Strange Politics: The Bizarre History of Sealand

The Flag of the Principality of Sealand

The Flag of the Principality of Sealand

Let’s talk for a moment about micronations.

As this video explains, defining what is and is not a country is much more difficult than it appears at first. While everyone agrees that the United States, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and South Africa are countries, there are plenty of “countries” that are not recognized as such by many. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, for example, looks like a country when you fly there – they have a functioning government, a clear border, a military, and even a national soccer team – but the only country that recognizes its independence is Turkey. The rest of the world considers it a part of the country of Cyprus that has been invaded and occupied by Turkish troops.

Micronations take this one step further. They are “countries” that lay claim to sovereign territory but are not recognized as countries by anyone, anywhere. In large part, this is because these “countries” are things like the Republic of Molossia, founded by some guy in Nevada who declared his 1.3 acre property to be its own independent nation so he could wear a funny uniform.

This guy actually claims to be waging a decades-long war with East Germany, to give you an idea of what kind of man he is.

This guy actually claims to be waging a decades-long war with East Germany, to give you an idea of what kind of man he is.

Then there’s the Conch Republic, a “country” that was formed in 1982 when Key West, Florida “seceded” from the United States. As you might expect from the laid-back vacation destination, none of the Conch Republic’s “citizens” take their claims of independence seriously. The whole affair was originally set up as a protest movement against the construction of a Border Patrol roadblock on the only highway connecting the island to the mainland. Today, the continued existence of the “Republic” is mainly an amusing tourist attraction. Its motto? “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”

Yet among the many such micronations around the world, there is only one that might actually have genuine claims to be an actual country. Let me introduce you to the Principality of Sealand.

This place.

This place.

Our story begins in World War II. To defend British waters from German attack, the Royal Navy and British Army built a collection of offshore defensive towers and forts. These were designed by British engineer Guy Maunsell, and so they were called “Maunsell Forts”. They acted as a deterrent against amphibious German landings on Britain’s shores and German naval attacks on British shipping. Of course, when the war ended, the need for these towers disappeared, and over the next several years they were abandoned, one by one.

They would not stay abandoned for long. To understand why, we need to talk about, of all things, British radio broadcasting.

Unlike in the United States, where radio stations have almost always been private, commercial endeavors from the very beginning, radio in the UK and most other European countries was completely controlled by the government for decades. The BBC had a legal monopoly on all radio broadcasting until 1972. This was a problem for many young British music listeners. The BBC saw itself as a public service, first and foremost, and therefore didn’t broadcast very much pop or rock music in the 1950s and 1960s. To satisfy this demand, illegal pirate radio stations were set up on many of these abandoned offshore towers that would play the latest hits.

It wasn’t long before the British authorities began cracking down on these illegal broadcasts. However, one of these radio broadcasters, a WWII veteran named Paddy Roy Bates, found himself in a major stroke of luck. After several run-ins with the law for his pirate broadcasts, he holed up on a Maunsell Fort called HM Fort Roughs off the coast of Suffolk. This particular tower was actually just outside British territorial waters, meaning the platform was not under the UK’s jurisdiction. On September 2, 1967, Bates declared the creation of the Principality of Sealand, claiming the abandoned tower to be a sovereign nation with himself as its monarch.

Bates, however, would have to defend his prized new turf, as other envious pirate broadcasters tried to kick him out and claim the tower for themselves. At one point, the Royal Navy decided they had better step in. For their troubles, they were fired upon by Michael Bates, Paddy Roy Bates’s son. Both Bates men were arrested over this incident, but were acquitted on the logic that the British court had no jurisdiction over actions taking place outside British territorial waters.

Soon, Sealand had a flag, anthem, constitution, coins, passports, and stamps – all the trappings of a true country. Meanwhile, the British demolished all of the nearby Maunsell Forts to keep anyone from deciding to copy Bates’s example. For the better part of a decade, Sealand continued its existence as a minor oddity in the North Sea. Then, it very suddenly faced something that many true countries face – war.

In 1978, a group of German and Dutch men with guns led by Alexander Achenbach invaded the tiny country with speedboats, jet-skis, and helicopters, capturing Michael Bates and holding him prisoner for three days before exiling him to the Netherlands. Achenbach proclaimed himself “Prime Minister of Sealand” and intended to build a casino on the platform. The Bates family hired a helicopter and launched a counterattack to retake their country. Using secret caches of weapons they had stashed on the platform, they gained the upper hand and forced the enemy to surrender. Achenbach and his followers were tried for treason and imprisoned.

The governments of Germany and the Netherlands asked the British to intervene and save their citizens who, in their minds, were being held prisoner in an abandoned tower by a crazy British guy. However, the British cited the earlier court ruling that had acquitted Paddy Roy and Michael Bates a decade earlier and said this was not their jurisdiction. In response, Germany sent a hostage negotiator who was able to secure the release of Achenbach and his followers.

Did this mean that Germany had technically recognized the sovereignty of Sealand as a nation? The Bates family certainly thought so, and ever since they have loudly proclaimed that they are no mere micronation, but a legitimate country.

So how does the world’s smallest “country” support itself economically? Here’s a better question: Have you ever wanted to be a Knight, Lord, Lady, Baron, Baroness, Count, or Countess? Thanks to the Principality of Sealand, you can have a noble title of your own for as little as £29.99! You can also buy property on Sealand, a Sealand citizenship ID card, a personalized Sealand coat of arms, a Sealand flag, a copy of the Sealand constitution, the official jersey of the Sealand national soccer team, Sealand postage stamps, Sealand coins, and Michael Bates’s autobiography. Just visit Sealand’s official website, where you can find all of these things and more!

Of course, that’s if you accept the current regime on Sealand as legitimate. Remember Achenbach and his followers? After they were freed, they declared themselves a “government-in-exile” and claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the principality. They have a website of their own, where they proclaim their motto, “Facts are the Enemies of the Truth”. Yes, really.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, the bizarre history of the world’s smallest nation.

Hmm… I wonder if there are any places off the California coast just outside U.S. territorial waters?

 

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