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Atlas of countries that no longer exist

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States evolve like living species: they are born, grow, decline and die out, or they transform so much that they become unrecognizable (and that’s another way to die). If we leaf through a historical atlas, we see colored states on paper that exist today but have evolved in the past in very different shapes, and others that have completely disappeared, perhaps even in recent years. The book Atlas of countries that no longer exist by the British Gideon Defoe (Il Saggiatore) focuses on these “disappeared” and selects among them the most curious death cases, which sometimes associate extravagance with having something to teach us contemporaries, as a warning.

Among the dozens of examples of disappeared states, we believe that the volume does well to start with the kingdom of Sarawak, perhaps the most striking case. Anyone who has heard of Sandokan’s Peese, Mompracem and the Labuan Pearl probably got the idea that this was a British colony, albeit founded by a single adventurer, but no: from 1842 to 1946 it has always existed here. and only the dynastic rule of the adventurer James Brooke and his descendants, who were in effect the “white Rajahs” of this corner of the world. A successful case in an era in which certain personal enterprises could be attempted, with various results, from Hérnan Cortés to Cecil Rhodes.

At the opposite end of James Brooke and his more than secular state of Sarawak is the ephemeral example of a certain Gregor MacGregor’s “Poyais”. From the name it is understood that he was a Scotsman. An officer in the British navy, in the early part of the nineteenth century he served in South America and helped the rebel Venezuela to drive out the Spaniards. Witnessing the collapse of the Central and South American empire of Madrid, with the birth of so many states and small states and with the appearance on the map of many no-man’s-lands, gave MacGregor an idea: he bought a cheap one from a chieftain vast expanse of marshy and mephitic land, in a coastal territory now divided between Honduras and Nicaragua. This place was tremendous, so much so that it later became known as the Mosquito Coast, but MacGregor returned to London in 1821 spread the fame of the Poyais State of his property, began to propagate the magnificence and wealth of the Poyais, conferred noble titles of the Poyais, placed on the financial market Poyais treasury bills that promised to pay 6% interest, and was able to sell numerous parcels of Poyais land that actually existed but were very different from how he painted them. At different times, two numerous groups of British settlers came to settle in those lands, almost all making a fine grind. Yet the scam went on for years and only in 1825 did the Poyais bonds default, unleashing the “panic of 1825” in international finance. MacGregor escaped to Paris and tried again as if nothing had happened, he was about to give his beautiful Poyais to the French too, but they arrested him, but soon after they released him, and in short he got away with it. You want to deplore the fake news spread by the Internet today: the hoaxes were much, much more difficult to unmask when the scrutiny of the Internet did not exist.

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L’Atlas of countries that no longer exist reports only cases of states that really existed and the Poyais, although a dancer, had its own territorial and economic consistency, like (for example) the ephemeral Republic of West Florida (September-December 1810) or the Republic of the seekers of gold in California (April 7-July 4, 1850). In the’Atlas the Republic of Libertalia is also mentioned, which in the eighteenth century was accredited as existing in Madagascar: books have been written on this subject, which presented it as a happy democracy of self-governing pirates in a spirit of equality. In reality, Libertalia did not exist in these terms, but it was not even invented from scratch: there were in Madagascar some havens of pirates, European and American, fleeing from the Caribbean, where by now the golden age of the Filibusta was set and the great naval powers imposed order on the seas. Madagascar in the eighteenth century was still a no-man’s land, but even here the life of pirates was at risk: if captured by British, French, Dutch warships, etc. they were all hanged, from the first to the last. To save their necks, the pirates of Madagascar wrote to none other than Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy asking him to proclaim himself king of Madagascar and as such to give them a racing license, that is a regular document that elevated them from the status of pirates to that of corsairs; the driving license would have equated them to soldiers, even without a uniform, and in case of capture the marauders of the sea would have been protected by the laws of war, that is, treated as prisoners of war rather than gallows pendants. King Savoy was told not to worry: once he was proclaimed king of Madagascar he would not have to make any effort, such as sending a fleet or an army to occupy the new possession, because there were already ships and pirates on site (promoted corsairs and therefore devoted subjects) ready to zealously defend the island in the name of Vittorio Amedeo. Not only would the king not have spent a penny, but he would also have cashed in substantial amounts royalty on the prey of his pirates at sea.

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Nothing came of it, because the Savoy family were already committed to absorbing Sardinia, which had just become part of their domains, but the request of the pirates of Madagascar is detailed in a 64-page document signed by the Norman count (and pirate) Pierre Joseph Le Roux d’Esneval; and this recently discovered writing can be consulted in the Turin State Archives.

This last story gives the book its title Savoy corsairs and kings of Madagascar. Ten scoops from the dynasty archives (Mimesis), which tells ten little-known events concerning the House.

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