by Claudius Schulze Islands — strange and magical, far away in dangerous waters — have for centuries driven Europeans to explore and to discover. Though by definition only “a piece of land surrounded by water” (Oxford Dictionary), the word describes more than just a landmass; the phrase island is inextricably linked with notions of how these places look, feel, and the myth tied around them: “They emphasize sensuality, escape, solitude, seduction, and self-sufficiency. … Islands also can be lonely, inhospitable, forbidden, or mysterious.” (Resh & Resh 2009) German photographer Claudius Schulze traveled to the mysterious archipelago of Socotra, a lone island in the Indian Ocean, tectonic in origin and situated at 12°30’36” North and 53°55’12” East. Its nearest mainland is Somalia, 240km away. Socotra is sheltered by steep cliffs with a flat coastal plain in the north and a much smaller one along its southern shore. Behind the island’s capital town Hadibo, the cliffs rise to mountains, summiting in the over 1500m-high Hagghier. Steep-sided gorges and valleys cut through the central highlands. The only inland waters are small creeks gushing through the valleys. Only few are perennial and there is little arable land. The island was inhabited since the Stone Age but only discovered by Portuguese sailors in 1503. For centuries, the “Sheikhdom of Socotra Archipelago” was part of the “Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra” before being incorporated into modern Yemen less than 50 years ago.
‘On our arrival upon this coast we found there a savage race.’ François Fénelon (1699)
‘Of late years the sea has driven so vehemently upon them, that they have lost above four leagues of land. These sands are her harbingers: and we now see great heaps of moving sand, that march half a league before her, and occupy the land.’ Michel de Montaigne (1580)
‘The life there had been very wonderful, it seemed to him, in that remote mountain village, protected from the tumults of the world’ Algernon Blackwood (1908)The Socotrans depend on their animal husbandry for survival. A typical Bedouin family keeps around a hundred goats, about half the amount of sheep, and a couple of cattle.
‘Such strange blossoms flower out of the very dust.’ Robert Hichens (1897)In defiance of this arid climate and with the help of its magic, the island’s wildlife prospers nonetheless. Bizarre animals and plants that exist only on Socotra are infinite. It ranks number four on the world list of endemism: with 37 percent of all plants counted up to date that only grow on this isle and nowhere else on earth and 77 more kinds of endemic plants than the Galapagos archipelago.
‘On our landing quite a crowd of wild-looking men and women, all clad only in loincloth, met us on the beach.’ H. Wilfrid Walker (1909)We have come to see islands through the prism offered by the accounts, genuine or fictionalized, of Westerners who went out to search, conquer and colonize them. The islands these adventurers and colonists describe are luscious or murderous, inhabited by wild animals or savages, ruled by sultans or sheikhs. Islands have come to be associated with notions “of bounty, of primitivism and paradisalism” (Zurick 1995) in Western eyes.
‘Seeing a small shark brought ashore the other day by one of the fishermen, who had found it rolled up in his net, put me in mind of an exciting adventure I had many years ago.’ Louis Becke (1904)The islanders who have settled around the coast depend on fish. The Indian Ocean surrounding the island is famous for its rich fishing grounds with a huge diversity of species.
‘An empty room. The curtains drawn and gas turned low.’ John Galsworthy (1916)The archetypical Socotran dwell- ings are little square and windowless houses. They are built of roughly hewn stones plastered with clay mud. The roof is traditionally made of the stem of shrubs, mostly of the hardwood of the «Croton socatranus», on which palm leaves are laid. This supporting structure is then covered with soil, mud, and coral sludge to form the ceiling. More often than not, these roofs fail to withstand the seasonal rainstorms.
‘The spell of the sea was upon me.’ Rolf Boldrewood (1894)