Earth is a huge planet, far larger and impossibly more complicated than any fantasy realm. Its vastness is often concealed from us, particularly in the way that common map projections section the Pacific Ocean and stretch and warp Asia. One region has the opposite problem—common maps make it look far larger and wider than it is. The Arctic Ocean is the world’s smallest, surrounded by landmasses so close together that, in colder times, every one of them was linked by a single mass of ice. The eastern Arctic is defined by Russia steamrolling over a multiplicity of indigenous peoples speaking languages from numerous families. The western Arctic, by contrast, is the story of two specific tribes expanding, colliding, and deciding how best to maneuver around one another: the Norse and the Inuit.
And because North American map-readers can’t seem to make heads or tails of that one huge island next to Canada in particular, it’s worth a look.
Most of the stories in Shifty Lines are and will be about separatist conflicts. Particularly in Africa, though, the simple separatist concept does not accurately reflect the goals of the border-rearrangement movements. While this is fairly obvious in North Africa, where two of the major ethnic groups with nation-state aspirations are spread across multiple countries, eastern Africa presents a different case. In East Africa, like the Caribbean, a large-scale effort to combine several countries into a single federated state is underway, and stands a decent chance of success.
The South Pacific rarely features in anyone’s mental registers of conflict zones. The region was a major theater of World War II, but it was settled very late in human history and discovered very late by colonizers. Its extreme isolation meant that it has mostly avoided creating indigenous conquering empires or being riven apart by colonial divisions, especially when compared to Africa or western Asia. So it’s fitting, in a way, that the westernmost edge of the Pacific region, where it blends into Asia, should be home to a long-running conflict alternately dubbed “Asia’s Palestine” and “the forgotten war.” (Someone tell that first group that Palestine is in Asia). The struggle to turn New Guinea into a free and united Papua receives far too little attention and even less understanding, which is far less than this fascinating region deserves.
After the binge that was Shifty Lines: South Asia, a smaller helping of international relations is in order. And as Ukraine and Russia still have some sorting out to do before their situation makes enough sense to summarize in this space, we will visit a less grandiose conflict: the Cyprus crisis.
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire set up many of the conflicts explored in the Shifty Lines series, in particular those in the Persosphere, the Caucasus, the Arab world, and the Balkans. The wholesale revolt of southeastern Europe against Ottoman rule took place in large part because of the emerging ideas of ethnic nationalism and self-determination, which prodded the long-suffering peoples of the Balkans to expel this latest empire and make their own way in the world. At the same time, similar sentiments elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire had little chance to develop before they were commandeered and squelched by older European powers, in particular the French and British. Where southeastern Europe divided into new nation-states that have mostly held steady (what became Yugoslavia being a notable exception), the re-colonized Ottoman possessions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant remain divided along colonial lines that serve as persistent sources of conflict. The island of Cyprus is at the intersection of these two patterns.
A Succession of Empires
As I’ve explored at length before, North America’s history has largely been a story of separate British colonies combining into larger independent countries. This has made the formation of Canada and the United States in particular quite distinct from the otherwise similar independence movements in Latin America, which fragmented from approximately seven colonial units into 18 countries by the beginning of the 20th century. However, there is one part of the Americas where the British legacy has not followed this pattern, and where it more closely resembles the postcolonial histories of Africa. Since I vacation in this region regularly with my family, I’d like to give it the attention it deserves.