Formerly known as Circumcision Island, and a few other names as well, Bouvet Island is a glacier covered lump of volcanic rock found in the South Atlantic Ocean at 54º 26' South, 3º 24' East. It is around 6 miles (9.5 km) long and 4 miles (7 km) wide, and covers an area of 19 square miles (49 km2). It is often regarded as the most remote island on the planet, being that it is a long way from anywhere, particularly as the anywhere in question is Antarctica, which lies some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to the south, whilst the nearest inhabited land is Tristan da Cunha, which is about 1,400 miles (2,300 km) away, and the closest approximation to civilisation would be South Africa some 1,900 miles (3,000 km) to the north.
Nothing grows on the island apart from a few lichens, mosses and the odd fungus, although it is regarded as an important wildlife habitat being the home to colonies of the southern elephant seal and the Antarctic fur seal and numerous Adelie, chinstrap and macaroni penguins. It is however complete devoid of human habitation, a perfectly understandable state of affairs given that the average annual mean temperature is minus 1 degrees, and that the island is located near the junction of three tectonic plates.
Bouvet Island is formally a territory of Norway, to whom it is known as Bouvetøya, and is "administered by the Polar Department of the Ministry of Justice and Oslo Police"; although one suspects that the administrative duties involved are not particularly burdensome. For reasons best known to themselves the International Standards Organisation have allocated Bouvet Island its own country code of BV under ISO 3166. As a result ICANN has allocated the island its own country code top-level domain or 'ccTLD' of .BV. This is currently administered by UNINETT Norid, although current policy does not allow registration of any websites within that domain; it being "reserved for potential future use". Presumably awaiting the day when the penguins get their wi-fi up and running.
Bouvet Island was also the fictional location of the pyramid temple in Alien vs. Predator (2004); presumably because the scriptwriters believed that Bouvet Island is the one place on Earth that you could hide an alien construct of such an immense size without anyone actually noticing it was there.
The discovery of Bouvet Island
The credit for the discovery of Bouvet Island is normally given to one Jean-Baptiste-Charles Bouvet de Lozier (1705-86), a lieutenant in the Compagnie des Indes. Being a student of the work of the seventeenth century Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quir, otherwise known as Quiros, who believed that he had discovered the Terra Australis Incognita, the fabled Unknown Southern Land (Quiros had actually landed on Vanuatu's Sanma Island), Bouvet was of the opinion that there was a significant land mass somewhere in the southern oceans, and that he had a good idea of where it was.
Anxious to claim this territory for the French crown and install himself as its first governor, he persuaded his employers to outfit an expedition to go off in search of Terra Australis, and on the 19th July 1738 Bouvet left the port of L'Orient in command of the Aigle and Marie. Some months later at 3:00 pm on the 1st January 1739 he spotted "a very high land, covered with snow, which appeared through the mist". Thinking that he had indeed stumbled across an outcrop of the Terra Australis Incognita, he named it as the Cap de la Circoncision (Cape of Circumcision); being that the 1st January is the day on which (by tradition) Christ was circumcised.
Due to the weather, and an exhausted crew, Bouvet was unable to effect a landing or indeed to confirm whether or not his Cape was indeed part of a great new continent, and so gave up and went home. It subsequently appears to have been realised (due to the absence of any significant land mass in the area) that what Bouvet had stumbled across was indeed an island, which was given the name of Circumcision Island or sometimes Bouvet's Island.
The trouble was that Bouvet was not a very good navigator and failed to accurately record the position of his discovery, which created considerable practical difficulties for those who attempted to follow in his footsteps. Captain James Cook went looking for Circumcision Island in 1772 in HMS Resolution but failed to find it. He tried again in 1775 with the same result, as did Captain Tobias Furneaux in 1776 aboard the HMS Adventure. At which point many thought that Bouvet had simply mistaken an iceberg for an island. However one James Lindsay had better luck. In command of the whaler Swan, he 'rediscovered' the island on the 6th October 1808. However since Lindsay had come across an island in quite a different place from where Bouvet had said he'd located his cape-come-island, Lindsay naturally concluded that he'd found something new and named his discovery as Lindsay's Island. Although as it happened Lindsay also got his co-ordinates wrong, which only added to the confusion.
The next to arrive there was Benjamin Morrell, aboard the sealer Wasp. Having landed at South Georgia, and being "frustrated by the absence of seal" he set sail for what he called Bouvette's Island and landed there on the 6th December 1822. Morrell claimed that the island possessed a "fine anchorage", and that his men caught a number of seals when ashore and provided a reasonably detailed description of the island. However Morrell was known to his contemporaries as "the biggest liar in the Pacific", and it is generally believed that nothing changed when he made his way into the South Atlantic, particularly since Morrell was acting under the belief that one 'Bouvette' had discovered the island in 1808, and that he found his Bouvette's Island in exactly the same place as Lindsay had found his island in 1808 rather than where it actually was.
The first undisputed landing on the island took place a few years later on the 10th December 1825, when Captain George Norris, arrived there in command of the whalers Sprightly and Lively. Norris was however of the opinion that Bouvet's Island did not exist, and that Lindsay's Island was somewhere else, so he named his new discovery as Liverpool Island, which he promptly claimed for the British Crown, whilst he also claimed to have discovered another island nearby which he called Thompson Island.
The result of all this activity by the likes of Bouvet, Lindsay and Norris meant that for much of the nineteenth century there was a considerable difference of opinion at the time as to exactly how many islands there were in this particular patch of the South Atlantic Ocean. Various maps produced at the time were inclined to show what has been described as a "veritable archipelago" of islands, with at least two and sometimes as many as four islands. None of which, of course made any of them any easier to find. Many such as James Clark Ross
in 1843 went looking for an island, drew a blank, and so concluded there was nothing there at all. Others such as Captain Joseph Fuller
of the Francis Allyn
, had more luck, as in 1893 he claimed to have sighted both 'Circoncision or Bouvet Island' and 'Thompson Island' whilst in the area.
Everything remained perfectly unclear until the German Deep Sea Expedition of 1898-1899 in which the crew of the steamship Valdivia carried out an exhaustive survey of the area and on the 25th November 1898 became the first to accurately pinpoint the location and extent of what is now known as Bouvet Island. What was more the Valdivia expedition confirmed that there was only one island in the vicinity. The consensus being that Bouvet, Lindsay and Norris had all 'discovered' the same island, and that the extra island, Thompson Island, had completely disappeared during a volcanic eruption which occurred sometime in the years 1893-1898. However it has been argued that the sightings of both Lindsay Island and the original Cap de la Circoncision were actually of this former island, since the descriptions provided by both Lindsay and Bouvet are closer to the descriptions provided of Thompson Island in 1825 and 1893 rather than its neighbour. All of which would mean that Bouvet Island is named after someone who didn't actually discover the island at all, but rather a neighbouring island, that now doesn't exist, and which he didn't realise was an island in the first place.
Nothing much happened on Bouvet Island for a number of years until the 1st December 1927 when the Norvegia arrived and one Harald Horntvedt landed on the island and claimed it for Norway. It seems that the Norwegians were looking to establish a whaling station in the area, although since Bouvet was quite unsuitable for use as a whaling station, they were presumably disappointed when they finally got there. Nevertheless the Norwegians subsequently issued a Royal Norwegian Decree on the 23rd January 1928 confirming their claim. This annoyed the British Government, who were under the impression that Bouvet Island was the same place as Liverpool Island, which had been theirs since 1825, and so protested to the League of Nations. There was a brief debate about whether or not Bouvet and Liverpool islands were the same place, before the British waived their claim on the 19th November 1928, having no doubt concluded that if the Norwegians were really that keen to obtain possession of an ice covered lump of rock that was hundreds of miles from anywhere, they were welcome to it.
Since the Norwegians decided to call their island Bouvetøya, it has since generally become known as Bouvet Island; although it was still being called Circumcision Island in learned articles published in the British Antarctic Survey Bulletin as late as 1966. However its apparent legal status as a Norwegian territory did nothing to prevent the South African Republic from launching expeditions to the island in 1955, 1964 and 1966, apparently with the interest of establishing a weather station there. Sometime later on the 22nd September 1979, someone tested a nuclear device in the ocean between Bouvet and Marion Island, which lies to the north, much closer to the mainland. Which is maybe what the South Africans really meant by a 'weather station'.
Bouvet Island and its adjacent territorial waters as were designated by the Norwegians as a nature reserve in 1971, although the only people who ever go there are from the Norsk Polarinstitutt or Norwegian Polar Institute, who pop over every so often to count the seals and penguins. They left their own Portakabin or container building there in 1990s, although satellite photographs later revealed that it that disappeared by 2007, and is believed to have been the casualty of an earthquake in 2006. However the genuine Norwegian weather station is still there.
Inspired by chapter two, The Mapmaker's Tale from Impossible Journeys by Matthew Lyons (Folio, 2009), with additional research and fact checking carried out on the following sources found on Google Books ....
- Benjamin Morrell, A narrative of four voyages to the South Sea, north and south Pacific Ocean, Chinese Sea, Ethiopic and southern Atlantic Ocean, Indian and Antarctic Ocean, from the year 1822 to 1831 (J&J Harper, 1832)
- Paul Simpson-Housley, Antarctica: Exploration, Perception and Metaphor, (Routledge 1992)
- Bernard Stonehouse, Encyclopedia of Antarctica and the southern oceans, (WileyBlackwell 2002)
- Beau Riffenburgh, Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, (Routledge 2006)
... and the following online sources;
- Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier
- Delegation Record for .BV
- The .bv and .sj top level domains
- Paul Carroll, Bouvetøya
- Bouvet Island from the CIA World Factbook
- BirdLife IBA Factsheet - Bouvetøya (Bouvet Island) Nature Reserve
- Norwegian field station gone with the wind, 10.2007