What is Sealand?
Is this Pirates of the Caribbean? An action-star themed episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race? A Broadway musical? Of course not.
This is Sealand.
What to the casual observer may look like a rusting heap of concrete and steel is in fact the world’s smallest island nation. Located seven miles off the coast of England, on decommissioned World War II naval outpost in the North Sea, Sealand was founded in 1966 by Paddy Roy Bates. It now has its own currency, royals, passports, national anthem, and soccer team.
The story of Sealand’s founding reads like Vin Diesel indie film meets Oscar Wilde script plus a visit to the psyche ward, with a dash of Harlequin romance.
Paddy Roy Bates had worn many hats before becoming crown prince of Sealand. He was a beef importer, a butcher, an entrepreneur, an infantry major, and…a pirate radio founder. In fact, that’s how Sealand got started. After the war, the same kind abandoned military vessels that now house Sealand were home to radio DJs and engineers who were done with only listening to the same ol’ classical played by the BBC over and over again. After founding Radio Essex and Britain’s Better Music Station, Bates was brought to court and ordered to stop all radio transmissions from his stations. The era of pirate radio was finished.
This setback might have stopped lesser men, but not Bates. On Christmas Eve of 1966, he took his beauty queen wife (Joan) and their two children (Penelope and Michael) and invaded Rough Sands, their new abandoned military rig home. On his wife’s birthday, he dubbed himself Prince Roy and her Princess Joan of Sealand. For years he would joke that for his wife’s birthday he made her a princess with a private island. (For years she asked where her palm trees were, if this was her island…) They declared their independence from Britain and started settling in.
He had some choice words for the British government at the time: “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
This is where the story starts to get really surreal. Even though Prince Roy was convinced that there was nothing the British government could do to him, having studied both UK and international law in preparation for this venture, the British government didn’t seem to share his views. British naval units started tearing down all similar structures around Sealand, to prevent copycats and to intimidate the newly established Sealandians.
Not long after the founding of the tiny island(ish) nation, British soldiers attempted a direct takeover. Michael, then 14, would not allow this to happen; he inherited too much of his father’s fighting spirit. When they came too close, he fired across the bow of the British ship. When the matter of his firing a gun at the British ship in an act of aggression came before a British court, the presiding judge decided he had no authority in the matter: the rig was in international waters. Thus came what Sealandians refer to as the UK’s de facto recognition of it’s independence.
Just over ten years later, Michael proved to be a key figure in yet another takeover attempt. While Roy and Joan were on a business trip to Austria, the acting Prime Minister of Sealand (a German) and several Dutch businessmen landed a helicopter, captured Michael at gunpoint, and then locked him in a room before sending him safely to the continent. Their intent was to turn Sealand into a luxury casino in international waters.
At that moment Prince Roy proved he was more than just talk, that he was every bit a hardcore rebel. Calling upon a James Bond stunt pilot friend who owned a helicopter,
Prince Roy led an armed re-invasion team with his son. They retook Sealand, and imprisoned the invaders. Bowing to pressure from surrounding governments, they released the Dutch after a short stay. The traitorous German, however, they would not release. At first, Germany called upon Great Britain to control their people and get their citizen released from this makeshift nation. The British, amused at this predicament, cited the 1968 court case and claimed they had no authority in Sealand. Germany had no choice but to send a diplomat to arrange for his release. Sealand considers this their second recognition by a European nation.
Since its founding, Sealand has remained independent of any surrounding governments. Its embarked upon varied business ventures in order to keep itself afloat (no pun intended), but what the future of Sealand holds is anyone’s guess. Paddy Roy, or Prince Roy, died in October 2012, after having lived with Alzheimer’s disease for some time. His son described him as a man who would be remembered for standing up to the establishment, which is certain.
However, it seems like he stood for much more than that. In interviews, he was asked why he poured his whole life into such a bizarre project. He said he was looking for a place of true freedom.