The barren Arctic island that sparked Canada and Denmark’s Whisky War

Hans Island is uninhabitable and only half-a-square-mile wide. So how did it become the center of a decades-long territorial debate?

Decades after an uninhabitable, windswept Arctic island sparked an unlikely dispute between Canada and Denmark, the world map will be redrawn: The countries have announced that they will split ownership of Hans Island, which is located in the 22-mile-wide Nares Strait between the northernmost point of Canada and Greenland, part of Denmark’s kingdom.

Officials are hailing the agreement as a landmark in international cooperation—putting an end to 50 years of unofficial “warfare” that has at times involved dueling flags and bottles of alcohol.

Early history of the island

Unlike similar disputes throughout history, the war in question hasn’t been violent. Rather, it’s a bit of light-hearted fun over a chunk of land that, at first glance, doesn’t seem worth fighting for. “Barren” is an understatement for the rocky, half-square-mile islet, which is snowy, desolate, and extremely cold. Given its location and strong currents surrounding its shores, the island is difficult to access and often completely bounded by ice.

Known by Inuits as Tartupaluk (“kidney” in Greenlandic) based on its shape, the island was used by Indigenous Canadians and Greenlanders for centuries as a hunting ground for polar bears and other game. But it was unknown to the rest of the world until the 19th century, when European and American explorers attempted to access and map the Arctic.

Suersaq, an Inuit guide, assisted on several of these missions and was nicknamed Hans Hendrik by expedition members. In 1872, explorers gave the tiny, inaccessible island his first name.

The “Whisky War” begins

In the 1970s, Canada and Denmark began squabbling over their Arctic boundaries and came to the negotiating table to resolve where exactly the maritime borders of both countries lie. Though Canada claimed it owned Hans Island, Denmark disagreed. And though the nations agreed on an official dividing line in a 1973 treaty, they were unable to come to a compromise on Hans.   

As a result, the countries “simply decided to stop the border at the low water mark on one side of the island and restart it again at the low water mark on the opposite side,” writes attorney Christopher Stevenson in the Boston College International and Comparative Law Review. 

Officially, Denmark and Canada were at an island impasse. But that didn’t quell fears about how it would be used. In 1983, a Greenlandic journalist visiting the island met a scientist from a Canadian oil company who was studying the area as part of a larger project scoping out effective methods of Arctic drilling. Though the visit was legal, the resulting article in a Greenlandic newspaper drew the attention of both Danish and Canadian authorities. Soon, Denmark’s foreign minister was on the way to the island via helicopter. During a brief visit, he planted a Danish flag and left a bottle of Danish schnapps at its base.

The gesture kicked off a silly “Whisky War” on Hans’ rocky shores, with competing flag-raisings and the burying (and digging up) of bottles of Danish and Canadian liquor. Conducted by both officials and civilians, the ritual has left “a sea of slightly tattered flags and notices” on the island, writes BBC News’ Matt Murphy.

Seeking resolution

But the dispute had a serious side, especially given the threat of climate change, Arctic drilling, and Canadian military exercises in the region. Though the island doesn’t have any usable mineral reserves, it could be used as a staging ground for drilling, and the melting of Arctic ice means it could gain strategic importance in coming years. In 2018, in an attempt to resolve the border questions for good, the two nations convened a joint task force.

Now, the decades-long tussle has come to an end with an agreement to split Hans Island along a north-to-south rift that nearly bisects it, with Greenland getting the slightly larger half. Both nations celebrated the agreement as proof that territorial conflict can be resolved without weapons.

“Perhaps man-made boundaries only matter so much,” said Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod in a press conference. “More important is cooperation between people.”

Referring to the “pressure” put on democratic society by violent territorial disputes—a clear nod to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine—Kofod said the peaceful deal is an important step for the international community. “Diplomacy and the rule of law actually works,” said Kofod. “May this agreement inspire others to follow the same path.”

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