An extremely short history of the concept of boundaries
On the role maps played in creating the nation state.
So, here’s a game you can play at home. Stick the words “map of the world” into a popular and definitely not evil search engine, and the results you get will almost certainly look like this. See if you notice anything odd about them:
There are a couple of different map projections on show there, and a frankly upsetting array of colour schemes. But in a crucial way, all of those maps are exactly the same: they all assume that, when you ask for a map of the world, what you really want is a political map of the world, which shows national boundaries and marks different countries in different colours. This assumption is so embedded in the culture we’ve all grown up in that it might take a second to even realise it’s an assumption at all.
But it is. One could, in theory, be interested in natural geographical features, like rivers and mountains, rather than national boundaries. Even if we stayed in the realm of the human, one might be more interested in the question or where people actually live – maps of cities and population density – rather than the sometimes notional political control over places where they don’t.
Yet, the internet just assumes that the thing we’re all most keen to learn about are the manufactured entities we call nation states. And it does so because, odds are, your brain does so too.
This is not necessarily how our ancestors would have conceived of the world: for much of history, had decent cartography or internet search engines been available, a “map of the world” would have looked very different.
The earliest political entities recognisable to us as states – or at least, the earliest we have records of, which of course is not the same thing – emerged some time in the 4th millennium BCE, in the region sometimes known as the “Fertile Crescent”, stretching from the Nile Valley round to the Persian Gulf. The rulers of these places almost certainly had some sense of what land was definitely their territory, and what definitely wasn’t; but the peripheries were more likely to be fuzzy areas where their influence was limited, rather than hard lines marking out the point where it suddenly stopped.
What lay beyond, what’s more, was less frequently a rival state than a sort of no man’s land, free of political control and home to nomads, plus, probably, an exciting array of people and things that might kill you. There simply weren’t enough humans in the world for all land to be claimed. It’s probably not a coincidence that the first boundary we know of is the one between Upper and Lower Egypt that gets erased by the first pharaohs sometime around 3100BCE: the Nile Valley was one of the few areas fertile and prosperous enough to support rival states that could actually bang into each other.
A situation roughly like this – islands of statehood, in a great ocean of land – seems to have persisted for, well, almost all human history. The great empires of the classical era preferred to rely on natural features – mountains, rivers – for boundaries where possible. Where they did create their own, man-made boundaries, like Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China, they were less about marking the boundary between states than between order and chaos: a way of giving them some form of control.
So the Han Empire, the American historian John Mears wrote in 2001, regarded its great wall “less as a clear, continuous line and more as a cordon sanitaire, a barrier restricting the movement of people and goods over what they regarded as the approximate boundary of their state”. Half a millennium later, on the other side of Eurasia, entire “nations” could and did enter the Roman Empire, and establish themselves as foederati – client kingdoms – within its boundaries. For all the might of those empires, this is a much weaker conception of national boundaries than the one we’re all used to.
The nation state arrived later than we sometimes imagine, too. We live in a world still shaped by two western European countries, England and France, which coalesced early – both are over a thousand years old – and that, plus misleadingly modern looking maps with titles like “Europe in 1000AD” have sometimes led us to imagine a medieval Europe made up of a system of rival states not dissimilar to the one we have now. Until the early modern era, though, “nation” was a distinctly fuzzy concept: people could generally move freely, but towns and territory were constantly traded between noble families by conquest, peace treaty or marriage alliance. (Even in England and France, the edges remained fuzzier a lot longer than we sometimes assume: consider the fact Lancashire doesn’t feature in the Domesday Book, or that Guiseppi Garibaldi, the hero of the Italian revolution, was born in the Savoyard city of Nizza, today better known as the French city of Nice.)
But then, in the 16th and 17th centuries, a couple of related things happened in pretty quick succession to change all that. One was that, thanks to better tools and better printing, maps got a lot better. That was useful as a tool to, say, help you control that piece of land over there that you believed your family owned, and gave political leaders a more spatial sense of their power.
Another was a change in how Europeans, at least, thought of states. It may partly have been the shift to a form of government more based on centralised administration than feudal relationships that did it; a lot of it was also the reformation. But at some point the notion that everyone was in some way under a vague and possibly non-existent thing called Christendom was replaced by a sense of a world made up of independent sovereign states. (This shift is sometimes credited to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, but this turns out to be one of those things about history that everyone “knows” that might be entirely untrue: the relevant treaties have almost nothing to say about sovereignty.)
At any rate, by around the year 1700, maps were starting to show national boundaries in heavier lines than other forms of boundary: the single most important thing to know about a piece of land was which state it belonged to. At the same time, the bigger European powers were gobbling up unincorporated borderlands. Now, states mattered most; everywhere had a state; and the states were not just political units, but sources of cultural identity, too.
This, via European expansion and imperialism, soon – in relative terms, at least – came to define the entire world. By the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson’s USA was defining state boundaries on maps, or parcelling out land to settlers, without any American having got anywhere near them. By the end of the century, the European powers were dividing up Africa – an entire continent – in much the same way. The words of British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury – which, in best British tradition, manage to be amusingly ironic about the terrible thing, while also making clear he had no intention of stopping doing it – sum the results up best. “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” Until a few centuries ago, though this would have been meaningless: how can you divide the world using nothing but a map?
Eventually, of course, the European empires fell (well, most of them; the United States, I believe, is still standing). But many of the lines they drew on the maps survived. And so today’s maps divide the land masses of planet earth into roughly 193 discrete bits, most of which are fewer than two centuries old. What’s more, they strongly suggest the boundaries between them are not only clear: they imply that they’re the only real way of dividing up the planet.
This is a topic I am trying to get my head round for a big thing I am currently working on – more details to follow – so, even more than normal, replies telling me exactly how I am wrong are welcome. Hit reply, or:
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