I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
During the Second World War, a number of forts were built around the British coast to act as anti-aircraft platforms against German bombers. One of them has been occupied and its residents make the audacious claim that it is a sovereign nation.
His Majesty’s Fort Roughs
In 1942, Britain erected a structure in the North Sea off the coast of Suffolk. Anti-aircraft batteries were mounted and the emplacement, being at sea, was staffed by the Royal Navy.
Eleven years after the war ended it was decommissioned (sometimes it takes a while for paperwork to get through). So, it was left to endure the depredations of weather and seagulls. There it sat; slowly growing more dilapidated, until 1965 when Paddy Roy Bates arrived.
The Years of Pirate Radio Stations
For decades, the government-funded British Broadcasting Corporation held a monopoly on radio and television services. But, the outfit was a bit stuffy and disinclined to play what its programmers probably referred to as roll-and-rock music as they lifted their chins a little and looked down their noses disapprovingly.
Seeing a commercial opportunity, several entrepreneurs set up pirate radio stations on old fishing boats anchored outside British territorial waters. They beamed non-stop Rolling Stones, Merseybeats, and The Who to teenagers hungry for something with more zing that the Light Entertainment Orchestra and Mantovani.
A former army major, Paddy Roy Bates arrived on Fort Roughs and set up Radio Essex. The old fort was unoccupied and had been built, illegally, in international waters; a location that would later prove troublesome to the majesty of British Law.
A Micronation Is Declared
The British government shut down the pirate radio stations with the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967. Bates reacted with libertarian panache by declaring the rusting platform to be the sovereign nation of Sealand. He gave the nation to his wife Joan as a birthday present and the family moved in.
The new nation was declared to be a monarchy under the governance of Prince Roy and Princess Joan. The youngsters had royal titles also.
As with any self-respecting country, even one that covers only 0.004 sq km (about the size of two tennis courts), Sealand has its own flag, currency, and postage stamps; its motto is “E Mare, Libertas” (“From the sea, freedom”).
Attacks on Sealand
The principality has not been the peaceful haven its monarchs might have hoped for.
The current ruler is Prince Liam, grandson of Roy Bates. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “a boat full of royal marines were sent out to recapture it at one point. And there’s since been government papers that [have] been declassified where they considered having the Royal Navy run a ship into it in the night, to knock it down.”
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Roy’s son Michael got into a spot of bother in 1968. Some workers were attending to a buoy near Sealand, so he took a few pot shots in their direction with a .22 calibre pistol. Prince Michael said they were warning shots to announce that the workers were too close to sovereign territory.
The authorities took a different view and charged Michael with illegal possession and discharge of a firearm. But, the court ruled it did not have jurisdiction because the incident happened in international waters.
In 1978, German diamond merchant Alexander Achenbach, who declared himself Prime Minister of Sealand, sent a group of mercenaries to capture the platform. But they reckoned without the military expertise of the Bates family who launched a successful counter-attack. A lawyer, Gernot Pütz, who represented Achenbach, was captured and held hostage.
The makings of an international incident were brewing up so a diplomat from the German embassy in London was sent to Sealand to sort things out. After lengthy talks, Bates agreed to release Pütz from captivity and received a payment of $37,500. The leader of the principality noted that government-to-government negotiations constituted a de facto acceptance of Sealand’s sovereignty.
The Bates family has several creative ways of raising the money needed to keep their principality solvent. For example, they will sell you an aristocratic title; a lordship, ladyship, baron or baroness costs about $41. But who wants to settle for such lowly ranks when the title duke or duchess is available for $686?
There is the usual swag; T-shirts ($20), coffee mugs ($14), and key rings ($4).
One money-making scheme was the creation of HavenCo in 2000. This was an internet server farm that provided hosting to groups that were keen to have their businesses operate outside the reach of national governments.
The technology news website, The Register, reported that “the company initially offered an everything-goes-policy along with an offshore fat-pipe data haven.” Pyramid schemes, gambling websites, dodgy bank dealings, and pornography peddlers were all welcome.
But, the Bates family would have neither truck nor trade with spammers and corporate cyber-sabotage. It seems they had standards. Similarly, the family found an effort by Julian Assange to set up Wikileaks on Sealand offensive.
HavenCo disappeared without trace or explanation in 2008. However, it looks as though the scheme was poorly managed and funded and the clients found better and more reliable servers elsewhere.
So today, Sealand survives on selling trinkets such as passports and diplomatic licence plates for cars.
- Werner Stiefel operated a large medicinal soap business in the United States. A devotee of Ayn Rand’s libertarian theories he set out to create a micronation where he would be free of government overreach. Under the name of Operation Atlantis, Stiefel decided to locate his fantasy country on a large boat that his followers built. They launched the boat in 1971 and it promptly capsized. Another boat was bought and taken to the Caribbean where it sank in a hurricane.
- The Republic of Minerva was another libertarian pie-in-the-sky attempt to set up a Utopian society based on Ayn Rand’s principles of every man for himself. This was the dream of Las Vegas real estate developer Michael Oliver. Barges of sand were taken out to reclaim a coral reef in the Pacific. When it was pointed out that Tonga had a claim on the reefs, Oliver, in the true spirit of a real estate mogul, simply declared it the independent the Republic of Minerva. Tonga was not best pleased and sent troops to boot Oliver and his followers off the reef.
- There is coverage of other self-declared “nations” here.
- “Sealand: A Peculiar ‘Nation’ off England’s Coast.” Mike MacEacheran, BBC, July 6, 2020.
- “Sealand Is the World’s ‘Smallest Independent State.’ CBC, December 9, 2019.
- “Offshore Hosting Firm HavenCo Lost at Sea.” Jan Libbenga, The Register, November 25, 2008.
- “The Pint Size Nation of the English Coast.” Ian Urbina, The Atlantic, August 15, 2019.
- “Republic of Minerva.” Serflac, Atlas Obscura, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on January 31, 2021:
I never heard or read much of Sealand. You supported the article with nice illustrations, videos, and photos. It's interesting how prisoner trades generate money in exchange.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 30, 2021:
What an interesting account of a true eccentric!
Ann Carr from SW England on January 30, 2021:
Oh! That's cheating really! Don't blame thaem though.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 30, 2021:
Interesting, but had a touch of fun.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 30, 2021:
There is a heli-pad, but it's rarely used. Most of the time, the Bates family lives ashore and Sealand is only occupied by a single security guard. Most like his own company.
Ann Carr from SW England on January 30, 2021:
Fascinating! I've read of a few 'sovereign' states like this before, but never one at sea. I think it's great for someone to have the individuality to do such things! Not sure that I'd fancy living on it, though. Bit of a faff to go shopping or visit friends etc. I looked for a heli-pad but couldn't see one.
Thanks for highlighting this - it beats the Martello towers!