Have you ever wanted to own your own country? When I was 12, it was my goal to eventually build an enclosed ecosystem inside of a dome in Antarctica and build a model society. Why Antarctica? The isolated, inhospitable and legally ill-defined territory made it the perfect site for someone looking to establish themselves without much international politicking.
While I have long since abandoned my dream, an Abingdon, Va., man named Jeremiah Heaton has taken up the cause. He recently appeared in such esteemed papers as The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph for planting a flag in the desert expanse between Egypt and Sudan. Like much of the Egyptian-Sudanese border, the region is arid, sparsely populated and politically insignificant to either government, which — by Heaton’s reckoning — gives him every right to lay claim to it.
The story behind Heaton’s land grab is touching; he promised his daughter that she could be a real princess and, not wanting to renege on his promise, claimed a territory over which to declare himself king. While this makes for a pleasant dinner conversation, the real-world implications of his ambitions are startling.
Rather than even attempting to purchase the territory, Heaton argues that its classification as “terra nullius” (no state is asserting a legitimate claim to it) means that it is his for the taking. He further points out that the act of planting a flag in the soil and claiming the land is legitimate and has been used for thousands of years.
To be a bit more accurate, this method of claiming land has been legitimated for thousands of years, most recently by rich, white men. Heaton claims that his land grab was an act of love for his daughter, Emily, to fulfill her desire to be a princess. While there is no doubt that Heaton loves his own child, his actions betray a stunning lack of interest, concern and respect for the residents of the land he’s claiming. While the nomadic Bedouin tribes that reside in his new “kingdom” do not identify with any nation-state or hold formal land deeds to their grazing grounds, they are nonetheless affected by Heaton’s actions.
For people like Jeremiah Heaton, “colonialism” is an ugly word used to describe the actions of their ancestors as they ravaged the continents of Africa, Asia and the Americas. It is a systematic, large-scale assault on native peoples with the sole intent of making a fast buck. Therefore (obviously), Heaton is not a colonialist because he’s only claiming a small territory out of love.
The reality of the situation is that for many early colonists (the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, the Spanish missions across Central and South America, the Happy Valley settlement in Kenya), love, enlightenment and peace were the bywords of white invasion. The idea that these emotions could only be satisfied by entering and settling foreign lands rather than in their own homes fueled colonial endeavors well into the 20th century.
It is truly unfortunate that Heaton cannot understand why keeping a promise to his daughter presents such a grave violation of the rights of the Bedouin people. But fortunately for them, bureaucracy will prevail. Though he did not pay for the land he has claimed, Heaton did state that he will seek recognition from Egypt, Sudan, and eventually the African Union and the United Nations. Given both international bodies’ history of addressing colonialism, it is unlikely they will be sympathetic to a white man from Virginia who “just loves his daughter.”