The concept of buying and selling territory like a commodity has its complications, as territory isn’t merely property. It also includes its natural features, people, cultures, and many other things that come together to make up a settlement.
Regardless, territory has been bought and sold throughout history, though it was the European colonial age when the practice really took off. Many major countries of today are made up of regions that were obtained with cold, hard cash some time in the past few centuries. While some of them have grown to become prosperous, inseparable parts of their new home nations, others are still dealing with the long-term consequences of having their lands bought and sold like trading cards.
If you take a look at Alaska’s position on the US map with respect to the rest of the states, you’d find it to be quite peculiar. By far the largest state in the country, it lies entirely on the other side of Canada with no roads connecting it to the other states, making you question how they even got their hands on it in the first place.
As you can guess, Alaska wasn’t originally a US colony. It used to be one of Russia‘s many colonial holdings in North America during the lesser-known and rather short-lived Russian age of colonization during the first half of the 18th century. Originally set up to cash in on the burgeoning fur trade in the region, as well as to spread the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Americas, Alaska remained under Russian control for around one and a half centuries.
That changed after the Crimean War, when Russia was defeated by an alliance led by the United Kingdom – its arch enemy at the time – and had to reconsider its foreign policy. They decided that the best course of action is to get rid of its holdings in North America, as the British Navy could successfully invade at any time. It was no longer a profitable territory to hold, either, as the fur trade in the region had almost come to a halt.
Fortunately for them, the US was interested in acquiring Alaska, as it provided a base for further exploration in the Pacific, along with new trading routes to the emerging markets of China and Japan. The purchase was finalized in 1867 for a sum of $7.2 million – equivalent to about $132 million today.
Mexico may be a sizable nation in its own right, though it pales in comparison to its neighbor, the US, easily one of the largest countries in the world. However, dial the clocks back by just a few centuries, and you’d find that it wasn’t always the case. At the time of its independence from Spain, Mexican territory was far larger than the original 13 Colonies that made up the US, encompassing many prominent southern states today, such as Texas and Arizona.
That changed with the US expansion across the continent in the next few decades. While some of that territory – like Texas – was won through conquest, a big chunk of it was simply bought.
Take the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, when the US bought around 29,000 acres of what would eventually become southern Arizona and New Mexico. While the original purpose of the purchase was to build a railroad connecting San Diego, California with El Paso, Texas, the plan was scrapped because of rising tensions between the government and southern states in the run up to the American Civil War.
It’d be inaccurate to say that the Philippines was bought or sold in the traditional way, as it was ceded by Spain to the US as a part of their peace treaty after the Spanish-American War of 1898. The war established the US as a dominant power in the Americas, as it took over a majority of other Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific, too – including Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Philippines archipelago was a part of that treaty, too, only that Spain demanded some compensation for their lavish properties there.
The US agreed, and took over the set of islands in exchange for a sum of $20 million in December, 1898. Except, the country itself had almost nothing to do with either Spain or the USA. The transfer only strengthened the growing sense of nationalism and calls for self rule across the country.
The subsequent Philippines war of independence would be the United States’ first foray into fighting a guerrilla war in Asia. While the Americans won the war, it caused thousands of casualties on both sides, an overwhelming majority of them by infectious diseases such as cholera.
7. Gwadar, Pakistan
On paper, Gwadar comes across as an idyllic, picturesque coastal town in Balochistan, Pakistan. Indeed, with its main city lying on a narrow stretch of land with the ocean on both sides, as well as its unique cliff and mountain types that you only find in that region, that description may even have been true some time in the past.
Now, Gwadar is one of the most rapidly-developing seaports in the world, thanks to its crucial place in China’s multi-year Belt and Road Initiative. If you look at the map of the region, it’s easy to see why, as the port sits in a strategically-important region for China.
While Gwadar is under Pakistani control now, that wasn’t always the case. It was once a part of Oman, though only until 1958, when a US survey found that the region was suitable for a future deep sea port. That prompted Pakistan to make a bid for it, ending up in its sale and transfer to Pakistan for a sum of Rs. 5.5 billion – equivalent to about $3.89 billion right now.
6. The Louisiana Purchase
When the United States bought the Louisiana territory from France in 1803, little did it know that it would turn out to be one of the most influential land transactions in history. Not to be confused with the modern Louisiana state, the Louisiana territory was a vast administrative district first colonized and settled by the French in the 17th century – even if it was inhabited and partly controlled by native tribes for much longer than that. It covered almost the entire Mississippi Valley, including – in part or whole – 15 of 50 US states today (and two Canadian provinces), as well as the strategically important port of New Orleans.
By the beginning of the 19th century, unfettered access across the Mississippi river had turned into a significant political issue in the US, as more and more American companies depended on it for trade. It was an important territorial possession for France, too, as it provided a market for goods like coffee and sugar coming in from the other French colonies in the region.
However, a successful slave rebellion in French Haiti in 1791 – ironically inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution – severely weakened France’s position in the Americas. Combined with an outbreak of yellow fever among their soldiers, France – under Napoleon Bonaparte – decided to sell the entire Louisiana territory to the US for as little as $15 million (about four cents per acre). The purchase nearly doubled the size of the country, as well as paved the way for further expansion towards the West.
5. US Virgin Islands
The US Virgin Islands are made up of mainly three islands in the Caribbean – St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas – along with about 50 other smaller, mostly-uninhabited islands. It’s one of the five overseas territories of the United States, and the only one that was bought from another colonial power.
Before 1917, the Virgin Islands – then known as the Danish West indies – were administered by Denmark. While it was a profitable colony in the 17th and 18th centuries due to its sugar plantations, a successful slave revolt in 1848 on the island of St. Croix forced the Danish government to abolish slavery in the entire region.
While that was definitely a good thing, the freed slaves were left with outdated, exhausted plantations that were no longer profitable. By the end of the 19th century, the Danish government was finding it increasingly difficult to run the colony. The US, on the other hand, had its eyes on the territory for some time now, as they didn’t want it to fall into German hands in case of a successful invasion during WWI.
As a result, both the sides agreed to the purchase, and on March 31, 1917, the Virgin Islands were formally transferred to the US for a sum of $25 million.
4. German New Guinea
When we talk about the largest colonial empires in history, Germany is almost never mentioned. That’s despite the fact that at its peak around the end of the 19th century, Germany controlled the fourth largest colonial empire in the world, thanks to its rapidly growing possessions in Africa and the Pacific.
While its exploits in Africa have been fairly well documented, few people remember that the Germans once had a sizable presence in New Guinea, too. Known as German New Guinea, most of it was bought from the fledgling Spanish Empire in 1899. Where Germany was heading towards further colonial expansion, the Spanish empire was in decline due to a string of factors, including recent military defeats and wars of independence in its Latin colonies, prompting them to accept Germany’s offer for most of its remaining possessions in the Pacific.
The purchase included the island groups of Carolines, Palaus, and Marianas, which included over 6,000 islands spread across over 2,000 square kilometers of land. Unfortunately – for the Germans at least – it wasn’t meant to last, as nearly all of their colonial territories were overrun and seized by the Allies during WWI.
Florida is home to perhaps the longest continually-inhabited European settlement in North America: St. Augustine. First visited and settled by a Spanish explorer called Juan Ponce de León in 1513, Florida used to be an important trading centre for the Spanish in North America. By the 17th century, however, raids by native tribes and British soldiers towards the north had started to weaken its position. Moreover, its support to the French during the Seven Years’ War gave the British a chance to invade and occupy the province, massively reducing Spanish influence in North America.
That lasted until the end of the American Revolution in 1783, when Florida was returned to Spain under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. However, by the beginning of the 19th century, Spain was no longer able to properly defend the province. Many of its territories in Latin America had recently gone up in open rebellion against colonial rule, which immensely strained its military capabilities in the region.
So when John Quincy Adams – then the Secretary of State – made an offer to buy it up, Spain agreed without hesitation. Florida was formally purchased by the US under the Adams–Onís Treaty in 1819, in exchange for giving up $5 million worth of its citizens’ claims in what was then Spanish Texas.
Even if the history of Singapore stretches at least as far back as the 14th century, it was never developed beyond a fishing settlement until the early 19th century. Back then, it was ruled by the Johor Sultanate – a moderately powerful Islamic kingdom in Malaysia – with a total population of barely 1,000 people.
It wasn’t the same for the British, however, as it was the perfect spot for a potential naval base to house its rapidly-growing navy in the region. As trade flourished in British India, a British governor, Stamford Raffles, was sent to secure Singapore as a trading post of the East India company.
That didn’t turn out to be that difficult, as the territory really didn’t have much value back then. The Singapore Treaty of 1819 was signed by Stamford Raffles, the Sultan of Johor Hussein Shah, and Temenggong – an old title of nobility in Malaysia – Abdu’r Rahman, allowing the British to set-up its first trading post in Singapore. In return, the Sultan and the Temenggong would receive a yearly payment of 5,000 and 3,000 Spanish dollars, respectively.
The age of colonization was a disaster for most of the colonies, though few of them suffered as much as Congo during the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium. From 1885 – 1908, the territory – then known as the Congo Free State – was run as a private holding of a group of investors headed by Leopold. Their aim was to set up new trading routes between the African interior and rest of Europe, as well as get a hold on the region’s resources before other European powers could.
What followed was more than two decades of brutal occupation of the country by Leopold and his forces, as he extracted close to 220 million francs (about $1.1 billion today) in profits from the region. According to rare reports from the time, he constituted a system of slavery that severely punished underperformance, as the local Congolese that failed to meet their production quotas on the various plantations were often tortured or outright shot. Rebellions were crushed with exceptional brutality, and it was common practice for the soldiers to cut off the hands of the rebelling Congolese to keep the rest of the population in check.
While we’d never know the full extent of the atrocities, according to estimates, the Congolese population was reduced from about 20 million to eight million by the end of it. Thanks to international pressure and increasingly-worrying reports from the region, Leopold was pressured to transfer control of the territory to the Belgium government in 1908, though he didn’t do it for free. It was sold for an unspecified amount, effectively abolishing the Congo Free State and giving birth to Belgian Congo, which was directly ruled by the Belgian parliament until its independence in 1960.