Sunday, March 20, 2011

Small Island Nations – Contested and complicated places

Republic of Palau, partial view, USGS.

Small island nations have to be, inch for inch of the Earth's land surface, among the most contested and complicated places on the planet.  I have always been interested in small island nations, and tracking my blog stats (especially the “audience” stat) is one way of feeding my obsession.  I find it fascinating to see all the viewers from the various countries around the world looking at my blog, and I am not embarrassed to say I was thrilled each time I “got” another “big” country for the first time (big meaning in terms of land mass size, thus being somewhat visible on the 2.65 inch world map of blog viewers by country!).  It was like I was at a hockey game, yelling out “score!!!” but instead I was sitting in front of my computer, throwing my arms up in the air, yelling “China!”  “Nigeria!”  “Australia!”  “India!”  “Mexico!”  “Russia!”  “Brazil!” etc.  I DO still need Kazakhstan, though, which for now is just showing up on my map as a big empty spot in the middle of the general vastness of central Asia.
What really tickled me even more than the “big” countries, though, were the small island nations pinging in.  “Malta!”  “Jersey!”  “Cayman Islands!”  “Palau!”  With this last one I have a feeling I can pinpoint with some exactitude who the (one) viewer is, since one of the doctoral students (Dan K.) just went to Palau for his research on ecological niche modeling of a traditional medicinal plant indigenous to Palau, and he promised to keep up with my blog while there.  Apparently he has done so. 
            Then I got some pings from a couple of small island countries that I wasn’t entirely sure what or where they were (and this is a sore point with me, because I am supposed to be a geographer!). 

Åland Islands Topo Map

The Åland Islands
The first one was a week or so ago: the Åland Islands.  I asked a couple of other geographers if they knew where these were (this was, of course, after I had already found out the answer myself) and was relieved that no one else knew, either.  Guessing techniques included the naming of all the world’s major oceans: “are they in the Pacific?”  “in the Indian Ocean?”  “in the Atlantic?” “in the Mediterranean?” until they ran out of major waterbodies, and then took a wild stab at saying “off the coast of Finland?” which was amazing, since their first guess of “off the coast of…” turned out to be correct. But maybe they were just playing me, and they knew the answer all along!  Another guess technique was to try to figure out the possible etymology of the country name.  “Hmmm, Åland Islands, it sounds like it could be British,” which of course is no help at all in pinpointing location, even if it were true, since the British named islands all over the world.  (The guesser also hadn’t seen the diacritical mark over the “A,” which would have been a dead giveaway as to its Scandinavian origin). 
Actually, the Åland Islands are in the Baltic Sea, between Finland and Sweden.  It is considered an “autonomous region,” its inhabitants are mainly monolingual Swedish-speakers, they have their own flag, postage stamps, and national airline, but “report” in some legal and administrative ways to Finland.  Depending upon the sources used, it either is or is not actually a separate country, but the blog stats program considers it to be such, and lists it with its own little flag symbol. 

1890 map of Åland Islands, from a textbook
This archipelago has been contested territory for centuries, due to its strategic position in the Baltic Sea, near the entrance to Stockholm’s port and the approaches to the Gulf of Bothnia.  The Swedish ceded the islands to Russia in 1809, and they thus became part of Russia’s Grand Duchy of Finland.  Its capital city, Mariehamn, (Maria’s Harbor) was founded 150 years ago, and named after the then-Tsar’s wife, the Empress Maria Alexandrovna.  The Russians just issued a postage stamp commemorating the 1861 event, since it was at once time part of their realm. 
After World War I, there was controversy over whether the islands should remain part of Finland or be considered Swedish, since the population was culturally Swedish and entirely Swedish-speaking, and Finnish is not a closely related language (it does not even belong within the larger Indo-European language family as Swedish does, being more related to Hungarian, Turkish, and Mongolian than to other Scandinavian or Germanic languages).  In 1921, the League of Nations determined that the Åland Islands should be a neutral, demilitarized, and autonomous region of Finland, whose residents had the right to retain their language, culture, and importantly, not be conscripted into Finland’s military service, or have to host any military fortifications or military efforts within the islands.  When Finland was admitted to the European Union a few years ago, there were special provisions for ensuring the Åland Islands’ continued autonomy and demilitarized status, and implying a recognition of a separate nationality. 
Maps played a big role in determining the ownership and governance of the islands.  During the Åland Crisis, which was the first international arbitration handled by the fledgling League of Nations back in 1921, the parties involved in the conflict tried to use different maps of the islands to support their various causes and points of view.  On the Swedish map, the most densely populated main island dominated, and many skerries were left out.  On the Finnish map, a lot of smaller islands or skerries were, for technical reasons, given a slightly exaggerated size.  The Swedish map made the islands appear to be closer to the mainland of Sweden than to Finland; the Finnish map stressed the continuity of the archipelago between the main island and to mainland Finland, while a greater gap appeared between the islands and the archipelago on the Swedish side.  An outcome of the dueling maps arbitration was the subsequent general acceptance of the conventional wisdom that the archipelago contained over 6,000 skerries, which then entered into commonly-accepted authoritative truth.  It is unknown and probably unknowable how many skerries there are, this being dependent upon one’s definition of a skerry and the proportion of time a piece of land or rocky outcropping is submerged or above sea level.  The number of skerries will certainly change with global sea level rise!
There is a folk tale to explain why there are so many skerries and rock islands in Åland: when God was creating the world, he got distracted when he looked down in the direction of the Åland Islands.  (Actually, the tale claims He got distracted by seeing a pretty girl down there, but I don’t see how that could be so, since man and woman were created AFTER all the land, but if that’s the only point of contention about the story’s realism, then we’re doing better than 88.7% of the stories in the Bible!).  Anyway, he got distracted by something, maybe a pretty girl, and he knocked over everything on his workbench (I guess he was a carpenter, like his Son!) and the rocks and so forth (wait a minute, ROCKS? What kind of workbench was this, anyway?  Oh, OK, I guess if you were God creating land and such, your workbench might be full of rocks) and the rocks and rock chips all fell overboard out of the heavens and down into the Gulf of Bothnia to form all the thousands of skerries in the Åland Islands.  Anyway, that’s the legend, which like most legends doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, but it is fun to think about.  Of course, if it is a really old folk tale, prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia, (which happened rather late compared to most of the rest of Europe) the rock-tossing god may have been a Norse god like Thor, and then the story makes more sense. 

Åland Islands Postage Stamp – the islands issue their own stamps, and their postal service had an important role during the Crimean War with Russia.

The Netherlands Antilles

Map of the former Netherlands Antilles, by the CIA World Fact Book

The Netherlands Antilles
The other small island “country” which just today pinged into my blog is even more complicated than the Åland Islands.  It is the Netherlands Antilles.  Now, I know where and what USED to be the Netherlands Antilles (having visited many parts of it), but this country was officially dissolved in 2010.  I am not sure what it includes anymore, or if there is even such a place.  The Nederlanse Antillen was an autonomous Caribbean country, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, comprised of a number of islands which had formerly been Dutch colonies.  There were two groups of islands included – Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, the “Leeward Islands” off the coast of Venezuela; and then St. Eustatius, Saba, and Sint Maarten (the southern portion of the island of Saint Martin, the northern part of the island being the French Saint-Martin), which are southeast of Puerto Rico, and constituted the territory of the “Windward Islands” until 1983.  The Windward Islands are all volcanic with not much land for agriculture, while the Leeward Islands are mainly coral in origin. 
What had begun in the 1600’s as trade and military outposts of the Dutch West India Company (and included about 6 additional islands which subsequently reverted to British or French rule), became official Dutch colonies in the 1700’s, and then Dutch colonial rule ended after WWII.  The Kingdom of the Netherlands included the independent countries of the Netherlands Antilles, the Netherlands proper in northern Europe, and Suriname in South America (which became independent in 1975).  Aruba seceded from the Netherlands Antilles first, in 1986, and in 2010, Curaçao and Sint Maarten became autonomous countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  Bonaire, Saint Eustatius, and Saba became special “municipalities” of the Netherlands upon dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles.  (In a totally unrelated side comment, I love the way Saba’s capital city is named “The Bottom.”  Saba also contains the highest point in the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands, at 2,877 feet.)  So what once had been one nation, the Netherland Antilles, is now three independent nations and three “municipalities.”  It is unclear to me to where, if any place, the Netherlands Antilles refers anymore.  It is certainly not an official national designation.  Perhaps the stats/visitor counter program has not caught up yet to recent changing nation status. 

The current Kingdom of the Netherlands – this is, in and of itself, a fascinating story.

Territories, possessions, dependent areas, insular areas, commonwealths, protectorates, municipalities, compacts, federations

It is very interesting to me how jurisdiction over these territories, protectorates, commonwealths, municipalities, federations, etc. really works, and what these distinctions mean in reality for the people who live there.  For instance, the French overseas territories (departments and collectivities) are each formally a part of France with representation in the French Parliament.  Departments follow the laws of France, exactly as if they were part of the French mainland, but collectivities (territories) are able to set their own laws.  The tiny set of islands, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, in the North Atlantic off the coasts of the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, are considered an overseas collectivity, and are the last remnant of the French colonial empire in North America.  There are tangible benefits to having these territories, since Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon is considered an actual extension of French national territory, so fishing rights as part of the Exclusive Economic Zone accrue to France up to 24 miles from the islands’ coast.  (As an interesting random factoid, the islands have the distinction of being the only place in North America ever to have used the guillotine in an execution.  It had to be sent up from Martinique in the West Indies, and when it arrived it didn’t work quite right.) 

The Exclusive Economic Zones (in red outlines) with the U.S. EEZ’s in yellow.

The United States also has a number of special territories like this, most of which are not common knowledge to the average mainlander.  In fact, President Obama famously made the mistake of referring to “the 57 states” in the country, and then back-pedaled to explain that he was also counting the territories.  I’m still not certain if that would add up to 57, depending upon how certain territories are counted, as there are a number of different categories of jurisdictional and administrative status.  But if you take the 50 actual states, and then add the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the United States Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Minor Outlying Islands (mainly unoccupied bits and pieces of land in the South Pacific and Caribbean), you do get 57.  That Obama is a smart guy!  Former U.S. territories which have become sovereign nations in the recent past, but maintain the “Compact of Free Association” with the U.S., are the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. 

1961 Map of the TTPI – Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands – note the outline map of the continental U.S. superimposed on the TTPI area in the inset map!  What a vast area these tiny islands occupy!

Which brings us back to Palau: Palau was owned by Spain from 1574 up to 1898 – but after Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in that year, Spain sold Palau to Germany.  It was governed by Japan after 1914, and was taken by the U.S. during WWII in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  In 1947, the islands were incorporated as a part of the United Nations’ Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), under the oversight of the United Nations and administered by the U.S., and it gained its sovereign nation status in 1994, making it one of the youngest sovereign nations in the world.  Palau is now a republic, and has a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States, with the most important aspect of that compact being that the U.S. provides military defense to the islands, and is allowed 50 years of military access, in addition to some privileged economic and governmental relations between the two countries. 

Palau (“Pelew”) Islands, 1890 Map


  1. I guessed the general location of the Åland Islands!

    Island nations are indeed difficult to understand.

    Did you know there is now a CARICOM passport for most of the West Indies Islands, eliminating the need for work permits between residents? Mi haffi go get one a dem. LOL

  2. Truss mi - Yuh one smart gyal! lol.

  3. A good thing about Palau's "Compact of Free Association" with the US is no currency exchange rate! And also, all of the youth here love us, it's nice to find a part of the world that still likes Americans.

  4. The Aland Isles are a very beatiful place indeed. They are a part of Finland, but you`ll find hardly anyone who speaks Finnish.
    On the other hand Swedish is an official language of Finland, about 5% are native speakers, and all Finnish students have to learn this language, a fact that is loathed by many Finnish-language natives.

    Very interesting blog,btw.

  5. The one with Sarah and the other lady in inset is hilarious!

  6. Actually the Netherland Antilles had never been a 'nation', as a nation contains a people that share the feeling of being a citizen of a country. Islanders of the northern Winward Islands (the SSS Islands) didn't feel any connection to(Leeward) ABC islanders. It was just a concept made up by the Dutch gouvernment after having lost their largest colony (Indonesia).

    You'd also understand: the distance between the SSS and ABC Islands is not only geographical, also cultural. Although Dutch was in both "archipelagoes" an official language, English was de facto on the SSS Islands, and Papiamentu (a roman language) on the ABC Islands (on Aruba both). Furthermore, different currencies exist(ed?). Many people do speek Dutch however.

    Many Dutchmen including me keep referring to those western islands way off the map as (Netherlands) Antilles. Minorities in Holland though mention their origin's island, even if they had left their origins decades ago.

  7. If you want to see some photos of another island nation, the Faroe Islands. It's together with Denmark and Greenland part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Proceed and you'll find Greenland photos

    I've also a dozen fantasy maps of non existent cities.