Panhandles and Quadripoints

I’ve mentioned in other posts that I grew up staring at a lot of maps.  Looking through a red-bound Hammond World Atlas (gifted to me by a pilot friend of my father’s from the Korean Air Force, if I recall correctly) was a favorite pastime for me and my father.  I can and still spend hours looking at maps of all kinds.

Maps, of course, tell stories.  Some borders are more obvious than others (say, Sri Lanka or New Zealand), but most others are more or less arbitrary.  The lines on which national identity and nationalism are built are often just historical quirks based on some temporary exigency long forgotten.

Some of the most peculiar borders include enclaves/exclaves (which I have never blogged about, but an excellent blog post can be found at, panhandles, and quadripoints (four corners).

Enclaves and exclaves are often created when ethnic or religious groups that used to live intermixed in relative harmony need to be sorted for whatever reason into separate nation-states.  Towns, neighborhoods, or even homes are deemed to fall into one state rather than the other, creating a bizarre patchwork of borders.  Central Asia, a region of tremendous ethnic diversity that has been separated into pseudo-ethnic states (see post of July 8, 2008), contains a tremendous number; India and Bangladesh sorted out some of theirs in land swaps (see–Bangladesh_enclaves).  Oman and the UAE, and Belgium and the Netherlands, even have enclaves within enclaves (see and

Panhandles also often have curious historical origins.  The Wakhan Corridor (see post of June 23, 2008), a tiny strip of Afghanistan that separates the former Soviet states of Central Asia from Pakistan, was delineated as a buffer between Russia and Great Britain during the territorial competition known as the Great Game.  Oklahoma’s panhandle resulted from the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slave-holding Texas from extending beyond 36.5 degrees latitude.  The tiny strip, before incorporation into Oklahoma, was an area of complete lawlessness.

This post is sparked by our brief crossing (on a fishing trip) into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, a small piece of Namibia that extends hundreds of miles eastward into the middle of southern Africa.  The Caprivi Strip resulted from negotiations at the famous Berlin Conference of 1884-85, where the European colonial powers divided up Africa among themselves.  Germany, which controlled Namibia, wanted access to the Zambezi River, and so swapped Zanzibar for the Caprivi Strip, not knowing that that stretch of the Zambezi had no access to the sea, due to as-yet-undiscovered Victoria Falls.


The Caprivi Strip also causes an example of the third topic of this post—a quadripoint.  Around the point where the Caprivi Strip ends, four countries (Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe) meet at a “four corners” in the river.  (To be precise, it is not a true four corners, as the border between Botswana and Zambia is actually a line rather than a point, such that Namibia and Zimbabwe don’t actually share a border.  This deviation from a true quadripoint is allowing a bridge to be built between Botswana and Zambia without crossing the other countries’ boundaries.)


The most famous “four corners” is, of course, in America, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet at a true quadripoint located in the Navajo reservation (and marked by a monument which is supposedly at slightly the wrong location).

In the way that enclaves and exclaves demonstrate borders yielding to the human reality that no clear lines can truly represent boundaries among people and cultures, quadripoints (and straight line/rectilinear borders generally) represent a complete disregard for on-the-ground realities.  The drawers of straight line boundaries are generally treating the subject land as a blank slate, an emptiness where national identity can be created by fiat rather than historical reality.  Genocide and relocation made consideration of Native American claims in the American West largely unimportant, faciliating the drawing of straight lines.  Actual desert emptiness “justifies” some straight-line borders in the Sahara and Middle East.  But other arbitrary lines, from the 38th parallel in Korea to many African borders, have been causes of much bloodshed.

And thus borders are:  As much as they tell a historical tale, they also create a reality.  The nearly arbitrary acts of people standing around a map come to affect identity and culture, with tremendous consequences for future residents.