The world is a cool place, full of beauty, wonder, fascinating people and places, and, occasionally, stories that can’t help but make me smile. This is one of those stories.
During World War Two, the United Kingdom built a number of fortresses in the North Sea to protect against German aircraft. One of those forts, HM Fort Roughs, stood about seven nautical miles off the coast, in international waters. (The UK’s claim at the time was three nautical miles.) When the war ended, the fort should have been destroyed. Instead, it was simply left derelict and abandoned.
On Christmas Eve 1966, Paddy Roy Bates came to HM Fort Roughs to use it as a platform from which to broadcast his pirate radio station. He was a veteran, and according to his son (more on that in a bit), felt let down by the British government. In September of 1967, Bates declared the fortress to be a sovereign nation, calling it Sealand. Over the next decade, a constitution was written, flag designed, an anthem dedicated, and both currency and passports issued. The country was deemed a principality.
Sealand. Photo from the BBC.
Paddy Roy Bates passed away in 2012, at which point his son, Michael, became Prince of Sealand. Prince Michael, who lives in Suffolk, was kind enough to spend some time speaking to me.
We discussed the legal status of the country, and his plans for the future of it. According to Michael, there has never been any effort made to gain international recognition, and indeed, no current member of the United Nations recognizes Sealand as an independent state. However, he tells me that there is de facto recognition from Germany. Apparently, in 1978 there was an attack on the fortress by German mercenaries. That attack ultimately failed, and the mercenaries were captured. Germany sent a diplomat from their London embassy to negotiate the release of the mercenaries, and that diplomatic negotiation, Michael argues, constitutes recognition of Sealand.
As for the country’s future, Prince Michael is trying to raise enough money to build out a small piece of land connected to the fortress so that visitors can come to Sealand, as right now the only way “in” is via a crane lifting you from a boat in the often-stormy North Sea. One of the ways he is raising money is by selling titles of nobility. He reminds me that French kings long funded their wars by selling noble titles, so he doesn’t simply consider it a gag. However, for only about $50, one can purchase the title of Lord. Other titles are available for more money. Lord Jonathan Berg has a nice ring to it, so I purchased the title on the spot!
Today, Prince Michael is 68, and spends his days, as he tells it, bothering his adult sons who run the family business fishing for and canning cockles which are sold to Spain. Those sons, both with the title Prince, will inherit Sealand from their father.
It’s a truly wonderful story, almost out of a fairy tale, of a family building a country from scratch on a deserted island. But what is the legal and political basis for Sealand? Over the decades, there have been several attempts at creating micronations, none of which have lasted. For example, the Republic of Rose Island, an artificial island created in 1968 in the Adriatic Sea, was destroyed by the Italian navy. A similar artificial island called the Republic of Minerva was similarly destroyed by troops from Tonga. Sealand, however, has endured, and Michael credits the “civility” of the British for that.
While founded in international waters, as explained above, Sealand also now sits inside of British territorial waters, which in 1987 were extended to twelve nautical miles from the prior three. However, the British government has made no attempt to remove Prince Michael and Sealand, which some would argue is also de facto recognition of Sealand’s sovereign existence. (The British might disagree.) Furthermore, the 1994 UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea states that artificial islands do not possess the status of islands, which can be claimed by a country as sovereign. Again, though, there is debate over this, as China’s artificial island building campaign in the South China Sea has them claiming territorial waters surrounding each. (It should be noted that the international community has refuted those claims, as well as condemned the building projects entirely.)
For now, Sealand – despite any political and legal arguments to the contrary – certainly exists. Prince Michael uses some of the money raised by his online shop to fund permanent security for the country, and to undertake improvements to both the stability and livability of the platform. Should he or his sons attempt to establish a banking center or anything of the sort, perhaps the world and the British would be forced into action. Or, perhaps this would be the first micronation to truly gain acceptance internationally.
So is Sealand a country? Honestly, I don’t think it matters. As a professional traveler, I am often asked how many countries I’ve visited, and it’s a tough query to answer. After all, what truly defines a country? If it’s international recognition, Taiwan isn’t a country. (China has said it will cut ties with any nation that officially recognizes its “rogue province.”) If its having a separate currency or passport, Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands are independent countries, although China and the UK, respectively, would not agree. We live in a world where so much is shaded in gray, and I’m comfortable putting Sealand into that gray area. Should I be lucky enough to set foot on Sealand one day, it will be added to my answer, a range. “Somewhere between 54 and 58,” I say, “depending on how you classify a country.”
Regardless of whether or not Sealand gains recognition, or is considered a country by the wider community, I am content with my newly gained title of nobility, my new friendship with Prince Michael, and the knowledge that the world is still able to surprise me. The story of Sealand is one that should make all of us smile.
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