Monday, April 19, 2004

I Like the Island Life, Part III 

So far, I've restricted my posting to islands of the "land sticking up out of the water" type. But there are also cultural islands, populations claiming one ethnic or national identity but living surrounded by those of another group. Armenians claim Nagorno-Karabakh is such an island, for example. There are also political islands: exclaves like the Cooch Behar region between India and Bangladesh, Llivia in France or Baarle-Hertog in Belgium.

The last two cases are pretty interesting: you can see maps here and here. Llivia is a tiny splatter of Spain wholly inside France, while Baarle Hertog is sort of an archipelago of the Netherlands completely surrounded by Belgian territory. Cromartyshire in Scotland is similar in its non-contiguity (as is Alaska, for that matter), but this is just an administrative division, not one involving international borders. Russia's Kaliningrad (separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania and Latvia) is perhaps a better analog.

Why do I bring all this up? I want to recommend a fascinating book. Boundaries, by Peter Sahlins, tells the story of the Cerdanya/Cerdagne, a region on the border between Spain and France which includes Llivia. Sahlins explains how the concept of national boundaries is a relatively new construction: in feudal Europe, royal families fought over, passed along through inheritance, or married into jurisdiction over subjects rather than control over geographic territory. A villager paid his taxes to, owed allegiance to, and prayed in the churches influenced by a particular aristocrat. If his son cleared land for a farm in an nearby district, past the fields of a neighbor owing allegiance to another lord, the new farm fell under the jurisdiction of the father's ruler.

This jurisdictional allegiance clearly had little or nothing to do with territorial boundaries, military control of strategic points, or any of the other aspects of what we today understand as the lines demarcating one state from another. Sahlins tracks the history of the shift from the jurisdictional idea of states to the modern territorial idea, showing along the way the push and pull between the needs of individuals living in border regions and the armies and bureaucrats of the great state centers. It's a good read if you like history books, and I think its insights about the slippery, constructed nature of what we often consider to be natural or obvious ideas about things like nationhood, statehood, or boundaries are of particular use in understanding what's going on in international news right now.

UPDATE: Fixed link errors.

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