Written by: Michael Kravshik.
Do nations deserve land rights? I’m not talking about countries with modern political borders, nor am I debating individual private land ownership. The word nation, in this situation, means a group of people who share a common culture, language, ethnicity, descent or history and not a political state. This question underlies many world issues, yet it is rarely asked. The answer is usually assumed to be yes, a group of people ‘indigenous’ to a geographical area deserves the right to that land. In fact, I’ve been called quite a few ugly things for voicing my concerns about that particular assumption. Many of those who support this assumption of national land claims do so because of the warm feelings associated with supporting some minority group’s rights. Many have not even really given the question much thought. However, the more one reads history, the more that assumption seems to make very little sense. In addition, this assumption usually leads to confrontations, and many times conflicts, that last for ages with little potential of being resolved. To explain why this assumption does not seem reasonable will require some history, so please try and stick with me. I will try to keep it as short as possible, while still providing a detailed account. I can assure you that the story is far more complicated and I’d ask that historians pardon the relative brevity of the explanation. If it were any longer this would become a history lesson and fail to make my point. I will use merry old England as a relatively non-contentious example (making efforts to leave Scotland, Wales, and Ireland out of the equation), but one which can be applied similarly to any other area on Earth.
The year was 43 AD and the Roman Emperor Claudius finally added Britannia to his empire after almost a century of indirect Roman contact and influence. The ‘indigenous people,’ or at least the current inhabitants of the island, were people we can loosely define as Celts (sometimes called Britons). Although this group was originally from the continent and most likely conquered and assimilated or exterminated some previous inhabitants, I will use this date as our starting point since 2000 years should be enough to make the point. The Romans occupied for over 300 years, and over that time many of the locals assimilated partially or entirely into Roman culture. The empire eventually crumbled, but its cultural influence remained. As Roman rule evaporated in the fourth century, waves of Germanic tribes (not to be confused with modern Germans) started invading and settling the island. These peoples were the Angles and the Saxons as well as a few other smaller groups who came from the continent, and by around 600 AD they controlled most of modern England. This new group of invaders pushed Celtic culture to the extremities of the British Isles, and their ancestors (to a certain degree) are the people we now know of as Scots, Welsh and Irish. In addition, some of these people themselves settled a part of Northern France now known as Brittany. By the end of the 8th century, the people who controlled and lived in what is now modern England were a cultural and ethnic stew of Celts, Romans (who themselves were quite ethnically diverse), Angles, Saxons, etc… At this time, a new set of invaders came on the scene. These people were the ones we now refer to as Vikings. At that time however, most would have referred to them simply as North Men (people from Scandinavia and Denmark). They began their excursions as raids, raping and pillaging their way across the wealthy English coast. The English monasteries made juicy targets for these sea raiders, who returned often and many times even settled where they raided. Sometimes the English Kings would fight the invaders, and other times just pay them off. For a century or two this continued with back and forth political control by English and Danish Kings (known as the Danelaw) in parts of England until the fateful year of 1066. During that year, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England Harold Godwinson (who himself had some ‘Viking’ blood in him) delivered a stunning defeat over King Harald III of Norway at Stamford Bridge, only to be pressed by another invasion down south near a town called Hastings. After force-marching his troops to meet the new invaders he was defeated at the hands of William, the Duke of Normandy. You might be more familiar with his alias William the Conqueror. Who were these Normans? Well, the word derives from North Man, and indeed they were Vikings too… kind of. Sparing you the long and winding tale of the Normans, lets just say that they themselves had conquered what is now Northern France, and partially assimilated into Frankish culture. So the Norwegian Northmen or ‘Vikings’ or whatever you want to call them lost, but their not so distant, partially Frankish, cousins managed to put the nail in the coffin, and William, Duke of Normandy became William I of England. Over the following thousand years, the English – who we now know are a big mix of various backgrounds – did most of the conquering and pillaging themselves, eventually taking over a large part of the world. Although they haven’t had any massive invasions and settlements of foreign peoples since, they did have a Dutchman (William of Orange), and eventually some Germans (the ancestors of our lovely Royal family today) become their rulers. For the first time in a thousand years, and thankfully not through invasion, there are massive influxes of foreign peoples settling England. Over the next century, the ethnic and cultural make-up of the population is bound to change yet again.
So I must ask you then…who are the English? What ethnic national movement deserves the land rights to England? Do the descendants of the Celts have a claim (I’m sure that’d make the Irish real happy)? What about a group that traces their lineage to the Angles or the Saxons (without any DNA mixing in between of course)? How about our modern Normans, or Bretons? Does England belong to their national movement? I’m sure the English would love the idea of a French claim on their land.
Remember that I haven’t even gone into detail, and that I only started 2000 years ago. I’m not exactly sure who was there or what happened before 43 AD, but I’m absolutely sure it involved people being raped and pillaged, and included various tribes, or clans, or nations being wiped out or assimilated along the way. In addition, England is a relatively simple version of this recurring story. Being a reclusive island on the fringe of Europe, England had less contact, less conquering, and less DNA mixing than your standard continental European town, or South Asian region, or North African tribe.
This concept applies to every piece of land on Earth. Human history is filled with this story, and its not just limited to Europeans. When people say the word indigenous people, my first question is: starting in what year? The tricky part is that the farther we go back, the less we know, and the more mixing occurred along the way. People always refer to the tale of how Europeans stole Native American land. Well does anyone talk about how the Inca’s stole countless other native tribes’ land? Sure the Spanish stole it from them, but the age old cycle of stealing land, raping, pillaging, assimilating and exterminating did not start in the 1520’s when Cortez took Mexico, or the 1530’s when Pizzaro destroyed the Incas. I can’t tell you when it started, but I do know that our ancient ancestors ‘conquered’ the whole world from other types of pre-human species like Neanderthals (although I think we tend to label that evolution). Should we revive those ancient and extinct species Jurassic Park style and give them back the land we stole from them? Well now I just sound ridiculous, don’t I?
That’s exactly how this question always sounds to me. The concept of national land rights really just doesn’t make any sense.
When was the starting point? Who decides on that special year when everyone had their ‘own’ land, and all the conquering after that was ‘stealing’?
Actually, we know who decided. Every single national, cultural or ethnic group has always chosen whichever year fits their narrative and their interests the best. And that’s the problem. Two, three or four groups of people can all claim to be native to an area, can call some ditch or mountain or field ‘their’ rightful land, as long as you start the story when they controlled it or lived there.
It’s not our land, or their land, it’s humanity’s land (perhaps PETA would disagree on that one). The follow-up question is obvious, who should control what land? I think there are many different reasons that certain modern states should have sovereignty over certain land, mostly surrounding their use of the land and their treatment of peoples (majorities and minorities) inside of it. However, that argument will have to wait until another day (feel free to comment below with your thoughts). It is also important to keep in mind that in spite of our ideals, power has always, and still continues to affect this equation. Wishing that fact away is not realistic, or helpful.
The concept of national land rights is not only ludicrous from a historical perspective, it is also extremely prone to creating unsolvable problems, confrontations and conflicts that don’t end unless one group gives up their claim…or ceases to exist.
This is my opinion. What’s yours?
Special thanks to Dorothy Charach for her editing advice