The New York Times

March 13, 2012, 12:30 pm

Who Bit My Border?


Borderlines explores the global map, one line at a time.

You probably don’t think much about the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. And when you do, you might not think much of it. It looks so straightforward and simple: following the 141st meridian east, it neatly splits the island of New Guinea [1] in two almost equal halves. The western half is part of Indonesia, while the eastern half forms the bulk of the independent state of Papua New Guinea, which also consists of the Bismarck Archipelago [2] and several smaller islands.

The border has an understated beauty: the whole of New Guinea itself, which looks like a tilde, seems to balance on that line halfway across it, as if the island were an Alexander Calder mobile, and the border the string holding it up. Whether you consider the accidental symmetry of the Papuan border pretty, or just pretty boring, is a matter of taste. It is also beside the point: zoom in on the southern half of the border, and its evident simplicity collapses.

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About 250 miles south of its northern terminus at Wutung, on the Pacific coast, there’s a huge chunk missing from the straight line as the border jags west. It looks like teeth marks, as if someone took a giant bite out of the border but then decided they didn’t like the taste of it after all. That chunk is a bend in the Fly River, most of which courses east of the border, on the Papua New Guinea side. The bend strays west across the 141st meridian over a distance of about 40 miles, as the Torresian crow flies. Following the thalweg along its many twists and turns, the riverine border adds up to about 95 miles.

Curiously, when the Fly bends back east and the border resumes its straight southward course, it does so 1.3 miles east of the 141st meridian[3], an indentation that is imperceptible on all but the most detailed maps. It’s hard to see what could be the advantage of having a border run through impenetrable jungle slightly to the east of another, equally impenetrable stretch of jungle. Which raises the question, as itchy as those mosquito bites reported by venturers into the Papuan inlands: Why?

The answer lies at the border’s southern terminus, another 150 miles farther down, on the shores of the Arafura Sea. And it involves headhunting — but not in the “Hey, have we got a job for you!” sense of the word. In 1893, the area was plagued by a rash of actual, proper headhunting. These raids required action from the British, who then were the colonial power in the southeastern quarter of Papua New Guinea. But their room for maneuver was complicated by the dubious, unmarked position of the border with the then-Dutch-controlled west of New Guinea.

The problem was solved by a deal that moved the border below the Fly a bit to the east, to the mouth of the Bensbach [4] River, conveniently nearby, in exchange for the adoption of the Fly River border, further north. Not only did this make it easier to police the region — British patrols could go much farther upriver without having to cross borders — it also enabled British gold diggers [5] to travel farther inland as well (at least in theory: most of New Guinea’s heavily forested and mountainous interior remained unexplored by Westerners until the early 20th century).

The rather haphazard modification of the 141st-meridian border is all the more remarkable for its unintended consequences. For at least in some definitions, the modified line has become the continental border between Asia and Oceania.

As continents go, Oceania is one of the more difficult ones to pin down [6]. The original, and broadest definition of Oceania includes all land masses between Asia and America — including Australia, New Zealand and all the islands of Indonesia and Japan up to Alaska’s Aleutian islands. The narrowest definition only comprises the islands of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. The most common one includes Australasia in its entirety [7].

The latter definition still allows for plenty of variance. From a purely geographic point of view, the whole island of New Guinea may still be included in the definition of Oceania. But geopolitics provides Oceania with the ultimate paradox for a continent of islands: a land border. Papua New Guinea is in Oceania. Western New Guinea, being Indonesian, is part of Asia [8]. That means that the mouth of the Bensbach separates two continents — and that the bend in the Fly is an intercontinental border, the only one of this type besides the Ural River, dividing Europe from Asia.

The Papuan border is not only intercontinental, is resonant of an even older, global border: the 141st meridian east is almost exactly where the Spanish and Portuguese chose to draw the line that divided the entire world between them. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas cut off a Portuguese slice from the otherwise Spanish Main in South America [9]. The logical pendant of that treaty was the one concluded at Zaragoza in 1529, which fixed the anti-meridian to the Tordesillas Line.

The Zaragoza Line resolved the “Moluccas Issue.” Spain and Portugal both claimed these spice-rich [10] islands on the basis of the Tordesillas Line. The Moluccas (today often called the Maluku Islands), to the west of New Guinea and now part of Indonesia, were to the western, Spanish side of that line (if you crossed the Pacific to get there) but also on its eastern, Portuguese side (if you sailed past Africa and India).

Although the Tordesillas Line would creep farther west into South America, it originally was set at 38 degrees west. The Zaragoza Line was fixed near its perfect pendant [11], 142 degrees east — at 297.5 sea leagues east of the Moluccas, to be exact, i.e. cutting New Guinea in two, not far from the present border.

Both the Moluccas and the Philippines were on the Portuguese side of the Zaragoza Line. Yet somehow, Spain was able to finagle Portugal out of 350,000 gold ducats for the privilege of keeping what was already theirs [12], and had Portugal agree to Spanish dominion over the Philippines. The Portuguese must have really, really liked that nutmeg on their bacalhao[13].

Although the Dutch eventually kicked out the Portuguese from the Moluccas, they clung to tiny East Timor [14], just to the south, until 1975, when Indonesia overwhelmed the half-island. The East Timorese finally gained their independence in 2002, the first country to do so in the 21st century.

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If the Zaragoza Line never became the border between the Portuguese and Spanish halves of New Guinea, it’s not just for lack of spices. The island was saved from early colonialism by its impenetrability: innumerable valleys covered by thick rainforest. New Guinea’s valleys are even isolated from one another, which explains both its great biodiversity and its linguistic diversity [15].

The Dutch repeatedly declared their interest in New Guinea, mainly when fearing encroachment by the British. But they only managed to establish a presence in the 1890s, and never sought to extend their influence [16] beyond the 141st meridian. Since this was exactly the same meridian as cited in some Portuguese documents, some suggest that the Dutch implicitly sought to back up their shaky claim by referring back to the Zaragoza Line.

After Indonesian independence in 1949, the Netherlands were keen to hold on to what effectively was their most recent acquisition in the East. But Netherlands New Guinea eventually followed the other Dutch Indies, and was transferred to Indonesia in 1969. The regional capital, Hollandia, became Jayapura, just as the national capital, Batavia, had been renamed Jakarta [17].

In part because of this complex colonial history, the Papuan border also demarcates a conflict zone. In the decades of independence, the Indonesian policy of transmigrasi[18] has exacerbated separatist tensions in Western New Guinea. The festering conflict in West Papua [19] may have claimed as many as 100,000 lives over the past few decades. Refugees have trickled and streamed across it — sometimes followed into Papua New Guinea by pursuing Indonesian security forces.

Border treaties signed in 1979 and 1986 aimed to ease the resulting tensions and avoid future incursions. Nevertheless, that unassuming, seemingly straight borderline between two Papuas continues to mark the edge of countries, continents and conflicts.

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.

[1] The nomenclature of the political entities overshadows that of the geographical entity. The former stress the word Papua, while the latter is called New Guinea. The Indonesian usage of “Papua” is fairly recent, though. Until 2002, the area was called Irian Jaya. The island’s political division also obscures the fact that it is the world’s second-largest island, after Greenland.

A similar onomastic dichotomy is at work on a split island in the Caribbean. Everybody knows Haiti and the Dominican Republic; few know that both countries are co-located on the island of Hispaniola.

[2] That name refers to Otto von Bismarck, who was chancellor of Germany when it colonized the area in 1884. It was taken over by Australia at the outbreak of World War I, which would administer both “Papua” (i.e. southern, British New Guinea) and “New Guinea” (i.e. northern, formerly German New Guinea) until Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975.

[3] At 141 degrees, 1 minute and 47.9 seconds to be exact. If the border was at 141 degrees, the territorial difference would be almost 200 square miles (loss for Indonesia, gain for Papua New Guinea).

[4] The river was named after a Dutch official, whose own name, fittingly, sounds like it might refer to a German stream (though there doesn’t seem to be a Bensbach in Germany).

[5] Again to be understood in the original, not the modern sense of the word.

[6] Another one is Europe. See this earlier episode of Borderlines.

[7] Confusingly, the term “Australasia” is sometimes used to denote an area that covers Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and adjacent islands, while other usage is limited to the two former countries (as in “Royal Australasian College of Physicians,” which represents Australian and New Zealand doctors only). It does not, as is sometimes assumed, refer to Australia plus Asia. You could say Melanesia is the broadest definition of Australasia minus its narrowest one.

[8] The United Nations Statistics Division counts Papua New Guinea as part of Oceania; and Indonesia as part of Asia.

[9] Explaining why Brazil speaks Portuguese, not Spanish. And also, obliquely, why the Guyanas speak neither. For more, see this previous episode.

[10] Nutmeg and cloves, mostly. Just imagine a world in which not the illegal trade in uranium, but in spices is a main source of conflict between nations.

[11] Both meridians together (and in fact any meridian and its anti-meridian) are known as an “orthodrome,” or great circle. An orthodrome of a sphere intersects with its center, thus creating a circle with the largest possible circumference.

[12] Via the principle of uti possidetis: if your flag flies from it, it’s yours.

[13] Portuguese for codfish. Instead of nutmeg, add half a cup of red or white wine.

[14] Timor itself means “east” in Malay, so the Indonesian name for the island’s eastern half is Timor Timur, often abbreviated to TimTim.

[15] Papua New Guinea is a biodiversity hotspot, with an estimated 5 percent of the world’s species (on just 1 percent of the world’s land surface). It is also a linguistic hotspot, with over 830 different languages identified.

[16] Indirectly, via the Sultanate of Tidore in the Moluccas.

[17] The Sanskrit roots of both renamed cities respectively mean “City of Victory” and “Total Victory.”

[18] The resettlement of people from densely populated parts of Indonesia, like Java, to other, more sparsely populated parts of the archipelago. It invites comparison with similar policies in China. Its resettlement of majority Han Chinese in Tibet and Xinjiang can also be seen as a long-term strategy against separatism.

[19] The term “West Papua” describes both the entire Indonesian half of the island, and the recent province of West Papua, created in 2002 and consisting mainly of the Bird’s Head Peninsula in the island’s far west. The term “Papua” is sometimes used to describe the entire island, but it is also the name of the Indonesian province between West Papua and the border with Papua New Guinea. Things were less confusing before 2007, when Indonesia preferred the use of Irian Jaya (“Glorious Irian”) over Papua.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 14, 2012
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the 141st meridian as a parallel.

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