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Terra Nullius

Farmers first reached Orkney on boats that took them across the narrow – but treacherously dangerous – Pentland Firth from mainland Scotland. These were the people of the New Stone Age, and they brought cattle, pigs and sheep with them, as well as grain to plant and ploughs to till the land. The few hunter-gatherers already living on Orkney were replaced and farmsteads were established across the archipelago.

There are very few places and or peoples that have settled proper terra nullius. Entirely uninhabited regions.

Off the top of my head I can really only think of two: Maoris in New Zealand (and OK, all of the associated expansion across the Pacific Islands to Hawaii etc) and the Portuguese on Madeira. There\’s even significant doubt now as to whether the Amerinds were the first to the Americas via Siberia.

The point being that almost all of the \”it\’s our land, the invaders stole it from us\” stuff is in fact just one group of descendants of land thieves complaining about being usurped by a later set of such.

And yes, this does indeed describe such places as Southern Africa. The Bantu got there only marginally before the Dutch, indeed, for the area beyond the Fish River, afterwards. Hottentots (or perhaps we should call them Kung! now?) had the place before either: and Pygmies much of the area further north.

Or if you prefer: there\’s nothing unique about the European expansion of the past 500 years. The technology and the skin colour perhaps, but not much else.

16 thoughts on “Terra Nullius”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    Mauritius. No people on it when the Dutch found it.

    And if only sugar had not required slaves and/or cheap indentured servants from India. It would have been a tropical New Zealand. Instead …. it isn’t. It isn’t too bad. But it is not New Zealand.

  2. What about the Aborigines of Australia, who ironically became the target of the quote you titled this post with? I thought they got here early enough that there weren’t any humans who could have preceded them.

  3. Most of the Atlantic island groups outside of the caribbean were uninhabited until relatively recently: Faroes, Iceland, Azores, Bermuda, Falklands, Cape Verde …

    One of the few groups that was inhabited was the Canaries , we don’t know much about them as the culture did not survive Spanish colonisation

  4. Madagascar – settled from Borneo prob in 3rd century AD.

    Iceland – first settled by a few Irish monks some decades (presumably) before the Vikings arrived.

  5. Well said, Tim. This point is also quite relevant with regards to “Native Americans”. (I use the quotes precisely due to the ambiguity over who is truly native, as implied by your post.)

    Yes, they were largely displaced and sometimes exterminated by what can be accurately characterized as folk migrations. But those tribes that were displaced and sometimes exterminated had quite frequently displaced, subordinated, absorbed and/or exterminated earlier inhabitants, who had done the same to even earlier ones. How often that transpired is lost to time. But given the frequency with which it occurred in historical times, no doubt quite often.

    On a related point, the romanticizing of warrior tribes by those who lament their defeat at European hands always struck me as contradictory. Who were these warriors fighting before the arrival of Europeans, eh? A warrior culture doesn’t spring up over night-it is produced over centuries, if not longer. And doesn’t that have some bearing on their moral claim?

  6. In one sense, every piece of land on Earth outside the Rift Valley in East Africa was once terra nullius – in another sense, it’s mostly islands, and generally not particularly accessible ones.

    For there to be institutional continuity back to the original inhabitants, without displacement by force, we’re talking about places first settled in historical times by literate people. Even the Maori don’t have complete records of land title back to the founders.

    Madeira does. Some of the other North Atlantic islands do.

    The Falklands do, I think.

  7. I suppose the only places on a continent where the aboriginals might survive would be such harsh environments that noone else would invest the mortality effort to conquer, viz deserts.
    But if I recall, even Inuit culture shows evidence (mostly linguistic) of successive waves of migration.

  8. Are you sure about Madeira, Tim?
    Could it have been a sort of Easter Island before the arrival of the Portuguese?

  9. Matthew L, there is a reasonable amount of doubt whether the Australian Aborigines who were here at the time of European settlement were descendants of the original immigrants to Aust or from later waves. The current inhabitants may well have displaced earlier ones. It’s not an especially fashionable theory, but it’s possible.

  10. Craig Pirrong

    The accepted wisdom is that the Americas were settled by a handful of people who walked across the Baring Straits somewhere between 15K and 18K years ago (that’s before our current interglacial, when sea levels much lower).

    Prior to that it had no humans.

    So no natives to be beastly to, although there are suspicions that the immigrants offed all the local megafauna.

    Agree with the general point though.

  11. There is an alternate theory – a man with a gun and some mates just declares the land terra nullis – and so takes it.
    It is only lately that social workers and the like outrank the man with the gun ( and his mates).
    And soon the breeders will replace the talkers.
    And so it goes.

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