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'Ah! could I tell the wonders of an isle'... contemplating island futures

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 16:06 authored by Elaine StratfordElaine Stratford

This essay began as the opening address at the inaugural meeting of a new organisation, the Australian Small Islands Forum (ASIF) held in May 2012 on Lord Howe Island, some six hundred kilometres east of Port Macquarie on the coast of New South Wales, Australia. The island is one of a group of 28 – an archipelago. A small jewel in the subtropics, it is just under 15 square kilometres in area; a bow-shaped island, 10 kilometres long, and between 0.3 and 2.0 kilometres wide. Like many islands, Lord Howe has a lagoon side, to the west, and a more rugged eastern shore; most members of the population of c. 360 people live in low-lying areas in the north and west (Australian Bureau of Statistics), the south and east being densely forested and mountainous. Mount Gower, the highest part of the island, is 875 metres above sea level.

First sighted and claimed in early 1788 by a supply vessel working between Botany Bay and Norfolk Island, Lord Howe was initially a whaling station (Skiba) and then permanently settled in 1834, having no indigenous population. By the 1880s, the island was a key production site for the global supply of Kentia palms, which are endemic to the location. In 1981, the Lord Howe Island Act created a permanent park preserve that covers all but about 30 per cent of the island, and near-shore waters are designated the Lord Howe Island Marine Park; the whole is recorded by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site of global natural significance. Presently, the archipelago is part of New South Wales and, as an unincorporated area, is administered by a Board established by act of parliament in 1953, whose members report to the Minister for Environment and Heritage (Lord Howe Island).

It is fitting that the Lord Howe Island Board took a calculated risk to create and host the first Australian Small Islands Forum. I suggested at the time that there were strong and compelling grounds to create from a conference entitled Australian Small Islands Forum an organi - sation of the same name whose members work to represent island- Australians, our diverse concerns, interests and challenges, and our varied ways of being in place. It is pleasing that this organisation – often referred to as ASIF – has started to take shape over the course of 2012 and 2013, and has the potential to make important contributions to the policies of this island-nation, and work with and learn from other island-nation neighbours.

My two-stranded reasoning for making this suggestion at the start of the conference is the subject of the rest of this essay. I am conscious that I write as a cultural geographer to a readership primarily focused upon literary studies, and make no pretense at automatic or necessary ‘membership’. Nevertheless, there are long and highly productive engagements between our disciplines. For example, Angharad Saunders underscores this point in a recent ‘state-of-the-discipline’ paper in Progress in Human Geography aimed at re-forging the connec tions between literature and geography. She notes, for example, the ways in which geography “pervades the content, practice and meaning of creative writing” (436), and underscores the power of mimesis, metaphor, intertextuality, and fiction [to fashion] for geographical theorizations. Moreover – and I am grateful to reviewers for asking me to clarify this point – in what follows I seek to foreground the material conditions of island life because I see key opportunities for more ‘conversation’ across literary theory and the geopolitics of island inquiry. As physical entities, and for their metaphorical, emblematic, narrative and linguistic power, islands have much to ‘say’ about our past, present condition, and possible trajectories.

Predictably, perhaps, the first strand of my presentation related to islands and my chief arguments were that islanders know how change and challenge typify what I will call, however contingently, the island condition. The second strand concerned the importance of asking powerful questions about that island condition, not least with respect to how we consider islanders’ aspirations for sustainable communities, modern and accessible technologies and services, opportunities for enterprise and livelihood, and respect for our cultures and identities. I was and remain convinced that powerful questions, respectfully posed, open up extraordinary possibilities for positive change and for preparing for the future.


Publication title









School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences


Halstead Press

Place of publication

19A Boundary St, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, Australia, Nsw 2011

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Copyright 2012 The English Association Sydney

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