I've got a world with a long oceanic navigation tradition, but no reliable steam engines. Imagine it's the 1600s in our timeline. There's two superpowers (think two Chinas), and between them an ocean the size of the Atlantic. In the middle of that ocean is a small island, a couple kilometers wide, and utterly barren of life and resources. It is the only island in the ocean but there's no specific need to stop at that place when crossing it, it's a trip of a few weeks either way.


The relevant section of the globe

There's no source of fresh water on that island. No plants, except for moss. No animals, except for the occasional migratory bird taking a rest stop. No diamond mine or whatever. There is however a natural harbour so you can dock at the place with your ship; but would you?

The two superpowers both claim this island, if only for ego reasons; my question is whether they could actually do anything with it, from a military perspective. How can you exploit a place whose only virtue is that it is the only landmass in the ocean?

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    $\begingroup$ Useful, but expensive. Probably the biggest plus is denying it to the other guy. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Dec 31, 2021 at 16:22

6 Answers 6


How could you NOT want to occupy this island and build a naval base there?

Your naval operations in the ocean, especially close to the enemy coast, will benefit greatly if they don't have to sail all the way back the the homeland for re-supply and/or repairs.
They go to the base on the island instead, which shaves about 3 weeks off the turnaround trip.
This allows you to cover the operational area with far fewer ships, because each ships useful operating time will be much larger.

E.g. Say a naval vessel has a typical voyage time of 9 weeks. When operating from the homeland 6 of those weeks are spend just sailing across the ocean. You cut that in half, effective doubling the useful operating time of the vessel. That means you can execute the same operations with HALF the amount of ships!

Of course you will have to setup a supply-chain to keep the base stocked with food, water and anything else that can't be made locally, but cargo vessels are a lot cheaper than warships.

Additionally. If you have an established base on the island it can also become (in times of peace) a civilian trade-port where merchants can buy/sell/exchange goods, without having to make the long voyage across the entire ocean themselves.
To merchants the same benefit (reduced voyage time) applies even more. Ships "in transit" make no money. They only cost money while being underway. Ships only make money when their cargo gets off-loaded and delivered to the customer.

  • $\begingroup$ Hell yeah, maybe both nation would try to set up base here, resulted in war, and in the end they all agrees to just occupy half the island? $\endgroup$
    – Faito Dayo
    Dec 31, 2021 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ The argument about merchants is dubious. The real value is sending goods from multiple ports in country A to multiple ports in country B and vice versa with fewer ship-miles, like a modern airline hub. If countries A and B have a single port each, then the island doesn't reduce overall shipping distances and costs, but just redistributes them. That is, without the island, trade could occur in country A's port, with country B's ships going the whole way, and supply and demand would shift the exchange prices in country B's favor to make up for their higher shipping costs: an equal outcome. $\endgroup$
    – nanoman
    Dec 31, 2021 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @nanoman The island is like a trading post and people like those. Ships from A can sail 1/2 the distance, sell to a middleman, buy B-land goods from said middleman, and sail 1/2 the distance back. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2022 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ @OwenReynolds Yes, but even without the island, there can be a trading post in A and/or B. In A's port, A's traders can use the resources they save (by not having to sail) to compensate B's traders for having to sail a longer distance. Goods produced by A and consumed by B would have a lower price in A's port and a higher price in B's port, and vice versa, which would provide the incentive to transport them. You need at least three participating destinations for a central trading post to actually save travel overall. $\endgroup$
    – nanoman
    Jan 1, 2022 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. Effectively, it'd be a Pearl Harbor. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2022 at 4:45

The British empire did it with almost any rock emerging from the surface of the sea: Saint Helena, Falkland, Ferdinandea island, Tristan da Cunha are just a few examples. Ferdinandea was just a clump of freshly spewed lava when the disputes on its ownership started, and were suspended as soon as the water retook possession of it.

Having an outpost in the sea in case it is needed is way better than having to conquer one when the necessity arises: it can be used as base point for sailing missions, when supplies can be stored for other friendly vessels happening to cruise in the surrounding.

Think of the mission to the South Pole, when the crew on a boat rowed for miles until the closest island to seek help.

Or the crew of the Essex, who was had to avoid Spanish ports in the voyage through the Pacific.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the edits. I recognise that having presence is an advantage over having no presence, but when do the benefits of having people on an island outweigh the great costs: given that this is still before steamers, I am assuming that people would be discriminate about where they colonise stuff. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Dec 31, 2021 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm: They don't "colonize" the island. They set up a naval base. The personnel fully expect to return home at the completion of their tour of duty. For a modern example of how this works, consider Diego Garcia. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 31, 2021 at 13:53

Piracy and trade

The island can be stocked with supplies and fortifications by whichever nation uses it. This gives you a massive advantage in trade and piracy, allowing you a larger cut in resources and supplies.

Imagine you are a trading vessel. If you anger the authorities or you run short of supplies you can go to this island.

Imagine you are a pirate vessel. If you are chased down or run short of supplies you can run to a safe port. Your ships can stay fresh and well supplied, while enemy ships are exhausted and short of supplies.

A safe harbour is a big advantage.

Longer and faster trade

This also gives a big advantage to trade from foreigners. Nations beyond the super powers can use this port as a stop. There's a big difference in carrying supplies for 7.5 weeks and 9 weeks.

At 9 weeks, you're about at the limits of the normal provisions for a ship of that era which might carry 10 weeks of supply. If they have bad luck in shipping routes, that 9 weeks could lead to starvation. With 7.5 weeks, and a friendly place to stop you can get much more reliable trade from far away nations.

Shorter routes also means you have more cargo space for valuable trade supplies, which increases your profit margins.

They can exploit row boats a lot more extensively.

Row boats, or galleys are faster than sail boats, but require a lot more manpower. This is great for speed. You can quickly sail in, blast a few cannons, and sail off. It's very expensive in terms of sailors and food, and sailing with wind is much cheaper.

An empire which controlled this port could make heavy use of this, so they could be faster and better prepared to make hit and run strikes with galleys or xebecs (wind rowing hybrids) and keep fresh and well supplied. This would make piracy and scouting much cheaper, safer, and easier.

  • $\begingroup$ Agree and +1 for mentioning piracy, That was a major thing. I can add the trade aspect is not only gain in time: ownership would also mean there's taxes to collect, or making decisions who is welcome and who is not welcome.. e.g. allies of the opponent could be denied access, or certain enemy supply chains can be blocked. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Dec 31, 2021 at 15:47

Fishing rights

The fishing here is very very good due to current upwelling like around the Galapagos Island.

(This means that the island would soon enough turn into a haven for sea birds. Grasses would soon arrive.)

Thus, the country that not only claims it, but successfully defends it, gets a large bounty of fish (and therefore wealth).


Scientific site

Despite its lack of natural resource, the island itself is (surprisingly) located miraculously well. It has lots of potential for scientific research. I was thinking astronomy (predictable weather, unobstructed view down to zero-degree elevation) but it could be something else more creative.

It can also be used for testing purposes in advanced applied sciences (weaponry, steam engines * wink * who knows). Being in the middle of almost nowhere, you can test stuff there relatively safe away from prying eyes, both your civilians and your rivals' spies alike.

Auxiliary station, including for emergencies

On the plus side, the island can be supplied with various tools, including repair bases, basic infirmary, and other emergency-related stuffs, just in case your ship needs it and can't afford to wait several weeks of trip to your continental landmass. You will also feel a little bit safer from pirates targeting your merchants because you have this station. If the other superpowers want their ships able to use this auxiliary station, they must be nice to you.

Having such station in the middle of the ocean can have immense usefulness that perhaps can't directly be measured in $$$ for the short term. The usefulness will manifest in other forms, and potentially in the future.

Extending your territorial waters

You can exclusively claim that the seas around the barren island is yours and yours only. If the second superpower want to use the waters: for fishing or other natural resources, voyage path, emergency reasons, whatever, -- now, or in the future, mind you -- they have to ask for permission or setup a treaty or the likes. You've also got yourself an area denial tool or some sort.

Even if your world have no global or multilateral treaties regarding what constitutes a territorial sea at the moment, having the island will benefit you quite a lot in the future when such treaties come into effect.

Justification for exercising power/violence

If this island can be rightfully claimed -- not only by vague constitution wording or claims on paper, but also by actual people living there or at least non-trivially using and maintaining the island -- then after some tens of years it can be used (abused?) as a tool to bully the second superpower. If the second superpower dares to trespass the territorial boundaries or stops there without proper permission, you can claim that the second superpower is violating your territorial integrity and you can justify attacking or interning the trespassing ship with higher confidence. You get to claim to be a defender in front of the international community, not an aggressor, if the situation goes sour.

Forward operating base

In the event that a war actually ensues, having a forward operating base closer to your enemy's home gives you an advantage. When on the offensive, you can resupply your attacks quickly and reliably. When blockading the enemy coasts, you can resupply the blockade safely and easily. When operating a defensive maneuver, you have at least two defense lines: one near that island, and one near your own continental coasts.

It's far better, compared to having no forward operating base at all. What's even worse is having their forward operating base closer to your home.


Singapore has a single, distant oceanic territory that's just a lighthouse (We have lots of fun geopolitics with lighthouses and our bigger neighbour. We run a lighthouse on someone else's land. Another useful point of reference would be Hans Island, site of the Whisky War

In the age of sail colonial powers tended to plant their flags on anything that didn't have a flag they recognised - and usually if there was a local political power, they got rid of them.

The fact there was an island meant that someone wanted to plant a flag on it. The Brits literally claimed a volcanic island that stuck its top out of the ocean for a little while off the coast of Sicily.

Ego aside - I think these references probably give lots of great reasons to occupy such an island

  • Naval base Especially if the island has fresh water. In the age of steam you'd also be able to store coal. It would also be useful for anti piracy operations

  • Light house In the age of sail, before radar and maps that didn't have little dragons in them and were as much fiction as geography.

  • "In the middle of that ocean is a small island, a couple kilometers wide" Very few islands are dead dead. It might be covered in Guano. It might allow for control of rich fishing grounds

  • "We can't get the scoundrels on the other side of the ocean to have the ocean! LONG LIVE THE monarch/republic/empire/union etc etc"


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