Jeremiah Heaton of Abingdon, Va., is getting quite a bit of attention for claiming a swath of East African desert as sovereign territory so that his daughter can be a “real princess”:
“As a parent you sometimes go down paths you never thought you would,” Heaton said.
Within months, Heaton was journeying through the desolate southern stretches of Egypt and into an unclaimed 800-square-mile patch of arid desert. There, on June 16 — Emily’s seventh birthday — he planted a blue flag with four stars and a crown on a rocky hill. The area, a sandy expanse sitting along the Sudanese border, morphed from what locals call Bir Tawil into what Heaton and his family call the “Kingdom of North Sudan.”
There, Heaton is the self-described king and Emily is his princess.
I’ll leave it to others at Slate to judge whether it's wise for a parent to indulge a kid's princess fantasy to this extent. But what about the pressing geostrategic implications of Princess Emily's bold bid for national sovereignty?
Bir Tawil is an interesting geographic oddity, a dry patch of uninhabited land that neither Egypt nor Sudan has claimed mainly because they’re both far more interested in a larger neighboring region. This makes it one of the very few unclaimed patches of terra nullius on the Earth today. Well, not totally unclaimed. Heaton may want to speak with the 14 “citizens” of Bir Tawil registered on this Blogger page that doesn’t seem to have been updated in about 4 years.
Heaton’s move is a bit reminiscent of this great Eddie Izzard routine about how Britain built a global empire through “the cunning use of flags”:
It’s not entirely inaccurate. As Robert J. Miller of Lewis & Clark Law School explained in 2007, planting flags or other objects were a common method of claiming territory during the age of exploration:
In 1776-78, for example, Capt. James Cook established English claims to British Columbia by burying bottles of English coins in several locations. In 1774, he erased Spanish marks of possession in Tahiti and replaced them with English ones. On learning of this, Spain dispatched explorers to restore its claim. Nearly 40 years earlier, in 1742-49, French military expeditions buried lead plates along the Ohio River. The plates stated that they were "a renewal of possession" that dated from 1643.
Americans also staked their claims. The Lewis and Clark expedition marked and branded trees and rocks in the Pacific Northwest to prove the American presence and claim to the region…..A decade later, as the U.S. and England argued about dueling discovery claims to the Pacific Northwest, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and President James Monroe ordered American officials back to the Columbia "to reassert the title of the United States." In August 1818, Capt. James Biddle performed a textbook discovery ritual: In the presence of Chinook Indians on the north side of the Columbia River, he raised the U.S. flag, turned the soil with a shovel and nailed up a lead plate inscribed: "Taken possession of, in the name and on the behalf of the United States by Captain James Biddle." He repeated the performance on the south shore of the Columbia, with a wooden sign declaring American ownership of the region.
That sort of thing has mostly gone out of style, mostly because they’re not really much territory left to claim, though a Russian submersible did plant a flag on the seabed under the North Pole in in 2007, prompting Canada’s foreign minister to scoff, “This isn’t the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags.”
As for Heaton's North Sudan—a name which I’m guessing could be slightly problematic given that there’s already a country north of South Sudan that just calls itslef Sudan—he says he plans to reach out to the African Union for recognition. To be considered a state under the common definition used by international law, North Sudan would need “a ) a permanent population; b ) a defined territory; c ) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” At the moment, it maybe has b.
I hate to be too earnest and pedantic about a local news-of-the-weird story, but this has gotten a lot of attention and feels like an unfortunate publicity stunt to pull given this region’s history of foreigners making territorial claims and redrawing boundaries. Even if it's all in good fun, the optics of a white American man boasting to the news media about ruling an African kingdom aren't great.
I'm guessing the funds required for Heaton's Bir Tawil odyssey could have financed both a generous charitable donation to help a struggling region as well as a healthy quantity of Frozen merchandise for Princess Emily.