Terra Nullius: Unclaimed Lands

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Podcast Transcript

Imagine you want to start a brand new country. Only, you don’t want to go through the messy process of starting a revolution or a civil war in a currently existing country. 

You want to find an empty piece of land for yourself that no one has claimed. 

Is such a thing possible?

Learn more about the doctrine of Terra Nullius and where it could still theoretically be exercised in the world today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The phrase Terra Nullius is Latin for “nobody’s land”. It is a legal concept that deals with land that hasn’t been claimed by any country. 

It is derived from the legal concept of Res Nullius which means “nobody’s thing”. Res Nullius pertains to property that has been abandoned or that no one owns. 

A couch that someone has put on the curb might fall under the theory of Res Nullius

The extension of Res Nullius to land was a European innovation that occurred during the Age of Exploration.

It was a pretty handy concept as you were sailing around the world and came to a new land. You could just say “well, there’s no one here, so I guess it’s ours now.”

This idea of Terra Nullius was exploited the most when the British claimed Australia

Of course, you can probably immediately see the problem in claiming that Australia was nobody’s land when there were in fact a whole bunch of people in Australia, and there had been for at least 40,000 years. 

It wasn’t actually used when the British discovered Australia so much as it was a theory used to justify what they had already done in the late 19th century. 

It became the center of a court case in 1992, Mabo v Queensland, which overturned the doctrine of Terra Nullius, which had been used to dismiss aboriginal land claims. 

While the Terra Nullius doctrine has most certainly been abused, there have also been many cases where truly uninhabited land was found and occupied. 

Take for example the island of St. Helena, of which I did a previous episode. 

No humans ever lived on the island, and there is no evidence that any humans ever even visited the island before the Portuguese sailed by in 1505. 

All of the islands that were part of the Polynesian expansion were Terra Nullius. The Polynesians were the first people ever to set foot on these islands. 

Given how extensively human beings have spread, there were few places that could legitimately be considered nobody’s land. For thousands of years, pretty much all the land on the major land masses has been occupied or claimed by some kingdom, civilization, or tribe. 

Nonetheless, there is land in the world that no country claims. There isn’t much of it, but it does exist. 

One of the more recent claims of Terra Nullius had to do with the island of Rockall. 

It is a stretch to even call Rockall and island. It is a rock that juts out of the Atlantic Ocean, roughly equal distance from Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands. 

The entire area of the rock is only ??784.3 square meters or 8,442 square feet, and you can’t even land on it because it sicks out 17 meters or 56 feet above sea level. 

Despite claiming almost a quarter of the Earth at its peak, the British Empire never bothered to claim this rock which is off the shore of Great Britain itself. 

The only reason Rockall had any relevance whatsoever is that the BBC used it as a reference when doing weather reports for ships. 

In 1955, Rockall was claimed by the United Kingdom, and it was formally annexed in 1972. It was the last speck of land that was added to the British Empire. 

Prior to this, it was considered Terra Nullis

Of course, neighboring countries such as Ireland do not recognize this as British Territory. 

Some random rock in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1950s is interesting, but are there examples of unclaimed territories in the world today? 

The answer is, yes, but there aren’t many. 

The largest and most obvious case of Terra Nullis is Antarctica. 

Antarctica technically isn’t owned by anyone. However, seven countries have claimed parts of Antarctica: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Several of these claims overlap and some have very ambiguous boundaries. 

However, according to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, those claims have all  been suspended. That hasn’t stopped countries from taking action to support their claims, such as establishing bases, but they are still suspended by international law. 

If you look at most maps of Antarctica, you can see all of the pie-shaped claims that have been made. 

However, while all of Antarctica is legally Terra Nullis there is one part of Antarctica that no one has bothered to claim: Marie Byrd Land. 

Marie Byrd Land is by far the largest unclaimed plot of land on Earth. It is 1,610,000 square kilometers or 620,000 square miles in area. It is approximately the size of Mongolia or Iran, and the territory lies south of the Pacific Ocean. 

Its name comes from the wife of the American explorer Richard Byrd, who explored it. 

There was formerly an American and a Soviet research station in Marie Byrd Land, but they are no longer in operation. 

Prior to the Antarctic treaty, the United States was going to make its Antarctica claim to Marie Byrd Land, and there were even some maps that were made showing it. 

According to the 1959 Antarctica Treaty, the United States reserves the right to make future claims on the continent. If they should do that, there is a very good chance that this would be their claim. 

Outside of Marie Byrd Land, there are only two very minor examples of land which are not claimed by any country, and perhaps a third depending on how you define it. 

The next largest bit of unclaimed land is known as Bir Tawil. 

If you look at most maps of the world, you will notice that the border between Egypt and Sudan is a straight line located at the 22nd parallel. 

This is the border as it was defined by an 1899 agreement between Britain and Egypt, and it is the way Egypt defines the border today.

However, the British made another border in 1902 to reflect actual land usage by local tribes. This border had a triangular area north of the 22nd parallel that borders the Red Sea that was granted to Sudan and a smaller area below the 22nd parallel which was granted to Egyp, and finally, a small finger of territory that jutted up the Nile River, which was given to Sudan. 

That small finger of land is known as the Wadi Halfa Salient, which is 9 kilometers by 25 kilometers. 

The larger triangle of land bordering the Red Sea is known as Halaib Triangle. Both the Halaib Triangle and the Wadi Halfa Salient are claimed by both countries. 

The remaining bit of land below the 22nd parallel is known as Bir Tawil. 

Bir Tawil is approximately 2,060 square kilometers or 795 square miles in area, which is about half the size of the state of Rhode Island. 

Sudan doesn’t claim Bir Tawil because they want the larger Halaib Triangle and the Wadi Halfa Salient, and their claim to these areas means they can’t claim Bir Tawil. 

Egypt doesn’t claim Bir Tawil because it is south of the 22nd parallel, which they view as the border. 

The end result is that neither Egypt nor Sudan claims this area. 

There isn’t anything in Bir Tawil. It has a permanent population of zero, with just some occasional bedouins passing through. It is nothing but desert with no water whatsoever. 

Because of its odd status of being unclaimed, some people have tried to claim it for themselves, but they are mostly jokes. Both Egypt and Sudan recognize the other country as owning it, so neither has any incentive for anyone else to claim the territory or give anyone access via their territory. 

The other bit of unclaimed land has a similar story to Bir Tawil. It is an even smaller speck of land located on the border of Croatia and Serbia. 

The Danube River consists of about 80% of the border between Croatia and Serbia.

This seems like a pretty simple border. Serbia is on the east bank and Croatia is on the west bank. At least that is how Serbia sees it. 

Croatia, however, views the border as corresponding to the 19th-century boundary which also followed the Danube. 

Since then, the river has straightened considerably. Land which was once west of the river in the 19th century now lies east of the river in land controlled by Serbia. Croatia claims it, but Serbia controls it. 

There are, however, some very small parcels of land which are just the opposite. They used to be east of the river, but now they lie to the west of the river. 

Because Serbia recognizes the current river as the border, they don’t view these bits of land as being theirs. Because they were on the east side of the river in the 19th century, Croatia doesn’t recognize it as being their land either. 

So, there are about 10 square kilometers or 3.9 square miles of land that neither Croatia nor Serbia claims as theirs. 

This issue actually came up when both countries were part of Yugoslavia, but it was never resolved during this period, and it became an open issue when both countries became independent. 

In 2015, members of the Party of Free Citizens in the Czech Republic went to the land and declared it the independent country of Liberland. 

As with Egypt and Sudan, while neither country claims the land, they do not consider it Terra Nullius because they see it as belonging to the other country. 

Resolution of the issue might actually be a precondition to Serbia entering the EU in the future. 

I mentioned before there might be a third example, depending on how you interpret Terra Nullius. No country claims the land, but it is occupied by a people. 

That territory is North Sentinal Island. 

In the Bay of Bengal are the Andaman Islands. The Andaman Islands are a state in India. They do have a bit of a unique status within the organization of India, but it is definitely Indian territory. 

However, one of the smaller islands to the west of the main archipelago is North Sentinal Island. 

North Sentinal Island has an area of 60 square kilometers or  23 square miles in area, and India has stated that they do not claim this island as part of India. Moreover, no other country claims this island either. 

So, why doesn’t India claim this island when they claim every other island in the archipelago? 

Because there is a group of people who live on the island we know as the Sentinelese. The Sentinelese have basically no contact with the outside world. No one understands the Sentinelese language, and no one on North Sentinal Island can speak any other language. 

What few cases there have been of outsiders landing on the island, either accidentally or purposefully, have resulted in them getting attacked or killed. 

India considered the island to be a protectorate. The Indian Navy patrols the waters around it to keep people out, but they consider the people on the island to be independent. 

However, given that the people on the island are not part of the international system, they don’t really have Westphalian Sovereignty as every other country has. They are just their own people, who are left alone. 

Again, this isn’t exactly a case of Terra Nullius. While no “country” claims the island, it most certainly is the land of the people who live there. 

There of course one further case of Terra Nullius which is actually quite big. Very big. I’m of course talking about space. 

No one owns the moon, the planets, or any other body in space. As with the Antarctic Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits any nation from claiming anything in space as their territory. 

The issue of property and sovereignty in space has been central to many science fiction novels, and perhaps one day Terra Nullius claims in space will become an important issue. 

Until then, for the most part, the entire Earth has been carved up and claimed by one country or another. 

So, if you want to go start your own country, your best bet might just be to go out into international waters. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Gandyeye over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

How could it get better?

What a fantastic podcast. I found this after finishing the History of Rome podcast, which is excellent, but Gary has a daily podcast that fills the need for information to feed my brain. I literally cannot wait for the newest episode every day. After finding this podcast, I am running through the backlog at about 20 episodes a day. Hopefully soon I will be admitted into the completionist club and learn the handshake. Thanks Gary, I look forward to one day when I can book a trip for a deep dive into Roman or Greek civilization with you.

Thanks, Gandyeye! I think this is a good opportunity to talk about the trip.

It has been a while since I’ve given an update. The biggest hesitancy up until now has just been not wanting to take risks on my part with the trip getting canceled due to some new COVID variant. There were also issues with hotels and getting insurance.

The odds of COVID being an issue now seem pretty low, but at the same time, logistically, I don’t think I’m going to be able to pull off the tour this year. 

However, I am in talks right now to build a framework to do tours such that I can do more than just a single trip to Rome. This will give me the ability to launch a full Everything Everywhere Tour brand, which will run deep dive historical and cultural tours all over the world. 

It has been a slow process, but I think the end result will be worth it. Of course as soon as I have something firm to announce, first dibs will be given to my supporters on Patreon, and then I’ll open it up to all the podcast listeners.