Concluding Research Post

In this final post, I’ll discuss the various paths my research took this summer.  At the beginning of the summer, I had a core interest (terra nullius in Svalbard) but the periphery of my project was poorly defined.  This was partly by design, as one of my main goals was to find similar anomalies in international law.  Anomalies are, by their very nature, difficult to locate and categorize systemically.  My initial strategy was to check legal cases involving terra nullius (Eastern Greenland, Western Sahara, etc) to see if they exhibited similar behavior.  This strategy served only to deepen the mystery, as only 13 years after the end of the Svalbard negotiations, the Eastern Greenland case used terra nullius in its current customary manner (acquisitive nullification).  What caused such a rapid transformation in the usage of terra nullius?  It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  My honors thesis, as I currently understand it, will undertake two main tasks to ease the difficulty of answering the main question.

First, I will create a taxonomy of territorial transformation, with acquisitive nullification and distributive nullification as the two main categories.  I will then try to situate the imperial strategy of restrictive sovereignty into this framework.  I think that cases like the Guano Islands Act described in “The Edges of Empire and the Limits of Sovereignty: American Guano Islands” by Christina Duffy Burnett and Japan’s colonization of Hokkaido detailed in “Ainu Ethnicity and the Boundaries of the Early Modern Japanese State” by David L. Howell dovetail nicely with that of Svalbard.  In all three cases, political, social, and cultural factors encouraged a much more hesitant approach to the acquisition and control of territory than might be expected.  The existence of such historical examples poses a challenge to the neat separation of acquisitive and distributive nullification, so my task will be overcoming this difficulty and forging a coherent narrative of imperial strategy that can accommodate these exceptions.

My second goal is to explain, in much greater detail than previous accounts, the use of terra nullius in primary sources associated with the Svalbard Question.  I have already shown part of this process in my sixth and seventh blog posts.  Given the significant disparity between scholars as to the usage of terra nullius in the period, a reexamination of the primary sources is quite warranted.  It is impossible to determine the changes leading to the Eastern Greenland usage without first understanding the Svalbard usage.

I think that the two aforementioned tasks provide ample material for my honors thesis.  I will leave the answer to the larger question of terra nullius’ transformation for another day, perhaps in the form of a master’s thesis.  Before I sign off for the summer, I would just like to express my appreciation to all of those who contributed to the William & Mary Honors Fellowship program.  Without your generosity, none of this research would have been possible.  Thank you!

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