Countries are Young, the Political Map Grows Together While Breaking Apart —
The world was a different place when my father was born. Literally, it was a different place. It is sobering to think that over half of the sovereign countries on the planet today are under 50 years old. When my father was born, 50% of the countries that I know of today did not exist.
The cartographers of the second half of the 20th century must have been busy creatures . . . the politicians too, the soldiers as well, the revolutionaries also must have had a lot to do to rearrange the lines on the map to this extent. The birth of a country seldom comes without bloodshed. In 50 years the world has watched 100 countries come into being.
The political world has just gone through a period of separatism — it is still separating. Ethnic groups in Spain fight for a little piece of the countryside where the people speak their own dialect, Quebec remained a part of Canada by only a single vote a decade ago, the Uighurs don’t want to be a part of China, the Tibetans want their country back, the Soviet Union fractured into pieces, and those pieces fractured into more pieces, there are now two Koreas, two Samoas, three Guianas, a Papua New Guinea, a Congo, a Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a Central African Republic, there is no way that Okinawa is culturally or geographically a part of Japan, Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by both China and India, Arunachal Pradesh claims itself, little Belgium is about to split up into even littler countries.
“Of the world’s current countries, only 27 were independent in 1800 . . . More than half of the world’s countries came into being as political entities [between 1960-1989].” -From Student Atlas of World Geography
How many countries are now in Africa? Does anybody know? Counting them is a futile endeavor, for before you could finish there may well be a couple new ones. What year is your map from? is a question the world traveler must ask. Where the hell did Equatorial Guinea come from? Is Western Sahara a real country? Does a country need a certain amount of surface area to be called as such? Are there any rules to becoming a country?
What is happening to my poor map? My Students World Atlas from the 1980’s that I once studied as a boy lead me astray. I look at it today and there are lines and a kaleidoscope of colors partitioning the once good looking and large mono-color regions. The sums of a country’s parts are no longer satisfied with the value of the whole. They want to be their own whole. And the parts within these parts want to be their own whole as well . . . and on and on.
The political world map now looks like an old Roman fresco. With each year new cracks are formed in the stucco and divides the painting further — dozens of new sherds are partitioning within the old ones — the political map is being divided to death.
Conquest works in waves. The world was once divided into thousands of little kingdoms, fiefdoms, tribes, communities. Separated, these groups were always easy to conquer. One group would grow strong and decimate their neighbors — some spread their conquests over entire continents. A period of empire would then ensue. But soon enough groups would again divide themselves into smaller units, tribes would realize their differences from other tribes and demand — fight for — independence. The empire would then crumble like a Roman fresco of antiquity.
The political dispersion of the world would then break up again into little kingdoms, fiefdoms, tribes, communities. Separated, these little groups would be easy to conquer. One group would prove itself the strongest . . .
On and on.
At what point of the cycle are we in today? Most political states of the world are relatively new, few countries are over 100 years old. New countries are still creating themselves, even after the fall of rampant colonialism, separatist movements are a fire all over the globe. The closer various tribes get to each other the more different they often think they are.
But in the middle of this tribal minimalist movement, huge blankets of political regionalism are evolving. Geographically mandated trade and political agreements are combining the small tribes of the planet into conglomerated chunks.
The European Union is roping in the entire continent and dropping its internal borders, using a common currency, and standing behind a similar international mask. The FTAA has swept in the Americas into one big free trade zone. Colonel Quadafi talked of a single African country in which he would be the “king of kings.” ASEAN has brought Southeast Asia to a singular geo-political point. While the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation ties together Russia and China.
There is now an African Union, the Andean Community of Nations, the Arab League, the Association of Caribbean States, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Commonwealth of Nations, the Francophonie, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, the Pacific Islands Forum, the CARICOM, OECS, OSCE, SAARC, and even an Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.
As the political world fractures, it bonds back together — just to fracture even further and then bond together even more.
I think of the ceramic sherds that I sometimes find while doing archaeology fieldwork. Their material was once clay in the ground, uniform strats of soil that clearly laid on top of other strats — formed from years of soil molecules conglomerating together and dividing apart.
Then a person scooped it up a little of this clay and fashioned it into an independent unit — a clay pot. This clay pot was then transported away from its primordial base and used under new and changing circumstances. Then it was inevitably dropped and shattered into pieces.
Years go by and the pieces fracture into even more pieces. Then an archaeologist finds them and collects them all into a bag and takes them back to the lab. There the ceramic sherds are laid out upon a large table and slowly pieced back together.
Soon enough the pot takes form again. You can still see the cracks in it, as the individual pieces are assembled back together with an adhesive, but the parts come together again as one whole clay pot. It is then placed on display with other similarly pieced together pots.
But I know sometime, someday, this pot will be dropped and broken into pieces once again. And I also know that someday, way in the future, the clay from this pot will disintegrate back into the nameless, unclaimed stratigraphy of the earth.
The same with all of these countries.
“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there. The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the Equator, and in every sort of latitude all over the two hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and… well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after.” -Charlie Marlow in Heart of Darkness
These most blank spaces are now full of lines. For now.
Maps of conquest, maps of empire, of political expansion and fracturing
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