Denmark and Canada Sign Peace Treaty, Ending 50-Year Whisky War

  • After half a century, the horror is finally over.

Did you know that for the past nearly 50 years, there’s been an intercontinental war going on in the Arctic? Not only that, it’s been raging between Denmark and Canada — probably two of the most peaceful nations in the world.

This war hasn’t been waged with firearms or weapons of mass destruction, though. True to its name, Denmark and Canada have waged the Whisky War mostly with bottles of booze and national flags.

The conflict — if you can call it that — has centered around Hans Island. It’s a tiny, barren, half-square-mile chunk of rock peeking out of the sea between Greenland (controlled by Denmark) and Ellesmere Island (controlled by Canada).

There’s absolutely nothing on Hans Island, not even a single tree or shrub. And both countries really wanted to own it.

Over the past 49 years, the two countries haven’t been able to come to an agreement over who controls the island. So, both have been periodically landing on Hans Island, pitching their flag, and leaving a bottle of local hooch on it as a show of force.

The horrors of war are harrowing.

Fortunately, this brutal struggle has finally come to an end. Earlier this month, Denmark and Canada signed an agreement that settled Hans Island’s ownership dispute once and for all.

Photo: Per Starklint, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I Want It So You Can’t Have It

The origins of the Whisky War go back to the year 1973. At the time, Denmark and Canada were in the process of figuring out where exactly their national territories end.

Between the Danish-owned Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island lies the Kennedy Channel. Neither country had until 1973 bothered to figure out where to draw the border along this remote Arctic strait.

Eventually, they figured out that they probably should settle the issue. So, the negotiations began, and were making good progress.

But then they ran into the issue of Hans Island. The pointless rock sits smack-dab in the middle of Kennedy Channel around 11 miles from both Danish and Canadian territory.

Under international law, both countries could reasonably claim ownership of the island. And, of course, both of them did.

During the negotiations, Denmark and Canada couldn’t reach an agreement. Finally, tired of sitting around and arguing, they signed a border agreement — without addressing the issue of Hans Island.

The stage was set for war.

A Bottle for a Bottle Leaves the Whole World Drunk

Despite the unsettled question, hostilities didn’t break out immediately. In fact, it took a good decade before anything happened.

But when it did, it happened fast. In 1984, Canada staged an unprovoked invasion of Hans Island.

By which we mean that Canadian soldiers landed on the rock, planted the Canadian flag on it, and left behind a bottle of Canadian whisky.

Outraged, Denmark couldn’t let the provocation go unanswered. The Nordic country decided its then-Minister of Greenland Affairs, should personally address the issue.

The minister flew to the island in a helicopter and took decisive action. He took down the Canadian flag, folded it neatly, and replaced it with a Danish one.

He also left a bottle of Danish schnapps next to the flag, alongside a note reading, “Welcome to the Danish island.” The war had begun in full force.

Over the following decades, ships from both countries periodically landed on Hans Island. Each time they replaced the opposing country’s flag and left some booze to cheer up the enemy when they would inevitably show up to do the same.

Learning to Share

This all sounds humorous, but an unsettled border dispute is in reality a fairly serious deal. All too many times, it has led to an actual war — one fought with guns instead of alcohol.

Things almost started coming to a head in 2005, when Canada’s Defense Minister Bill Graham landed on the island as a symbol of ownership. Denmark didn’t like that at all and threatened to hire international courts to settle the border issue.

Maybe that was what finally pushed things over the edge. In August 2005, Canada asked Denmark to reopen negotiations regarding Hans Island, which Denmark was happy to accept.

“It is time to stop the flag war. It has no place in a modern, international world. Countries like Denmark and Canada must be able to find a peaceful solution in a case such as this,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Danish Prime Minister at the time.

Clearly, the negotiations weren’t exactly easy since it took the countries another 17 years to reach an agreement. But now, they finally have.

The new border divides the useless rock into equal halves, pretty much straight down the middle.

And it only took them 49 years to figure that out.