Island Life: Thoughts on Closed Communities


This is a 4-part essay in which I discuss life on an island. This won’t be a comprehensive examination of this subject since I’ll be restricted to what I know: stories I have learned from friends, from tracing my family roots and from my own year living on an island. There are islands that are much more remote or extreme than I will ever experience, islands that are still uninhabited by humans because even now they are simply too inaccessible and offer no safe harbour. There are far-flung islands that try to protect ancient and fragile cultures. Islands can be an object of fantasy and the idea of being shipwrecked on a desert island is the subject of countless well-known books and films. In part 1 of this essay, I’ll be discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the reasons that he loved his fantasy islands and how this can help us to think about island life.

I began thinking about this subject during the Covid lockdowns, which I used to do some genealogical research using the Ancestry website. I already knew the broad brushstrokes of my ancestors’ origins, but there were a couple of branches that hadn’t been fully explored. All of my ancestors came from north-western Europe, and all but one came from the British Isles. At various points between the 17th and 20th centuries, they left their homes, crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a ship and ended up in Maine, the most northerly state on the eastern seaboard of America. 

I knew that islands played a part in my ancestry; on the macro level there were the islands of Great Britain and Ireland; ‘this sceptred island’ and ‘the Emerald Isle’. Great Britain is the 9th largest island in the world, and Ireland is the 20th. On a much smaller scale, my paternal great grandfather, John Lacey, came from the tiny island of Inishbofin off the west coast of Ireland. Legend has it that he left home one day without telling anyone, using a rowboat to get to the mainland. He made his way to Derry, boarded the SS Parisian on 18 September 1909 and disembarked in Boston 10 days later. After his arrival in Maine, he met and married another Irish immigrant, Honora Louise Kineavy, who 9 years earlier, had left the village of Carna, only 60 kilometres from Inishbofin. They married in the busy shipping city of Portland in 1913 and had 5 children, among whom was my grandfather.

John Lacey and Honora Kineavy, on their wedding day, 12 August 1913

My new ancestry research brought to light an island from my mother’s family. I knew that my maternal great grandmother, Alice McMillan, though born in Maine, had Scottish parents. Her father was named Murdo McMillan (1850-1922), and I learned that he was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. His father before him was also named Murdo McMillan, and he had moved to Stornoway from the village of Uig on Lewis. Uig is the Norse word for bay. In Stornoway, he met and married Isabella Morrison and began a family. The young Murdo was only 5 years old when the family left their island home and emigrated to the United States, settling in Portland. In 1884 he married Jessie McLeod, who was also from Scotland, and my great grandmother was born in 1896, the 5th of 6 children. Murdo is listed in the 1888 Portland Directory as a fish curer, thus the McMillans had brought a distinctly Scottish skill with them to Maine.

Jessie and Murdo McMillan with their 3 eldest children—John, Katie and Harold. @1892

The link to the Outer Hebrides surprised me. I’d often heard that Scotland was part of my heritage, but I’d always assumed it would be Edinburgh or Glasgow, and that my ancestors had left crowded and grimy Victorian cities for a fresh start in the open horizons of America. In actual fact, they’d left a remote location of great natural beauty. The Outer Hebrides are off the coast of the northernmost part of Scotland and Stornoway is further north than all of Denmark. This newly-discovered island connection drove home to me the significance of islands to both sides of my family. My ancestors made the choice to leave their islands, their families and their way of life, but years later, in Maine, another island would come to have huge meaning to both sides of my family, a subject I will address later in this article.

Part 1

With both sides of my family having deep roots on islands I began to wonder if and how that shaped us, as individuals and as a family.  Because of my background as an Enlightenment scholar, I got to thinking about the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had such a persistent interest in islands. I wanted to remind myself why he had this fascination so that perhaps his theories could help me as I began to examine my family’s story. Rousseau was interested in islands and other circumscribed areas because of his lifelong focus on how political systems emerge and how they bind people together (for better or worse). This is what he called ‘the social contract’, whereby members of a society agree to live by a certain code for the greater good of their community. They agree to forgo certain liberties (in other words, to abide by the laws) and to take on certain duties (like paying taxes). In return, their government will assure their safety and security.  No single formula suits every group of people. Rousseau thought that the size of the territory should determine what kind of government it would need. In a larger territory, the bonds between the people are more abstract, and a powerful leader or figurehead is required to bind the people together. In a smaller territory, there were strong bonds of affection between the people so less authority was required to ensure their commitment to the social contract. When you know the people with whom you are creating a community, the obligations seem less onerous because you can see and feel what you are building together.

Rousseau admired the walled republic of Geneva and the closed city-state of Sparta, but islands were even better because water provided a more definite and natural barrier against outsiders. The island’s flora and fauna also benefitted from the isolation. Rousseau even believed that the development of language in humans first originated on islands because the inhabitants, being closely grouped together, would have needed a common language sooner than the early humans still wandering the continents.

Rousseau was extremely famous in his own lifetime and his best-selling novels Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) and Emile (1762) were considered scandalous by the European establishment. In Emile, Rousseau described in detail the ideal education for raising a man to be as natural as possible, to escape the influence of society’s corrupting ways. (Imagine what he would have thought of social media.) One instruction was that the boy, Emile, was not to be given a novel until he reached age 14, and it was to be one particular book: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). This was one of Rousseau’s favourite novels, and one that he referred to often in his writings. Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on a desert island without any of the luxury items to which he was accustomed. He had to learn to subsist by making things himself from whatever was to hand and had to create a new form of well-being that was as much mental and spiritual as it was physical. Rousseau wanted Emile to imagine himself as Robinson Crusoe and reflect on which skills he would need to survive on an island. With regard to Emile’s choice of future profession, he was instructed to choose something that would have benefitted Crusoe on his desert island, something ‘useful’.

Frontispiece to the 1720 French edition of Robinson Crusoe, the version Rousseau would have read.

We can already see things that Rousseau liked about (fictional) islands: they were cut off from the rest of civilization with no access to modern conveniences, leading naturally to the development of independence, self-sufficiency and a distinct culture. His disdain for luxury and his love of utility is clear. He hated luxury because he believed it weakened people by making them physically feeble, but also by making them slaves to luxury. He loved utility because it was closer to the natural origins of humans, living simply and in tune with the earth. And it is liberating to know how to do things oneself, without the need for others. But as Rousseau rightly pointed out, Robinson Crusoe was all alone on his island (until the arrival of the freed prisoner, Friday), thus Emile could only imitate him to a certain point and would eventually need to learn how to live in society.

Toward the latter part of his life, Rousseau had the chance to live on a real island. Ironically, it was due in part to his novel Emile. The chapter on religion had caused such a scandal that he had to flee France to escape an arrest warrant. He went to the Swiss town of Môtiers where he sheltered for a couple of years, but eventually, when the citizens of Môtiers were told about the contents of Emile, and the local vicar had whipped them into a frenzy, they began to persecute Rousseau by throwing stones at his house, sometimes breaking his windows, and generally frightening he and his wife. The unrest over Rousseau’s presence in Môtiers grew and he was forced by authorities to leave. He took shelter on St. Peter’s Island in Lake Bienne. He was alone on the small island except for his wife, Therese, and the island’s keeper and his family. He spent his days walking, studying botany, contemplating.

This period of his life is the subject of the 5th chapter of his final book, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire [Reveries of a Solitary Walker]. Living on an island suited him perfectly, cut off from the world, alone with his thoughts. He described how it was impossible to leave the island without help, or without being seen. Given that there were people who wanted him imprisoned, he asked if he could remain confined there for the rest of his life, where he could forget the existence of the outside world and everyone could forget about him. But sadly, this wish was not granted and he was forced again to flee by the Bernois authorities.

Illustration of Rousseau and his wife and companions on a boat trip. They brought a pair of breeding rabbits to an uninhabited island nearby, where a rabbit colony could not harm crops.

Like Robinson Crusoe’s island, St. Peter’s Island was barely populated, so the aspect Rousseau enjoyed most was the peace and sanctuary it had offered. Where does Rousseau really discuss relations between people in a small, defined area? For that, we have to look at his other famous novel, the aforementioned Julie, or the New Heloise, where a small group of people build a society together. The community is called ‘Clarens’, and although it isn’t an actual island, it might as well be; it is on an estate nestled deep in a Swiss valley, surrounded by tall mountains and lakes, and there are multiple references to its similarity to an island.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a utopia as “a perfect society in which people work well with each other and are happy”.  At Clarens, Julie and her much-older husband Wolmar create what could be called a utopia with their goal of happiness for all the community. They put in place systems for every aspect of life, no detail is too small; the raising of the children, the organisation of the household and staff, the daily schedule. Everything possible is grown or made at Clarens, making them so self-sufficient that money is rarely used because whatever they don’t make themselves can be obtained by barter within the larger community.

An artist’s rendering of Clarens, nestled between high mountains and a lake.

Julie and Wolmar had set out to build something purposeful together, a true community with moral cohension, and they can do this because Clarens is enclosed. But it needed continual oversight. Julie mentions that Wolmar’s greatest pleasure was to observe people. Wolmar himself says “if I could change the nature of my being and become a living eye [un oeil vivant], I would voluntarily make that change”. He has a natural taste for order and likes to use the information he gathers from watching people to make judgements. While reading the novel, this comes across as oppressive and disturbing, almost dystopian when thinking of the image of the ‘living eye’.

Years later, when all the systems at Clarens are firmly established and Julie and Wolmar have two sons, they make the radical decision to invite Julie’s former lover, Saint-Preux, to be the tutor for their boys. Wolmar seems to welcome the challenge of inviting this dangerous element into their home. At first, Saint-Preux is able to fit into the little society at Clarens and bend to Wolmar’s will, and Julie is able to supress her feelings. But eventually it all becomes too much, and Julie knows that she can’t carry on. She confides to Saint-Preux that “le bonheur m’ennuie” (happiness bores me). It’s boring to live in a passionless utopia. She jumps into a cold mountain lake on the pretext of saving her son from drowning, and then dies of pneumonia a few days later. In her final words she admits she’d never stopped loving Saint-Preux. Everything had been a sham.

All of this is a very dramatic and unexpected conclusion to a lengthy novel. It came after hundreds of pages detailing the happy life established at Clarens, all of which seemed to have brought to life the kind of perfect existence that Rousseau idealised. Rousseau had created a fictional utopia and then destroyed it, and human passions were to blame. Human passions are the factor that philosophers struggle to fit into their various theories and systems and Rousseau recognised this.

Concluding this section on Rousseau and islands, what do I take away from the messages within the story of Clarens? Individual people matter and the smaller the community, the more they matter. For the better or the worse. Small communities are perhaps familiar with the idea of a particular resident who enjoys overseeing the community, being the all-seeing eye. But any system that needs continual oversight is doomed to failure, especially if there is no allowance for the human passions that make up real life. While Clarens was a model of self-sufficiency, it was intriguing to think of how an independent existence could be established on an island and how it could benefit its inhabitants. I believe that being cut off from civilization does create a more hardy, self-sufficient breed of person.

After Rousseau’s death in 1778, he was buried on an island—the île des Peupliers in Ermenonville, in France. It would have pleased him to know that he had finally found an island home. But once again circumstances conspired to remove him from his sanctuary: in 1793—during the height of the French Revolution—Rousseau’s remains were transferred to the Pantheon for political reasons. No longer a pariah, he was now a symbol of Revolutionary France. Rousseau’s fate seems to demonstrate that an island can never truly offer shelter from events taking place in the wider world, a question I’ll be revisiting throughout this essay.

In the next part of this essay, I will discuss my family’s attachment to an island in Maine.

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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