Day 483: Terra Incog-Neato

originally published April 27, 2013

You’d think with humankind’s great need to stretch our fences and occupy as much space as humanly possible, there would be no unclaimed land left. How could any snippet of earth be left flitting in the breeze, with no one to step forward and cram it into their pockets? Sure, there are parts of Antarctica that nobody really cares to plant their flag into, but Antarctica barely qualifies as ‘land’.

Actually, there are a few slabs of earth that fall into the realm of Terra Nullius, or ‘land belonging to no one.’ The most well-known areas in this category are Antarctica (of course), the middle of international waters, and items in outer space. So despite whatever certificate you may own because some joker bought you a star as a gift, you don’t own anything up there. Take that certificate back to the person who gave it to you and throw it in their face. Maybe demand a Starbucks card or something – something you can use.

If you’re feeling really adventurous, or if you truly want to liberate yourself from any and all tax responsibilities, why not see if you can get away with living in a real no-man’s land? Take a little trip out to Bir Tawil.

The border between Egypt and Sudan has a somewhat sketchy history. Back when England was running the show in that corner of Africa, the border was established as an administrative boundary, to delegate who has to do paperwork on any given patch of land. In 1899, they drew an imaginary straight line along the 22nd parallel, and called it the border. The hegemonic British ruler in Cairo took care of everything to the north, while the British delegate in Khartoum handled everything to the south.

They tweaked the administrative boundary in 1902, dipping a little bit south of the 22nd, then zigzagging to the northeast. The Hala’ib Triangle was pushed into Sudan’s jurisdiction because the culture and language of the tribes within the area more closely resembled the Sudanese peoples. When Egypt gained independence in 1922, they adopted the 1899 border – the smooth line of the 22nd parallel. When Sudan became its own nation in 1956, they took the 1902 boundary.

This created a bit of a dispute.

Both territories claimed ownership of the Hala’ib Triangle. This remains unresolved to this day, partly because they want the town of Abu Ramad, but mostly because of the prime coastal real estate along the red sea. Somewhat less of a dispute is the fact that, according to both nations’ claims, no one claims dominion over Bir Tawil, the little part that juts under the 22nd parallel.

Bir Tawil contains no settlements, no oil, and nothing that anyone would want – just 2000 square kilometers of beige. There are no roads through the area. There’s nothing to make either nation want it, but if either nation claims it as their own, that would mean accepting the other nation’s border claim, and thus losing control of the Hala’ib Triangle (which does, by the way, have a cache of oil under its sandy shell).

If some wealthy westerner – and here I’m thinking this is a stunt right up Sir Richard Branson’s alley – were to move in and claim the land as his own nation, I’m not entirely certain the claim wouldn’t stick. It might be worth a try.

Now here’s a chunk of the earth that might be worth fighting for. The Senkaku Islands are a quintet of uninhabited islands just northwest of Taiwan, off the coast of mainland China. A Japanese entrepreneur tried to open up a factory on one of the islands in 1900, but by 1940 the business had folded. Five years later, the Senkakus fell under US ownership after the war. This continued until 1972, when the Americans handed them back over to Japan.

Around that time, oil reserves were discovered just off the coast of the Senkaku Islands. All of a sudden – and I’m sure this is purely coincidence – China expressed an interest in waving their flag over the region. They claim the islands have been a part of China’s empire since 1534, and that the peace agreement after the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95 ended should have relinquished the land back to them.

The islands remain a perpetual grey area between the two nations. Not quite important enough to instigate a war, but enough to keep things a little unpleasant on both sides.

Gotta love guano. This valuable fecal matter, fresh from the rectums of birds, bats and seals, has shaped international boundaries more than one might think. Guano was seen as a valuable resource in the 19th century, and America wanted as much as possible for themselves. From these stinky heaps of dung and urine they could extract saltpeter, which makes a great fertilizer and powerful gunpowder. Wow – I complain about my job, but somehow extracting saltpeter from seal poop in the 1800s sounds like a nightmare.

In 1855, Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which states that if Americans stumble across any island that is not already spoken for by another country, and if that island happens to contain a deposit of guano, then they shall claim it as an American territory. This was at the heart of the marginal dash of imperialism attempted by the United States in the mid 1800’s: is there poop? If so, we want it.

These islands weren’t meant to become states. They were intended for quick exploitation of their resources, then once they had flushed the resources back home, the land could simply be returned as terra nullius, belonging to no one. Over a hundred islands were claimed using this piece of legislation, though all but nine have been returned to nobody, or been claimed by someone else.

One interesting footnote – Leicester Hemingway, Ernest’s baby brother, used the Guano Islands Act to declare his 8×30 bamboo raft to be an independent nation in 1964, anchored just outside the national waters of Jamaica. He called it New Atlantis, and intended it to be a marine research location, which indicates to me that alcoholism did indeed run rampant through the Hemingway family. When a storm swept New Atlantis into the Atlantic two years later, the dream ended.

I wonder how long Hemingway had to wait for a bird to poop on his raft before he made his claim under the Guano Islands Act.

Sometimes it might be better to stick with the country you’ve been dealt.

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