Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Michael Butler

Committee Members

Fabricio Prado

Paul Davies


This honors thesis explores the usage of terra nullius in the context of the negotiations concerning sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Previous scholarship has emphasized the Svalbard Commission’s solution of Norwegian sovereignty, while largely ignoring the many intriguing suggestions at the time for divided or limited sovereignty in the archipelago. Intimately linked to these legal roads-not-taken is terra nullius, a Latin legal term that means “no man’s land.” This thesis will focus on the differing uses of terra nullius by legal scholars, diplomats, explorers, scientists, and corporate lobbyists with the aim of providing a comprehensive understanding of the term’s meaning in the period from 1907 to 1920. When informal diplomatic agreements, such as the 1871-1872 exchange of notes between Sweden-Norway and Russia, were translated by scholars into specific legal terms, such as terra nullius, Svalbard’s anomalous status became clear. Several legal scholars understood this and argued that referring to Svalbard as terra nullius was paradoxical and likely incoherent. Diplomats and others read the legal scholars and began using the term terra nullius to refer to Svalbard, but did not understand or realize the importance of the legal debate, being far more focused on the practical problems of asserting historical claims and balancing national interests.

On-Campus Access Only