In November of 2011, Jeopardy star Ken Jennings presented the world with a challenge. In an article entitled “Jeopardy Champ Ken Jennings Thinks You Should Claim Bir Tirwal,” he told of a little-known speck of land sandwiched between Sudan and Egypt. It was unclaimed, he said, and there for the taking.
Consider it taken, Jennings.
A stout Virginia man with a bushy beard just walked across that barren landscape, pushed a blue flag into its arid earth, founded a new country called the “Kingdom of Sudan” and named himself king. Then he did what any self-respecting modern individual would do in such a situation. He got on Facebook.
“Today, I planted this flag in the Eastern African region of Bir Tawil to honor a promise I made to my daughter,” Jeremiah Heaton decreed. “Therefore, so be it proclaimed on June 16, 2014, Emily’s 7th birthday, that Bir Tawil shall be forever known as the Kingdom of North Sudan. The Kingdom is established as a sovereign monarchy with myself as the head of state; with Emily becoming an actual Princess. … Long live the Kingdom.”
Who is this strange man and what is this kingdom?
Heaton, who The Washington Post’s Ileana Najarro introduced days ago, is a small-ball politician who has lost at least two local bids for Congress. “I want to break that mold,” he told the Bristol Herald Courier in 2012. “And show the people of the 9th District that there is someone different with a different approach.”
That Heaton is a man with a “different approach” is beyond debate. As he explained it, his daughter once asked him if she could be a princess, so he said sure, why not? — and proceeded to hopscotch to North Africa to a 800-square-mile tract of land sandwiched between Egypt and Sudan.
The place is called Bir Tawil. It’s a matter of dispute whether it is claimed territory. There are two maps that govern the border between Egypt and Sudan. One is from 1899, which Egypt favors, and places the land in Sudan. The other is from 1902, which Sudan favors, and places the land in Egypt. (Still, at least one online group has laid claim to it, dubbing it the “Kingdom of Bir Tawil” and trumpeting its “expanding” economy.)
In today’s heavily mapped globe, Bir Tawil is a very unusual spit of land and there are few like it. The legal name for such unclaimed places is, according to international law, terra nullius: “land that belongs to no one.”
It conveys a concept that a sovereign state can acquire any unoccupied or unsettled land. Some but not all scholars contend European colonials frequently employed it to claim new lands, sealing the deal with physical objects such as coins and flags. “Historically, staking a physical claim is the first rule of the discovery doctrine,” explained Robert J. Miller of the Lewis & Clark Law School. “Explorers engaged in all sorts of rituals on encountering new lands: hoisting the flag, displaying the Christian cross and leaving evidence to prove who was there first.”
The act has created all sorts of international headaches. Japan and China have beefed over terra nullius. Denmark and Norway had words about terra nullius claims in Greenland. Morocco and Spain have also gotten into it over terra nullius.
Then there’s Australia. When the British arrived arrived there in 1788, they declared all of Australia terra nullius — even though it was inhabited by native peoples. (In a landmark decision, the Australian High Court in 1992 rejected the British rationale.)
So Heaton studied up on the concept when he began his quest, he told Najarro. As he put it on Facebook, “after weeks of research I discovered Bir Tawil” and quickly dismissed its online claimants as wannabes. Then he got down to the serious business of plotting his kingship. His children designed its blue flag, which he took across the ocean and sank it into Bir Tawil ground.
“Over the years a few arm-chair explorers have attempted to ‘claim’ Bir Tawil by simply writing a blog entry or creating a website,” Heaton so announced on Facebook. “These half-hearted, illegitimate claims have not been recognized by any government. … Sincerely, King Heaton.”