You can file this one away under either “island fever” or perhaps “nautical whimsey”…

While most folks have heard of Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, few have heard of his brother, Leicester  “Duke” Hemingway. What does this have to do with Jeju Island? More than you now know. So please read on.

I discovered that the only English-language newspaper available on Jeju Island when I arrived there for Peace Corps Volunteer service in 1973 was an unusual little Korea Times insert titled “Guide to Current English.” Once weekly a provocative news item printed in English would be broken down into four or five paragraphs, translated into Korean, and skimmed of uncommon words and idioms like “pipe dream” and “pooh-pooh” for the purposes of further discussion.

Invariable I would run into highly motivated islanders, most often college students, seeking to practice these same idioms with a rare native English speaker in the immediate aftermath of their publication. They would seek me out, for example, in my favorite bakery or simply stop me on the sidewalk with questions like “Hello. Do you think it will rain today?” If I replied in a professional manner using the best-practice-format for English teachers in those days “Hello. Yes, I think it will rain today,” the opportunity would ideally arise for my inquisitors to respond “That is a pipe dream” or “Pooh-pooh, Thank you.” Lesson accomplished.

Anyway, I saved a few of these “Guide to Current English” inserts because a little voice in my head at the time suggested that I might possibly be able to use them at some future date if I lived long enough. That time is now. I have kept this one example dated Tuesday, July 17, 1973 for 40 years and now have the opportunity to share it with you. It is a gem titled “Dream Island Plan” and it reports of a pipe-smoking Japanese tycoon named Noboru Gotoh whose dream it was to build an artificial island called “Shangri-La” ideal for human habitat and located in the remote South Pacific “far from the ills of modern civilization.”

The design plan revealed that Shangri-La comprised four islands with a total area of 180 km2: “Natural Living Island,” “Nature Development Island,” “Rehabilitation Island,” and “Mother Island.” Wealthy people suffering from “ailments arising from modern materialistic civilization and managed society” could escape from authoritarian rule and the psychological stresses of urban, industrial living. Shangri-La would have no electricity. Life would be comfortable, but not luxurious. Residents on “Rehabilitation Island” would number 100 in addition to highly trained doctors, psychologists and nurse-caretakers.

This Shangri-La Island complex, ultimately pooh-poohed and politely judged to be a pipe dream after proposed, was never built. Gotoh died of respiratory failure in the heart of Tokyo in 1989. He was 72. Gotoh’s dream island may have ultimately fizzled, but my first encountering the story while living on Jeju Island in 1973 sparked my life-long fascination in the big idea of artificial islands in history, which is a terrific and complex story, and one which the online Wikipedia article now introduces conveniently and quite adequately (see “Artificial Islands”). This essay is not redundant of that article The focus of my particular fascination with artificial islands is its sub-genre of islands as “elitist” escapes from the real world for those who can afford to dream up, design, build and own them: Tycoons like Noboru Gotoh.

Another tycoon, Lazarus Long, an American from Tulsa, was until recently building “New Utopia” near the Cayman Islands. It was to be a principality and Mr. Long envisioned himself as its Prince. His artificial island, a new nation where nothing previously existed, was inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand.

Several other tycoons and consortiums of wealthy libertarians have hatched schemes from their dreams to build sovereign countries at many scales and sizes around the world. They built on floating platforms tethered to sea beds or propped up atop sunken pillars or afloat and free to ride the oceanic currents. A flock of artificial island schemes were hatched in the final decade of the last millennium. Was this due to apocalypse anxiety? Among these projects were the short-lived Oceania (the Atlantis Project) circa 1994, Marshal Savage’s “Millennial Project” (circa 1992) and The New Island Creation Consortium (Freedominium of Merica), circa 1993. Also included is the City of San Diego’s ambitious “Floatport” international airport idea (circa 1992). None have succeeded.

Leicester Hemingway’s dream of an artificial island paradise came a few decades earlier, in 1961, just after he successfully published his biography My Brother, Ernest Hemingway. It earned him significant financial rewards. While perhaps not yet a tycoon, “Duke” Hemingway energetically invested his new wealth in a dream: a sovereign micro-nation called “New Atlantis,” which he built on a raft in the Caribbean. He claimed that its purpose was to serve as a marine research headquarters. A hurricane supposedly swept it away a few years after it was built. There is also a rumor that “Duke” built two islands in succession: The first was crude and anchored to the seabed with a Ford engine block. Apparently it was not permanently occupied and scavenging fishermen in search of lumber dismantled New Atlantis in the absence of any caretaker. The second attempt, circa 1964, was christened with a new name and was more successful. A colony of eight “citizens” occupied the rebuilt island. Thence came the hurricane.

More successful throughout recorded history were landfill-sorts of artificial island building beginning with ancient low-tech expansions of agricultural plots into shallow water bodies adjacent to existing shores. Perhaps the best known example are those vast chinampas (artificial floating gardens) in central Mexico built by the lakeside-dwelling Xochimilcas, ancient inventive farmers who successfully responded to a need to feed their rapidly growing population by expanding into the lake, creating these offshore artificial islands.

Case studies of man-made islands as “escapes” and “safe zones” from the outside world and its problems are therefore especially interesting. Escaping from head-hunters is the reason some Solomon Islanders (who were not cannibals) built their own impressive artificial islands prior to World War 2, as documented and photographed by missionaries. This postage stamp from 1939 commemorates that achievement:

Figure 1: A 1939 postage stamp featuring artificial islands built by indigenous peoples. In the Solomon Islands, supposedly to escape from cannibals, somewhere in the Solomon Islands.

Figure 1: A 1939 postage stamp featuring artificial islands built by indigenous peoples. In the Solomon Islands, supposedly to escape from cannibals, somewhere in the Solomon Islands.


Here is a missionary photograph of one such artificial island, which very much resembles the representation in the stamp:

Figure 2: The stamp does not exaggerate, as demonstrated by this missionary photograph.

Figure 2: The stamp does not exaggerate, as demonstrated by this missionary photograph.

This remarkable photograph reminds me of the feasibility and risk of living on giant seaworthy rafts of a sort that that perhaps reached Jeju Island in ancient times.  Big exploratory and colonizing rafts were reportedly pushed offshore and into the East Sea from the west coast of China by the “First Emperor.” He was in search of the “Isles of the Blest” where both the immortals and the plants of immortality supposedly resided. We read of adventurous pioneers like Hsu Fu who was dispatched by the emperor in the 3rd century B.C. with ample supplies of young women, tradesmen, artisans, animals and the seeds of the five grains — a floating agricultural village! Legend on Jeju Island has it that it was his rafts that made their successful landfall on “Yongju” (the earliest recorded name for Jeju Island) at a place called Seogwipo (“Port of Return to the West”).

“Farmsteading” on artificial islands is passé these days and artificial island settlement projects are now typically called “seasteading.” Most of these are post-industrial and high-tech habitats. Google, for example, is currently constructing a high-tech “barge” (a floating artificial island) in San Francisco Bay. The project is very hush-hush. Nobody is pooh-poohing this project because Google is wealthy enough to accomplish just about any sort of construction project on land or sea that its tycoons and venture capitalists dare to dream up. It could be a residential raft.

In fact, sailing condominiums are happening as I type. Norwegian tycoons launched a giant ship called “The World” about a decade ago. It features apartments rather than staterooms that only the very wealth can afford. These apartments cost from two to seven million dollars apiece. There are 110 of them that range in size from two to six rooms. Unlike a gated community on land, where neighbors hardly ever meet, residents of The World get to know each other “intimately” — for better and for worse. A sister ship is in the works

There is hardly any unclaimed land around the worth settling anymore, islands included. Angelina Jolie just last week was rumored to have purchased a heart-shaped island featuring a residence designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The sale price was advertised at $20 million. Natural heart-shaped islands are not unique in the world, but they do seem rare as hen’s teeth.


Figure 3: A rare, natural heart-shaped island located near New York City.

Figure 3: A rare, natural heart-shaped island located near New York City.

For example, there is a nice one near Fiji that attracts a lot of tourists — but it is not for sale. Since natural heart-shaped islands are scarce commodities in high demand by competing tycoons who cannot wait for the next one to come on the market, they can alternatively choose to spend whatever it takes to carve one out of raw material, or to simply build one from scratch. The technology to do either exists at present. Consider Yas Island, completely man-made, located in Abu Dhabi. This new artificial island is the site of the world’s fastest rollercoaster (at 240 k.p.h.!). Yas Island is not heart-shaped — but it could easily have been. Different tycoons have had different dreams in the annals of artificial island building.

The poor can also live on artificial islands. Lest we forget, real islands in times past were often the officially enforced abodes of poor fishermen, pirates, exiles, criminals, and those afflicted with contagious diseases like leprosy. Jeju Island itself was a notorious natural island of exile throughout the Yi Dynasty era. But, a history of building artificial islands for these same purposes is not well documented. So, I was surprised to read that a recent mayor of New York City was “floating” the idea of waterborne shelters for homeless people. At the time of this brainstorm minimum security inmates were already being housed on a surplus ferry moored to a pier extending from the adjacent Riker’s Island corrections complex. Moreover, to the mayor’s dismay there were several families of waterborne squatters living off-shore of Manhattan Island in several small flotillas of boats and rafts that were chained together.

I suppose the best definition of “artificial islands” in contrast to “natural islands” is that the former are islands that would not be islands if it were not for the creative intervention of human wealth, technology, and the will power to dream dreams and then strive to make them come true. The first Disneyland in Anaheim, California had a “Tom Sawyer’s Island” with caves and such just as Mark Twain described them in his famous book. Why? Walt Disney was a tycoon and a dreamer. Examples of artificial islands in history are endless.

At a much larger scale and according to the above definition the entirety of North America became an artificial island when humans built the Panama Canal. If you believe that, then Africa similarly became an artificial island when humans and their machines built the Suez Canal and boldly severed Africa from Asia. While these examples seem preposterous, a serious detailed study of artificial islands as solutions to some of the world’s everyday problems is long overdue.

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