Gideon Defoe’s breezy book, An Atlas of Extinct Countries, is the kind of nonfiction I delight in. Defoe recounts the stories of 48 nations (more or less) that have mostly been forgotten. Some lasted for a few centuries. Others had histories lasting less than a year. A few were accidents made by cartographers. Others were grandiose projects launched by even more grandiose men (who were sometimes con artists). More than once, Defoe had me laughing at the wild stories he shared in these brief chapters.
Defoe begins An Atlas of Extinct Countries with a short introduction about what it means to be a nation. The word “nation” is one of those words that we think we can define until we start to think about it. Is it political? Geographical? Ethnic? A blend of all of these? There are countries on our planet that have been around long enough that their foundings are semi-mythical. Plenty of others were created over long years of wars, merges, splits, and unifications. But what about countries like Neutral Moresnet, the Republic of Cospaia, and the Free State of Bottleneck that were literally created because someone drew the lines wrong? They had to develop governments because no one else was going to be in charge and collect the taxes. We tend to think of nations as things that happened on purpose, but Defoe shows us over and over again that history is full of examples of accidental nations to challenge our definitions.
I think my favorite stories in Defoe’s collection are the countries that started as scams, like Poyais and the Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia. The men who “founded” these nations, Gregor MacGregor and Orélie-Antoine de Tounens respectively, were astonishing people with the ability to talk others into anything—mostly into emptying their wallets. Defoe’s prose is gleeful and galloping as he recounts tales that prove that truth is stranger than fiction.
An Atlas of Extinct Countries was a delight from start to finish.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration.