Pheasant Island: the only territory in the world that changes sovereignty every six months
You are not allowed to visit Pheasant Island, which lies near the Atlantic Ocean terminus of the French-Spanish border. But “it can easily be seen from the Joncaux bank, on the Bay Path,” the Web site for the local tourist office suggests, without a hint of irony!
About six kilometers before the Bidasoa River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, its waters, which in the last stretch mark the border between Spain and France, bathe the tiny Pheasant Island, almost a wooded rock in the middle of the river.
It was here, in 1659, that the sovereigns of the two neighboring states met to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which officially ended the Thirty Years’ War. A monolith was built in the centre of the island to commemorate the event that was the climax to a series of 24 conferences held between Luis de Haro, a Grandee of Spain and Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of France, following the end of the war.
Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain meet at the Pheasant Island to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Oil on canvas by Jacques Laumosnier:
In the Treaty the Bidasoa river, in the last ten kilometers of its course, was placed as a natural border between the two nations, up to the Bay of Biscay.
As almost always happens when a river marks the border, this is placed roughly at the center of the water course. Following this line, the island was ideally divided in half, with France and Spain respectively occupying the portion placed on their side.
Instead, the two countries made another type of agreement because the Treaty of 1659 consecrated its significance to both countries by establishing it as a rare example of that curious border arrangement: a condominium.
A condominium is a territory jointly administered by two or more countries, often (but not necessarily) a territory on the common border between the parties involved. As one might surmise, such an arrangement depends on the benevolent cooperation of all parties involved and indeed, historically, most condominiums have not survived very long.
The success of such a provision requires the cooperation of all the parties involved, which is not easy to maintain for a long time. The most successful example is probably that of Antarctica, where 53 nations have exercised sovereignty since 1961.
Pheasant Island is not only the oldest surviving condominium, it is also the only one where sovereignty isn’t shared simultaneously, but alternately. For six months a year, Pheasant Island is French; for the other six, it is Spanish and every six months a small ceremony of transfer of sovereignty takes place.
Before the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, the ‘status’ of the island was not well defined, but constituted a sort of neutral zone that was used as a meeting place between the representatives of France and Spain, and as a place of exchange for the prisoners. It seems strange that an island of about 3,000 square meters was used as a theater for important historical events, and also for engagements and royal marriages between heirs of the respective crowns, so much so that at the time the island took the name of “Ile de la Conférence”.
In 1615, Louis XIII of France and Philip IV of Spain first met their wives, each other’s sisters, on the island, after having married them by proxy. Later that century, Pheasant Island would be the place where both Louis XIV of France and Charles II of Spain first laid eyes on their respective brides.
In 1721 Louis XV met his intended bride Mariana Victoria of Spain. The two eventually never married. Louis instead married Marie Leszczyńska, and Mariana the future Joseph I of Portugal.
Today, the Island is off-limits to visitors, and you are “condemned” to contemplate the small island from the banks of the Bidasoa, from the town of Hendaye in France, and from that of Irun in Spain.