The ‘Whiskey War’ of Hans Island

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In the remote north of the Atlantic Ocean, right on the edge of the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean, lies a tiny speck of an island. Named after a 19th century Greenlandic Arctic traveller, the half-square-mile Hans Island is as barren as any uninhabited island could ever be —a flat, exposed rocky knoll with no vegetation and no apparent natural resources. Yet, this nondescript piece of rock has been at the center of a territorial dispute between Canada and Denmark that has been raging for nearly half a century.

Hans Island lies in the middle of the Nares Strait, a 22-mile-wide channel of water that separates Canada from Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark. International law dictates that all countries have the right to claim territory within 12 miles of their shore. This puts Hans Island in both Danish and Canadian waters.

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Hans Island as seen from the air, with Ellesmere Island in the background. Photo credit: Toubletap/Wikimedia

The territorial dispute rose in 1973 when both countries were drawing up their maritime boundary. At that time, no agreement could be reached between the two governments, and so the issue was put off for later. The dispute began in earnest in 1984 when during a visit to the island the Danish Minister for Greenland planted the national flag and left a message saying “Welcome to the Danish island” along with a bottle of brandy. When Canada learned about it, they dispatched a troop to the island to replace the Danish flag with a Canadian flag and the bottle of Danish schnapps with Canadian whiskey.

And a light-hearted ‘whiskey war’ was born. For decades now, Canadian and Danish troops alternately visit the island to change flags and leave a bottle of liquor. In 2005, Canadians upped the antic by installing a metal plaque on the island. The Danish didn’t reciprocate, however, their Foreign Minister stated that to “go ashore tearing down [the Canadian] flag and replacing it with a new one…would be a somewhat childish [behaviour] between two NATO allies.”

As of 2016, the border issue is yet to be resolved.

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Danish soldiers on Hans Island in 2002. Photo credit: Royal Danish Navy

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The plaque left by Canadian Forces personnel on Hans Island in 2005. 

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Canadian Forces personnel raise Canada's flag on Hans Island in 2005.

Sources: NY Times / Wikipedia

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