I love it when a new visitor arrives on the Twelve Mile Circle from a geographic location previously unrepresented. It offers me an opportunity to focus on another spot on the globe while simultaneously carving a new notch on my visitor map. The South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu checked in today.
Some of you are probably thinking, “enough with the visitors already… let’s get back to the geo-oddities” and for those folks I’ll offer a few words of comfort: unrepresented countries on this website have become increasingly obscure so the chance of recording new visitors decreases correspondingly, meaning, I’ll have fewer opportunities to do this in the future. Also, I have plenty of oddities sitting in the hopper waiting for articles to be written. No worries, we’ll get back to them. In the meantime I hope you’ll forgive my relentless need to count things.
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Vanuatu occupies a volcanic archipelago situated northeast of Australia, southeast of New Guinea and west of Fiji. It became the Republic of Vanuatu (Ripablik blong Vanuatu), an independent nation, in 1980. For much of the Twentieth Century however it was known as the New Hebrides and it was administered through one of the rarest forms of government in existence, a condominium. That’s a situation where two or more sovereign nations share equal domain over a single territory.
A Condominium is an unwieldy form of government that often breaks down under its own weight which is why so few of them exist today in any meaningful form. We’ve discussed a couple of these previously including one between Luxembourg and Germany and another between France and Spain. However it reached particular heights of absurdity in the New Hebrides.
That has all been left in the past now although English and French continue to be official languages along with Bislama (a form of Creole English). They all compete with over 100 indigenous languages spread along the archipelago, a place "with the highest density of languages per capita in the world."
The total population of Vanuatu is only about 250,000 strung along four primary islands and lots of its 80 smaller islands. It’s also pretty small geographically with 12,189 square kilometres of land, placing Vanuatu at 163rd on the list of nations by size (that’s slightly larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut for the benefit of my blogger friend from CTMQ). It’s amazing that a visitor from Vanuatu came to the website considering that it’s home to a small, primarily non-English speaking nation that’s distributed among a string of islands that probably have minimal Internet connectivity outside of a handful of the larger towns.
Specifically my mystery visitor arrived from a location in Port Vila, the capital city.
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Port Vila is also the largest city in Vanuatu with a population of probably 30,000-40,000 people. It is also the economic engine for the nation. A campus of the University of the South Pacific is located there, which undoubtedly hosts a number of well-educated, English-proficient students. It also contains the seat of government as well as commercial centers which would imply a higher probability of English speakers at least as a secondary language. Port Vila would be a logical guess for a website visitor from Vanuatu, and indeed that’s the case.
All this recent talk on Twelve Mile Circle about strange European borders and condominium arrangements brings me to one of my favorite former anomalies: Neutral Moresnet, which existed as somewhat of a no-man’s-land lodged firmly between sovereign neighbors from 1816 to 1920.
Europe looked different as Napoleon’s empire dissolved. Negotiations took place and territories were doled out among the victors. A United Kingdom of the Netherlands emerged. The Kingdom held discussions with its neighbor, the Kingdom of Prussia, to formalize their common border. Talks between the two kingdoms were generally successful since they agreed to recognize older, established boundaries.
They carved and they sliced and they compromised, until they were down to a single small triangle of land of just 3.5 square kilometers (1 square mile) left unresolved. This was a spot containing a zinc mine with valuable mineral deposits coveted by both nations. Temporarily they decided to leave it as neutral territory to be administered jointly — a condominium — until they could figure out how to deal with it. This quick fix would last for more than a hundred years, with Belgium inheriting the Dutch role upon its independence in 1830.
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These are the approximate boundaries of what was once Neutral Moresnet, now part of Belgium. The southern border followed a road between Liège and Aachen. The northern tip terminated at the spot that today is the Belgium-Germany-Netherlands (BEDENL) tripoint at Vaalserberg. It’s main town is Kelmis and its inhabitants speak German as their native language. This is somewhat unusual for Belgium. Even though German is one of its three official languages, it is used by less than one percent of its population except within these borderlands.
A mining company dominated the history of Neutral Moresnet, employing its populace, owning the homes and running its shops. It was a company town that existed solely to extract zinc from the surrounding countryside within the borders of the condominium. At its height perhaps 4,000 people lived here, enjoying full employment, low taxes and an exemption from compulsory military service to either of its custodians. The sovereign neighbors each designated a royal commissioner who in turn appointed a mayor to run the little territory. Neutral Moresnet had neither independence nor inclusion within a sovereign nation, rather it existed in an odd limbo in-between.
Condominium arrangements collapse over time and Neutral Moresnet met this predictable fate. First the zinc played out and weakened its underlying premise for existence. Next, Belgium and Germany fought on opposing sides of the First World War. To the victor go the spoils and Neutral Moresnet became part of Belgium in the aftermath, to be formally annexed in 1920. Germany briefly reclaimed it during the Second World War but it returned to Belgium permanently afterwords. A much more detailed discussion of its colorful history (including an odd tie-in with the Esperanto language) can be found on Wikipedia’s Neutral Moresnet page.
Vaalserberg literally means "Mount Vaals." I love it when a whole bunch of strange geographic coincidences collide. Not only is this point the northern terminus of the old Neutral Moresnet condominium and the location of the current BEDENL tripoint, but in addition it’s the Netherlands Highpoint at 323 meters (1059 feet). Outstanding!
A condominium is a concept in international law that describes a geographic area shared in equal sovereignty by two nations. As a practical matter, it creates a genuinely unusual and often impractical solution. The condominium isn’t distinctly part of any one nation but by agreement it’s within the control of both. It has no standing on its own and has no independent sovereignty. This type of situation does not generally last for long since it depends upon a shared arrangement between independent sovereign parties. Eventually the arrangement collapses as one or the other tires of the it.
Here are some condominiums that exist in the modern world, courtesy of Wikipedia’s condominium page.
SOURCE: Community map from the Commune de Schengen (Luxembourg)
Generally a river border belongs to one country or the other, will run down the thalweg or be otherwise split between them. That is not the case with the Mosel River that runs between Luxembourg and Germany. It is controlled jointly in a condominium arrangement. Notice the circle drawn on the topographic map where France joins the condominium. The French border runs down the middle, but follow it north and notice that the borders of Luxembourg and German BOTH hug their respective banks! The point on the little river island where France and the condominium intersect is often described as the "DEFRLU Tripoint.” I’m not sure if it’s really a tripoint that’s actually a line running along the southern edge of the condominium, or not really a tripoint at all. Either way, it’s very odd.
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There is a second condominium in Europe, a small island on the River Bidasoa between France and Spain: Pheasant Island. Each country maintains control for six months of the year and then turns control over to the other. Historically, this was the site of the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees which ended the 30 Years’ War between the two countries. So it’s not simply some obscure plot of land in the middle of a river.
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The final condominium involves a small tip of land on the Arabian Peninsula shared between Oman and the emirate of Ajman (part of the United Arab Emirates). Drill down on this satellite map and you’ll notice what appears to be a small town. This must make for an interesting situation for the inhabitants. Are they citizens of Oman or the UAE? Both? Neither? Are they citizens of anywhere?
One more area that is often considered a condominium is not: Andorra. This nation is often lumped into the condominium category but it’s actually a co-principality and a sovereign state.