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Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
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Trump's attempt to buy Greenland follows a long history of the US buying territory with cash
The idea was soundly rebuffed this week.

Trump Departs for Louisville, KY Ron Sachs / PA Images US President Donald Trump. Ron Sachs / PA Images / PA Images

“THANKFULLY, THE TIME where you buy and sell other countries and populations is over. Let’s leave it there.”

They were the words of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen this week as she rejected the idea of the United States buying Greenland from Denmark. 

That utterly bizarre episode of international relations unfolded this week with Trump being given a firm ‘no’ to his interest in acquiring the world’s largest island for the US. 

The US has also shown interest in buying Greenland twice before, in the late 1860s and again in 1946, nothing ever came of the interest.

But as Frederiksen alluded to, there was a time when nations did buy territory from one other nations.

This is not a feature of international sovereignty anymore but it was in colonial times with the United States perhaps the most well-known proponent of the practice. 

Here are some examples:

Louisiana Purchase

This is perhaps the most famous example of one nation buying territory from another, in which the US almost doubled its territory in a deal with France.

In the early 18th century, London and Paris were at loggerheads over control of North America, but French interest waned after it lost Quebec in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

shutterstock_525250 Shutterstock The huge shaded area was taken into the US under the Louisiana Purchase. Shutterstock

The US agreed the Louisiana Purchase with France in 1803, in what has since been dubbed the bargain of the century.

For just $15 million — or four cents an acre — France gave up 2.2 million sq km of prairie, mountain and Mississippi delta — an expanse of land that makes up almost a quarter of its modern-day territory and includes 15 states.  


Alaska was a far-flung colony of the Russian Empire exporting mainly fish and fur for most of the 19th century.

By 1859 Russia had lost interest in the 1.7 million sq km chunk of land in the Arctic Circle but wanted to keep it out of the hands of the British Empire, which ruled Canada.

US Secretary of State William Seward oversaw the purchase for $7.2 million in 1867.

It was heavily criticised and branded “Seward’s Folly,” although Americans eventually recognised Alaska’s potential as a fertile territory for oil and gas production.

The Philippines

The US launched itself as a colonial power on 10 December 1898 when it bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million, installing a military government.

Washington passed the Philippine Independence Act in 1934, and Manuel L. Quezon won a presidential election held in the southeast Asian archipelago in 1935.

The Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II until the United States and Philippine Commonwealth army recaptured the country in 1945.

The US formally recognised its independence a year later.

The US Virgin Islands

shutterstock_698707786 Shutterstock THe US Virgin Islands pinned on a Caribbean map. Shutterstock

In light of the furore over Greenland this week, there are precedents for Denmark trading real estate with the US.

Washington bought the Danish West Indies in 1917 for $25 million and rebranded them the US Virgin Islands.

These days, the luxury tourist destination is among numerous US “insular areas” that are neither part of the 50 states nor federal districts, alongside American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico.

The US has also shown interest in buying Greenland twice before, in the late 1860s and again in 1946, when Harry Truman’s Secretary of State James Byrnes suggested the sale to a Danish official at a United Nations meeting in New York. Nothing ever came of the interest.

Guantanamo Bay

Guantanamo Bay is among several US “dependent territories” in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. It was leased for use as a coaling station and naval base in 1903 for $2,000 in gold per year and raised to $4,085 in 1974.

The Cuban government has protested since the 1959 revolution against America’s oldest overseas naval base, alleging that it was imposed by force, against international law.

Since 2002, it has been home to the internationally condemned prison camp in which the US detains without trial those it determines to be militants.

© – AFP 2019 with reporting by Rónán Duffy


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