The Principality of Sealand, founded by Roy and Joan Bates, drafted its own constitution in 1975 and created its own currency, flag, anthem, and even its own passport and coat of arms.
On September 2, 1967, the former commander of His Majesty’s Navy, Mr. Patrick Roy Bates, boarded the anti-aircraft fort H. M. Roughs, which rested some 13 kilometers off the coast of Suffolk, in the North Sea, and which was illegally occupied by pirates. Once there, and by means not entirely clear, ex-Commander Bates, whom everyone called Paddy, expelled the occupants with the intention of using the fort himself. His idea was to establish a pirate radio station there. He had the name – Radio Essex – and all the necessary equipment to launch his broadcasts to the world, but, surprisingly, he never did. Relying on an interpretation of international law that was as careful as it was pizpid, Bates and his wife Joan declared independence from the fort and proclaimed themselves rulers of the new nation, which they called the Principality of Sealand. The world’s smallest country had just been born.
The history of this hunk of metal dates back to 1942, when the British Army installed a series of armed towers in the middle of the Thames and Mersey estuaries to help defend the island, and specifically London, from Luftwaffe attacks. They were named Maunsell Forts after their designer, engineer Guy Maunsell, and were in operation as the first anti-aircraft defensive line until the end of World War II.
Some were operated by the Army and, with their silhouette of corroded steel with holes in the nozzles through which cannons and machine guns protruded, they looked like monsters from a steampunk novel, or something out of a heavily muscled version of The War of the Worlds. Other forts belonged to the Royal Navy and looked more like a warship resting on two huge cylindrical concrete legs that dug into the seabed, a few feet underwater.
In the late 1950s, after being used as a military exercise ground, the Maunsell forts were abandoned and some dismantled. But not all of them. A few of the retro-futuristic type can still be visited from boats and ships and, from time to time, some tourists go up there to play the ape and risk catching tetanus. And there is another one, one of those that look like a marine platform, whose extension (reasonably large) and geographical position (in international waters) was too succulent a lure for the epidemic of pirate radio stations that spread through the big British cities in the sixties, coinciding with the arrival of the swinging sixties and the explosion of pop music: the H. M. Roughs.
For almost ten years, the fort experienced a series of boardings, counter-boardings and occupations by radio pirates until September 1967 arrived and Paddy Roy Bates put an end to the pirate rackets once and for all. By declaring the founding of the Principality of Sealand, the waters near the turret became the country’s jurisdictional waters and any attempt to enter them was an act of hostility.
The whole thing would seem to be a little serious, a British pantomime, but the fact is that, in 1975, after a few run-ins with the British justice system, the Bates drew up a constitution and introduced their own currency, the Sealand dollar, whose official exchange rate is always the US dollar. They also designed a flag, composed an anthem and began to issue their own passport. All this under a coat of arms that read: “E Mare Libertas” (Freedom from the sea). Behind all this display of officialdom was the idea that Sealand would be recognized as a sovereign state by some nation in the world, something that almost happened three years later, and not exactly thanks to the anthem or the flag.
In August 1978, a German lawyer named Alexander Achenbach hired a few mercenaries to try to take over the platform while Bates and his wife were in England. Achenbach called himself prime minister of Sealand, despite the fact that all he possessed was one of the folksy passports issued by the Bates as a souvenir. The lawyer and the mercenaries stormed the fort with speedboats and took hostage Michael, the Bates’ son, and a group of his friends, who were the only ones there at the time.
Like a white label James Bond, Michael got rid of his captors thanks to a few Sten machine guns he had hidden on the platform. After several struggles, the Bates’ son retook Sealand, captured Achenbach and formally charged him with high treason. Meanwhile, the mercenaries left in a hurry because they were not being paid enough for such foolishness.
As there was no justice department in Sealand, the lawyer was held there on bail of 75,000 German marks (about $35,000 at the time). Here the story turned dark, because, of course, Germany was not prepared to put up with a citizen of their country being, for all intents and purposes, held hostage. So they sent a diplomat from the Embassy in London to negotiate Achenbach’s release.
After several weeks of negotiations, Paddy Roy Bates agreed to the prisoner’s release. He did not do so as an act of defeat but rather the opposite, declaring that the visit of a German diplomat to the sovereign soil of the Principality of Sealand constituted recognition of his country by the Federal Republic of Germany, even though the Germans said no such thing.
Unfortunately for the Bates, the recognition of Sealand would never happen because, in 1987, the United Kingdom extended its sea strip to 12 nautical miles off the coast, absorbing Sealand into British territory. The Bates continued to sell their passports, coins and flags, more as souvenirs than anything else. To this day, Sealand remains the smallest country in the world, barely 500 square meters in area. Following the death of Paddy and Joan, the current prince is Michael, who lives in Suffolk and has apparently given up special constable activities to take up the fishing tackle trade. He claims that hundreds of requests for passports, flags and coins arrive on his website every day, but that the most sought-after item is the title of Lord or Lady.
Indeed, you can be a Sealand nobleman without having to prove any lineage or pedigree; you just have to order it online. And it only costs 36.99 €.
Pedro Torrijos is an architect and has just published his first book, ‘Territorios Improbables’, where he talks about this and other curious stories related to the world of architecture and urban planning.