Borders, Nations, and Territory
Before borders exist in reality, with passport inspection stations, customs houses, or perhaps fences and walls, they exist on maps. The ability to draw political lines and insist on their recognition and acceptance is the basis for the concept of sovereignty: the map shows where one jurisdiction begins and another one ends. This means that maps of borders—especially the ones separating nations from one another—have the potential to ignite wars or wipe entire political units out of existence. These fateful cartographic lines have been the source of endless disputes and confrontations through human history, because they cement the relationship between territory and power.
In 1838, the United States and the United Kingdom nearly went to war over the boundary line between the Maine and the British colonies of Lower Canada (Québec) and New Brunswick. The treaties which had ended the American Revolution and the War of 1812 weren’t precise about where to draw the northern border, leaving local governments and settlers skirmishing about who lived on which side of the line. This 1839 map, which was part of the U.S. Senate’s negotiating dossier, shows the British contention for the border in red, the American-claimed border in green, and the arbitrated line in yellow, which ultimately became the basis for the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842. Though the “Aroostook War” never saw any bloodshed, both sides drew upon competing sources of cartographic evidence to promote their claims on the territory. Even today, the United States and Canada disagree on the status of a tiny island in the Bay of Fundy, with both sides insisting that the rocky outcropping belongs on their side of the international line.
On the southern border, the Rio Grande seems like it ought to be a fairly easy geographic feature for determining where the U.S. and Mexico meet. But rivers move, and this 1911 map of the meandering Rio Grande shows how the river shifted its course between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in the decades following the Treaty of Guadalupe, which had established the river as the border. The shifting river course left two sections of land—the “Chamizal Tract” and “Cordova Island”—which could possibly have been in both countries as once. Tensions over the claim to Chamizal ran so high that when the U.S. and Mexican presidents met at the border in 1909, they were both nearly assassinated. Two years after that incident, an international boundary commission created this map and a series of historical investigations about the river’s changing lines in order to peacefully settle the dispute, but its recommendations were not ratified until 1964, after more than a century of acrimony.
In 2016, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs introduced a new bill in Parliament that would punish anyone distributing “wrong or false topographic information” with fines of up to 15 million USD or prison time of up to seven years. Though the bill didn’t become law, it suggested just how seriously national governments treat their own versions of cartographic truth. In its official survey map of the country, the Indian government portrays the biggest version itself, including the fiercely disputed areas of Jammu and Kashmir in the northwest. It does so with a matter-of-fact solid line, which seemingly makes a straightforward claim that this really is the shape of India.