Desert island

A desert island in Palau.

A desert island or uninhabited island is an island that has yet to be (or is not currently) populated by humans. Uninhabited islands are often used in movies or stories about shipwrecked people, and are also used as stereotypes for the idea of "paradise". Some uninhabited islands are protected as nature reserves and some are privately owned. Devon Island in Canada is claimed to be the largest uninhabited island in the world. Pirates were known to bury stashes of rum on random islands, in case they were left there to die by their mutinous mates.

Small coral atolls or islands usually have no source of fresh water, but at times a fresh water lens (Ghyben-Herzberg lens) can be reached with a well.



One of the uninhabited islands in Lakshadweep

In the phrase "desert island," the adjective "desert" connotes a "desolate and sparsely occupied or unoccupied" area and does not imply that the island was previously inhabited and later deserted.[1] The term "desert island" therefore typically refers to an undiscovered island.[2]

List of some currently uninhabited islands

In literature and popular culture

The first known novels to be set on a desert island were Philosophus Autodidactus written by Ibn Tufail (1105–1185), followed by Theologus Autodidactus written by Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288). The protagonists in both (Hayy in Philosophus Autodidactus and Kamil in Theologus Autodidactus) are feral children living in seclusion on a deserted island, until they eventually come in contact with castaways from the outside world who are stranded on the island. The story of Theologus Autodidactus, however, extends beyond the deserted island setting when the castaways take Kamil back to civilization with them.[4]

William Shakespeare's 1610-11 play, The Tempest, uses the idea of being stranded on a desert island as a pretext for the action of the play. Prospero and his daughter Miranda are set adrift by Prospero's treacherous brother Antonio, seeking to become Duke of Milan, and Prospero in turn shipwrecks his brother and other men of sin onto the island.

A Latin translation of Ibn Tufail's Philosophus Autodidactus appeared in 1671, prepared by Edward Pococke the Younger,[5][verification needed] followed by an English translation by Simon Ockley in 1708,[6] as well as German and Dutch translations.[7] In the late 17th century, Philosophus Autodidactus inspired Robert Boyle, an acquaintance of Pococke, to write his own philosophical novel set on a deserted island, The Aspiring Naturalist.[8] Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus was also eventually translated into English in the early 20th century.

The quintessential deserted island novel, however, was Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. It is likely that Defoe took inspiration for Crusoe from a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued in 1709 after four years on the uninhabited Juan Fernández Islands; Defoe usually made use of current events for his plots. It is also likely that he was inspired by the Latin or English translations of Ibn Tufail's Philosophus Autodidactus.[5][7][9][10]

Tom Neale was a New Zealander who voluntarily spent 16 years in three sessions in the 1950s and 1960s living alone on the island of Suwarrow in the northern Cook Islands group. His time there is documented in his autobiography, An Island To Oneself. Significant novels set on deserted islands include The Swiss Family Robinson, The Coral Island, The Mysterious Island, Lord of the Flies, The Cay and The Beach.

The theme of being stranded on a desert island has inspired films, such as Cast Away, and TV series, like Lost and the comedy Gilligan's Island. It is also the driving force behind reality shows like Survivor and the Discovery Kids show Flight 29 Down.

In the popular conception, such islands are often located in the Pacific, tropical, uninhabited and usually uncharted. They are remote locales that offer escape and force people marooned or stranded as castaways to become self-sufficient and essentially create a new society. This society can either be utopian, based on an ingenious re-creation of society's comforts (as in Swiss Family Robinson and, in a humorous form, Gilligan's Island) or a regression into savagery (the major theme of both Lord of the Flies and The Beach). In reality, small coral atolls or islands usually have no source of fresh water (thus precluding any long-term human survival), but at times a fresh water lens (Ghyben-Herzberg lens) can be reached with a well.

  • The BBC Radio 4 program Desert Island Discs asks well-known people what items they would take with them to a deserted island. The program has inspired many similar articles, contests, and projects, including "desert island books," "desert island movies," and so on.
  • A message in a bottle is a form of communication often associated with people stranded on a deserted island attempting to be rescued.
  • Desert islands also figure largely in sexual fantasies, with the top "dream vacation" for heterosexual men surveyed by Psychology Today being "marooned on a tropical island with several members of the opposite sex."[11]
  • A man on a deserted island is also a hugely popular image for gag cartoons, the island being conventionally depicted as just a few yards across with a single palm tree.

Historical castaways

One report describes a Frenchman who went mad after two years of solitude on Mauritius. He tore his clothing to pieces in a fit of madness brought on by a diet of nothing but raw turtles. Another story has to do with a Dutch seaman who was left alone on the island of Saint Helena as punishment. He fell into such despair that he disinterred the body of a buried comrade and set out to sea in the coffin. Another castaway, the Spaniard Pedro Serrano, was rescued after seven and a half years of solitude. In 1820, the crew of the whaleship, Essex, spent time on uninhabited Henderson Island where they gorged on birds, fish, and vegetation and found a small freshwater spring. After they depleted the island's resources most of the crew left on three whaleboats, while three of the men decided to remain on the island and ended up living there.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster Online, "desert" definition 2
  2. ^ Collins Cobuild Dictionary (1995)
  3. ^ "German MPs suggest cash-strapped Greece should sell islands". The Local. March 4, 2010. 
  4. ^ Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn Al-Nafis as a philosopher", Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher, Encyclopedia of Islamic World).
  5. ^ a b Amber Haque (2004), "Psychology from Islamic Perspective: Contributions of Early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists", Journal of Religion and Health 43 (4): 357-377 [369].
  6. ^ Simon Ockley (1708), The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan, Oxford University.
  7. ^ a b Martin Wainwright, Desert island scripts, The Guardian, 22 March 2003.
  8. ^ G. J. Toomer (1996), Eastern Wisedome and Learning: The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 222, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-820291-1.
  9. ^ Nawal Muhammad Hassan (1980), Hayy bin Yaqzan and Robinson Crusoe: A study of an early Arabic impact on English literature, Al-Rashid House for Publication.
  10. ^ Cyril Glasse (2001), New Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 202, Rowman Altamira, ISBN 0-7591-0190-6.
  11. ^ Clarke, Thurston, Searching for Crusoe (New York: Ballantine, 2001), 6.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • desert island — n a small tropical island that is far away from other places and has no people living on it …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • desert island — UK [ˌdezə(r)t ˈaɪlənd] / US [ˌdezərt ˈaɪlənd] noun [countable] Word forms desert island : singular desert island plural desert islands a small tropical island with no people living on it …   English dictionary

  • desert island — [[t]de̱zə(r)t a͟ɪlənd[/t]] desert islands N COUNT A desert island is a small tropical island, where nobody lives …   English dictionary

  • desert island — /dɛzət ˈaɪlənd/ (say dezuht uyluhnd) noun a small, remote and uninhabited tropical island: *Fending for yourself on a desert island would not be like this: there would be mangoes, breadfruit, milk from coconuts, and fish from the coral reef.… …   Australian English dictionary

  • desert island — noun An uninhabited island, especially one in the tropics …   Wiktionary

  • desert island — des|ert is|land [ ,dezərt aılənd ] noun count a small tropical island with no people living on it …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • desert island — n. isolated island …   English contemporary dictionary

  • desert island — noun a remote, uninhabited tropical island …   English new terms dictionary

  • desert island — noun (C) a small tropical island far from other places with no people living on it …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • desert island — [ˌdezət ˈaɪlənd] noun [C] a small tropical island with no people living on it …   Dictionary for writing and speaking English

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