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Geographical Illiteracy and the Confusing Islands of the Southern Hemisphere

Submitted by on April 18, 2012 – 8:36 pm 9 Comments |  
One of GeoCurrents’ goals is to combat geographical illiteracy and one way to do it is by pointing out egregious errors made by politicians and other prominent individuals. A recent case in point is Barack Obama’s confusion of two archipelagoes, one in the South Atlantic and the other in the Indian Ocean. During a speech at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Obama maintained the USA’s stance of neutrality over a set of islands in the South Atlantic, disputed between Britain and Argentina, saying he wanted to ensure good relations with both countries. But the very toponyms one uses can be an incendiary matter. For example, is it Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf? The Sea of Japan (for the Japanese) or the East Sea (for the Koreans)? Similarly, the British insist on calling the disputed islands off the coast of Argentina the Falkland Islands, but the Argentineans are adamant in calling them the Malvinas Islands. Attempting to use the Argentine name, Obama mistakenly referred to the islands as the Maldives, a chain of twenty-six atolls in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives were a British protectorate for nearly eighty years and the site of a UK airbase for another 20 years. They received independence from the UK in 1965, and have no connection with Argentina whatsoever.

Obama’s other geographical blunders include claiming to have visited 57 states (with one left to go!) and considering “Austrian” a language. He is, of course, not the only U.S. politician to have made such gaffes. For example, Senator John McCain presumed there to be a border between Iraq and Pakistan, mentally wiping Iran off the map. Dick Cheney confused Venezuela and Peru, while Gerald Ford, astoundingly, was ignorant of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1970s. More geography gaffes by prominent politicians can be explored here.


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  • Frederico F

    In 1982, Ronald Reagan proposed a toast to ‘the people of Bolivia’
    at a dinner with the president of Brazil in Brasilia. 

    • Asya Pereltsvaig


  • Rascheurer

    During a college  geography course  I took during the late 1970s several students out of 25 or so turned an unmarked map of Europe S to N to fill in the country names. Had the map been on a square piece of paper Europe’s geography could have taken some very interesting turns.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      A good one. And what if it were presented on a round piece of paper? :)

      • James T. Wilson

        The orientation of the paper is clearly an important crutch for students.  I once graded a map quiz that showed a map of Europe and the Mediterranean.  I cannot tell you how many students labeled North Africa as “The Low Countries”–they did sit rather low on the paper.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          I’ve once heard a serious professor saying that if the map of Europe is turned N to S both the Low Countries and the High Renaissance (in Italy) would make more sense. I hope he was only joking…

          Come to think of it, the same is true of “Low German” and “High German”, terms that many of my students find confusing for this very reason…

          • James T. Wilson

            Hmmm…Upper and Lower Egypt, Upper and Lower Saxony, does this North-South orientation work anywhere?

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            We need south-flowing rivers… or a different globe ;)

          • James T. Wilson

            I can’t believe I didn’t think of it, living where I do–the upper Midwest and lower Midwest, as well as the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan.

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