- Dan Connors
Lost nations that fell of the map
An Atlas of Extinct Countries Gideon Defoe 2021
We take the sovereignty of arbitrary national borders as sacred today, but any look at history books can show how violent and unpredictable people were in setting up nations and states. Some nations like Thailand have persisted for centuries, never to be invaded or changed by outside influences, but many, like Poland and Bosnia, have been carved up and renamed multiple times. Is the current United Nations setup superior to the one in 1946 when it was founded? Who knows.
All I know is that but for a revolt in the French colony of Haiti, the Louisiana Purchase might never have happened, and I'd be living in Canada right now, instead of Missouri. An Atlas of Extinct Countries tells the tales of nations long gone and the bizarre and fascinating stories surrounding them. Some nations only lasted a few months, while others lasted centuries, but all are gone now.
We mostly have the Europeans to thank for how the world is divided up today. Starting in the 15th century, European nations like England, France and Spain figured out a way to take over huge tracts of territory larger than themselves and rule them for centuries. The boundaries that we see today, especially in Africa and Asia, are a result of colonialism, and many make no sense to the people living there. Iraq, for instance was created by the British and united vastly different populations of Kurds, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, who have been fighting with each other ever since the country was created. The French claimed Canada, the British claimed the United States, and Spain claimed Mexico and almost everything to the south, and the fate of the America's was set.
Here are three typical stories out of 48 from the book that I found fascinating about extinct countries.
The Republic of West Florida. For several months in 1810 there was a disputed strip of land in what is now Louisiana that wasn't included in the Louisiana Purchase because Spain still had claims on it. The Spanish were pushed out by locals and an independent nation was established with its own flag, (A lone star) and its own president, Fulwar Skipwith. The "country" of West Florida would only last four months before it was quietly taken over by the United States.
The Congo Free State. In what is now the large country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a slavery racket was operated under the guise of a Belgian King, Leopold II. In one of the most evil stories that history books have forgotten, Leopold took an enormous country of over 20 million and turned it into a rubber plantation, leaving only 8 million people alive when the Belgian government took it over in 1908. It was a slave state on a scale that the Confederacy could have only imagined, and all to please one man. Also, Leopold profited from an enormous ivory trade that wiped out a large portion of the elephants in the Congo.
Rapa Nui Also known as Easter Island, Rapa Nui was a remote island in the Southern Pacific ocean. Settled by native Polynesians around 800 years ago, the island became known for its large stone heads that were carved from the rocks on the island. The story of the island is a sad but fascinating one. Once the home of up to 1200 islanders, the natives eventually outgrew their resources and began killing each other. By the time European explorers found the island, they made slaves of what was left and decimated the island's population. But the enormous moai, or stone sculptures endured, even after the island was annexed by Chile.
For much of human history, nation-states were random and transient. Borders were non-existent and wars were more common. Now we have an organized system of flags, capitals, currencies, and governments, but many countries are still a mess. And in a world that is both environmentally and economically interdependent, the borders that define nations seem outmoded. Can countries intervene in the affairs of other countries, either to advance their own self-interests (Russians and US Elections), or to save a population from corrupt leaders, (Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan)??
I don't pretend to understand the geopolitical struggles going on between the many nations of the world, but I do know that with pandemics, climate change, and international trade, we all need each other to behave more than ever. This book was a fascinating stroll through some nations that are no longer, and the fallible humans that tried to rule them. The nations that survive today don't seem to be much better, though I still like the countries of Scandanavia for their record of peace and prosperity. I wish we could learn from the mistakes of this book and the successes that surround us.