Monday, February 16, 2009

Place of the Week: Sealand

It's another edition of the possibly inadvisable series, Place of the Week. Today I give you: the littlest and most oxymoronically named (micro-)nation on Earth, Sealand.



Status: ambiguous
Form of government: constitutional monarchy
Founded: 2 September 1967
Area: 0.06 sq. km.
Population: 27
Sex ratio: 4.4 males/female
Per capita GDP, if you take their word for it: $22,200 US

In 1967, Paddy Roy Bates was just another run-of-the-mill Army major-cum-fisherman-cum-pirate radio operator, minding his own business and blithely disregarding British broadcasting law. But the British - sticklers for things like laws (especially British ones) - were none too keen on Bates' activites, and they convicted him on a charge of radio piracy. Now, it's common knowledge that getting tried and convicted in a court of law leaves a man with two clear options: 1) go to jail; or 2) abscond to an abandoned WWII-era naval defense platform in international waters, claim you've founded a new nation and declare yourself royal prince. It takes a certain sort of person to determine that, of these two options, the latter is clearly superior. And Bates was that sort of person.

The HM Fort Roughs was a pontoon base dropped onto a sandbar by the UK military in international waters off the coast of Essex. The unmellifluously-named base continued to serve as perhaps the least exotic outpost of the waning British Empire until 1956, when the Brits evidently just lost interest in it and left. This was all to the good for Bates of course, who, 11 years later, would find in Fort Roughs an inviting sanctuary from his legal troubles, not to mention a likely platform for continuing his pirate radio operations. (And never mind that the place had already been occupied by a rival crew of radio pirates; Bates physically evicted the squatters, apparently with no great effort.)

It isn't clear that Bates knew right away what he had. But after talking to a lawyer, he determined that the UK government's abandonment of the installation in international waters constituted a dereliction of sovereignty. The (perhaps bemused) British military sought to suppress this minor kerfuffle in 1968, sending out a vessel to politely re-enfold Sealand into the apron of its empire. Bates' son Michael fired a warning shot at the craft, and by and by Roy was arrested when next he set foot on English soil. He argued that the court had no authority to bring charges, as he was a sovereign entity in international waters and, charmingly, he won his case.

From that point on, Sealand pursued a course of nation-building. A constitution was enacted in 1975; a flag was designed and an anthem was written; postage stamps, currency, and passports were issued. And Sealand chose a motto: E Mare Libertas - from the sea, freedom.

Of course, in international relations, peace is never more than an interregnum between wars, and it wouldn't be long before the tranquillity of the young and absurdly small nation would be tested. In the summer of 1978, Roy and his wife were enticed to Austria by the prospect of a business deal with a group of Dutch and German diamond dealers. The meeting never materialized, however, and meanwhile a group of nefarious Dutchmen were abducting Michael and dropping him off, sans passport and pennies, somewhere in the Netherlands; they were assisted by Alexander G. Achenbach, the turncoat prime minister of Sealand who had been appointed by Roy Bates. Following this disastrous turn of events, it was clear what the Bateses had to do:
The Bates family enlisted armed assistance, including a helicopter pilot who had done some work on James Bond movies, and headed back to Sealand to storm the fortress and take back their country. When they arrived, Michael slid down the rope onto the deck armed with a shotgun, and fired a shot. The intruders quickly surrendered, and were held as prisoners of war until their home countries petitioned for their release.
Achenbach was subsequently held for treason, and wasn't released until a visit by a German diplomat (which visit, Bates argued, constituted de facto recognition by the German government). Achenbach would go on to establish a government-in-exile in Germany, claiming the title "Chairman of the Privy Council."

Times have been fairly quiet since the War of '78. Roy and his wife, Princess Joan, have retired to Spain, though Roy maintains his status as sovereign, along with his son Michael. Plans for an online casino are afoot. Challenges to the sovereignty of Sealand are occasionally levied, such as this one by one 'King Marduk' of Germany. But more than 40 years after its founding, the greatest micronation in the history of the world persists.

For more information, visit the official website of Sealand.

26 comments:

K H D and sometimes T said...

Fabulous. Really just fabulous. I also saw somewhere that they were considering selling it. Though you can't really sell a sovereignty so it would be more like a peaceful transfer of power to the highest bidder. Not so unlike our own system really.

Here's a couple of sealand photosets:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/van-mij/sets/72157594273886864/

&

http://www.churchandeast.co.uk/images/SealandPhotos/index.html

Greg said...

Wonderful. This might be the best (concise) writeup of Sealand I've ever read. I wonder if Roy's victory in British Court, as he was a sovereign, constitutes British recognition of Sealand.

Chachy said...

Many Consonants - yeah, they would be passing on "custodianship" of the "nation." And nice photos.

Greg - Bates certainly felt that it did. And Britain has essentially acted as if it did, which, from a pragmatic perspective, is pretty much the same as accepting that it did. And thanks.

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