The Date or Calendar Line is a modification of the line of the 180th meridian, and is drawn so as to include islands of any one group, etc, on the same side of the line.
When crossing this line on a westerly (true) course, the date must be advance one day; when crossing it on an easterly (true) course, the date must be put back one day.
Admiralty Hydrographic Department (1921)
In my last post on this topic, I brought the story up to the year 1900, when the International Date Line assumed a simple and elegant shape that was to persist, effectively unchanged, for almost a century—a zig-zag through the Bering Strait and around the Aleutians in the north, and a neat eastward shift around the Chatham Islands and Tonga in the south. But it actually took a while for the standard form of the Date Line to settle down into the shape I mapped out at the end of my previous post. So before I move on to other territories that have moved from one side of the Date Line to the other, I need to deal with the evolution of the shape of these northerly and southerly diversions.
TWO DIVERSIONS—PART 1. CHATHAM ISLANDS
Prior to 1910, the southern diversion around the New Zealand possession of the Chatham Islands followed a variety of curves, passing very close to the Chatham group. You can see an example in the chart from the paper “Where The Day Changes” (A.M.W. Downing. Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 1900), below:
And some more in the plots from a 1921 article produced by the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic Department, which was later reproduces as “Notes On The History Of The Date Or Calendar Line” (New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, 1930). Here’s a detail from the original 1921 version:
Most early versions of the Date Line curved around very close to the east side of the Chathams. One (the Admiralty version from 1892-1910) seems to slice right through the middle of the group. But there appears to be no evidence that the Chathams ever used any dating system but Asiatic, in synchrony with New Zealand.
In 1910 the Hydrographic Department standardized the shape of the southern diversion, so that its eastern boundary ran along the 172.5ºW meridian. That style was copied by other cartographers, and has persisted to the present day.
TWO DIVERSIONS—PART 2. WRANGEL ISLAND
The northern end of the Date Line also took an unusual and confusing course on some maps, before it finally settled to its current form. For a while, on Royal Navy charts, it was shown following the 180º meridian right through the middle of Wrangel Island, in the high Russian Arctic. Along the whole length of the Date Line, Wrangel was the only piece of land it was depicted as traversing. So what was going on there?
In their book Plotting The Globe, Avraham Ariel and Nora Ariel Berger offer the story of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s doomed attempt to plant a colony on Wrangel Island in 1921. The Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom all had competing claims to this desolate spot —but Stefansson intended to use his colony to claim the island for Canada. When the Canadian government wisely decline the option, Stefansson decided to claim it for Britain instead. Four out of five of his original “colonists” died—the fifth, an Iñupiat woman known as Ada Blackjack, was rescued in 1923. (The full story of this tragic fiasco is told in Jennifer Niven’s book Ada Blackjack.)
[The British government] did not want to wrangle with the Soviet Union about Wrangel Island. The British Admiralty, however, quickly shifted the date line from its position east of Wrangel Island—which made it completely Russian—to the 180th meridian. The island was sliced into two date zones, as an initial recognition of a British-Canadian claim to at least its eastern part.
After Stefannson’s venture failed, and the Russians established a presence on the island to bolster their own claim:
Reluctantly the Admiralty returned the date line to its pre-1921 position in the Chukchi Sea, well east of the island.
This makes a great story, but Ariel and Berger don’t provide any references to support it, and it actually doesn’t make much sense.
- Military cartographers are well aware of the political implications of their charts, and are unlikely to jump the gun in the way described.
- The Date Line is not a territorial claim—there has, for instance, been a country (Kiribati, see below) that spent more than a decade with the Date Line running right through its middle, and no-one ever suggested that this divided it into two countries.
- No-one (including Stefansson) was ever claiming half the island—everyone wanted the whole of Wrangel. So splitting it down the middle exactly along the 180º meridian corresponded to no-one’s view of the situation.
- Stefansson, never one to underplay his own importance, makes no mention of this Date Line shift in his book, The Adventure of Wrangel Island (1925).
And, tellingly, we know for a fact that the Admiralty’s Hydrographic Department was running the Date Line to join the 180º meridian south of Wrangel Island long before Stefansson’s adventure. In 1900, the article “Where The Day Changes” contained a plot of the Date Line according to the Hydrographer of the Navy, Admiral William Wharton—it’s the solid line in the detail below, and it shows the Date Line terminating due south of Wrangel, on the 180º meridian.
(Another cartographer, Benjamin E. Smith, is responsible for the dashed line, which terminates east of Wrangel.)
And “Notes On The History Of The Date Or Calendar Line”, published by the Admiralty Hydrographic Department in November 1921, routes all of its versions of the historical Date Line, from 1892 onwards, straight across Wrangel on the 180º meridian:
Now, Stefansson’s “colony” was established in September 1921, but he kept his territorial aspirations a secret, at first. The fact that he claimed Wrangel for Britain was not revealed until March 1922, in an article in the New York Times*, well after the Hydrographic Department produced the map above. So it’s evident that, whatever the reason for the Admiralty’s routing of the Date Line through Wrangel, it predated Stefansson’s claims, and therefore had nothing to do with them.
What were they up to, then? I think the way Wharton’s line terminates non-commitally south of Wrangel tells us the answer—the Admiralty were trying to avoid even the implication of a territorial claim. Terminating the Date Line on the 180º meridian south of Wrangel was one way of avoiding the issue. If pressed, running the line north along 180º degrees as if Wrangel didn’t exist was another way of doing so—deviating it to the west could be interpreted as supporting a British or American claim; to the east could be interpreted as a vote for the Soviet Union.
Once the British government’s official position was that Wrangel was Russian territory (which was established in 1924), the Admiralty were free to move the Line east of Wrangel to reflect political reality—and it has been there ever since.
Now. On with the story of territories that have changed their calendars and crossed the Date Line.
KWAJALEIN (1969 and 1993)
Kwajalein Atoll is one of the many atolls that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands came under United States administration at the end of the Second World War, as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, and Kwajalein island (the largest island in the atoll) became the site of a large American military base, while the USA used the Marshall Islands as a site for atomic bomb and ballistic missile testing.
And then a curious thing happened in 1969. The Marshall Islands made a slight adjustment in their time zone, from GMT+11 to GMT+12—at midnight on Wednesday, 30 September, the Marshallese put their clocks forward by an hour, to 01:00 on Thursday, 1 October. Except, that is, for the inhabitants of Kwajalein Atoll (predominantly military personnel and support staff), who put their clocks back by 23 hours, to 01:00 on Wednesday, 30 September, thereby repeating a day and shifting across the Date Line to GMT-12. Their clocks remained in synchrony with the rest of the Marshall Islands, but their calendar was now one day behind. This was done so that the Kwajalein military base had the same working week as colleagues on the American side of the Date Line—office hours falling into approximate alignment on five days out of seven instead of just four.
Few cartographers bothered to mark this on the map, but the Date Line had just developed a little isolated loop of American dates, surrounded on all sides by Asiatic calendar.
The Marshalls became self-governing in 1979, and then fully independent in 1986—but the US military base was still there, and Kwajalein Atoll was still a day out of synch with the rest of the country. In 1993, the Marshallese government made a request to the US for Kwajalein to return to the same date as the other Marshall Islands. So Friday, 20 August 1993 was followed by Sunday, 22 August 1993. The residents staged a celebratory two-mile run that started just before midnight on Friday, and so took a whole day to complete—it was called the “Run Around The Clock”. Synchrony with the working week in the rest of the USA was maintained by the sort of solution only the military can impose—the working week on Kwajalein now starts on Tuesday and ends on Saturday, with Sunday and Monday being the official weekend.
Since the Marshall Islands were part of the Spanish possessions that shifted from the east to the west side of the Date Line in the nineteenth century, Kwajalein is the only territory in the world to have crossed the Date Line three times.
EASTERN KIRIBATI (1994)
Kiribati is pronounced “Kiribas” (the letter t is pronounced “s” in Gilbertese, and a final i is silent). It’s an island nation that straddles the 180º meridian, composed of the Gilbert Islands (west of the meridian, and once owned by the UK), and the Phoenix and Line Islands (east of the meridian, once claimed by both the UK and USA). The Gilberts used to keep Asiatic dates, while the Phoenix and Line Islands observed American dates. When the Gilberts became independent in 1979, the USA signed over the Phoenix and (most of) the Line Islands to this newly formed Republic of Kiribati (“Kiribas” being as close as it’s possible to get to saying “Gilberts” in Gilbertese).
So, this new country had the Date Line running right through its middle. The working week east of the Date Line did not match the working week in the Gilberts, the main population centre. So after putting up with this ridiculous situation for more than a decade, Kiribati adjusted itself so as to observe the same date throughout its territory—eastern Kiribati moved straight from Saturday, 31 December 1994 to Monday, 2 January 1995. (Pause for the obligatory joke: Haven’t we all had a Hogmanay like that?) The neat and minimalist International Date Line that had lasted almost a century suddenly developed a huge eastward panhandle as it routed itself around the Line Islands and their eccentric GMT+14 time zone.
While you might think this was all fine and sensible, it provoked an outcry, simply because of its timing. The new millennium was looming, and a (fairly minor) tourist demand had been created to offer a view of the first sunrise of the year 2000 (since everyone had decided that 2000 was the year the new millennium began, despite the cries of the purists). Kiribati had just shoved the Date Line so far towards the rising sun that it now owned the territory on which that sunrise was going to happen (if we ignore Antarctica). Uninhabited Caroline Island, in the extreme south-east of the Line Islands, was accordingly renamed Millennium Island.
At this remove, it’s difficult to credit the fuss that was made about a perfectly reasonable date adjustment. Pitt Island, one of the Chatham Islands (see above), had previously been the place that would greet the millennial sunrise, by virtue of being tucked up against the southern deviation in the Date Line. But neither the Chathams nor the Line Islands are particularly accessible, and both lack the facilities to support any major influx of sunrise tourists. So there wasn’t some huge financial implication underlying all this. And yet appeals were made to the United Nations (who said, in effect, “Nothing to do with us”) and the Greenwich Observatory (who said, in effect, “Well, that’s interesting, but nothing to do with us”).
Bizarrely, long after the event, Ariel and Berger devote a large part of a chapter in Plotting The Globe (2006) to exercising their outrage against Kiribati—expressions like “tricksters”, “chutzpah or desperation” and “has shown the world how the International Date Line can be prostituted” seem just a little overwrought, don’t they? They conclude that:
The international community has not taken the Kiribati adjustment seriously. World atlases still ignore Kiribati and show the International Date Line in that republic’s vicinity as it has been for the past century—a straight line congruent with 180º meridian.
I don’t know how many atlases they checked before they made this claim, but my Encyclopædia Britannica World Atlas from 2005 (the year before Plotting The Globe was published) certainly has the Kirbati deviation neatly plotted, as do most atlases published since.
SAMOA and TOKELAU (2011)
We left the Kingdom of Samoa, back in my previous post on this topic, having crossed the Date Line from west to east in order to improve trade relationships with the USA, and for its troubles having subsequently been divided up between Germany and the USA. From the start of the First World War, German Samoa passed into the hands of New Zealand, as the Western Samoa Trust Territory, and then became independent, as Western Samoa, in 1962. And then, in 1997, Western Samoa changed its name to just plain Samoa, much to the annoyance of American Samoa (still US territory), who felt that their neighbour wasn’t entitled to the full, unadorned title that had once applied to the original kingdom.
So the Samoa that now shifted back across the Date Line from east to west is actually only about half of the Samoa that originally shifted from west to east in 1892. The shift was again calculated to shift into alignment with the dates used by its main trading partners, which were now Australia and New Zealand. (In 2009, Samoa had made a shift from driving on the right to driving on the left—again, reflecting its ties to Australia and New Zealand, and falling into line with the practice of many of its island neighbours.)
The change took place at midnight on Thursday, 29 December 2011, which was followed by Saturday, 31 December.
The New Zealand dependency of Tokelau, three atolls with a total of just 1500 inhabitants, which lie immediately north of Samoa, elected to make the same calendrical switch on the same day. Tokelau’s transport hub is the island of Apia, in Samoa, and its administration is from New Zealand, so the shift made a lot of sense.
Interestingly, the Samoa-Tokelau Mission of the Seventh Day Adventist Church has refused to acknowledge the date change. This means that while Christian churches in Samoa and Tokelau are holding their Sunday services, Adventist churches are simultaneously observing their Saturday Sabbath—a situation that is probably unique in the world.
And that’s the story. So far.
* The article appeared on the front page of the New York Times of 20 March 1922:
STEFANSSON CLAIMS WRANGELL [sic] ISLAND FOR GREAT BRITAIN
The Expedition He Sent Out Last Fall Has Established Possession, Says Explorer.
TIMED TO FORESTALL JAPAN
Any Previous Claims of America or Britain Had Lapsed, He Holds.
NOW OFFERED TO CANADA
Stefansson Denies That Russia, to Whom the Island Is Allotted on Maps, Has Any Right to It.
The British flag has been raised by a party sent out by Vilhjalmur Stefansson on Wrangell Island, one of the most important islands in the Arctic region, because strategically it dominates Northeastern Siberia. The explorer now admits that when the little vanguard of his fifth and latest expedition, including citizens of the United States, landed on Wrangell Island, on Sept. 21 last, its mission was political as well as scientific.