Why you should care

Because one man’s anti-aircraft platform is another man’s castle.

Everyone dreams of staking a claim to a deserted island, but few pull it off. Former British Army Maj. Paddy Roy Bates was a bit more proactive; he created his own country back in 1967, and the tiny state is still going strong.

The Principality of Sealand, located on a World War II fortress six miles off the coast of Suffolk, England, was established by Bates as a potential base for a pirate radio station. He declared himself head of state and introduced a constitution and a national anthem. Today it boasts its own currency, postage stamps and official passport.

Sealand started life as Fort Roughs in 1942, one of several concrete and steel islands constructed by the British to fend off German invaders. It was home to 150 servicemen and anti-aircraft guns until it was abandoned in 1956. British territorial waters extended only three miles from the coast back then, so the fort became terra nullius, or “land belonging to no one.”

No one, that is, until Bates showed up on Sept. 2, 1967, declared it an independent principality and dubbed himself “Prince Roy” and his wife “Princess Joan.” The British government acted swiftly, destroying other forts outside British waters, but didn’t challenge the new prince’s claims.

Folks can visit Sealand, but it’s suggested that you send a note first.

Peace prevailed — for about a year. In 1968, workmen fixing navigation buoys shouted obscenities at Prince Roy’s 16-year-old daughter, Penny. Her brother Michael, 14, encouraged them to leave by firing warning shots. Firearms charges were filed on the mainland but dismissed by a judge, who declared, “U.K. courts have no jurisdiction.” To Bates, this amounted to de facto recognition of Sealand’s independence.

Fast-forward 10 years. Everyone but Michael was away, when Alexander Achenbach — a former business partner of Bates’ — staged a coup d’etat, taking Bates’ son prisoner and holding him without food for four days before transporting him to the Netherlands. Michael and his father soon regained control, rappelling from a helicopter, armed with pistols and a sawed-off shotgun. German-born Sealand citizen Gernot Putz, one of Achenbach’s lackeys, was imprisoned for treason, and Germany sent a diplomat to negotiate his release — the second instance, Bates argued, of de facto recognition.

It may seem like tomfoolery, but it’s not without precedent. Other European micro-nations include San Marino, Andorra and Liechtenstein, all of which prosper as tax havens and gambling destinations. The Danish enclave of Christiania has prevailed despite attempts to close it down; the Republic of Saugeais, in eastern France, has its own president; the Italian principality of Seborga was ruled by Prince Giorgio I until his death in 2009.

Prince Roy passed away in October 2012, and was succeeded by Michael, who kindly met me at his mainland Essex residence. He’s a formidable figure — tall and broad, with a gaze that pins you to your chair. Like Sealand, he looks like he can weather stormy seas. He’s genial and, like Queen Elizabeth II, owns a Range Rover and is fond of dogs.

Michael spins a great yarn over coffee. He reckons he’s spent two full decades on Sealand, often waiting weeks for a break in the weather to get to the mainland for supplies. Was he frightened by Achenbach’s “terrorists” (his word) back in the ’70s? “No,” he says, chuckling. “I was ready to kill the *****.” As many as 150 people lived on the island in its ’70s heyday, but the numbers have since dwindled to just a few.

These days Sealand provides secure Web hosting and data storage. Cash also comes in through the sale of collectible coins, stamps and noble titles. Folks can visit, but it’s suggested that you send a note first. A Hollywood movie’s in the works, and Prince Michael has written a definitive history titled The Principality of Sealand.

And, perhaps most importantly, in July the family welcomed baby Freddy Michael Roy to the fold — a fourth-generation prince to protect and serve Sealand’s independence.

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