A long time ago, the world was dominated by tribes. Many of them were tiny. Over time, the distance between tribes became smaller. They started to mix and large nations were created. But there remains many exceptions.
The Roman Empire dominated Europe from the 1st century AD. It was said, that in the year 301, a Christian stonemason named Marinus arrived at the remote Monte Titano (in present day San Marino) and built a chapel. When the Roman Emperor Diocletian began a prosecution of Christians two years later, a group of Christians fled to Monte Titano to avoid prosecution. There, the world's oldest republic, San Marino, was born.
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Before Industrial Revolution, powerful families held most of the land in Europe. These families were largely sovereign but often pledged their loyalty to an emperor. Andorra is a good example. First created in the 9th century, it was shared between the Count of Foix (Southern France) and the Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell (Catalonia).
Monaco (ruled by House of Grimaldi), Luxembourg (House of Luxembourg), and Liechtenstein (House of Liechtenstein) were all territories held by powerful families that once pledged their loyalties to larger countries. While the larger empires have disappeared, these families navigated the changes and survived as microstates.
Colonization and Rebellions
In the 15th century, Europeans entered the age of global voyages and world colonization. The first journeys were made down the west coast of Africa, such as when Portuguese settlers arrived in Ribeira Grande (in present day Cabo Verde) in 1462 to build the first permanent European settlement in the tropics.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus changed history by discovering the New World, starting with The Bahamas, then Cuba and the island of Hispaniola. Europeans rushed to the New World. World exploration continued, and by 1650, European powers had started trade in Asia and reached as far as Australia and New Zealand. By 1800, even the small Pacific islands, such as Tahiti, New Caledonia, Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) had been discovered. European empires were built around the globe.
In the Caribbean, European settlers set up plantations and imported slaves for the hard labour. In a way, this form of hierarchy mirrored how Europeans were subordinates to the monarchs and the nobles. But such hierarchy began to change when the Americans, fighting for increased civil rights, gained their independence in 1776. This was followed by the French Revolution in 1789 in which a new constitution was written, and new concepts, such as civil rights and political rights, were introduced.
Pressure began to build in the Caribbean. In the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti), "free men of colour" started fighting for their rights in 1790. The slaves joined in soon after. Even though slavery was abolished by 1795, the tide had turned against the colonists. In 1804, Haiti gained its independence from France, and became the world's first black republic. Their independence was followed by nearby Dominican Republic (1844) and Cuba (1902).
Nationalism in Europe
Europe also entered a period of national romanticism in the 18th century. People began to look for their own identities through language, race, culture and religion. Prior to 1848, Italy was broken up into several states. But the Italians began the fight for one unified Italy. In late 1870, the unified Italian army marched into Rome, sweeping the last resistance, the pope, aside. The pope, who was previously the ruler of a huge territory in central Italy (Papal States), proclaimed himself a "Prisoner in the Vatican". An agreement was only reached in 1929 between the pope and Italy, on the creation of the microstate of Vatican City for the pope.
On the other hand, national romanticism also brought the concept of national identity to the colonized Estonians and Icelanders, as they realized they were different from their colonial masters. Estonians (1918) fought a war for their independence, while the Icelanders (1944) was successful in negotiating for their independence peacefully. Estonia, of course, later was again invaded and became part of the Soviet Union, and would only be re-established in 1991.
World War II and New World Order
At the start of the 20th century, empires dominated and there were a mere 56 countries in the world.
But the two world wars came and changed the world order completely.
Europe was bankrupt and damaged. European empires were unable to protect their overseas colonies during the wars, and thus, were no longer seen as invincible. Pressure was mounting on the empires, both from external pressure (United Nations, America) and from the independence movements within the colonies.
It was the breakup of these European empires that created a majority of today's tiny nations.
Fights for independence began almost as soon as World War II was over. The French were dragged into multiple wars in Africa. Eventually many French African colonies were freed in 1960, including Gabon. The British, too, were dragged into a guerrilla war against the Cypriots. This led to Cyprus' independence, also in 1960.
By then, the British Empire, the greatest power before World War II, was collapsing. India, the largest British colony, gained its independence in 1947. Britain was humiliated internationally during the Suez Crisis of 1957. United States also applied pressure on the British to free its colonies, as the Soviet Union was sponsoring independence fighters in Africa.
As such, in February, 1960, UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously delivered the "Wind of Change" speech in Africa, publicly acknowledging that the days of the Empire is over:
"The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact."
On December 14, 1960, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which called for independence for the colonized people. International pressure started to mount and independence movements were turbocharged.
Transition plans were drafted up in the colonies. Autonomy was granted. Eventually the colonies would, one by one, leave the British Empire. This breakup resulted in the creation of a series of tiny nations in the 1960s:
Africa: The Gambia (1965), Botswana (1966), Lesotho (1966), Mauritius (1968), Swaziland (1968)
Asia: Singapore (1963), Maldives (1965)
Caribbean: Jamaica (1962), Trinidad and Tobago (1962), Barbados (1966)
Europe: Malta (1964)
South America: Guyana (1966)
A few United Nations Trust Territories also gained independence in the 1960s. These territories were mostly former colonial possessions of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Of note, the tiny nations of Samoa and Nauru, previously managed by New Zealand and Australia, achieved their independence in 1962 and 1968, respectively.
In Africa, Equatorial Guinea achieved their independence from Spain in 1968. On the other hand, Portugal started a war against independent fighters in Africa (including in Guinea-Bissau) in 1961, and the war would carry on for the next 13 years.
Decolonization In The 1970s and 1980s
In the two decades after, decolonization efforts continued around the globe, which resulted in the creation of many more small states.
Breaking away from the British Empire was:
Africa: Seychelles (1976)
Asia: Brunei (1984)
Caribbean: The Bahamas (1973), Grenada (1974), Dominica (1978), St. Lucia (1979), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (1979), Antigua and Barbuda (1981), St. Kitts and Nevis (1983)
Central America: Belize (1981)
Pacific: Fiji (1970), Tonga (1970), Tuvalu (1978), Solomon Islands (1978), Kiribati (1979), Vanuatu (1980)
Middle East: Qatar (1971), Bahrain (1971)
In Portuguese Africa, the war between the Portuguese and many of its territories had now entered the second decade. Portuguese citizens were increasingly unhappy with the economic consequences of such war. On April 25, 1974, a bloodless coup was staged in Portugal to topple the authoritarian government. This led to Portugal's sudden retreat in all its colonies. Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and East Timor all became independent shortly after.
In French Africa, following independent referendums in Comoros and Djibouti, these two African nations gained independence in 1975 and 1977, respectively. In South America, Suriname achieved their independence from the Netherlands in 1975.
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UN trust territories also continued to achieve independence. Papua New Guinea earned their independence from Australia in 1975, while Marshall Islands (1986), Federated States of Micronesia (1986) and Palau (1994) all got their independence from the US.
End of the Cold War
During the First World War, South Africa (then part of the British Empire) invaded German South West Africa (present day Namibia). South Africa was granted control of the territory under a mandate by the League of Nations after the war. However, as South Africa itself gained independence and became a sovereign nation in 1961, it never offered independence to South West Africa.
This led to a guerrilla warfare, headed by the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), and sponsored by the Soviet Union, Cuba, China and other communist countries. The independence war started in 1966, and would serve as a long, drawn-out proxy war between the major powers, as South Africa (and the West) was keen on stopping the expansion of communism.
By 1988, with the Cold War coming towards an end, the US brokered a peace treaty between South Africa and the PLAN. An independent Namibia was finally formed in 1990.
The end of the Cold War also led to the birth of East Timor.
East Timor was a Portuguese colony and gained its independence in 1975. But Portugal did not prepare East Timor for an invasion. Indonesia would invade East Timor on December 7, 1975, citing fear of a communist country next to its doorstep, while also eyeing the vast natural resource in the Timor Sea. This invasion was done with an implicit approval from the West, and the subsequent occupation would lead to the deaths of up to 200,000 people.
In 1991, Indonesian troops opened fire and killed an estimated 200 people during a peaceful protest in East Timor. This incident was captured on camera and led to international outcry. When Australia, a key stakeholder in the region, changed its stance against Indonesia in late 1998, Indonesia called a snap independence referendum in East Timor in 1999. The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, and Indonesian soldiers and pro-Indonesian militia retaliated by carrying out a campaign of violence and terrorism in retaliation.
United Nations' peacekeeping force stepped in a month later, and East Timor formally became independent in 2002.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also led to the collapse of Yugoslavia (or formally The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). After World War II, Yugoslavia was created by combining six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro, six republics that were made up of multiple nationalities and various religions. When the Soviet Union began to break up, independence wars also broke out in the region, starting in 1991.
By 1995, when a ceasefire was negotiated for the war, Serbia and Montenegro were the two republics left inside Yugoslavia. Although the two had historically enjoyed good relationships, the countries eventually grew apart. In a 2006 referendum, 55.5% of voters approved the independence of Montenegro, making it now the youngest small nation.