New book explores the countries that fell off the map


(CNN) — Despite its exotic name, there’s a very good reason you’ve never booked a vacation to the Quilombo of Palmeres. Same goes for the Islands of Refreshment, the Fiume Endeavour and Neutral Moresnet.

They no longer exist.

While the map of the world may look set in stone, it is in fact fluid, with borders constantly shifting due to the forces of geology, politics, conflict or money.

Along the way, numerous new nations have popped into existence, only to be snuffed out a few years, or even days, later when circumstances change once again.

And, as is made very apparent in a new book, “The Atlas of Extinct Countries” by writer Gideon Defoe, the reason for their demise isn’t always a result of international diplomacy, brinkmanship or peace treaty.

Often it’s just down to stupidity.

Defoe has collected the fates of 48 deceased states in his entertaining book, neatly detailing the origins and outcomes of each in a few pithy paragraphs that capture the adventure, scheming and incompetence involved.

Every entry is topped by a cause of death that ranges from the banal (sold to the British) to the cavalier (the toss of a coin) to the downright weird (telephones.)

The book, meticulously researched but written for genuine laughs, was inspired by tales that self-confessed “map nerd” Defoe has been collecting over the years.

These included some from the groundwork for his series of funny novels about hapless 19th-century buccaneers — adapted into the 2012 animated movie “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” — but probably not his 2005 book about how animals have sex.

“I remember as a kid, discovering that the shapes on the map didn’t always stay the same made my head explode,” Defoe tells CNN Travel. “I thought it was kind of a lost kingdom of Atlantis situation, but it’s not like that, the stories are far more stupid.”

Chancers and crackpots

Take the Republic of Sonora, a large coastal region of modern-day Mexico, which briefly coughed into a lopsided sort of existence in 1853 at the hands of William Walker, a disreputable opportunist who rustled up a 50-strong army to back his claim.

It eventually fizzled out after Walker’s army, whittled down to 30 by “illness, desertion and bandits,” marched with its president into US custody. Cause of country death: “Nobody took it seriously.”

Defoe divides the countries up into several categories, depending on their circumstances — there are “puppets & political footballs,” “lies & lost kingdoms” and “mistakes & micronations.”

Sonora is filed under “chancers & crackpots.” It seems there’s a type when it comes to creating short-lived nations.

“There is an odd psychological profile of these guys,” Defoe says. “They’re often writers from a single-parent family with a dead dad. I share that with them, but I haven’t started my own country, because I’m not nuts.”

In the book, Defoe augments that description with “serially unfaithful, stint in the army or navy… can’t be trusted with money, fantasist.”

Fitting the mold is Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio,(“flagrant self-publicist, would-be necromancer, terrible teeth”) who — when not making his kids call him “maestro” or sleeping with an eagle — set up the Fiume Endeavour.

As was the case with many of these countries, the Italian speaking region of Fiume was redesignated by a pen stroke during horsetrading over frontiers at the end of World War I. It suddenly found itself in newly formed Yugoslavia.

Seeing an opportunity, D’Annuzio, backed by a violent gang of “legionnaires,” seized the territory and then presided over confusion and anarchy for just over a year until, after incurring the wrath of Italy, he called it a day on the basis of a coin toss.

‘Degrees of unpleasantness’

Moresnet is now part of Belgium.

Moresnet is now part of Belgium.

flamenc / CC BY-SA

Neutral Moresnet is another tiny nation penciled into existence by larger countries carving up disputed territory, this time at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Created in 1816, it contained little more than a zinc mine stuck between Belgium and Prussia.

“I have a bit of a soft spot for Neutral Moresnet,” says Defoe. “Despite it sounding like quite a boring shade of paint.

“Neutral Moresnet is a place where a couple of bigger boys can’t agree on who should own a strip of land, so end up deciding it doesn’t belong to anybody. No one ever asks the people who live there what they think.”

The triangular territory actually survived just over a century, until it was absorbed into Belgium at the end of World War I. For a while, it was able to sustain itself with the zinc mine. When that closed, it tried to diversify, with only limited success.

“It’s charming how this country tries to establish itself,” says Defoe. “They set up a gin distillery and produce their own stamps, because they think that they’ll appeal to collectors.

“They even considered becoming the world’s only Esperanto-speaking state — Esperanto itself embodies such a nice optimistic view of the future.

“It’s really sweet, Neutral Moresnet is the one I’m rooting for and I’m quite sad that in the aftermath of the First World War it’s forgotten again and unceremoniously given to Belgium.”

Other charming highlights include the sudden “extra-territorial” statehood bestowed on Ottawa Civic Hospital’s maternity ward in 1943 so that Princess Juliana of the Netherlands could give birth to a potential heir somewhere not classed as foreign soil.

There are much darker stories too, involving what Defoe calls “degrees of unpleasantness.”

“A lot of it is Victorian white dudes doing that Victorian white dude thing, with very little respect to the populace that’s there,” he says.

‘Too evil for Europe’

Few stories are more wretched than that of the Congo Free State, formed in 1885 in central Africa through some very shady business dealings by Belgium’s King Leopold II.

Sidestepping his own democratic government, Leopold used a private enterprise to acquire vast tracts of land and then turned it into a gigantic rubber plantation in which the inhabitants were forced to work, effectively creating a slave state.

Surprisingly, at a time when empire expansion and exploitation was at its peak, the atrocities committed in Leopold’s name outraged Belgium’s European neighbors, forcing his own embarrassed government to take the Congo Free State off his hands.

Cause of death: “Too evil even for turn-of-the-century Europe to stomach.”

Defoe says that while he’s used to conjuring up surreal and sometimes silly plot lines for his novels, the tales collected in “The Atlas of Extinct Countries” are often far more outlandish.

“A lot of this stuff is so ludicrous that you wouldn’t make it up,” he says. “It’s better, and more unlikely, than anything my imagination could’ve come up with.”

And, he says, in a world where borders are still contested and people lust for power, there are more stories yet to be written.

“I just think there will never be a static set of borders,” Defoe adds. “So hopefully I’ll get a sequel out of it in another 30 years.”



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