Most readers probably anticipated that after slogging through Manly Places, Even More Manly Places, and Ladylike Places, that the next in this series would be Even More Ladylike Places. That seemed absolutely necessary in my mind so I could create symmetry and closure. However I’d written a variation on this theme already with the recently-published Ladysmith. I tried to keep things on the more obscure side this time around, sidestepping better known ladies by design.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef offered a case in point. I noticed a couple of different islands that fit this topic. Lady Musgrave Island (map) took its name from the wife of a colonial administrator, Sir Anthony Musgrave. He served as governor of South Australia 1873–1877 and then of Queensland 1883–1888. From those dates, Lady Musgrave must have been his second wife, Jeanie Lucinda Field. I don’t know how she ended-up in Australia. She was born in New York City.
Another spot along the reef became Lady Elliot Island (map). This one featured a roundabout derivation. Lady Elliot definitely existed although I don’t think she ever set foot in Australia. She married Sir Hugh Elliot, governor of Madras, 1814–1820, then a crown colony on the Indian subcontinent. I’m going to go out on a limb and say she was probably Margaret Jones, his second wife, because his first marriage ended in divorce long before his diplomatic career took off.
However, the name of Lady Elliot Island didn’t come from Lady Elliot directly. It came from the name of a ship. Captain Thomas Stuart, commanding a ship registered in India and named for the lady in question, first spotted the island in 1816. Later, on the return voyage, the ship struck a reef farther up the coast. It sank and everyone died. That dangerous feature also got its name at that time, Lady Elliot Reef (map).
Namibia’s highest point of elevation occurred at the Königstein (King’s Stone) on Brandberg Mountain. The mountain hid a secret, the renowned White Lady. Indigenous people, probably bushmen and probably living two or more thousand years ago, drew representations of their world in thousands of images. Much of their artwork survived in remote, dry, desolate corners of the Namib Desert (map).
One image in particular caught the imagination of archaeologists and then tourists after its rediscovery in 1918. It showed what appeared to be a shaman in white, in an energetic ritual dance. Researchers noticed its similarity to depictions that came from Egypt and the Mediterranean during a similar time period, although that proved to be coincidental. Nonetheless the White Lady continued to captivate many who gazed upon it. Ironically, later interpretations seemed to demonstrate pretty conclusively that the lady was actually a man.
A little village in Ireland’s County Wexford got its name, Our Lady’s Island, hundreds of years ago in reverence to the Virgin Mary. As the village explained,
Tradition has always existed that Our Lady’s Island was founded by St Abban, nephew of St Ibar, in the sixth century and its reputation as a place of pilgrimage and of devotion to Our Lady was established by or before the year 600 A.D.
However, I decided to focus on the lake (map) where the little village — now connected to the mainland — grew and prospered. Perhaps not too creatively, it came to be known as Lady’s Island Lake. The lake more properly qualified as a "back-barrier seepage lagoon." Various sources on the Intertubes claimed only one other lake in Ireland fit that same definition. I couldn’t prove it so I’ll just leave it at that.
The lake doesn’t have a natural outlet although water seeps into it from the ocean, creating brackish conditions. It offered a great environment for birds such as Sandwich Terns and Roseate Terns. Occasionally the barrier between sea and lake must be breached.
Breaching of the barrier, which has been carried out since at least the 17th century, is needed to relieve flooding of farmland and also the pilgrimage route around Lady’s Island. The cut is made in Spring when water levels are highest and the water level then falls until the lake becomes tidal for variable lengths of time. The practice has become contentious, however, because water levels sometimes fall too low, allowing predators to cross over the exposed bed of the lake to the important tern nesting sites.
I’m surprised they hadn’t figured out a way to accommodate both the birds and the pilgrims.
I could look for ladies in other languages, too! Dames seemed reasonable. I probably could have written an entire article on the hundreds of places and features named Notre Dame ("Our Lady," for the Virgin Mary). It might have featured the university in Indiana, the cathedral in Paris or the island in Montréal.
Instead I focused on Dame Marie (map) in Haiti. Twelve Mile Circle included very little Haitian coverage so this offered a rare opportunity for me to add a pushpin to my Complete Index Map. Otherwise I found very little information about Dame Marie. It fell pretty much at the end of the road, about as far west on Haiti as one could travel. Unfortunately Hurricane Matthew damaged it rather extensively in October 2016. Hopefully Dame Marie will recover.
I came across a document for a government program recently that restricted its eligibility to "All United States citizens and nationals (residents of American Samoa and Swains Island)." In the United States all citizens are nationals but not all nationals are citizens so the distinction needs to be clarified parenthetically. Truly it’s not an issue for the vast preponderance of the three hundred million people living within the country’s boundaries. However, sixty-five thousand or so inhabitants of American Samoa and Swains Island have a unique status. They are not citizens of the United States but they have many of the same rights and privileges of citizens including the ability to participate in various government programs.
I’m obviously familiar with American Samoa, a U.S. territory within the vast expanse of the South Pacific. It’s one of those places that American schoolchildren learn about routinely in their basic geography classes. If they don’t happen to remember it from there, they may be familiar with the numerous American Samoans who play professionally in the National Football League. But enough about American Samoa. It’s an interesting place and someday I’ll have more to say about it, but today I’d rather focus on the other group of non-citizen nationals, the residents of Swains Island.
Take a second glance at the map above, and draw your attention somewhat north of American Samoa about two thirds of the way up to where the map has the label Tokelau. If you look closely you may see a tiny white dot on the screen, perhaps a single pixel, sitting all alone by itself. Just a speck. Barely discernible. That is Swains Island.
The Tokelau reference is not a coincidence since Swains Island is a part of the Tokelau chain of tropical coral atolls. It is the southernmost of the island group and the only one that is not part of New Zealand, although surprisingly this question was not settled definitively until 1979. Swains Island is administered by the closest sizable United States locale, namely American Samoa some 370 kilometres (230 miles) away. Thus, even though geographically and culturally the island is part of Tokelau, administratively it is part of Samoa.
Here is Swains Island, all 1.865 km2 (0.72 mi2) of it. I do have to give credit to the folks at Google Maps for this one, presenting even this tiny outcrop barely above sea level in glorious high resolution. It looks much like the stereotypical "tropical paradise" with those shimmering blue waters, lush vegetation, and enclosed lagoon, doesn’t it? Oh – do I spy a little island in that pond? Yes, I do believe we have an instance of an island-on-an-island here (and you all know I have a thing for islands-on-islands).
Swains Island has an odd background. I won’t spend much time on that but if you would like to know more you should feel free to open a more comprehensive history on a U.S. Department of the Interior website, in another tab or window. The name comes from Captain W.C. Swains, a New Englander who stumbled across this spot sometime around 1840 in search of whales. He wasn’t the first person to see the island, but he thought he was and the name stuck. Ownership fell into the hands of the Jennings family in 1856 and Jennings descendants have retained title to the entire island all the way through the present. That’s right, they’ve held onto it for more than a hundred and fifty years. No doubt I’d do the same if I owned a piece of paradise.
People actually live here; some but not many. There are about 35 inhabitants clustered closely in Swains Island’s only village, Taulaga, which is pictured above. It includes a few homes or "fale" built in a Tokelauan style, a church, a school, and a copra shed where coconut oil can be extracted. The structures ring an open green called a "malae." Agriculture underlies this economy, primarily coconut palms but also bananas, taro, breadfruit and papaya along with whatever creatures can be pulled from the sea. The enclosed freshwater lagoon is too brackish to drink but cisterns collect abundant rainfall. Cyclone Percy struck the island hard in 2005, damaging or destroying much of the village, but many repairs have since been made and life goes on.
The Jennings family remains the proprietor while the majority of residents tend the crops as tenant farmers. The Jennings once ruled their domain from a mansion known as The Residency. The structure had declined over time and apparently took a fatal blow during the cyclone. You can still see The Residency in the satellite image by scrolling around (look for the small circular clearing south of the prong of land jutting into the lagoon).
United States citizens and nationals do not need a passport to visit Swains Island. However they require something much more difficult to obtain, permission from the Jennings family. This is rare but not impossible. Once again I tip my hat to amateur – "ham" – radio enthusiasts who have an uncanny knack of reaching the most unusual places imaginable (like this and this). They consider Swains Island to be a distinct entity because of its remoteness. Their most recent "DXpedition" took place in 2007. During their effort they made 117,000 contacts worldwide in their few days of operation on the call sign N8S, working out of tents in primitive conditions. This set a record for number of contacts from a station fully under generator power. You can read more about this expedition on its website.
There are so many dimensions to this geographic oddity that I have a hard time determining which one I like best. I think it may be the unique way the United States government categorizes its residents. Anyone born on Swains Island island is a U.S. national but not a U.S. citizen. With a total population of less than forty, how many people could that possibly be? Think about it: U.S. government documents and forms that describe an applicability to nationals will likely include the phrase "… and Swains Island." The value of the ink just to print those those three words on all those documents must be dozens of times greater than the entire economy of the island itself.