Historical Geography

How maps of past times can inform current issues

The Self-Declared Republic of Ambazonia

Most borders in sub-Saharan Africa were drawn by European imperial powers who were blithely ignorant of preexisting polities and oblivious to ethnic divisions. The resulting mismatch between the political map and the cultural map has fueled many a separatist movement, yet the status quo remains sacrosanct. The consensus among African leaders—and the global political community—is that existing states must be maintained as they are, for fear of setting a precedent that could unleash ethnic rebellion across the continent.

But not all separatist movements in Africa are based on animosity toward the boundaries imposed by Europeans. The leaders of Somaliland, as we have seen, seek not to overturn but to turn back to their region’s onetime colonial borders. They point out that a precedent for such change was established in 1993 when Eritrea, a former Italian colony, was allowed independence from Ethiopia, which had annexed it in 1951.

The leaders of the self-declared Republic of Ambazonia (or Ambazania) in western Cameroon make the same claim. Their land, they argue, was illegally incorporated into Cameroon when a small British colony was joined to a much larger French colony in 1961, a year after independence. The movement for an independent Ambazonia is non-violent, and largely ineffectual, receiving little support from other organizations. In 2005, however, it did gain membership in the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO).

The Ambazonia dispute arose from the disposition of Germany’s African colonies after World War I. From the late 1800s until 1916, Germany held sway over a vast territory it called Kamerun, geo-engineered to reach the heart of the Sahel at Lake Chad. In the post-war settlement, most of Kamerun went to France as a League of Nations Mandate (Cameroun), but Britain got the northwestern strip adjacent to its west African base in Nigeria. The British administered this new holding, which it dubbed Cameroons, through Nigeria but not as part of Nigeria; it was, in essence, a colony of a colony. Regardless of the indirect nature of British administration, English did spread through the region, just as French spread through the much larger area governed by Paris.

When Nigeria and Cameroun gained independence from Britain and France respectively in 1960, the issue of British-ruled Cameroons came to the fore. Plebiscites were held to gauge popular sentiment, giving the people of the region the choice of union with Nigeria or with Cameroun; independence was not an option. Northern Cameroons, a Muslim region, opted for union with Nigeria, whereas the largely Christian south voted for union with the former French colony. The end result was the creation of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, whose federal nature allowed considerable autonomy to the English-speaking western provinces, forestalling language-based unrest. That was to change in 1972, however, when a new constitution proclaimed the United Republic of Cameroon. With the creation of a unitary government, the people of the former British provinces began to feel marginalized. A quarter-century later, the Republic of Ambazonia was proclaimed on December 31, 1999.

The Ambazonian movement has received little attention in the global media. The Washington Times, to its credit, ran an article in 2008, after representatives from the would-be country presented their case in Washington D.C. That story, in turn, prompted a posting on the National Review’s blog, The Corner, entitled “Ambazonia for the Ambazonias.” The post consisted of a single sentence: “Can we at least agree that the liberation struggle of Ambazonia is absolutely none of our business one way or the other?”

Anglophone-Francophone political disputes are not limited to Cameroon. Geocurrents recently explored the challenges of Vanuatu, a former British-French condominium that ended up with competing English- and French-speaking elites. Rwanda is another example: a traditionally French-speaking country that has been tending toward English ever since a Uganda-based rebel movement seized power after the genocide of 1994. Yet in Cameroon, there are signs that a linguistic accommodation may be occurring. In the country’s main cities, the two languages are hybridizing to produce a new common tongue, “Camfranglais” (from camerounais, français and anglais). The new language evidently emerged in the markets, ports, and playing fields, propelled in part by popular music. According to the BBC, in Camfranglais, “Tu as sleep hier?” means “Did you sleep well last night?”, while “Tout le monde hate me, wey I no know” is “Everybody hates me, I don’t know why.”

(Many thanks to Matthew McDevitt for his assistance with this post)

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Apologies for Cannibalism on Fiji

As mentioned the other day, Melanesia has long had a negative reputation in the Western cultural imagination, quite in contrast to its neighboring Pacific region of Polynesia. In the 1800s and early 1900s, disparagement of Melanesia typically focused on cultural practices deemed savage, especially cannibalism. Cannibalism was noted in some parts of Polynesia, particularly Samoa, but not to the same extant as in many parts of Melanesia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists began reappraising received perceptions of savagery among indigenous peoples. Reports of such practices, many scholars now argued, were colored by racial prejudice and cultural condescension, resulting in grotesque exaggeration if not outright lies. Cannibalism in particular came under scrutiny. In 1980, Oxford University Press published William Arens’ The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, which argued that systematic, culturally sanctioned cannibalism was a myth, perpetuated by bigoted Western explorers, missionaries, and scholars. Not a single credible first-hand account of the practice, he argued, could be located. Arens’ book made a significant impression; as a graduate student in cultural geography in the 1980s, I was taught that cannibalism had never been anything but an isolated, aberrant occurrence. Indigenous peoples, according to the newly prevailing orthodoxy of cultural romanticism, lived in harmony with both the natural environment and their fellow humans.

The Arens thesis has not fared well over the past 30 years. Credible reports of systematic cannibalism turned out to be numerous, and direct archeological evidence is now firmly established. Even more problematic for adherents of 1960s-style cultural romanticism is the fact that a number of indigenous peoples themselves have no doubt that their ancestors were cannibals. Many are ashamed of this heritage, and some even fear that it generated curses that continue to plague their societies. As a result, one Fijian village organized a ceremony of apology in 2003, focused on the consumption of the missionary Thomas Baker and his fellow travelers in 1867. According to one participant, “we ate everything but his boots.”

The 2003 ritual of atonement was a massive event, attended by more than 600 people, including the prime minister of the country. Eleven descendants of Thomas Baker also joined the ceremony, where they were asked for, and granted, forgiveness. As the BBC reported, They were given the traditional drink of kava, and attended ceremonies on Thursday, at which they were to take part in a ‘symbolic cutting of the chain of curse and bondage over the village.’”

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The China-South Korea History War

“South Korea is fighting a battle with China over ancient history using one of the most powerful weapons in its arsenal — sappy TV dramas watched by hundreds of millions of viewers in Asia.”

-Jon Herskovitz, April 24, 2007.

In the late 1990s, South Korea emerged as a massive exporter of cultural products, from popular music to films and television shows. The dramas that it exports are not all sentimental, and the surge is by no means limited to Asia. Russia, Latin America, and eastern and northern Europe have also been highly receptive. China provided an early and especially enthusiastic mass market, where the phenomenon was dubbed hallyu, or the “Korean Wave.”

In 2006-7, however, the popularity of Korean shows plummeted across China, as nationalist suspicions came into play. South Korean screenwriters were accused of portraying the borderlands of southeastern Manchuria as historically Korean, whereas the Chinese government insisted that it had always been Chinese. Two shows, portraying respectively the founders of the northern Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo and Balhae, were banned by Beijing in 2007. South Korean nationalists responded online, “sparking a massive flame war between Chinese and Korean netizens.” As the Korea Times reported, “The falling exports of Korea’s cultural products are also attributed to China’s increasing hostility to Korea … [the] Chinese people began to believe South Korea tried to settle its historical views and even its cuisine culture through dramas, which nurtured antipathy toward hallyu …”

It is no coincidence that the Sino-Korean history spat would focus on Goguryeo and Balhae, two kingdoms whose territories spanned the border. Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 CE), from which the term “Korea” derives, has long been viewed as the locus classicus of Korean civilization. In South Korea it shares that position with Silla and, to a lesser extent, Baekje, but in North Korea it has no peer. Balhae (698-926 CE) is generally regarded as a less important successor state of Goguryeo, founded by one of its generals after the original kingdom fell to a Tang-Silla alliance in 668 CE.

Beijing objects to the classification of Balhae and Goguryeo as ancestral Korean states. In 2002, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences launched the “Northeast Borderland History and the Chain of Events Research Project” to claim both kingdoms as its own. According to the zhonghua minzu ideology that underwrites the project, the Chinese nation encompasses all ethnic groups that have ever lived within the current boundaries of the People’s Republic of China. As the bulk of Goguryeo’s and especially Balhae’s territories lay to the north of the modern border, their history, the Academy insists, rightfully belongs to China.

From the perspective of contemporary historical scholarship, both positions in this “history war” are misconstrued. On the Chinese side, the notion of a pan-Chinese national identity infusing all of the country’s ethnic groups even today is problematic, as many Tibetans and the Uyghurs would surely attest. To contend that such conditions obtained in the distant past throughout China’s modern territorial extent is deeply anachronistic. Moreover, the Chinese Northeast Borderlands Project elides the inconvenient fact that (except for a brief period under the early Ming dynasty) the “borderlands” in question lay far outside successive Chinese empires’ reach until 1644, when China fell under the rule of the Manchus.

The Korean claims are more solid. But it is still a stretch to regard the kingdoms of Balhae and Goguryeo as straightforward political expressions of the Korean people. The aristocracy of Balhae is generally viewed as having been of Korean stock, but most of the kingdom’s people seem to have more closely related to the Manchus, speaking a language of the Tungusic subfamily of Altaic. Some scholars doubt the “Korean” nature of not just Balhae but also Goguryeo, arguing that the latter’s language was not an early form of Korean, and may have been more closely related to Japanese.

In the end, attributing any kind of modern-day entho-national category to pre-modern peoples or states is a troubling exercise. As Andrei Lankov explains, “Describing Koguryo [Goguryeo] as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Korean’ is as misleading as, say, describing medieval Brittany as ‘French’ or ‘English’ or ‘Irish’ (even though all three modern nations have something to do with the long-extinct Celtic duchy in what is now France). Europeans loved such things before World War I, in the days when the textbooks told about ‘our ancestors the Gauls.’ In East Asia, such historical nationalism is still a powerful instrument of politics and a source of deep and explosive emotions.”

Lankov goes on to offer a possible geopolitical rationale for China’s attempt to arrogate the history of Goguryeo. An impending collapse of North Korea, he argues, could force the “installation of a pro-Chinese puppet regime in Pyongyang. … Such actions will require psychological and cultural justifications, not least within China itself. Thus presenting what is now North Korea as an ‘ancient’ and ‘integral’ part of China might serve such interests very well.” Lankov’s thesis is intriguing, but seems unduly alarmist. China, after all, regards all polities that have ever occupied parts of its current national territory as intrinsically Chinese. Beijing’s historical project seems to be rooted in national consolidation, rather than potential expansion.

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The Korea-Uzbekistan Connection

Both North and South Korea are among the most ethnically homogenous and strongly nationalist countries in the world, but that does not mean that they are nation-states, in the strict definition of the term. In an ideal nation-state, the state and the nation cover the same territory, but the land of the Korean nation is governed by not just two but three states: North Korea, South Korea, and China. The contiguous Korean culture area extends well beyond North Korea, encompassing more than two million Koreans living in northeastern China, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

The Wikipedia language map posted above also shows a tiny Korean zone in southeastern Russia, a remnant of what was once a large area. In the 1930s, roughly a quarter of the rural population in the Vladivostok region was ethnically Korean. By the end of the decade, the community had been scattered across Central Asia in the first of several Stalinist waves of mass deportation. An estimated 40,000 of the almost 200,000 deportees died in the process, but the community eventually adapted to its new environment and began to expand. Today their descendants number roughly half a million, with almost 200,000 in Uzbekistan and more than 100,000 in both Russia and Kazakhstan.

When Russia pushed its southeastern boundary into Chinese territory in 1860, it found only a few thousand Koreas living in the area. Korean migration accelerated over the next several decades, owing both to poverty and oppression at home and to opportunities in the resource-rich, sparsely populated Russian Far East. The migration stream intensified after the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910. By the 1920s, the community supported almost 400 Korean-language schools and seven Korean newspapers.

Soviet authorities initially viewed Koreans positively, favorably contrasting their position under Soviet rule with that under Japanese authority. Accommodation ended in the 1930s, as Stalin’s paranoia increasingly set Soviet policy. In 1937, fearing Japanese influence through Korean agents, the Soviet government opted for mass exile. The idea that local Koreans would have served the Japanese cause is ludicrous; in any struggle with Japan, the population would almost certainly have been a Soviet asset.

Koreans in Central Asia acculturated into the Russian-speaking culture of the Soviet Union, not to that of the Turkic-speaking peoples of the union republics. By the end of the Soviet period, Russian vied with Korean as the community’s main language. As tensions between immigrant and indigenous peoples mounted after independence in 1991, many Koreans followed other Russian speakers in moving to Russia. As a result, Russia now has more Koreans than does Kazakhstan.

The position of Koreans in Central Asia has improved markedly in recent years, propelled in part by Korean corporate expansion. Korean firms are attracted both by the markets and resources of Central Asia and by the presence of local Koreans, who can serve as cultural intermediaries. Thousands of Uzbekistani Koreans have also been recruited to work in South Korea; in 2005, their remittances reportedly injected $100,000,000 into Uzbekistan’s economy. The Korean image in Central Asia has also been enhanced by the wave of South Korean popular culture that has washed over the region, just as it has over much of the world. By 2005, Korean had reportedly become the second most popular foreign language among college students in Uzbekistan, trailing only English. As South Korea’s ambassador in Tashkent put it, “Young people in Uzbekistan dream of driving a Daewoo car, and watch Korean television shows on an LG TV set hooked up to a Samsung DVD player.” Since then, South Korea’s connection with Central Asia has strengthened. Korean firms, like those of China, are thirsty for the energy and mineral resources of the region, leading reporters and government officials alike to write about a “new Silk Road.”

Such developments could influence global geopolitics. As Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College argued in March 2010, “The growing East Asian projects in and with Central Asia come at the expense of Russia, which has steadily sought to monopolize Central Asia’s international relations and serve as an interlocutor between those governments and the world. These projects highlight both Central Asia’s heightened ability to diversify its individual and collective foreign and foreign economic relations beyond Moscow and even Beijing.” If Blank’s thesis is correct, the decision by Soviet leaders to exile the Korean population to Central Asia is now helping to sap Russia’s influence in the region. Meanwhile, Russia’s Far East continues to lose population, leading to long-term concerns about Russian control over the area.

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South Korea is Divided Into Three Parts

“In South Korea …, the North’s human rights abuses are routinely shrugged off with reference to its supposed superior nationalist credentials. … Sympathy for Pyongyang is especially widespread in the peninsula’s chronically disgruntled southwest.”

B. R. Myers, “South Korea’s Collective Shrug.” The New York Times, May 28, 2010.

Nationalism and regionalism often seem to be contrary phenomena. Countries with strong regional identities and stark regional disparities tend to have weak national foundations. But nation and region do not always counteract each other. South Korea in particular is characterized by both deeply rooted regionalism and intense nationalism.

Korean nationalism has evolved into different variants in the North and South. Under Pyongyang, the enforced cult of patriotism has veered in the biological direction of classical fascism, emphasizing the racial purity of the Korean – and especially the North Korean – people (see R.B. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters). South Korean nationalism is much more cultural and historical, and thus accommodates streams of foreigners marrying into the Korean population. More than 5,000 Vietnamese women immigrate every year, generating some cultural tensions to be sure, but helping to maintain otherwise depopulating rural areas.

Despite its intensity, South Korean nationalism has by no means erased the country’s regional distinctions. South Korea’s basic divisions are often said to date back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE to 668 CE), when the peninsula was divided between Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo (Gaya, seen on the map, was not nearly as significant as the other three.). In the 600s, Silla, based in the southeastern part of the peninsula, unified the country. After Silla collapsed in the 900s, Goguryeo, based in what is now North Korea and northern South Korea, reunified the peninsula. Goguryeo was eventually supplanted by the Joseon Dynasty (or Chosun, 1392-1897), governed from Seoul. Baekje in the southwest, unlike the other two ancient kingdoms, never served as the hub of a unified Korea.

In modern South Korea, the southwest has been the focus of regionalist antipathy to the central government. Through the early decades of the postwar period, the region remained relatively poor and agrarian, its people suspecting that they had been intentionally marginalized by a hostile government. In 1980, the southwestern city of Gwangju rose up against the authoritarian South Korean regime, only to be crushed by the military. Official reports at the time linked the rebellion to a communist plot, but today it is officially commemorated as part of the national movement for democratization. A major breakthrough occurred in 1998, when a southwesterner, Kim Dae Jung – the “Nelson Mandela of Asia” – was elected to the presidency.

Since Kim left office in 2003, South Korea’s presidency has been filled by men originating in the southeast. Homeland of the former kingdom of Silla, the area known today as the Gyeongsang region has produced six of South Korea’s eight most recent presidents, including the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak. Critics claim that the conservative-leaning southeast receives undue favor from the central government, with infrastructural investments nurturing its industrial development. The city of Daegu is particularly noted for its political influence, being the seat of the powerful center-right Grand National Party.

Unlike the southeast and southwest, northern South Korea is not identifiable with an ancient kingdom, having been merely the southern portion of Goguryeo. But it was the site of the capital city, and it has remained the seat of political power. Development has continued to gravitate around Seoul and its greater metropolitan area – an hour’s drive from the North Korean border. Ten million people now live in Seoul itself, while more than 24 million – almost half of South Korea’s population – live in the officially demarcated National Capital Area. Northeastern South Korea, by contrast, is lightly populated (see map), and barely figures in discussions of South Korean regionalism.

South Korea’s basic geographical structure is thus conventionally conceptualized around a three-fold division: the northwest is the administrative, economic, and demographic core; the southeast is the prosperous heartland of the old-guard political establishment; and the southwest is a marginalized area of leftist politics. Electoral maps generally bear out this division. In 2007, Chung Dong-young of the left-liberal United New Democratic Party took the southwest, while Lee Myung-bak of the conservative GNP triumphed elsewhere, particularly in North Gyeongsang, the core area of the one-time kingdom of Silla.

But if the tripartite division of South Korea still obtains politically, it no longer does so economically, as tomorrow’s post will explore.

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Sexual Scandals and Paraguayan Wars


In 2009, Paraguay’s recently elected president Fernando Lugo found himself embroiled in sexual scandal. A former Roman Catholic bishop not released from his chastity vow until 2008, Lugo was accused by three women of fathering their children. In April, lawyers representing Viviana Carrillo announced that they would file a paternity suit; five days later the president accepted responsibility for her child. Accusations that Ms. Carrillo was sixteen when the relationship began did not help his reputation. Within eight days, two more women came forward. Lugo denied fatherhood in these cases, provoking a lawsuit from the second accuser. The third woman proclaimed the depth of the love affair that led to the birth of her son Juan Pablo, named in honor of the former pope (John Paul II).

The repercussions of the presidential paternity scandal were mixed. Lugo’s political opponents used it to impugn his credibility. As one newspaper column put it, “from now on, it’s legitimate that Paraguayans ask if when the president speaks he is telling the truth.” Lugo’s own response tempered partial admission and repentance with calm defiance. “I think that the most recent incidents,” he argued, “should call us and the Church to have a serene reflection over the value of celibacy.” Overall, the scandal does not seem to have damaged Lugo’s career. The average Paraguayan was evidently not outraged at the notion that a priest – indeed, a bishop – had probably fathered several children with several women.

Sexual scandals in Latin American do not resonate as deeply with the public as they do in many other parts of the world, such as the United States. Still, Paraguay’s equanimity in the face of such spectacular oath breaking seems exceptional. Attempts to explain the situation generally turn to historical factors, particularly the Jesuit reducciones (1610-1767) and the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870). For roughly 150 years, Paraguay was essentially a theocratic state, with Jesuit priests ruling the Guarani-speaking indigenous population. Needless to say, sexual relations between Spanish clerics and Guarani youths were not uncommon, helping turn Paraguay into a predominately mestizo nation. Then, in the devastating War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay took on Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil – hardly an even match. Some researchers think that Paraguay’s prewar population of over half a million had dropped by 1870 to around 150,000, of whom only some 28,000 were men. Certain regions supposedly had one man for every twenty woman. Informal polygamy, not surprisingly, came to be casually accepted as Paraguay struggled to repopulate its territory.

The election of Fernando Lugo had a more direct bearing on the historical legacy of another Paraguayan military struggle, the Chaco War of 1935-38. The Chaco War was an evenly matched struggle pitting Paraguay against Bolivia to see who would control the scrublands of the Gran Chaco. Bolivia, still smarting from the loss of its coastal provinces to Chile in 1884, wanted the lightly populated region, lured in part by the evidence of oil. The war was a shambolic and bloody affair, taking roughly 100,000 lives. Paraguay won, gaining clear control over most of the disputed territory. Ironically, the Paraguayan portion of the Chaco proved to have no appreciable hydrocarbon deposits, while substantial natural gas fields were found in the much smaller Bolivian sector.

In 1938, three years after the fighting stopped, the two belligerents signed a truce, establishing the present border. But the war had been devastating for both countries, and neither was ready for a final peace settlement. The election of fellow leftists, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, finally paved the way for a treaty ratifying the boundary. Morales and Lugo, seeking neighborly relations, agreed that the conflict had really been propelled by outside agitators. As the president of Bolivia put it, “The war between Paraguay and Bolivia was not provoked by its peoples, but rather pushed by transnational (companies) to control the natural resources.” Morales has a point, even if he does stretch it: during the Chaco War, Bolivia received support from Standard Oil, while Paraguay was backed by Shell Oil.

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Richard Francis Burton, Harar, and Hyenas

“I doubt not there are many who ignore the fact that in Eastern Africa, scarcely three hundred miles distant from Aden, there is a counterpart of ill-famed Timbuctoo in the Far West. The more adventurous Abyssinian travelers … attempted Harar, but attempted it in vain. The bigoted ruler … threatened death to the Infidel who ventured within the walls… Of all foreigners the English were, of course, the most hated and dreaded. …It is, therefore, a point of honor with me … to utilise my title of Haji by entering the city, visiting the ruler, and returning in safety, after breaking the guardian spell.” – Richard Francis Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa or, An Exploration of Harrar. eBooks@Adelaide 2009

In 1854, having recently gained fame from his pilgrimage to Mecca, Richard Francis Burton first entered the territory of what is now Somaliland. Burton’s destination was the city of Harar, located in what is now Ethiopia, but then an independent emirate. Harar was a challenge that Burton could not refuse: rumor had it that no Christian had ever set foot inside the city walls, and prophesy maintained that the city would decline if one ever did. Burton waited in the Somali port city of Zeila and explored its environs until he determined that the way to Harar was open. He reached the city with few problems, and remained there for ten days as the guest – or perhaps prisoner – of the Emir.

Burton was not particularly impressed with Harar or its inhabitants. “The Somal say of the city that it is a Paradise inhabited by asses,” he reported, immediately adding that, “the exterior of the people is highly unprepossessing. Amongst the men, I did not see a handsome face.” Yet he found the women of Harar “beautiful,” but only in comparison with their men. He also noted that, “both sexes are celebrated for laxity of morals. High and low indulge freely in intoxicating drinks, beer, and mead” – but in Burton’s case, “laxity of morals” was not necessarily an objectionable trait. He also praised Harar’s qat (“I could not but remark the fine flavour of the plant after the coarser quality grown in Yemen”), yet seemed disappointed that the drug did not have a stronger effect.

Burton was intrigued by the city’s language, which did not extend beyond its wall: “Harar has not only its own tongue, unintelligible to any save the citizens; even its little population of about 8000 souls is a distinct race.” Immediately outside of the city, Burton reported, one encountered a different “race,” the Galla (Oromo), who, he claimed, were habitually defrauded by the merchants of Harar. The profound separation of the city from its hinterland persists. The Harari are a distinct ethnic group with their own language. The Harari tongue is Semitic, hence only distantly related to the Cushitic language of the Oromo who surround them. Harar and its immediate outskirts thus forms one of Ethiopia’s ethnically based administrative regions, officially called the Harari People’s National Regional State (see map).

Harar today boasts an emerging tourist trade. UNECSO lists it as a world heritage site, claiming that it is the fourth most holy city of Islam, with 82 mosques and 102 shrines. It has other attractions as well – including hyenas. Semi-wild hyenas live within the city walls, providing scavenging services for the Harari. Hyena-men feed the animals raw meat out of their own mouths for the amusement of visitors.

The city’s hyenas are the subject of a blog: Marcus Baynes-Rock’s delightful Hyenas in Harar. Graduate student Baynes-Rock investigates human-wildlife interactions in urban settings, and he has found a fascinating case. The key to the relationship between people and hyenas in Harar, he argues, are the supernatural creatures called jinn (or genies):

“According to my sources, there are good and bad jinn in Harar and they are all pervasive, with the bad ones occasionally possessing people. And this is where the hyenas come in. They serve the town by locating and eating the bad jinn and maybe mistakenly eating the odd good one. While humans can only occasionally see jinn, hyenas see them all the time and will chase and eat them at every opportunity. In fact it’s been suggested that a hyena attacking a person could well be a case of a hyena attacking a jinni that has possessed a person. So presumably, the ‘oo’ sound is the hyena sucking the jinn from the ground, and the ‘woop’ is the point at which it enters the hyena’s stomach, the tomb of the jinn. But it goes even further…”

To find out just how far it goes, check out Hyenas in Harar.

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Richard Francis Burton and the Somaliland Shilling

As a de facto sovereign state, Somaliland has its own currency, the Somaliland shilling. As is true elsewhere, the images on its coins and banknotes convey symbolic messages about the country. Somaliland’s bills, for example, depict both its sovereignty (showing its supreme court and central bank) and its pastoral heritage (with figures of sheep, goats, and camels). There is nothing unusual in such monetary imagery. What is curious is the one person depicted on Somaliland’s money, appearing on both the five-shilling and 1,000 shilling coins. Rather than an illustrious Somalilander, as might be expected, the coins show a famous – or perhaps infamous – British explorer of the Victorian era, Sir Richard Francis Burton. In selecting Burton, Somaliland advertises its heritage as a former British colony – and in so doing distances itself from the former Italian colony that constitutes the rest of the so-called country of Somalia.

In some respects, Burton is an odd choice to showcase Somaliland’s connection with Britain. In current academic circles, he is often denounced as an agent of imperialism, and a particularly bellicose one at that. Burton’s exploration of Somaliland, moreover, was not very successful. Preparing to chart the interior, his party was attacked by Somali warriors before it could leave camp. Burton was speared through both cheeks, one of his British companions was killed, and the other was captured. The expedition was so disastrous that an official British inquiry was established to determine whether Burton was to blame. Two years later, he was finally exonerated.

Yet in other regards, Richard Burton makes an ideal figure for Somaliland’s coinage. Unlike most European explorers of his time, Burton genuinely respected the peoples he encountered, and was always fascinated by their beliefs and practices. As Greg Garrett shows, he viewed “African natives … as a source of potential knowledge.” Burton was an uncannily gifted linguist who had supposedly mastered more than two-dozen languages. His cultural facilities were so acute that he could easily pass as a Muslim from western Asia, most often as a Pashtun. (Although he almost gave himself away by on his famous trip to Mecca by urinating while standing rather than squatting.) Beyond being an adept explorer, Burton was an accomplished writer, translator, ethnologist, poet, fencer, and diplomat.

Whatever his faults, Richard Burton was an extraordinary man whose accomplishments ought to be remembered. In the United States, they seldom are. When I mention his name to my students, most draw a blank. A few mention a Welsh actor.

In his time, Richard Burton was a popular and widely reviled figure. He certainly captured public attention. Who could better excite the Victorian imagination than a brilliant explorer in imperial service? But Burton was anti-Victorian in his sentiments, and he loved to shock, mock-bragging that he broke all of the Ten Commandments. His interest in foreign cultures fully extended to sexuality. Burton was intensely, and omnivorously, sexual. He gained early attention with his investigations into the boy-brothels of Karachi – rumor had it that he sampled as he spied. Burton’s advice for learning a language was simple: find a lover who speaks it.

Burton’s interest in sex was reflected in his translations. He is best known here for his rendition of 1001 Arabian Nights – and for the fact that his translation was not expurgated. But Burton did not just include the erotic passages; he expanded and embellished them, discussing them at length in footnotes. The sexual content of the famous compilation appalled Victorian Britain, resulting in legal issues. Burton himself scandalized British society. Had his private papers been made available after his death, he might have continued shocking the fascinated public for some time, but his wife burned them.

The erotica of 1001 Arabian Nights continues to generate controversy – only now the outrage lies in the land of its origin. An Egyptian state-run organization recently republished the collection of tales, only to be denounced by a group of Islamists lawyers arguing that the “obscene” work should be banned. Egyptian intellectuals, however, are fighting back. According to Elan: The Global Guide to Muslim Culture, the chairman of the publishing house that reprinted the stories has responded firmly: “The fact that the first edition was sold out shortly after it was issued shows that Egyptians are avid readers and that they will not be influenced by a bunch of people who take advantage of Islam in order to suppress freedom.”

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Puntland: Not in the Land of Punt

By naming their state “Puntland,” the leaders of autonomous northeastern Somalia evoke a storied history. The Land of Punt was a key trading partner of ancient Egypt from roughly 2,500 BCE to 1000 BCE. Punt provided rare goods for the Egyptian elite, including aromatic gums (especially myrrh and frankincense), gold, ivory, and wild animals. Expeditions to Punt excited the ancient Egyptian imagination, evoking adventure and exoticism. But around 1000 BCE connections were lost, after which the Land of Punt faded into legends, its exact location lost.

Scholars have long sought to locate the Land of Punt. Ancient Egyptian sources show that it was reached by sailing down the Red Sea. Most studies point to the southern Red Sea-Gulf of Aden region, including the adjacent highlands on either side of the waterway. The southwestern Arabian Peninsula, however, is hard to square with Punt’s export of ivory and other animal products. An African location is thus suggested, probably in Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somaliland. Note that modern Puntland lies at the extreme margin of the general area hypothesized as the possible Land of Punt.

In early May 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that scholars are honing in on Punt’s location through the genetic analysis of mummified monkeys. Baboons, say the researchers, “were among the most important commodities brought back to the pharaohs from Punt, but until now no one has known where those baboons came from.” Matching ancient and modern baboon hair samples indicate that the Land of Punt was probably situated in modern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.

The autonomous state of Puntland, it appears, is not located in the same place as the ancient Land of Punt. Puntland is not alone in being misplaced from its namesake. Several African countries are named for illustrious kingdoms that were situated elsewhere. Modern Ghana is far from the medieval Ghana Empire, which was in modern Mali and Mauritania. The original Benin, famed for its bronzes, was located in Nigeria, not Benin. The modern state of Benin, however, officially derives its name not from the former kingdom but rather from the bight: the country formerly known as Dahomey fronts on the stretch of the Atlantic called the Bight of Benin (“bight” generally meaning a curved coastline).

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Why Iran’s Azeris Are Iranian

The weakness of Azeri nationalism in Iran (discussed last week) seems surprising at first glance. Iranian Azeris form a large, distinctive, and relatively cohesive ethnic group that has been deprived of basic educational rights in its own language. Similar situations in neighboring countries have resulted in serious unrest if not prolonged insurgency – think of the Kurds of Turkey. One might assume that the unpopularity of Iran’s restrictive clerical regime and the fact that independent Azerbaijan offers the attractions of a relatively open and globally engaged society would incline the Iranian Azeris toward separatism. Yet with a few exceptions, the southern Azeris show few signs of seeking autonomy, much less independence or union with Azerbaijan.

Historical factors figure prominently in explaining this seeming paradox. Persian- and Turkic-speaking peoples have been intertwined throughout Iran and Western Central Asia for centuries; historian Robert Canfield thus delineates a large cultural-historical region that he calls “Turko-Persia.” The region’s socio-political foundations long rested on a combination of Turkic military might and political power and Persian economic and intellectual ascendency. The ruling dynasties of Persia (what is now Iran) from the end of the Mongol period through the first quarter of the twentieth century were of Turkic origin, and relied heavily on the military power of Turkish tribal groups scattered widely across the country.

Persia’s last major Turkic dynasty, the Qajars, held power, albeit in a decentralized manner, from 1794 to 1925. Originally of Turkmen stock, the Qajar rulers spoke a language similar to Azeri in their homes, while employing Persian for court proceedings and administration. In the early 1800s, the Qajars lost their northwestern territories in the Caucasus – modern Azerbaijan – to the expanding Russian empire. Continuing threats and interference by both Russia and Britain would compromise the sovereignty of the country until the mid twentieth century. Such foreign pressures, if anything, enhanced the linkage between the Persian and Turkic peoples of Iran.

Ethnic relations were transformed under the Pahlavi dynasty, which came to power in 1925. To modernize Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi sought to construct a nation-state based on Persian culture and language. This required a campaign of Persianization, and corresponding de-Turkification, in much of the country. Restrictions were placed on publication in Azeri and other Turkic languages, place names were changed, and pressure was even put on parents to give their children Persian-sounding names.

The Persio-centric policies of the two Pahlavi shahs antagonized Iran’s ethnic minorities, including not just Turkic-speakers but millions of Arabs, Kurds, and others. They also failed to resonate deeply with many Persians, who formed a bare majority of the country’s population. Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s head of state from 1941 to 1979, Iranian nationalism was officially based not merely on contemporary Persian culture but on 2,500 years of imperial history. By glorifying his country’s pre-Islamic past, the Shah deeply antagonized Iran’s religious leadership, contributing to the collapse of his regime in 1979.

The new Islamic Republic of Iran fixed its national foundations firmly on the religious ties of Shiite Islam. Although Persian remained the favored language, especially in education, many of the restrictive linguistic policies of the previous government were dropped. As Shiites, the Azeris could easily share in the country’s reformulated scheme of national identity. (The same cannot be said for Iran’s Sunni groups, most notably the Baluch and the Kurds.)

Developments in northern Azerbaijan, under Russian and then Soviet control from the early 1800s to 1991, also militated against the formation of a pan-Azeri national consciousness. Russian imperial rule was harsh, and did not encourage the emergence of Azeri political identity. Under Soviet rule, such identity was nurtured insofar as it remained subsumed within communist ideology. Soviet agents promoted communist ideas in Iran as well. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Iranian Communist Party gained strength in the north, and especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest. But the Soviets overplayed their hand. After having occupied much of northern Iran during World War II, the Soviet Union set up a quasi-independent communist state in Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945, appealing to Azeri ethnic identity. Most Iranian Azeris, however, rejected the Marxist ideology of the “Azerbaijan People’s Government,” which collapsed in 1946. As much as they may have distrusted the Pahlavi dynasty, most southern Azeris preferred it to the Soviet Union.

The independence of Azerbaijan in 1991 again changed the dynamics of Azeri identity, opening the doors for the first time to the emergence pan-Azeri nationalism. The effects of long-term historical development, however, are not so quickly erased. In terms of political identity, Iranian Azerbaijan remains far more Iranian than Azerbaijani.

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Language, Regionalism, and Political Protest in Thailand

“If the people of the NE want their independence from Thailand, I say go ahead. Go back to Laos, where your ancestors came from, and enjoy the life there.”

— “Pappa,” writing in the Bangkok Post discussion board, April 25, 2010.

“Pappa, you may want to do some more research about history of Thailand before you tell the people in Isaan to go back to Laos. The Siamese themselves are descendants of the Lao people that became mixed with the native Khmer and Mon of Southern Thailand.”

— “Mustang 67,” responding in the Bangkok Post discussion board, April 25, 2010

The massive protests currently threatening the government of Thailand are generally described in the U.S. press in terms of class dynamics. The red-shirt demonstrators, followers of the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are said to represent Thailand’s peasantry. Poor and politically marginalized farmers had benefitted from the economic and social security initiatives of the populist billionaire PM, and continue to rally fiercely to his cause. The yellow-shirt counter-protestors, in contrast, are portrayed as well-off members of the urban establishment, keen to maintain order and wary of any popular surge.

While such analysis captures much of what is significant in the current struggle, it misses a crucial geographical component. Most red-shirts hail from northern and especially northeastern Thailand. As a recent Bangkok Post article put it, “when Thais from other regions talk about Isan [i.e. northeastern] people, they dismiss them as ‘red all over’ – meaning Isan people are strong supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s Puea Thai Party.”

The Isan region is largely coterminous with the Khorat Plateau of northeastern Thailand, a low-lying sandstone platform noted for its thin and acidic soils, wet-season floods, and dry-season droughts. Considering its meager environment, Isan is densely settled; its twenty million people form roughly a third of Thailand’s population. Not surprisingly, it is the country’s poorest region. Lacking local opportunity, northeasterners often seek employment in prosperous central Thailand. Men typically work in construction; northeastern women are disproportionally represented in the sex business of Bangkok and Pattaya.

The idea that the redshirts should “go back to Laos” is rooted in the fact that the language of Isan is a dialect of Lao. Diet, music, and assorted cultural practices further link the people of Isan to neighboring Laos. Standard Thai-speakers from the core area of Thailand often look down on Lao culture as rustic and inadequately refined. The Isan people, proud of their own history, deeply resent such attitudes. Thailand’s Lao are hardly a minor outlier. Remarkably, the twenty million Lao-speakers in Thailand outnumber their counterparts in Laos four to one.

Lao and Standard Thai (which was once called Siamese) are themselves closely related languages of the Tai family, which originated in what is now Guangxi in southern China. Tai-speakers started moving into Southeast Asia roughly a thousand years ago, establishing small states and inter-marrying with – and borrowing culture from – local Khmer (Cambodian) and Mon peoples. By the 1400s, three sizable kingdoms had emerged: Ayutthaya (Siam) in what is now central Thailand, Lanna (Chiang Mai) in what is now northern Thailand, and Lan Xang (or Lan Sang) ranging from the Khorat Plateau into present-day Laos. All three were of mixed ethnicity, but they nurtured local dialects of Tai that eventually developed into three distinct languages. Siam, hooked into global trade networks, eventually grew strong enough to reduce Lanna and Lan Xang to vassalage. Unsuccessful Lao rebellions against intensifying Siamese rule in the early 1800s resulted in the forced relocation of Lao-speaking peasants into the western Khorat Plateau, further reinforcing the Lao majority in the area.

The kingdom of Siam came under pressure from French imperialism in the late 1800s. In response, Siamese monarchs modernized aggressively while playing the British off against the French. In 1893 and 1904, however, they were forced to cede lands in their northeastern periphery to France—the core of contemporary Laos. The French government wanted to annex the Khorat Plateau, but was unable to do so when Britain supported the Siamese cause. But Britain extracted a price: indirect British rule over a slice of Siamese territory on the Malay Peninsula.

In 1939, Siam’s fascist-influenced government renamed the country “Thailand” to help forge its different Tai-speaking peoples into a single nation. A concerted “Thaification” program followed, spreading Standard Thai (Siamese) through schools and government, discouraging the use of the Lanna and Lao scripts, and inculcating reverence for the Thai monarchy. The process was somewhat successful, as the people of northern and northeastern Thailand came to generally consider themselves members of the Thai nation. Certainly there is scant desire among the people of Isan to separate from Thailand and join Laos, a repressive county far more impoverished than the Khorat Plateau.

But if the people of northern and northeastern Thailand became Thai in the larger national sense, they did not thereby become Thai in the narrower cultural sense. The people of the area that was once Lan Xang not only maintain their cultural differentiation (see language map above), they also remain opposed to the country’s political establishment, based in central Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra, a native son of Chiang Mai in the north, championed the non-Siamese Thai, and they have rallied to his cause—hence the strong correlation of language, history (political status in 1540), and electoral behavior shown in the maps above.

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The Tragedy of Karakalpakstan and the Fall of Khwarezm

The destruction of the Aral Sea has disproportionally hit one ethnic group, the Karakalpak, a people roughly half a million strong whose name means “black hats.” The Karakalpak homeland is the region where the Amu Darya River once flowed into the Aral Sea. The Karakalpak traditionally farmed the fertile delta soils, fished in the river channels and the vast lake, and pastured cattle in the formerly extensive marshlands. Today the fisheries are gone and farming and herding suffer from the toxic dust clouds blowing from the dry Aral seabed. Anemia, respiratory diseases, and other diseases are ubiquitous; according to some accounts, Karakalpakstan has the worst public health figures of the former Soviet Union. It is hardly surprising that a separatist group, known as the Free Karakalpakstan National Revival Party, has arisen in the region. This small organization accuses the government of Uzbekistan of waging a genocidal campaign against the Karakalpak people.

The lower Amu Darya forms a sizable area of irrigated agriculture and relatively dense population. It is an ethnically mixed area, inhabited by Turkmens and Uzbeks as well as Karakalpaks (see map). The Karakalpak language is closely related to Kazakh, lacking the Persian influence found in Uzbek. Some Kazakh nationalists claim that the Karakalpak were merely a subgroup of the Kazakhs who were granted their own ethnic status by Soviet authorities eager to divide and rule. But if language did not strongly differentiate the two groups, mode of life did; whereas the Kazakhs traditionally practiced pastoralism on the open steppe, the Karakalpaks farmed, fished, and herded in a wetland environment. Under the Soviet nationalities policy, the Karakalpaks were granted their own “autonomous republic” within the Union Republic of Uzbekistan. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not substantially change this arrangement, as Karakalpakstan remains an “autonomous republic” – albeit with little real autonomy – within Uzbekistan.

Although the Karakalpak language shows little Persian influence, the lower Amu Darya was once a key part of the greater Persian cultural region. Prior to the 14th century, the large oasis region of the lower Amu Darya, called Khwarezm, had its own Iranian language, Khwarezmian. Around the year 1200, Khwarezm was the seat of a large if short-lived empire. Its downfall seems to have come at the hands of two brutal conquerors, Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). Timur viewed the region as a rival to his own power-center at Samarkand; through five campaigns in the late 1300s, he systematically destroyed its cities and irrigation networks. During this chaotic period, the Turkic languages of the pastoralists spread, eventually replacing the original Iranian tongue. Khwarezm gradually recovered political and economic power, although never to its former extent. Its last state, the Khanate of Khiva, was subdued by the Russian Empire in 1873. It lingered on as a Russian protectorate until its final dissolution in 1920; in 1924, Khiva was formally annexed by the Soviet Union.

In its heyday, the lower Amu Darya was a major cultural and intellectual center. Its former significance is reflected in the world “algorithm,” which derives indirectly from Khwarezm by way of the Latin translation of “al-Khwārizmī,” the ninth century founder of algebra. Although al-Khwārizmī’s name indicates that he hailed from the region, he gained fame in Baghdad. Two other scholars of equal renown were more closely associated with Khwarezm. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, c. 980 – 1037), the leading philosopher and physician of his age, taught for a while in the lower Amu Darya, where the local vizier supported an impressive assemblage of scholars. His contemporary, al-Biruni (973-1048), was born and educated in the region. Al-Biruni’s first language was Khwarezmian, but he wrote in Persian and Arabic—and was conversant in Greek, Syriac, and Sanskrit. Noted for his work in astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, geology, medicine, physics, and history, al-Biruni’s greatest accomplishment was perhaps his pioneering work in what we would today call area studies. He traveled to northern India to sit at the feet of local scholars, learning not just their language, but their cultural mores, religious ideas, and scientific and mathematical systems. He wrote about Indian culture with respect, striving to convince his fellow Muslims that Hindus belonged to a sophisticated and ancient civilization. If asked to name the greatest scholar of all time, I would have to nominate a son of Khwarezm, Abu Raihan Mohammad Ibn Ahmad al-Biruni.

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Ancient Gandhara and Modern Pakistani Politics

As we saw yesterday, a group of people seeking to develop the language and culture of the Hindkowan people of northern Pakistan call their organization the Gandharan Hindko Board. Although Gandhara disappeared as a kingdom and a culture over a thousand years ago, the term is widely used in the region by such groups as the Gandhara Union of Journalists. To its partisans, “Gandhara” connotes deep cultural continuity, intellectual sophistication, and an ecumenical approach to culture and religion. By selecting the term Gandhara, Hindkowan activists are distancing themselves not only from Pashtun provincialism, but also from radical Islamism. To the Taliban, Gandhara implies an ancient Buddhist realm of idolatry, the remnants of which should be destroyed.

The ancient kingdom of Gandhara ruled much of what is now northern Pakistan, its base of power centered in the region stretching from the Vale of Peshawar to the vicinity of Islamabad. During its heyday, 400 BCE to 500 CE, it was noted for its cosmopolitanism, artistic synthesis, and religious developments. Gandhara was one of the core areas of India’s Maurya Empire in the fourth century BCE. When the empire weakened around 180 BCE, Greeks from a kingdom established by one of Alexander’s successors in Bactria (Northern Afghanistan) invaded and established several Greco-Indian states. Greek aesthetic ideas and sculptural techniques fused with those of northern India, producing innovative and abundant art. Greek rule yielded to that of the Kushans, nomadic invaders from Central Asia who arrived roughly 2000 years ago. Kushan rule resulted in another round of cultural synthesis, generating the Gandharan “golden age.” As Central Asians, the Kushans were key players in the profitable commerce of the silk roads. Gandhara became a crucial node in the development and dissemination of Mahayana Buddhism, sending missionaries northward into Central Asia, thence to China and beyond. The Swat Valley, a northern extension of Gandhara, also seems to have played a key role in the development of Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism.

Two of Gandhara’s early scholars deserve special mention. Pāṇini (4th century BCE) is the founder of scientific linguistics, noted for his 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology. His painstaking and systematic analytical approach bears close resemblance to certain forms of modern computer programming languages. Pāṇini’s near contemporary, Chānakya (c. 350-283 BCE), was one of the world’s first systematic political thinkers; his Arthaśāstra isoften compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Not just a theorist, Chānakya was a political practitioner of the first order. He may have orchestrated Chandragupta’s union of Gandhara with the urban core of the Ganges Valley and his subsequent conquests across northern India, formative events in the birth of the Maurya Empire.

The government of Pakistan views the remains of ancient Gandhara as a national cultural resource, one that could potentially promote inter-faith understanding – as well as income-generating tourism. In March 2010, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari assured a ten-member delegation from the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) that his government was “keen to preserve and develop the ancient cultural heritage of Gandhara.” Zardari also thanked the WFB for promoting the “Gandhara heritage of Pakistan.” The head monk, Phallop Thaiarry of Thailand, expressed deep admiration for the ruins, concluding that “Pakistan can be a great Buddhist pilgrimage destination in the world.”

The promotion of Gandhara by Zardari and the Hindkowan cultural leaders is anathema to the Taliban and other radical Islamist elements active in the region. In Pakistan’s Swat Valley and in Afghanistan, Taliban agents destroyed Buddhist art and ruins, most infamously by dynamiting massive statues of the Buddha in Bamyan in 2001. Considering the Taliban’s penchant for violence, Buddhist religious tourism is unlikely to contribute much to Pakistan’s economy in the near future.

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Mongolia and Taiwan: Geopolitical Ambiguity Squared


As noted yesterday, Taiwan is recognized as the legitimate government of “China” by some two dozen countries. Most are small states in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Central America. Taiwan has had no success in securing or maintaining recognition by other Asian countries. Most Asian states are too large to be swayed by aid incentives—and too close to China to deny Beijing’s power. But Taiwan is also disadvantaged in its quest for recognition by the fact that it claims not just the whole of China but parts of Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Burma – as well as Mongolia in its entirely (see map). Officially, Taiwan maintains that all territories controlled by China at the time of the 1911 revolution are rightfully its own.

Despite its formal claims, Taiwan has bent to the demands of reality to recognize Mongolia’s independence. In 2002, it opened an informal embassy in Mongolia, officially called the “Taipei Trade and Economic Representative Office in Ulaanbataar.” It simultaneously excluded Mongolia from the purview of its Mainland Affairs Council, in effect recognizing Mongolia’s sovereignty. As a result, Mongolians wanting to visit Taiwan now have to obtain visas, which were not necessary so long as Taipei regarded Mongolia as one of its (temporarily) lost provinces. Still, Taiwan has never formally dropped its constitutional claims to Mongolia. The situation remains ambiguous to say the least.

Nonetheless, Taiwan and Mongolia have developed reasonably close relations. As a sign of friendship, Taiwan recently gave Mongolia a three-story high portrait of Genghis Khan, made out of 437,000 mosaic tiles, based on a rare portrait of the world-conqueror held in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. But the potential for discord has not vanished. In 2008, a Hong Kong-based company posted a map on its website showing Mongolia as part of China (see map above); when Mongolia protested, China’s embarrassed government responded by claiming that the original map had been made in Taiwan. Whatever its provenance, the cartographer who made this map was geographically challenged. The label attached to the independent country reads “Inner Mongolia,” which actually refers to an autonomous region within China itself, rather than “Outer Mongolia,” the term that was used for Mongolia proper when it was part of the Chinese empire.

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Misleading Historical Maps

Many maps are misleading, but few are as consistently deceptive as the basic historical-political maps that fill the pages of most historical atlases. Such maps usually portray the polities of past, whether smallish kingdoms or vast empires, as if they were clearly bounded entities that exercised full control over their territorial domains. In actuality, most states have had vague boundaries, and many have maintained only partial control even in their core regions. As Lauren Benton argues in her important new book,A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900, “Empire did not cover space evenly but composed a fabric that was full of holes, stitched together out of pieces, a tangle of strings” (p. 2). The end results, she contends, were “not at all consistent with the image produced by monochrome shading of imperial maps” (p. 2).

Among the most misleading maps of empire are those that purport to show Spanish dominion in the Americas. Consider, for example, the Encyclopedia Britannica map reproduced above. Vast expanses of land in central North America are depicted as belonging to Spain, even though most of these lands had never even been visited by Spanish explorers, let alone subjected to actual administration. By placing the label “Viceroyalty of New Spain,” over what is now the center-west of the United States, moreover, the cartographer has effectively marginalized New Spain’s actual core in central Mexico. What the map really shows are not Spain’s territories but its territorial claims, its pretense to power. And even in this regard, the map may mislead by implying that such claims were everywhere of long-standing. In actuality, Spain asserted possession over the western Mississippi basin only between 1763 and 1800. And in regard to California, Spanish authority did not begin to spread until 1769, and it never extended into the northern and eastern reaches of the area that eventually became the American state.

Lauren Benton is by no means the only historian to point out the incompleteness of empire and our misleading cartographic portrayals of the past. But the extent to which such considerations still hold true is less often appreciated. What this blog seeks to demonstrate is the fact that many modern states, “do not cover space evenly, but compose a fabric full of holes, stitched together out of pieces, a tangle of strings.”

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