When the dulcet tones of the BBC’s Shipping Forecast turn to the weather in German Bight, two thoughts often flit through my mind – both related to the history of Heligoland.
It is an island – or strictly speaking, an inhabited island and a small uninhabited neighbour – that previously gave its name to that shipping forecast area until a name change in 1956.
The first thought is a reminder of how unbalanced the information provided online can be. Search online for “Heligoland” and you will usually find results dominated by music (Heligoland was an album title for Massive Attack) and military history (Heligoland was the site of the first British – German naval engagement of the First World War, the first air battle of the Second World War to be given its own name and post-war the location of one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever created by mankind).
Dig deeper and you will find that Heligoland was also part of a significant nineteenth century diplomatic deal. Those events surface only fleetingly online much of the time because the internet has far more music and military history fans producing content than it has diplomatic ones.
But it is that diplomatic role which also triggers the second, and optimistic, thought. The pair of islands that make up Heligoland are in the south-east corner of the North Sea, known as the German Bight. Seized by Britain in 1807 during the Napoleonic wars, Heligoland was formally ceded to Britain by Denmark as part of the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. From then until 1890 it remained in British hands, with the odd curiosity that it was during that time under British rule that a holidaying Heinrich Hoffmann wrote the lyrics for the German national anthem, Deutschland Uber Alles, there.
In 1890 an international treaty saw, amongst other territorial changes, Heligoland returned to German rule in return for letting Britain take over Zanzibar. The residents of Heligoland did not get a say in this deal. Indeed, the Prime Minister of the time – Lord Salisbury – deliberately glossed over their lack of support for being handed to the Germans when securing the acquiescence of Queen Victoria to the treaty.
So my reason for optimism? This handing over of an island, regardless of the views of its inhabitants, would be all be unthinkable for a modern democracy now. Diego Garcia is arguably a partial exception to that. But the roots of that controversy lie many decades in the past and are linked to military base rights rather than switching ownership of an island per se.
There is much that is imperfect about the diplomacy of modern democracies. Yet the immensely antiquated feel of the idea of handing over an island without consent as part of an international treaty is a reminder that for all the flaws, hiccups and failures there has been a significant shift towards recognising the rights and interests of individuals even in matter of foreign affairs.
Two books which cover Heligoland’s role in military and diplomatic history are Charlie Connelly’s Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast and George Drower’s Heligoland: The True Story of German Bight and the Island That Britain Betrayed.