Maria Hood explores the strange history of Dumet Island, Brittany
“There she is! Mysterious Dumet Island!” Yves, blue eyes sparkling mischievously, pointed to a rather unimpressive brown slab appearing on the horizon beyond our bow. I squinted at it intently, searching for some physical oddity or telepathic emanations.
As we sailed closer, the slab transformed into a half-moon bay with a bright ribbon of sand and turquoise water protected by dark, jagged rocks. Still squinting, I turn to Yves. “Okay, I give up. Why is it mysterious?” “Oh, there are so many stories, you know,” he said excitedly. “They say the island was the site of some ancient druid cult with mystical powers, and during the war, there were secret military experiments here. It was forbidden to go anywhere near the island for years.”
This was my first time sailing with Yves, but I already understood that this spirited octogenarian loved telling tall tales. I looked at Luke, the skipper for this day sail, for some indication of whether or not I should just politely let this drop and go down below to start preparing lunch. “No, it’s true,” said Luke. “For several decades after the war, a couple of elderly mystics lived there as caretakers, searching for some sort of paranormal source of power on the island.” With growing exasperation, I pressed for details, but after several volleys of one-line teasers, each more bizarre than the last, I realized that I was unlikely to get anything resembling a coherent account from either of these two.
Although we had only recently moved to the south coast of my husband’s native Brittany in France, I was already getting used to the legends and folklore that cling to every rock, island, or inlet along the coast. The caves and grottoes that cut into Brittany’s rugged coastline are passageways to the land of the Korrigans, diminutive nocturnal sprites of repugnant physical appearance and unpredictable character who enjoy frightening humans and occasionally swapping their ugly babies for more attractive human ones.
The Bretons also have their own Atlantis myth, a sunken city called Ys (pronounced eez), traditionally situated in the Douarnenez Bay to the northwest, but with at least a dozen other islands and coastal sites contending for the title. Sometime around 400 BCE., Ys was one of the world’s most beautiful and advanced civilisations, protected from the sea by a large dike and lock system. The devil, in the form of a charming knight, seduced the king’s young but sexually-perverse daughter and convinced her to steal the key to the lock system from her father. In short order, the city was sunk and the king’s daughter transformed into a malevolent mermaid who still unleashes her wrath on mariners sailing these waters. As an aside, the legend tells us that the bodies of her lover-victims are piled up in a ravine in the eerily beautiful river valley of the Huelgoat forest, having its own share of mysteries.
With one of the largest concentrations of megaliths in the world and human settlement that spans the last 7000 years, Brittany has no lack of fodder for fantastic fables. But unlike the typical Breton tales involving fairies, druids, sorcerers, and trolls, my crewmates’ stories of Dumet Island were peppered with more modern and possibly verifiable enigmas.
We furled the sails and motored slowly up to anchor just off the beach. What was immediately mysterious to me was that we had such a postcard-perfect beach to ourselves. Yves had mentioned earlier that this was a forbidden zone during the war, and I began to wonder if we were even supposed to be here at all, frightfully aware that breaking-the-rules-when-one-is-almost-certain-not-to-be-caught is a favourite French pastime. The solitude was, however, anything but silent, with hundreds of screeching gulls signalling their collective indignation at our presence until one of them apparently suggested to the others that we might be sloppy eaters and they rapidly formed a more congenial greeting committee flotilla at our stern.
Peeking up over the dune grass and wind-carved hedges were the remains of a small square fort that from the sea looked like something a child might draw; a perfectly square block with a square opening in the center and two arched windows on either side. In response to my dismissive musings, I was informed that this was, in fact, a fort designed by Sebastian Le Prestre Vauban, King Louis XIV’s military architect, whose fortresses around France are widely considered to be some of the finest examples of military architecture anywhere, many of which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Sobered, I pointed to another circular construction sitting out on one of the spits of land encircling the harbour, which our coastal pilot guidebook identified as the ruins of the Fort Ré, built in 1756.
Pleasantly anesthetized by the sun and the wine, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, I was thoroughly pleased with my discovery of this little jewel of an island, now protected as a bird sanctuary. I was, however, wholly unsatisfied with the unresolved mysteries and unfinished stories surrounding it. As we finished our languid lunch in the cockpit and headed home, I set myself the task of filling in the missing bits of the story so that I could regale my next crew with a more compelling tale.
In carrying out my mission, I fully expected to stumble onto the typical fairy-laden fantasies to explain the stories that had been passed on to me. Instead, my first finding was that mysterious little Dumet Island is, in fact, the geodesic pole of the world’s land masses.
In 1912, French physicist Alphonse Berget addressed the French Academy of Sciences to demonstrate that if you define a hemisphere on the globe that places the maximum of Earth’s land masses in one half of the globe (the continental hemisphere) and the maximum of water mass on the other half (the oceanic hemisphere), the pole of the continental hemisphere is located at 47° 24’ 42” North, 2° 37’ 13” West, or bang on top of little Dumet Island, measuring a mere 450 feet wide by 1800 feet long.
This finding came at a pivotal time in geodesic science as the nations of the world (or at least the French) were still settling the issue of the Prime Meridian. Following the 1884 International Meridian Conference where the Prime Meridian was established in Greenwich, England, the French continued to use their own Paris Meridian for time-keeping purposes until 1911, and didn’t get around to adopting the Greenwich Meridian for geodesic referencing until 1914.
While a world at war provided the winning argument for adopting a global standard system of geodesy, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic may also have contributed to convincing the French to accept Greenwich as the universal geodesic reference point, when it was realized that the telegram sent from the French vessel La Touraine warning the Titanic of icebergs in the area had issued this warning using Greenwich Mean Time but with locations still referenced to the Paris Meridian.
The 1912 discovery of Dumet Island as the pole of the continental hemisphere may have helped soften the blow over the loss of the Prime Meridian. While the French would be losing the honour of having the 0° meridian running through Paris, they may reasonably have hoped that Dumet Island, as the most central point to the majority of other inhabited parts of the globe, would be adopted as a sort of zero point for calibrating a system of universal time and distances.
Several months after Berget’s finding was announced, France hosted the first International Conference on Time, where they proposed the Paris Observatory as the global central time office with the Eiffel Tower serving as the most powerful wireless transmitter in Europe, with the argument that the installations in Paris were the closest to the continental pole capable of carrying out such a mission. Sadly, owing to the outbreak of World War I, the Convention was never ratified, but by general agreement the Paris Observatory established the International Time Bureau and began carrying out its mission of calibrating time and distance.
In the wake of war, the discovery of the continental pole became little more than a geographic curiosity and quickly faded from memory. In 1945, the work of Berget was further refined by the American geographer Samuel Boggs, who confirmed Berget’s triangular area estimation for the pole, but located his pole in the city of Nantes. In 2000, an undocumented and possibly farcical claim put the location of the pole at the site of the newly-opened Cyber-Laundromat in the town of Damgan, about seven miles north of Dumet Island.
But druids, mystics, and paranormal powers? Where did those stories come from? It is understandable that once the island was conferred the title of Ombilicus Mundi (the world’s bellybutton), it was also granted special powers as a center for all things mystical. To my surprise, however, many of the legends surrounding Dumet pre-date its discovery as the center of Earth’s landmasses. Like many sites along Brittany’s coast, the Dumet area has seen human settlement since the Neolithic period, and over the centuries has been a magnet for both religious and military invasions. Celts, Gauls, and Romans slept here, and according to legend, the Druids established an important religious site on the island.
One Dumet myth speaks of a cult of women priestesses called the Samnites who lived on the island and who, during one special day of the year, would destroy and then rebuild the roof of their temple before nightfall. During this frenetic construction, if anyone dropped her building materials, she was immediately torn apart by her sisters as a human sacrifice. It has been suggested that this cult was linked to the ancient Celtic holy festival Samhain, held on the day of the year that marked the opening of a passageway between the world of the living and the dead. This celebration was held at the end of autumn, corresponding to the more familiar Christianized version, All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day.
After successive invasions by Danes, Saxons, and the Vikings, the Benedictines managed to establish a foothold on the island that lasted over 700 years, during which time various religious miracles were alleged. In 1756, the French military built the circular fort which they named, inexplicably, after the Egyptian sun god Ra. After less than 25 years of occupation, Fort Ra (today Fort Ré) was abandoned. In the early 1800s, the square Vauban fort was constructed, and in the mid-1800s renovations to the fort were said to be carried out in the greatest secrecy, mostly at night. When the Nazis arrived in 1944, they promptly encircled the island and issued official warnings forbidding any attempt to approach it.
In 1955, a 30-ton vessel, the Grey Ganet, was found by fishermen at the headwaters of the near-by Loire river estuary with no sign of her six man crew. Her home port identification had been painted over and no official papers were ever found. Strange traces, thought to be made by some sort of machinery, were found on the deck. These same traces were later found on Dumet Island. Explanations put forth include alien abduction and offloading of top secret cargo from the island. The investigation at the time classified the affair as a banal case of illegal trafficking by bandits plagued with transmission problems.
In the early 1950s, a French aristocrat-turned-occult-scientist, Robert de Fleury Valois and his music-hall star wife moved into the remains of Fort Ré to serve as the guardians of the island’s new lighthouse. They were also looking for a paranormal phenomenon they called 'the orange ray' (First Ra, then Ré, and now ray?) which they claimed was a source of energy and longevity important for humanity. After 34 years of searching, aged 93 and 88, the guardian and his wife left the island. When asked if he was disappointed about not having found the orange ray, he said he had come to realize that it was a terrible thing that should not be found, explaining that every time man has found a natural source of power, such as the atom, it has been used for evil. “We’re the devils!” he exclaimed. The couple also said they were happy to leave the island because the noise of the birds was driving them crazy.
A few months after my first encounter with Dumet, I was sailing in the area with a new crew. As Dumet became visible over our bow, I exclaimed “Ah, mysterious Dumet Island!”, in keeping with what I took to be the customary salute. Jeanne, our new crewmember, asked me why it was mysterious. Poised to describe my recent findings, I stopped, suddenly overwhelmed by the task. What do I say? Druid cults? Portals between the world of the living and the dead? Secret military experiments? Life-prolonging energy rays?
I decided to take a conservative approach, sticking to the facts, and simply described Dumet as the pole of the continental hemisphere. Jeanne’s face lit up. “I did hear about that a few years ago, but I thought it was a joke. Something about the grand opening of that new laundromat in Damgan?” As we drifted past the island, I could hear the mocking laughter of the gulls.
Maria Hood is an American who has been living in France for the past 15 years. She is an oceanographer who has taken early retirement to go sailing. Her writing has previously been published in A World of Science magazine and Oceanography magazine.