The Lost Island of Bermeja

The world is filled with mythical islands, maybe because the idea of an isolated place evokes ideas of a utopia. Perhaps that is why Judith Schalansky’s

Image of islands courtesy of Liz Noffsinger at freedigitalphotos

Atlas of Remote Islands became a popular book. But few mythical islands islands have been as enduring as Bermeja, which cartographers have been placing on maps off the coast of the Yucatan since Alonso de Santa Cruz first mentioned it in 1539.  In the nineteenth century something strange happened. The island disappeared, likely because it had never existed. But the power of this idea is so strong that people continue to look for it, including a BBC film crew.

What is more important, however, is the popular view of the island in Mexico. How is that an island that existed on maps for centuries could disappear? A cynic might wonder if map-makers had been copying each others’ maps for centuries. But within Mexico there are conspiracy theories, which argue that the United States destroyed it. Because Mexico lost so much of its national territory to the United States in the U.S.-Mexican War, there is a profound distrust of the U.S. in Mexico. Much of Mexico’s national budget comes from the operations of the state oil company PEMEX, which pumps much of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico. And a June 2000 treaty between Mexico and the United States defined rights to oil reserves based on the distance from U.S. or Mexican territory, in particular islands. For this reason, one can find Youtube clips blaming the United States for dynamiting the island into oblivion, and calling on Mexicans to be aware of what has been stolen from them. Posts about this are easy to find on the web. Mexican radio stations and TV news also discuss this topic, as these Youtube clips (for those who speak Spanish) show.

The popular concern has been so great that the Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies had the National Autonomous University of Mexico carry out a study to determine what had happened (it found in 2009 that the island had never existed). They also sponsored an exhibition of maps of Bermeja, as you can see from this clip of a speech at the exhibit’s opening (again in Spanish). Yet people continued to ask: is it truly possible that Bermeja never existed, or has this also been stolen from us? Recent revelations, such as that U.S. refineries are purchasing large amounts of oil stolen from Mexico, continue to fuel these resentments. It may also reflect Mexico’s anxiety that their petroleum production, so long a staple of the national budget, is beginning to decline. At the same time, it may reflect popular concerns that Mexican elites may sell out Mexico’s interests to the United States. As such, Bermeja may symbolize as much what Mexicans fear as what they hope.

Perhaps every mythical island exists because they serve a need for the societies that believe in them. Ever since the Greeks began to tell stories of Atlantis (the most recent alleged discovery of this island is in Spain), people have discussed these legendary places. The enduring power of the island of Bermeja reflects the power of petroleum to Mexican nationalism, and the continuing distrust that many Mexicans have towards the United States. This feeling is understandable given the United States’ frequent military and political interventions in Mexican affairs over nearly two centuries. We don’t normally think of folklore as being relevant to international affairs, but the mythical island of Bermeja provides insight into popular Mexican perceptions of its northern neighbor, in a way that an academic study might not. If you’re curious, listen to the BBC’s radio coverage of the topic at the top of this website, which has an excellent account by Mexican reporter David Cuen. I wish that I could have set out on his expedition. . .

Shawn Smallman

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