The Dream of my own Island

by Friedrich Riemann

Behind the dunes of Rügen’s sandy beach, there stands a boy who looks just like me. About 10 years old, straw-blond pot cut, tanned skin, shorts, sandals. He calls out: „One Mark fuffzich*? This place is turning into Sylt!“, obviously outraged by the ice cream scoop prices his parents have to pay lately. When we have our own island later, we are sure, the ice cream will be cheaper, everything will be allowed and we will only let our mutual friends onto our island. The enthusiasm of the people of Rügen about what two big-headed Berlin boys would do with their island is certainly limited.

The dream of owning a pile of sand in the turquoise sea, with a coconut palm in the middle, could hardly be more naïve, and yet it remains a central component of a mentality of conquest and ownership that still characterises the most powerful individuals of today‘s world. Such an island is a place where only one’s own rules apply, an exclusive club for invited guests only and easily defended against unloved intruders. So far, so good, but who’s serving the gin and tonic after the conquest, when you have taken off your English pith helmet? Who‘s working on the plantation in German Samoa? Who‘s growing the sugar for Napoleon’s coffee in Haiti? Who‘s giving you a back massage? The merciless quality of an island comes into play, which has made Alcatraz probably the most famous prison in the world: It’s hard to escape. So islands in the hands of powerful criminals lend themselves to all sorts of crimes, without fear that their victims might escape and unmolested by the rest of the world. Today we know that the few enslaved people who reached their destination alive at all, for example in Haiti, survived only a few years under the rule of the plantation owners. They were worked to death, malnourished and tortured while the rest of the world slept. Today we also know that Jeffrey Epstein kidnapped dozens of underage girls to his private island to subject them to unthinkable things, sometimes in the presence of some of the most powerful men in the world. Back then, it all happened far from prying eyes, on a small island that had its own rules and from which there was no escape.

Whether it’s nuclear bomb tests on the islands of Bikini Atoll, Margaret Thatcher’s war over the utterly barren Falkland Islands, tax havens in the Caribbean and the English Channel, completely pointless artificial islands off Dubai’s coast or the displacement of Sylt’s inhabitants through gentrification, islands are often the playground for the rich and powerful, the owners of this world and entire empires. Nothing reflects the naive view of a petulant 10-year-old like the „want to have“ of those who actually already have everything. An ice cream, a rocket, an island, a human being? What does the world cost? On your own island, your own rules apply.

But when, equipped with the mind of a 10-year-old, you are suddenly faced with a slave revolt, like the plantation owners of Haiti in 1791? When you are driven into the water for your crimes and cannot swim? Then the same natural laws of an island apply, not some made-up rules.

How uncomfortable a tropical island can become at once was also noticed by the supporters of the dictator and winner of the German Federal Cross of Merit Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. The very late abolition of slavery in 1886 had never brought the hoped for freedom and soon led to further plantation economy, poverty and oppression thanks to the interference of the USA. The secret service murderers, the mafiosi and pimps, the plantation owners and hoteliers suddenly learned in 1958 that their exclusive club no longer existed. The paradise built on the backs of slaves no longer belonged to them and only the water remained. To this day, they and their descendants are as stubborn as children. Their toys had been taken away from them, they sabotage and intervene and therefore howl loudly, out of defiance and greed and because they no longer have their own island with its own rules. They no longer own what they should never have owned.

August 2005, outskirts of Hurricane Katrina pass the northern coast of Haiti, leaving rainfall and a churning Caribbean Sea in its wake. Later, the storm would devastate New Orleans and the US government under George W. Bush would criminally delay relief and rebuilding because the predominantly black population would not vote for him. New Orleans had taken in many thousands of refugees after the slave revolt in Haiti in the 1800s. The US is still pissed that lucrative slavery ended right on its doorstep with the Haitian revolution. I am on my way from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, heading north, and I pass Haiti for a bit. In the fields, men are standing in ankle-deep mud, harvesting cane sugar with machetes. It looks exhausting. Like plantation work. The cane sugar is used to make Pepsi on site. „By far the best cola in the world“, a local had said. He was right.

It is 2007, I am on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. It takes about 10 minutes to walk around the island in flip-flops. The white beach begins in front of the palm trees, then comes the turquoise blue sea. Colourful fish are swarming between corals, it looks like an aquarium. A dream. But if you swim further out, the reef drops steeply and the water turns deep blue to black. The bottom is suddenly no longer recognisable. Instead of the colourful fish, you see diffuse dark shadows of many very large sea creatures in the depths. One evening, a storm breaks. The tsunami of 2004 was not that long ago, and some neighbouring islands have since ceased to exist. Suddenly, the tropical paradise is becoming a nutshell and the nearest mainland is as unreachable as the moon. The dream of a lonely island, far away from any familiar surroundings, becomes a nightmare, the name Vineta buzzes around in your head and you suddenly wish for the shallow Baltic Sea with its small boring fish back. A flounder instead of a shark, an eel instead of a moray and an ear jellyfish instead of a ray. Then you would just walk across the dunes to where the broad, flat land begins, where Berliners, Saxons and Swabians get on the locals‘ nerves and a scoop of ice cream costs „einzfuffzich“*.

* distinctly Berlin slang, meaning 1,50 Deutsche Mark