. Urbana, Ill.: Graduate School of Library Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1992.