Saturday, April 6, 2013


A few days ago, I posted this item about governments who bring up ancient territorial grievances when they need to distract the attention of the populace from other matters – such as the governments’ incompetence.

These claims, and the problems they cause, are common enough that historians have a word for the phenomenon – revanchism. This is derived from the French word for ‘revenge’ and was apparently coined as a result of the French desire to regain the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which they lost after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. They got Alsace-Lorraine back in World War I. Of course, Germany lost a lot of territory then, which they wanted back, and …

Well, that’s another whole subject.

I just used a few examples, but it’s worth noting that just about every piece of land on the face of the earth (hyperbole alert!) belonged to somebody other than the present owner at some point in time. And many places have had multiple owners.

Example, the Black Hills of South Dakota: This piece of land was the proximate cause of Custer’s Last Stand, after the US government evicted the Lakota (Sioux) when gold was discovered there.

Not a nice thing to do, obviously. Should it be given back to the Sioux? If so, then the Sioux should immediately give it to the Kiowas, from whom they took it in 1776.  As Wikipedia describes the history:

Native Americans have inhabited the area since at least 7000 BC. The Arikara arrived by 1500 AD, followed by the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Pawnee. The Lakota (also known as Sioux) arrived from Minnesota in the 18th century and drove out the other tribes, who moved west.

So, based on historical claims, who should own the Black Hills? Got me – even the Arikara presumably stole it from somebody else.

One of the things I should have mentioned in the earlier post is that each of those examples I cited (Philippines’ claim to Malaysian Sabah, Bolivia’s claim to Chilean Antofagasta, Argentina’s claim to UK's Falklands) likewise could be reasonably justified, on a historical basis. Bringing these subjects up is not just a matter of wagging the dog, though that is how they are generally used.

I won’t go into detail on them because they can be very complicated (and boring). But a quick look at the Sabah situation will suffice. In 1878, the Sultan of Sulu, who then had control over North Borneo (which is now Sabah) sold it to the North Borneo Company (a British trading firm). Or maybe he only leased it – the versions of the treaty in English and Sulu differ on that point.

But, in any case, you can argue that Sabah should belong to the Philippines (which through the Spanish, and then Americans, eventually inherited the Sultan’s claims). But what can’t be disputed is that it does belong to Malaysia, and has done so (counting predecessor governments) for 135 years.

It also can’t be disputed that the people of Sabah voted to join Malaysia in 1963, when the Brits moved out. And to me, the will of the local people should always be the main point in regard to any of these territorial arguments.

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