A desert island, or uninhabited island, is an island, islet or atoll that is not permanently populated by humans. Uninhabited islands are often depicted in films 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 the largest uninhabited island in the world.
Uninhabited islands are sometimes also called "deserted islands" or "desert islands". In the latter, the adjective desert connotes not desert climate conditions, but rather "desolate and sparsely occupied or unoccupied". The word desert has been "formerly applied more widely to any wild, uninhabited region, including forest-land", and it is this archaic meaning that appears in the phrase "desert island".
The term "desert island" is also commonly used figuratively to refer to objects or behavior in conditions of social isolation and limited material means. Behavior on a desert island is a common thought experiment, for example, "desert island morality".
Desert islands are partly sheltered from humans, making them havens of peace for a number of fragile wildlife species such as sea turtles and ground-nesting seabirds. Many species of seabirds use them as stopovers on their way or especially for nesting, taking advantage of the (supposed) absence of terrestrial predators such as cats or rats.
Desert island from Baa Atoll
Bassas da India, Indian Ocean
Chissioua Bandrélé, Mayotte
Mtsanga Tsoholé, Mayotte
Gombé Ndroumé, Mayotte
|Rank||Area Rank||Island||Area (km2)||Area (sq mi)||Country/Countries||Coordinates|
|1||27||Devon Island (Tallurutit)||55,247||21,331||Canada (Nunavut)||75°08?N 087°51?W|
|2||28||Alexander Island||49,070||18,950||None (Antarctic territorial claims by Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom)||71°00?S 70°00?W|
|3||30||Severny Island (Severnyy Ostrov)||48,904||18,882||Russia (Arkhangelsk Oblast)||75°30?N 60°00?E|
|4||31||Berkner Island (Isla Berkner)||44,000||17,000||None (Antarctic territorial claims by Argentina and the United Kingdom)||79°30?S 47°30?W|
|5||32||Axel Heiberg Island (Umingmat Nunaat)||43,178||16,671||Canada (Nunavut)||79°26?N 090°46?W|
|6||33||Melville Island (Ilulliq)||42,149||16,274||Canada (Northwest Territories and Nunavut)||75°30?N 111°30?W|
|7||40||Prince of Wales Island||33,339||12,872||Canada (Nunavut)||72°40?N 99°00?W|
|8||46||Somerset Island (Kuuganajuk)||24,786||9,570||Canada (Nunavut)||73°15?N 93°30?W|
|9||47||Kotelny Island (Olgujdaah Aryy)||24,000||9,300||Russia (Sakha Republic)||75°20?N 141°00?E|
|10||54||Bathurst Island||16,042||6,194||Canada (Nunavut)||75°46?N 099°47?W|
The largest 10 uninhabited islands all have a latitude greater than 70° north or south of the equator, indicating that the reason for their desertedness is the climate.
The first known novels to be set on a desert island were Hayy ibn Yaqdhan written by Ibn Tufail (1105-1185), followed by Theologus Autodidactus written by Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288). The protagonists in both (Hayy in Hayy ibn Yaqdhan 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.
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 Hayy ibn Yaqdhan appeared in 1671, prepared by Edward Pococke the Younger, followed by an English translation by Simon Ockley in 1708, as well as German and Dutch translations. In the late 17th century, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan inspired Robert Boyle, an acquaintance of Pococke, to write his own philosophical novel set on a deserted island, The Aspiring Naturalist. Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus was also eventually translated into English in the early 20th century.
Published in 1719, Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe about a castaway on a desert island has spawned so many imitations in film, television and radio that its name was used to define a genre, Robinsonade. The novel features Man Friday, Crusoe's personal assistant. 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 otherwise 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 Hayy ibn Yaqdhan.
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.
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).
Desert islands are also a hugely popular image for gag cartoons, the island being conventionally depicted as just a few yards across with a single palm tree (probably due to the visual constraints of the medium). 17 such cartoons appeared in The New Yorker in 1957 alone.
An special variation of the desert island theme appears in H.G.Wells's The War in the Air. As part of the cataclysmic global war depicted, the bridges linking Goat Island in the middle of the Niagara Falls to the mainland are cut, and with civilization fast breaking down a few survivors stranded on the island can't expect rescue and must rely on their own resources.
In 1820, the crew of the whaler Essex spent time on uninhabited Henderson Island. There they gorged on birds, fish, and vegetation and found a small freshwater spring. After one week, they had depleted the island's resources and most of the crew left on three whaleboats, while three of the men decided to remain on the island and survived there for four months until their rescue.