Island; I-land: Eye-Land: Caliban on Sugar Island

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The magic hour has come. The ship bearing the Court of Naples, with dignitaries from its satellite court of Milan, is within striking distance of the island on which Prospero and his daughter have been marooned. Prospero conjures a storm to shipwreck the travelers and enact his vengeance for the collusion between his brother, Antonio—the current, false Duke of Milan, in Prospero’s place—and Alfonso, the King of Naples. The Tempest has begun.

But Prospero’s revenge will not be retributive. The island—perhaps the ultimate pastoral locale given its isolation and associations with exile—has effected its changes on the once and future Duke; its geography embodies a certain magic of its own, and his purpose henceforth will be to set to rights what has been diverted from its natural course through his own waywardness. He will replace his brother and, not without troubling the usurper, assume his rightful place, but without exacting more punishment than is necessary to lead Antonio to genuine repentance. The Tempest is a play that closes a circle, its subtext a theme of transformations over time: its dramatic object is to return to the place at which its exposition starts.

However, one significant character will be excluded: Caliban, the only true native of the island, is outside of Prospero’s magic circle, left alone to  form and inhabit a circle of his own. It is with him—and the history of another island and its own temporary inhabitation—that we are here concerned.

A Promiscuous Geography

Sugar Island, one of several Detroit River and Lake Erie islands of that name, is distinguishable as the last island before the mouth of the river broadens southward into the lake. Located on the American side of the border with Canada, it lies between the suburban island community of Grosse Ile and the uninhabited channel islands, created by dredging, that define the shipping route of the Livingston Channel at the eastern end of the St. Lawrence Seaway. It is identified in the picture below, taken from the south—downstream—of Grosse Ile.

Birds-eye view of Sugar Island.

Before the age of the roller coaster—and perhaps before the time of the motor-driven carousel—Sugar Island was developed as a sort of pleasure garden, reachable by boats leaving from Detroit and Wyandotte to the north.

According to Wallace Hayden, a local historian, it was first the site of a simple band shell and open-air dance floor, with a nearby ballpark and picnicking areas joined by paths throughout the native deciduous forest. In 1898, it was expanded to include a restaurant and more substantial docking facilities, and the dance floor was covered by a pavilion. Several local steamers, including the Tashmoo, which we will revisit, brought pleasure-seekers and civic organizations for a day at the park.

Today, two concrete piers on Sugar Island’s American side mark the place where wooden docks anchored and a covered wooden bridge, now long gone, stretched toward the shore. A few concrete foundations can still be found in the woods, but the pavilion, which had stood, increasingly dilapidated, until early 1954, has burned down, and the island is now densely wooded. Privately owned within the last decade—when it was intended to be a site for a rather regal homestead, and then abandoned —it is now government property and a wildlife refuge for migratory birds, and is technically forbidden to visitors, though weekend boaters and fishermen still come ashore from time to time.

Prospero’s island is also effaced; it is located, by inference from the text, very generally between Tunis (the site of Ancient Carthage, from which the courtly ship was returning—presumably to Naples, toward whence its progress was diverted) and the Italian peninsula. A geographical reference in the play, to “still-vexed Bermoothes,” (I, ii) is only very general, but has been read by some scholars to indicate that The Tempest takes place near Bermuda, sufficiently across the Atlantic to make it the only play of Shakespeare’s set in the New World. Though this raises still further questions, it brings us, other distances considered, within speculative range of Sugar Island.

I would not wish seriously to suggest that Shakespeare set The Tempest just south of Detroit, but Shakespeare’s geography is deliberately fantastic, allowing us the opportunity for a degree of playful contemplation. The distance from Sugar Island to Bermuda is 2,284 kilometers (this and other distances here are the results of a quick Google check—the sort of rough magic of which Propsero might perhaps approve), while the distance from Tunis to Milan—the speculative route of the Neapolitan ship—is 1,023 kilometers. The distance from Tunis to Bermuda is 6,696 kilometers, so we must assume a magical storm of some magnitude (and why should we not?) if the ship has been blown off course across the vast majority of the Atlantic Ocean, but The Tempest—and its tempest—is romance, after all: it is the semblance of reality (which is also the proper effect of successful magic) that  is at issue here. The origin of Caliban, who is nowhere in the play called a native of the New World but has been widely identified as one, has been colored by his association with natives of the New World. We may as well, for the breadth of the associations Shakespeare allows us, place him on Sugar Island and rediscover his story by analogue to the island’s history. In any event, and for the purposes of The Tempest as well, the location of the island is secondary to its status as Prospero’s domain, charged with his magic, and to its specific identification as an island.

Caliban, whose name hints at his savagery through its anagramatical permutation of canibal—is the only genuine native of the place. He is described in the Dramatis Personae of the play as “a salvage and deformed slave,” and Charles Nicholl, in his The Creature in the Map, expands on this designation and what it means:

It is derived from Latin silva (forest). The frequent Elizabethan spelling “salvage” maintains the link (as does the modern Spanish salvaje). In this original sense, “savage” is definitive—a forest-dweller—rather than pejorative, but by the sixteenth century it carries these other connotations of savagery.


In this regard, Caliban is perhaps the richest character, in terms of his relation to his natal geography, in a play ending in the return of Prospero to his home. In fact, the first words we have about him are Prospero’s call “What, ho! slave! Caliban! Thou earth, thou! speak.” (I, ii. Emphasis mine.) He is a child of the island as much as of his mother.

So Caliban’s identity with the island, with its nurturing as well as its threatening aspects, serves to make him, too, a part of the geography. Rather than a figure in a landscape, he becomes the landscape, giving it voice. They are inseparable, and it is therefore entirely fitting that he alone remains behind at the end of the play.

Circles: Caliban on Walkabout

But, even after the close of the action, Caliban is not alone. Like Nature—and like the island itself—he is solitary, self-containing, and self-contained. Unfit for civilized company, he is also de-natured by his experience with Prospero. We can imagine that this is a problem he must remedy, since his familiarity with the island, as he describes it to Stephano and Trinculo, also shows his interaction with the landscape and his skill in exploiting it to feed himself, to make a bodily identification, through the fruits of the island, with his own body.

I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts;
Show thee a jay’s nest and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll bring thee
To clustering filberts and sometimes I’ll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.

(II, ii.)

So, on the morning after the departure of the nobles and their respective courts—the morning after the play has ended, and he is again undisturbed in his natural place—let us imagine him on walkabout, surveying his domain for the first time as its conscious master. His knowledge of the island is total, yet he also enacts the primal ritual of affirming its borders: he walks its perimeter, traveling in a loosely defined circle.

Cover of the Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

The circle, symbolically and geometrically, is both limited, by its specific circumference, and limitless, in its endless track, as well as because  all circles, defined by the equidistance of their perimeters from a central point, are necessarily always in the same orientation to the viewer. As described esoterically—which is to say, in terms of magic—“It has no beginning or end, and no divisions, making it the perfect symbol of completeness, eternity, and the soul . . .  [t]he circle is also the symbol of boundary and enclosure, of completion, and returning cycles.”

A circle is confined only by its perimeter, a measure of length that becomes meaningless in some forms of geometry; a larger circle, as Lobachevsky (the co-founder of Non-Euclidean Geometry, who “felt that even space was a posteriori, and based on experience”) points out, is only a larger reiteration of a smaller one (Reiber, 60). All circles therefore are The Circle, and one is all.

This is an ancient and important idea when considering Prospero’s magic: magicians of his age were thought to draw circles on the ground to set aside a separate space for themselves—to either concentrate their magic or protect themselves from evil, as Faustus is shown doing in one illustration of Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus(and though he never in fact performs this act in the play, the familiarity of the audience with the concept of ceremonial magic, at least, would have made the image comprehensible). Prospero carries his staff when, bringing his enemies together, the stage direction explicitly says that he draws them into a circle. In doing so, he places them not only within the circumference of his power, but also into a mutuality of feeling, an equidistant reciprocity within which they must all face themselves as a group, all within the same defining—and re-defining—space. Similarly, Caliban defines his domain on his first circumambulation: he paces out the shifting edge between land and water, leaves his clawed footprints behind him in the sand, and symbolically seals and establishes his domain. 

Perhaps there is something of his mother, and her sorcery, in this. The circle—breastlike, vulvaic—is a feminine shape after all, and while Caliban is alone, his mother is with him as predecessor and progenitor. He lives now on the land that is, in part, her body (we must assume that she is buried somewhere nearby), and the island—like all islands—is the circle that contains them both.

Sugar Island, in its prime, was also a place of circles. Its last surviving relic, the sheltered dance pavilion (which was also one of the first structures built there for enjoyment), was the site of couples and groups moving in circles, dancing to music, as all humans who dance together in groups do. In fact, it can be said that there is no dance without a circle, since two partners in motion are defined, as a circumference is, by the center point of their action. People gather at the edges of dance floors, further defining the musical and ritualized action—and no spell is ever cast without purposive action.

Some time past the turn of the last century, Sugar Island added further circles to its landscape: a band shell—like all shells, in the shape of a spherical section, the circle brought by rotation in space into three dimensions—and a Ferris wheel and carousel. (Hayden) Boats not only moored at the island, but also circled its perimeter, constantly redefining its center.

But an island is more than a circle in the water; it is a circle in the water. Caliban will know no other perspective than that of the native, staring out from the only land he has ever truly understood. To him, the ocean is context. We, looking on from another shore, have the ability to regard Prospero’s (and, separately, Caliban’s) island from an objectifying distance.

Time and the Detroit River

But the circle is only one of two relevant and naturally occurring symbols here. In the wash of the ocean, Caliban might not see it it from his island, but he is surrounded by directional, propulsive currents. The currents around the fictional island cannot be mapped, as is the case with the channels and rapidly deepening basin of Lake Erie near Sugar Island, where they flow uniformly southward and at increasing intensity, but the Detroit River, as itself and as a symbol, forms a potent contrast to the static self-containment of the island.

An island is a stationary place amid the flow of water; similarly, it is an exception to the force of the current and a place away from others, surrounded by the rush of an element whose quality is nearly always motile. As a result, an island is a respite and a place apart from the concerns of everyday life. If Prospero had allowed himself to neglect his ducal duties, amid the everyday currents of his court, in order to study his magic, then he would have made of himself an island when he should have been a navigator of the stream; ironically, an island rising from the water and standing outside of its distracting forces became his salvation. Its pastoral isolation and geographic solitude became the place in which he could center himself and, eventually, return to his true role in the established order.We journey to islands (The Odyssey comes to mind—or, more pointedly, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, set nearer to Bermuda) and travel to places foreign amid the sea of the familiar, to refresh ourselves. An island amusement park, such as Sugar Island was, is all the more desirable for the pleasurable efforts of traveling to it for its separation from the shore, where we leave our worries and return to a sort of Eden, physically removed from the quotidian and worrisome. A typical trip on the Tashmoo, “a 302-foot-long side-wheeler built in the shipyards in Wyandotte in 1899,” and the most famous of the ferries to Sugar Island, “transported passengers in grand style on outings from Lake Erie to Port Huron,” writes Hayden, who continues:

Picture a large excursion boat departing a dock in Detroit with a complement of summertime day-trippers. Steaming south along the Detroit River, it passes the northern tip of Grosse Ile and proceeds farther south. Soon it approaches another island and ties up at dockside. Passengers disembark by the hundreds. They pass through a covered entranceway and excitedly move on to a roller coaster, dancing pavilion or other amusements.

Newspaper ad for free dancing at Sugar Island Park.

The use of the river was crucial to their enjoyment. Getting off land and out onto the water made the journey more definite and appreciable, and no doubt the passage downriver brought them into contact with communities they might rarely reach by land. “Families, and members of social clubs and organizations of all descriptions, sought escape from the sweltering cities by clambering aboard the three decks of open-air elegance to enjoy the fresh breezes and wide vistas of the water world.”

The park on Sugar Island expanded steadily, and new attractions appeared seasonally. The Victoriana of a public baseball diamond—and perhaps exhibition games—gave way to the heightened interest in swimming, and more daring swimwear, that would characterize the rise of beaches as social settings during the first years of the last century. 

“By the 1920s, a large roller coaster, a merry-go-round, a bathing beach and rowboat rentals established Sugar Island as a major weekend destination. The years that followed were the golden era of the park.” (Hayden)

Painting of women in long white dresses with children and some men in suits outside a pavilion.
Long dock with a roof standing above a body of water on Sugar Island.

But golden eras—like edens—end. Even the magic of Prospero’s island, we assume, departs with him, for better or worse. For Sugar Island, much like Prospero’s, the beginning of the final days came with a shipwreck.

“[O]n June 18, 1936, [. . . ] the Tashmoo departed Sugar Island in the late evening on a trip back to Detroit.” Perhaps the water was shallow that season, since changes in Detroit River depth occur regularly, but “the Tashmoo struck a submerged rock [and a] 30-foot gash in the hull meant that the ship was in imminent danger of sinking.”

Painting of cruise ship sailing with two pillars of black smoke rising from it and an American flag resting on top.

Even though the current dock piers are on the American side of the island (and there is no guarantee that the boat was moored to the west of the island; in fact, the shallows to its east lend themselves better to the danger of a submerged rock), the Captain chose to head directly to Amherstberg, on the Canadian shore.

“It steamed through the opening in the Livingstone channel revetment known as the Hole-in-the-wall. . . . . […] As the ship neared the Canadian shore, it began to list in the water but managed to dock at a coal wharf above Amherstburg. It quickly sank into the muck in 18 feet of water and never sailed again.” Hayden concludes his account of the wreck with an interesting—and not inept—comparison, since the Tashmoo could carry up to 1,500 passengers.

There were no fatalities, but disaster was barely averted. If its boilers had exploded, or if the current had carried the foundering vessel to Lake Erie, there could have been a disaster of nearly Titanic proportions. It was a sudden and scary end for one of the most famous excursion boats ever to plow local waters.


Those of us who have swum and water-skied in the area can attest to the currents; the pull of Lake Erie suddenly strengthens as the water grows rougher. It is not an unusual area for a small boat to disappear from, as it is pulled into the current of the lake at a bottleneck between the two national shores. The Livingston Channel nearby, deeper than the local waters and contained within its dredged confines, is particularly dangerous.

Hayden gives another reason for the park’s decline: the local island of Bob-Lo, in Canadian waters, would soon open a more modern amusement park. Mechanized and more nearly what we think of as fitting the type, its roller coaster is still visible from the American shore today. The magic of Sugar Island was departing.

Unlike with rivers, whose currents never let us forget the passage of time, time stops on islands. To retreat to an island is to step out of time’s current and stand back: they are bulwarks against the rush of the water, solid against the fluidity of the onward force that surrounds them. No doubt this was an elemental appeal to Sugar Island’s revelers. For a while, and mediated by a boat ride that must have made the bustle of Detroit seem like a receding dream, the partygoers bound for Sugar Island would drift downstream with the current, arrive at the covered dock, enter its shaded tunnel, and emerge after a short walk into the sunlight of the island. It must have had the effect of an awakening.

Unlike the circle, however, the river and its directional force are animate, masculine and progressive. If they symbolize the force of Prospero’s unfolding intent, then he must leave his island—he has duties to resume and an end to accomplish, even as “every third thought shall be [his] grave” (V, i).  Caliban, in contrast, is younger and has no other place to go: he is at home as he has always been.

Sycorax’s Boy, Nature Unchecked

As Prospero recounts, Caliban is the son of Sycorax, an Algerian sorceress whom he calls a “blue-eyed hag” (I, ii)—noting the color of her eyes perhaps to stress her exceptional nature—who had been similarly marooned on the island before him, where she had given birth to Caliban and subsequently died. Prospero, speaking to his spirit-servant Ariel, relates that he and Sycorax never met:

Then was this island—
Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp hag-born—not honour’d with
A human shape.

(I, ii)

Her presence in the exposition and the circumstances of her last days on the island are strongly emblematic: she is an exotic in contrast to the Europeans of the play; her witchcraft is in stark contrast to Prospero’s magic (as Frances Yates writes, “Shakespeare makes very clear in The Tempest how different is the high intellectual and virtuous magic of the true magus from low and filthy witchcraft and sorcery” 94); and, worse, she is a woman of power, as a human presence on the island as well as through her arts. Finally, in a play whose themes strongly set Nature and Culture at odds, and argue for the superiority of Culture, Sycorax is a female embodiment of Nature: she is the magic progenitor, the all-mother, unexplainedly—perhaps unaccountably—pregnant upon her arrival at the island. (Though Prospero claims Caliban’s sire was the devil, that is a commonplace claim of witchly behavior at the time.) She exists, for the purpose of the plot, to give birth; to preside as a sort of Lady of Misrule whose unfitness to govern results in, and is illustrated by, the imprisonment of Ariel, thus establishing cruelty as a hallmark of her use of power; and to leave behind a child who exemplifies the qualities of Nature unchecked. As Yates puts it, “Prospero is poles apart from the witch Sycorax and her evil son.” (94.) Sycorax is presumably buried on the island, becoming  one with the land in the process. 

To see an example of a common  view of the feminine and the natural at the time, we may examine a painting attributed to a follower of Jan Mandijn and recently offered at auction by Christie’s in London (the sale site, since this is a privately held work, is the best citation possible). The painting shows a sort of coven or Witches’ Sabbath in progress, which takes place on a patch of land just inside the cove of the title. (Is this set, also, on an island, one wonders? The supposedly wrecked ship that carries the Court of Milan is revealed, at the end of The Tempest, to have been whole and afloat all along in just this sort of cove.

Painting of animals dancing and mythical creatures emerging from a bowl and completing daily tasks.
Mandijn, Jan (Follower of). The Witches’ Cove. Oil on Canvas.

While the actual witches inhabit the high ground over a landscape that is itself transforming from sea to land, the beach below them fills with characters that indicate the painter’s affinity with Hieronymous Bosch or a love of the odder details in the corners and half-hidden spots of a Breughel.  A cauldron casts a torrent of steaming vapor into the sky, and a Franciscan monk holds a monstrance up to the cauldron, while just below it, a man or a bearded woman (like the witches in Macbeth) kneels as he also reads. Is this Prospero, or an image of what early viewers of the play would have expected him to look like? It is clear that forces outside the norm have been brought into play, and that the orderly world, as we might wish it, has been disturbed. This is the atmosphere of carnivale, of the topsy-turvy, of escape from the mundane and, if only briefly, a retreat into the flailing arms of the happily chaotic. To an extent, this is what visitors to Sugar Island sought on their journey downstream to a place where normal activities could be put aside and they could rely on  just enough order—a baseball diamond, a dance pavilion, rowboats for rent—to allow themselves to safely loosen up. Magic is not chaos, but rather the control of potentially chaotic forces and the direction of them toward a pleasing end. In this regard, an amusement park is always and everywhere just in check, and we can safely hold our hands high as we circle the carousel or mount the great hill at the start of a roller coaster (yet another circular journey). Sugar Island, however, passed through the hands of several owners after the Tashmoo disaster, and was eventually abandoned. Hayden draws the curtain as he writes, “In 1954, the dance pavilion burned to the ground and a visible connection to an illustrious past was lost.” Just as Prospero and his coterie leave the island and Caliban behind, so the magic hours came to their end in the abandoned park.

Island, I-land, Eye-land: Caliban Alone

The ways in which the Natural manifest themselves in Caliban (his initial lack of language, his elemental surliness under authority, his lust for Miranda—which ironically serves to affirm her desirability, as he declares that he would have “peopled this isle with Calibans”) serve to induce a shudder at the prospect of natural forces allowed to run their course uninhibited, and  to contextualize Caliban as a child of those forces. That re-contextualization calls for a re-evaluation.

Aside from the single word “deformedin the Dramatis Personae,, we have no physical description of Caliban. We are never told of his virtues, though his skill at living on the island must be great, and his deformations are, aside from his speech and actions, likely to be no less odd to us than  the European standards of beauty (of his day) would be to our eyes—and, presumably, his. Perhaps we would find him as beautiful in his singularity as burl wood—as natural an occurrence as a carefully pruned tree is artificial, but simply requiring a different perspective to appreciate for its inborn virtues. The grotesque is a part of the spectrum of nature, after all, and some grotesquerie takes on the beauty of the accidentally attractive, or baroquely fascinating.

With a script that has much to say about the corrupting influences of “civilization” (the first acts of the shipwrecked courtiers are to bicker, flounder about helplessly in their new environment, and eventually, unsuccessfully, attempt regicideand Stephano and Trinculo do much the same to Caliban as did Prospero, in their way), and in a play where Prospero is treated as a paragon of rightful authority, Caliban is nevertheless correct in asserting his proprietorial birthright to the island. In answer, we have only the assumption that Prospero somehow—in his mind and perhaps in that of Shakespeare and his audience—is, by race, religion, or inborn authority simply more fit. He arrives at the island with his right to rule, a product of a foreign culture, intact. One is apt to doubt that Caliban, in the form he first encountered Prospero, would have understood the politics of the situation, much as new world natives must have looked on in ungrasping wonder at the claims made by “discoverers” from Europe. But it is interesting to speculate what becomes of Caliban when he is left alone again, and how much of Prospero’s cloak of civilization he now puts off.

We have seen Prospero’s island: a place where the organization is hierarchical and the power is absolute; now we encounter Caliban as lord of his own domain, I-land, a place where his identity as the sole native and inhabitant allows him the ability to relax from Prospero’s bonds and assume his own place. Ted Hughes, in his poem Wodwo, imagines the feeling of a being like Caliban set free:

I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then?

We no longer have the right to judge. If F. Hyatt Smith could say of him, “He is laughably horrible, a specimen to be examined more than a creature to be execrated; at times he shows great prudence, and again he roars with hate,” then we may only stare mutely as he fades into his landscape, perhaps peering out with increasingly wordless attention from the shadows near the shore. Hughes provides us with a glimpse into Caliban’s mind in this state:

But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking

The island, out of which fabric he has been birthed and nourished, is his identity—they are indissoluble. 

So at last, Caliban fades back into the embrace of the island, into the place where his mother’s remains feed the fruits on which he survives—from I-land, a land within which he finds his identity again on his own terms, he might finally shake free of critical consciousness and lose himself in Eye-land: he will “go on looking,” a type of natural force among others. No longer distinct from his surroundings, he watches over the island as a sort of protective spirit.

Sugar Island is not completely uninhabited. “Today, just as they did 130 years ago, small watercraft beach or drop anchor to picnic and explore. The private, wooded island also is used for hunting and fishing.” (Hayden.) It is also the site of a bizarre yearly ritual: every Labor Day weekend, partiers gather ceremonially on the beach to burn the wrecked hull of a small wooden boat. One local resident, Greg Kish, has said, “[t]here used to be what was called the annual boat burning there, to mark the end of the boating season.” So, at the turn of summer, a bit of sympathetic magic still remains. The boat is a sacrifice and, like all sacrifices, a gift to the animating presence of a place. Its burning is a spell—like Burning Man or the burial of a statue of St. Joseph in the yard of a house for sale—one of the many little magical acts we perform seasonally or daily out of habit or wishful thinking. It is not unlike something from The Witches’ Cove or Sycorax’s repertoire. 

Lobachevsky, the geometrician, envisioned the universe as a circular plain, stretching out endlessly from a central point, a circle where, if extended to infinity, parallel lines would necessarily meet and intersect: label one line “Caliban,” the other “Sugar Island.” The boaters, the drunken sorcerers of summer gathered around their fire, will soon depart, perhaps after a walk through the woods to find the cement foundations of the park buildings still there. They will return, in the circle of the seasons, from the river, as others have—or have not. And Caliban, if he notices, might approve. He will be alone throughout the winter months, and this temporary company will not trouble him much longer. A book, its pages idly turning in the currents, suffers a sea change at the bottom of the deserted cove. The magic hour has ended.

Additional Works Referenced

Nicholl, Charles. The Creature in the Map. Chicago:: Chicago UP, 1995

Rieber, Robert W. Freud on Interpretation: The Ancient Magical Egyptian and Jewish Traditions. New York: Springer, 2012

Yates, Frances A. Majesty and Magic in Shakespeare’s Late Plays. Boulder, CO: Shambala Press, 1975.