Thursday 8 March 2012

When is a country not a country?

Did you ever see Danny Wallace's wonderful BBC TV series How to start your own Country when he declared his flat a whole new nation and became its king?

It was witty and charming and, of course, no one took him seriously but the show threw up all kinds of interesting questions about exactly what defines a nation. Geographical boundaries? Its people? Its culture? Its language? The size of the population?

It's a question I've been considering today upon reading the news that the people of Kiribati are negotiating the sale of parts of Fiji so that they can relocate. As reported in yesterday's Telegraph, Anote Tong, the Kiribati president, has said that he's in talks to buy up to 5,000 acres of freehold land on which his people could be housed.

Kiribati consists of 32 low-lying, flat coral atolls, which straddle the equator over 1,350,000 square miles of ocean. And they are slowly disappearing as, globally, the seas are rising. Most of the 113,000 population lives on Tarawa, a chain of islets which curve in a horseshoe shape around a lagoon.

Entire nation of Kiribati to be relocated over rising sea level threat

'This is the last resort, there's no way out of this one,' Mr Tong said. 'Our people will have to move as the tides have reached our homes and villages.' Last year he suggested the possibility of constructing man-made islands like oil rigs for people to live on.

So, if the population moves to Fiji, do they become Fijians? Will the Kiribati nation survive? Even if they were dispersed around the globe, would they still be a nation? It's interesting to speculate that social media may keep them all together. If we can be said to have a gay community and a black community - even though individual members are separated by distance and geography - could there still be a nation of Kiribati even when their land no longer exists?

There is some resonance here with my own heritage. I come from Cornwall which, until the Middle Ages, was a separate kingdom with a unique language and culture. As the word 'kingdom' suggests, it even had a monarch and my parents chose my middle name after King Mark. Cornwall, or Kernow as it is in Cornish, managed to retain much of its cultural identity by almost being an island; surrounded on three sides by the sea and separated from Devon and the rest of the UK by the wide river Tamar, it was possible to put up a good defence. However, the Wessex Anglo-Saxon armies hugely outnumbered the Cornish and parts of the kingdom were evetually conquered. Once a foothold was gained, the end was inevitable. Independence was eventually lost under the reign of Edward the Confessor (King of Wessex 1042-1066). Then, in 1337, King Edward III of England 'gave' Cornwall to his eldest son Edward 'the Black Prince'. He became the first Duke of Cornwall, a title that is still given to the eldest son of a reigning monarch and is currently held by Prince Charles. From that time Cornwall was declared forever part of England by the monarch and parliament ... but not by its people who clung tenaciously to their language and traditions until the 18th century, even taking part in several bloody rebellions which were ruthlessly crushed. Even then, the language never died out; it may not have been a first language any more but it was kept alive and, in the 20th century, enjoyed a huge resurgence in interest.

And yet, here in 2012, there are thousands of people who consider themselves Cornish men and women and won't be called English. British yes, but not English. The more militant factions are seeking independence, claiming that Cornwall has as much right as other 'stolen' territories such as India, Hong Kong, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Africa etc. to be given back to its people. Their claim is not recognised by the British government. Admittedly, size is a factor. Unlike Wales and Scotland that are large areas made up of several counties, Cornwall is small and singular. But it is utterly unique in its archaeology, history and culture, and the language has gained official recognition under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 2002. It is now taught in many Cornish schools. And last Monday, the 5th of March, St Piran's Day, there were parades and events all over the world by Cornish people celebrating their patron saint and their heritage.

So who or what defines Cornwall as a nation? Its people or a government that they see as 'foreign'? As I said, there's a similar question to be asked about Kiribati; once the people become part of Fiji, will they be able to claim that they are still a nation?


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