The Crown Dependencies: What Exactly Are They?, By Seth Jackson

Dear Readers,

Although GeoCurrents does not normally accept guest posts, I was so taken by this piece by Seth Jackson that I decided to make an exception. One of the main themes of this website is geopolitical complexity, and here we have it in spades!

Martin W. Lewis


The Crown Dependencies: What Exactly Are They?

By Seth Jackson

We often hear that the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey are not part of the United Kingdom, but are instead classified as Crown Dependencies.  The question then arises about the possession of their sovereignty.  If the U.K. doesn’t maintain sovereignty over the islands, who then does?  Is the Crown a separate entity from the U.K.?  If the Crown Dependencies are outside the territorial scope of the U.K., then why are they not considered to be independent countries in their own right?

Sovereignty over the Crown Dependencies and the United Kingdom are vested in the Crown.  Indeed, the reigning monarch is the Sovereign.  All powers of sovereignty symbolically emanate from his or her person.  The Government of the United Kingdom is formed in his or her name, and likewise the autonomous governments of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands operate and function in the name of the Sovereign.

Each government defines the Crown differently.  The Isle of Man describes it as the “Crown in right of the Isle of Man” and declares it as separate from the “Crown in right of the United Kingdom.”  Jersey defines it as the “Crown in right of Jersey”, whereas Guernsey does so as the “Crown in right of the république of the Bailiwick of Guernsey”.  Likewise each of the 16 independent Commonwealth realms defines the Crown in a similar fashion, such as the “Crown in right of Canada” and the “Crown in right of Tuvalu”.

As a result, the Sovereign, currently Elizabeth II, is officially known by different titles in each jurisdiction, such as Queen of the United Kingdom, Queen of Canada, and Queen of Tuvalu.  In the Crown Dependencies, her titles are more unusual.  She is the Lord of Mann while in or acting on behalf of the Isle of Man, and in the Channel Islands she is known as the Duke of Normandy.  She is perhaps the only woman to hold the titles of Lord and Duke, as opposed to the female equivalents of Lady and Duchess.

Is there one crown that represents all the Commonwealth realms and its dependencies, or does each realm and dependency have its own separate, unique crown?  In other words, is Elizabeth II queen of 16 realms, or is she simultaneously 16 different queens?  The Statute of Westminster 1931 granted each realm its own crown that is a separate legal personality from that of any other crown.  However, does this mean the “Crown in right of the Isle of Man” is a separate legal entity from that of the “Crown in right of the United Kingdom”?  It seems that the answer is “no”: the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey are dependent upon the British Crown, or the “Crown in the right of the United Kingdom”, but this in no way implies that they are part of the United Kingdom.

This seems to suggest that the independent country of the United Kingdom is really only a subset of something larger – the British Crown.  The Crown contains within it the sovereignty of four national governments: the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey.  In addition, the U.K. itself consists of four non-sovereign yet increasingly autonomous countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), as well as several overseas territories.  Perhaps the relationships of the Crown Dependencies to the United Kingdom most closely resemble those of states in free association, such as the relationship of the Cook Islands and Niue to New Zealand.

The Crown Dependencies are outside the European Union, and have limited engagement in international organizations.  However, as the economies of the Crown Dependencies have grown the last several decades, especially in the financial sector, there have been elevated discussions on how to define their individual “external personalities” within the international community.  Will this eventually result in a change of their political status as Crown Dependencies? We shall see.

How does one interpret the sovereignty of the Crown Dependencies and their place within the British Crown? The question is not easily answered. Although conventional opinion regards the global geopolitical community as a straightforward assemblage of mutual recognized sovereign states, the actual situation is vastly more complicated.


1. There are some who claim Orkney and Shetland are Crown Dependencies, or more specifically Crown Trust Dependencies, and are not legally part of Scotland or the United Kingdom, owing to their history of being pawned by King Christian I of Denmark to King James III of Scotland in 1468/9, as security against the dowry in the marriage of Christian’s daughter to James III.  The assertion is that this act of pawning did not transfer sovereignty, as the pawn can technically be redeemed (although previous attempts to do so have been unsuccessful), and as such, the islands have remained a trust asset of the Crown ever since.  The islands were openly recognized as Scottish Crown Dependencies prior to the Acts of Union 1707, when the independent Kingdoms of Scotland and England joined together to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Today, there is a movement for greater autonomy for the islands, with the small Shetland island of Forvik going so far as to declare itself a Crown Dependency in 2008, and an independent country in 2011.

2. The Sovereign is also the lord paramount of all soil in the United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies.  The Crown assumes title through the process of escheatment of any lands that are declared to have no other owner, such as in cases of bankruptcy or the dissolution of companies.

3. However, since Canada and Australia are both federations, each province and state has a direct relationship with the Crown as well.

4. We often hear Elizabeth II titled the “Queen of England”, but this term is inaccurate.  The Kingdom of England ceased to exist with the Acts of Union 1707, when England and Scotland merged their kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Later, following the merging with the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, it became known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and finally, when three-fourths of Ireland seceded and formed the Irish Free State in 1922, the U.K. gained its current name: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Presently, Elizabeth II is known as the Queen of the United Kingdom while representing that realm.

5. Although, Queen Victoria was styled as the Lady of Mann during her reign.

6. The Queen is also referred to as the Duke of Lancaster during formal settings in Lancashire, England or within her duties pertaining to the Duchy of Lancaster.

7. The United Kingdom, however, is responsible for the defense and foreign relations of the Crown Dependencies as matter of tradition and convention.  Each dependency pays the U.K. an annual fee for these services

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Divided Islands, Large and Small

The recent GeoCurrents news post on electronics factories in Tierra del Fuego brought up the issue of a politically divided island. I did a quick mental count and came up with eight examples of such islands: New Guinea, Borneo, Ireland, Hispaniola, Timor, Cyprus, Saint Martin, and Tierra del Fuego (or, more properly, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, to differentiate it from the archipelago of the same name.). The Wikipedia, however, lists seven other divided “sea islands,” as well as numerous divided lake and river islands.  I had never heard of any of the other divided sea islands, although two are significantly larger than Saint Martin. I have provided maps of all these islands except Embankment No. 4 on the King Fahd Causeway, split between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which I was unable to locate.

Indonesia has territory on more divided islands than any other country: New Guinea, Borneo, Timor, and Sebatik. At first glance, Borneo seems to be the most complexly divided island, as it contains major portions of two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the entire extent of another, Brunei. The division of Cyprus, however, is more intricate. Cyprus contains two de facto countries, Cyprus and the Northern Cypriot Republic, although the international community largely rejects the legitimacy of the latter state. But Cyprus is further split by the existence of two sovereign British military bases, as well as a U.N. “buffer strip” that separates the two independent countries.

The bulk of the territory of several internationally recognized countries is situated on divided islands: Papua New Guinea, Republic of Ireland, Brunei, Timor Leste, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cyprus. The Dutch half of Saint Martin (Sint Maarten) is also counted as a country, but not an independent one; rather, is forms a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” The only island that is divided into two countries both of whose territories are largely limited to that island is Hispaniola, split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

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About GeoCurrents

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

GeoCurrents is a map-illustrated forum dedicated to exploring global geography. Most posts link to current events, supplying historical background, spatial analysis, and political and intellectual context. Events both major (rebellion in Libya) and minor (protests in Tripura, India) are covered, provided they bear on larger issues and have a clear geographic expression. Whenever possible, local perspectives and divergent views are incorporated and analyzed; comments and criticism from informed readers are always welcome.

GeoCurrents is particularly interested in the cultural dimensions of geopolitical complexity. Many posts describe the ways in which religion, language, and regionalism influence intra- and international disputes, emphasizing the linkage between specific conflicts and particular places. In most cases, this approach reveals a considerably more intricate spatial relations than conventional reportage conveys. Ivory Coast, for example, turns out to be divided not just along north-south lines, as conventional wisdom has it, but in a more complex three-way split separating the north from both south and center. Likewise, while mainstream media reports are content to note that Syria’s embattled government is dominated by the Alawite minority, members of a Shiite-derived sect, GeoCurrents delves deeper. It outlines Alawite beliefs, maps where most Alawites live and explains why that matters, and describes the ways in which Syria’s history of sectarian division has shaped its political evolution.

Above all, GeoCurrents is devoted to mapping. Almost all posts rely heavily on maps, many made expressly for the blog. Some entries center on cartography itself, as well as other forms of geographical depiction. Misleading maps in the media and reference works are periodically critiqued, as is the deceptive marshalling of statistical information. Attention is also occasionally drawn to innovative, useful, or elegant maps. The blog further seeks to devise alternative methods of mapping the world. During the summer of 2011, most posts will be devoted to the construction of a non-state-based atlas of global social and economic development, attempting to improve on the familiar division of the world into sovereign countries—an issue that lies at the core of GeoCurrents’ conceptual concerns.

GeoCurrents ultimately rests on the conviction that the conventional state-based model of the world, manifest in the basic political map posted here, provides an inadequate framework for global comprehension. Its signal flaw is its partitioning of the world’s landmasses into absolute and formally equivalent political units. These entities are regarded as exercising complete power over precisely delineated, compact territories. They are conceptualized as political individuals, entities of the same kind, occupying the same level in the spatial hierarchy of political power. These foundational units are variably called sovereign states, countries, nations, and nation-states, terms of once-distinct meaning that have come to function broadly as synonyms. In the process of terminological convergence, a particular view of geopolitical organization is unthinkingly advanced: one that takes sovereignty, territory, and national cohesion to be necessarily congruent. In the standard world model, sovereign states are nations by default, their people assumed to be bound together in identification with their countries. Such sovereign totalities in turn validate each other’s claims to lands and peoples as the components of the so-called international community, mirrored almost exactly by the membership roll of the U.N.

As anyone who follows the news is bound to discover on a daily basis, however, global political geography is a vastly more complex and interesting affair. Whereas the standard world model is based on ideal types, GeoCurrents reveals messiness and ambiguity. As the blog’s posts lay out in detail, the world we inhabit abounds in geopolitical anomalies: imaginary states, stateless nations, nationless states, officially non-national states, partially recognized and fully unrecognized sovereign entities, non-sovereign sovereign states and tribes, proclaimed but non-existent states, insurgent states, non-sovereign countries, countries containing several nations, kingdoms composed of multiple countries, countries containing multiple kingdoms, and so on. (One widely recognized sovereign entity has no territory or territorial claims whatsoever, its domain limited to two buildings.) The number of sovereign states, moreover, is impossible to peg, just as the boundaries between countries cannot always be reduced to simple lines. Finally, whatever form they take, countries are not necessarily comparable entities. They differ in both their spatial and demographic dimensions by more than five orders of magnitude—a more massive jump in scale than we commonly realize. To put Nauru in the same category with China is like comparing a one-mile stroll with walking around the Earth four times.

Indeed, the closer one looks, the more slippery all the key terms of the standard model appear. The concept of sovereignty, for example, might seem straightforward: countries are sovereign if they are independent. In practice, though, “sovereignty” has a number of meanings, which do not necessarily coincide on the ground. As Stephen Krasner argues, the concept ultimately amounts to nothing less than “organized hypocrisy” (the title of his penetrating book on the subject).* As Krasner contends,

Most observers and analysts of international relations have treated sovereign states as an analytic assumption or as a well-institutionalized if not taken-for-granted structure. The bundle of properties associated with sovereignty—territory, recognition, autonomy, and control—have been understood, often implicitly, to characterize states in the international system. In fact, however, only a few states have possessed all of these attributes.

The defects of the standard view are of more than academic significance. Reliance on a global model based on diplomatic pretense often generates blunders, sometimes with tragic results. Nowhere is such failure more evident than in US-led policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Efforts that were supposed to spread democracy, peace, and prosperity instead sapped Western influence, generated chaos in the target countries, endangered local Christian communities, and energized radical Islam. The United States and its allies continue to bleed money and lives on seemingly unwinnable conflicts—and cannot figure out how to escape. It is impossible to know, of course, what would have happened in Afghanistan and Iraq had the military incursions never been carried out, or had different policies been pursued after the toppling of the old regimes. But it is clear that the predictions made by U.S. government officials and their supporters about the cost and duration of the wars, as well as those focused on post-war reconstruction, were staggeringly incorrect.

Given the quagmires that followed, the origins of the Afghan and Iraqi regime-change gambits call for extended examination. Hubris on the part of war-planners has often been highlighted, but it is the contention of GeoCurrents that deeper conceptual failures lay at the root. Afghanistan and Iraq, simply put, were misconstrued as coherent nation-states. As a result, it was assumed that their people were united enough to make the compromises necessary to run democratic governments. By the same token, the ethnic and religious divisions found in both countries were thought to be contained within broader nationalisms. Regarded as nation-states, Afghanistan and Iraq were expected to function as nation-states. All that was needed was a change in regimes, followed by an inexpensive round of “nation-building”** focused on institutions and infrastructure.

In actuality, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have ever been genuine nation-states. In both countries, the state was imposed on a variegated populace for whom the bonds of ethnicity and sect, if not those of clan, tribe, and community, have remained much stronger than those of the putative nation. Where national unity is little more than a façade, the state can easily be torn down by a strong external force, as was the case in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But neither could be readily reassembled, for the social adhesive necessary for regeneration was simply not present. Had American and British leaders realized that both countries lacked solid national foundations, perhaps they would never have entertained the fantasy that toppling their regimes to install elected governments would be a cheap and easy route to regional stability.

Critics may note that public opinion surveys often indicate the opposite, showing relatively high levels of national identity across most of the world. When polled on the matter, most educated residents of country “X” will indeed affirm an “Xian” nationality. Yet these identities are often too shallow to be of much consequence. Most weakly consolidated countries have long engaged in “nation-building” projects to instill a common sense of identity, hammering the message home through schools and the media. Such efforts have generally proved superficially successful. What matters in the end, however, is not abstract responses on surveys, but whether people behave in a manner congruent with national sentiments. Even vehement expressions of mass patriotism do not necessarily indicate genuine national bonds. Most residents of Pakistan, for example, fiercely proclaim their Pakistani status, but they do so largely in opposition to India, Israel, and the United States. In domestic affairs, the country is rent by such deep ethnic, regional, and religious divisions that its integrity as a state, let alone a nation, is severely challenged. The negative nationalism found in Pakistan and several other countries has so far proven inadequate for the construction of a functional nation-state.

Rather than taking proclamations of national identity at face value, GeoCurrents seeks to measure national consolidation in more subtle ways. For democratic countries, voting patterns provide one of the best metrics. Where individual parties and candidates compete across a given country’s territory, successfully appealing to voters living in different regions and belonging to divergent ethnic groups, a high degree of national cohesion is indicated. In contrast, weak to non-existent national bonds are indicated where certain parties consistently achieve overwhelming victories in some regions while suffering overwhelming defeats in others. Chile is a good example of a country in the former category, while Ukraine and Nigeria exemplify the latter.

Finally, it is worth noting that GeoCurrents aims to be instructive rather than polemical. Controversial issues are often discussed, but the goal is to approach each new issue on its own terms, without an overarching theoretical commitment or predetermined position. While many voices are aired, seldom is a particular perspective endorsed. In practice, of course, maintaining a completely disinterested attitude to ongoing global conflicts is not possible, but fair-mindedness and impartiality remain the guiding ideal.

* Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton University Press, 1999, page 220.

**As the idea of the nation was stripped of its original meanings in order to fit the standard world model, so too the concept of nation-building was transformed. Originally referring to efforts to generate a sense of national belonging, nation-building came to denote the construction of effective governmental institutions—state-building, in essence. In the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term is being downgraded again, this time to focus more narrowly on physical infrastructure. In an August 31, 2010 op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks declared nation-building in Iraq a relative success, noting that the country had acquired many more internet connections and telephones than it had had under Saddam Hussein, little matter that Iraq cannot form a stable and effective government, no matter that its constituent communities remain at each other’s throats, unable to establish trust across religious, linguistic, and tribal lines.

>>>See the key to the GeoCurrents map of geopolitical anomalies.>>>

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Our Maps of the 18th Century—and Theirs

Europe of 1700, from Euratlas

Europe of 1700, from EuratlasSovereign states provide the building-blocks of contemporary world mapping. A simple image search of “world map” reveals the state-centered focus of our geographical imagination: a few of the maps returned provide land-mass outlines, and a few others depict continental divisions, but most show the world as neatly partitioned into independent countries. At a more local scale of analysis (“Europe map”), the tendency is if anything more pronounced. Countries are what count; in the public imagination, to know the locations of the member states of the UN is to have mastered world geography.

The same view is retroactively applied to the past. Pick up virtually any historical atlas, and you will find map after map of cleanly colored, clearly demarcated territorial states. As previous GeoCurrents posts have explored, while such maps often purport to depict control, what they often show are mere territorial claims over areas well beyond the reach of the state. This is especially true for depictions of early modern colonial claims in the Western Hemisphere. Maps of Europe in the same period (1500-1800 CE) face a different challenge; here virtually all lands were under some kind of governmental control, yet in many instances sovereignties overlapped. To force past polities into the mold of modern geopolitics is to court confusion.

Consider the Euratlas map of 1700 posted here—one of the most sophisticated portrayals of Europe during this period that is available online. In keeping with modern convention, the cartographer uses solid colors to portray premodern states. One “supra-state” entity is also depicted: the so-called Holy Roman Empire, generally viewed as a feckless federation of independent states. Two “personal unions,” in which one monarch reigned over several separate states, are indicated with labels (“England-Scotland-Netherlands” and “Poland-Lithuania-Saxony.”) Territorially discontiguous states are mapped in one color but are difficult to pick out; on the Euratlas site, however, one can outline such fragmented geopolitical entities with a single mouse-click. Examples here include the Spanish Empire (labeled merely “Spanish”), including Spain, southern Italy, Milan, and most of the southern Low Countries [Belgium], and Prussia-Brandenburg (unlabeled) in the north. The overall impression conveyed by the map is one of vast disparities in size among the constituent geopolitical elements of Europe. Relatively large polities dominate the western, eastern, and northern areas, whereas the central swath running from Italy to the North Sea (“German Ocean”) is a shatterbelt of micro-states. Much of central Europe is unequivocally mapped as the Habsburg Empire, shown as a territorially contiguous zone that spanned the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.

Holy Roman Empire in 1789Even this intricate Euratlas map is at an inadequate scale of resolution to show the small German states. More detailed maps attempt to fill the gap. The second map, from the Wikipedia Commons, gives a fine-grained portrayal of the states of the so-called Holy Roman Empire as they existed in 1789. While it is remarkably rich in detail, even this mosaic fails to capture all the micro-polities of the time. The coloration scheme is also somewhat misleading, as a single color may indicate either different states of the same type (imperial cities in red; ecclesiastical lands in light purple), or single, discontiguous states (the Austrian [Habsburg] Empire in light orange-brown; Brandenburg-Prussia in slate blue). Notice the major territorial changes between the two maps, Austria having acquired the southern Low Countries from Spain, and Prussia (Brandenburg) having taken Silesia from Austria.

Such is our standard conception of Europe in the 1700s: a region cleanly divided among states of widely divergent sizes, with one vestigial “Empire” that had long since devolved into a non-sovereign federation. Educated Europeans of the time, however, had a markedly different conception of their continent’s constituent elements. Almost all maps of the time partitioned Europe into a handful of “countries” or “states” of roughly similar size, not all of which were sovereign entities. Sizable, compact, and potent states such as France, Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands (United Provinces), and Sweden were almost always mapped as such, appearing much as they do on our maps of the period. Smaller and less powerful states, however, disappear entirely, as do several of the larger states whose territorial integrity was compromised by fragmentation or by overlapping claims (notably those of the Holy Roman Empire, vestigial though it may have been). Sovereignty, in short, was not what mattered to early modern European cartographers. Far more important were historically and culturally constituted regional formations, conceptualized at roughly equivalent orders of magnitude.

Europe 1751 by Robert de VaugondyConsider, for example, the 1751 Robert de Vaugondy map posted here, entitled “Europe divided into its principle states.” (I have modified the map by enhancing the borders and translating and highlighting the place-labels.) Note the mapping of Italy and Germany (the latter coincident with the Holy Roman Empire) as separate “states.” Geographers at the time were well aware that neither formed a sovereign entity, but that was not the focus of their mapping. Note as well the absence of the Austrian (Habsburg) empire or Prussia-Brandenburg. That the ruler of Austria was styled an Emperor derived from the fact that the head of the Hapsburg dynasty was always elected to reign over the Holy Roman Empire; the notion of a separate “Austrian” or “Habsburg” empire is a modern construct rather than a feature of the time. Instead, the Habsburg dynasty was seen as having successfully acquired the crowns of various states, which retained their distinctive identity regardless of who ruled over them (just as England remained a separate country from the Netherlands during the period when William III was king of the former and stadtholder of the latter). The connections among the “Austrian” lands, in other words, were seen as more personal than geopolitical, easily undone though the vagaries of dynastic succession or military engagements—as indeed they often were. Geographers of the period did periodically redraw their boundaries to reflect changing political circumstances, but their maps registered far fewer changes than do ours of the same time period.

None of this is to argue that eighteenth-century mapping was superior to our cartographic reconstructions of the period. Both highlight some aspects of reality while obscuring others. My point is simply that sovereign entities need not always be the default building blocks of the human community—not now, and certainly not in the eighteenth century.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine more closely the mapping of the Holy Roman Empire during the 1700s, as a case study in the evolving concept of the territorially bounded sovereign state.

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