Bringing You the Daily Dispatch


Review of “The Britannias” by Alice Albinia: A Retelling of Our Island’s History


In 1609, a significant event occurred on an island that had a profound impact on the world. The Sea Venture, an English ship, sank on reefs 600 miles from the coast of America. Its passengers, who were headed to Virginia to support the colony, were forced to set up a temporary camp on Bermuda. While stranded on the island for 10 months, they consumed an abundance of turtles, leading to the passing of a parliamentary act to condemn their actions. Additionally, they greatly reduced the population of the cahow, a native seabird. Despite their eventual rescue, the colonizers’ reliance on Bermuda’s resources became crucial for the survival of Virginia, which was facing starvation and disease. This resulted in increased investments from financiers. However, this gain for the colonizers came at the expense of the natural world, marking the beginning of what Alice Albinia refers to as “the age of species loss, particularly through island colonization.”

We often think of islands as being on the outskirts, used as places to dispose of waste from the mainland or to obtain resources from (as seen in Bermuda and the Scottish islands, where native bird species were driven to extinction by collectors, taxidermists, and hunters during the Victorian era). However, small islands are rarely recognized as having their own unique identities, languages, histories, and rights. In her book The Britannias, Alice Albinia shifts the perspective to focus on the archipelago of surrounding islands rather than mainland Britain. While the Shetland Islands may seem incredibly remote in relation to London, when viewed from an east-west perspective rather than north-south, it becomes evident that they are situated in the middle of a busy international shipping route that has been significant for centuries.

Albinia’s journey to shed light on the islands of Britain involves accompanying a circus to Thanet, joining a mackerel trawler to Shetland, and participating in a sailing charity for disadvantaged youth to St Kilda. She also visits Lindisfarne, stays at a women’s retreat on Iona, and explores a kelp-growing laboratory on Rathlin as part of her extensive research. However, her ambitious historical claims shape her findings, with each chapter progressing through time from Neolithic Orkney to 21st-century Westminster. Albinia also highlights the fact that progress in island cultures is not always linear, but rather marked by setbacks such as invasions and destruction. This often results in the erasure of entire islands’ languages, customs, beliefs, artifacts, stories, and even populations of plants, animals, and humans from the historical record.

The history of women is especially at risk for these regressions. In early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, women in leadership roles were respected, as seen in the “double” monastery on the island of Thanet where Abbess Domne Eafe held significant influence. However, with the arrival of the Normans, there was a strong backlash against female religious expression and male monks dominated the written accounts, leading to the erasure of holy women from history.

Enlightenment thinkers had an optimistic belief that societies naturally progress towards perfection, while modern political commentators casually dismiss opponents as being on the “wrong side of history”. Albinia’s account serves as a necessary reminder of the precariousness of feminist progress and the potential for violent backlash. This applies not just to Britain, but to the global pattern of women’s power advancing and then regressing, as seen in the Taliban’s disregard for women’s rights.

The most intriguing suggestion from the Britannias is that before periods of strict patriarchy, there may have been periods of female empowerment in the British archipelago, where women were held in high regard. Albinia acknowledges that this idea requires some imagination to piece together bits of evidence and let them come to life. However, most of her evidence comes from mythology rather than real-life examples of women with economic, political, or social power. The mere existence of women in stories and rituals is seen as proof of matriarchal authority. But can it truly be considered reverent when a hill or river is given a feminine name, or when women like Medusa or witches are depicted in literature? This theme, intertwined with an autobiographical account in which Albinia dreams about matriarchal societies on British islands and leaves her marriage to establish a “three-way gynocracy” with her daughters, is positioned as the main focus of the book. However, as Albinia herself shows, there is often more valuable information in the surrounding area.

Ignore the advertisement for the newsletter.

Source: theguardian.com