Principality of Sealand flag

Book review: ‘Sealand’ by Dylan Taylor-Lehman

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The true story of the world’s most stubborn micronation.

This book reads like a mixture of a Jules Verne adventure novel and one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers: rough sea chases; Molotov cocktails; pirates; hostage-taking; weddings; botched coups d’etat; sieges; fires; triumphs, and betrayals. And yet, there’s not one iota of fantasy in it!

‘Sealand: The True Story of the World’s Most Stubborn Micronation’ by Dylan Taylor-Lehman (Icon Books, £16.99, ISBN 9781785786662) is based entirely on the true story of one of the world’s best-known micronations, located in the North Sea, 12km off the coast of Suffolk and hence outside the 5km limit of British territorial waters. The so-called Principality of Sealand was established by the former British Army Major Paddy Bates, who in 1967 proclaimed himself the Prince and his family members – then the platform’s only residents - the royal family.

Sealand occupies an offshore oil platform originally called HM Fort Roughs. Engineered as an anti-aircraft gun fort to shoot down incoming German bombers during World War II, it was built on the wharfs at Gravesend and designed by Guy Anson Maunsell, a British civil engineer known for his peculiar brutalist structures, mostly WWII Naval sea forts. Fort Roughs stood out due to its unusually spacious living quarters comprising seven rooms in each of the tower’s two legs.

In 1975, after years of successful radio pirate radio broadcasting from the Fort, Bates introduced a constitution, as well as a national flag and an anthem and started issuing Sealand’s own coins and passports, of which over 150,000 were printed only to be revoked in 1997 as popular among international fraudsters– all except about 300, personally issued by Bates to “close friends”.

In the early 2000s, Sealand, claiming to be outside the UK government’s jurisdiction, signed an agreement with an online company to host a number of websites and in 2004 formed the Royal Bank of Sealand, with offices in Geneva.

Paddy Bates passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, having named his son Michael as ‘regent’. At present, the Fort is all but abandoned apart from two caretakers, hired by the Bates family, who take turns looking after it.

Sealand’s short history, as recounted by Taylor-Lehman, is rife with controversies that include gunshots, fired from the platform at British workmen who arrived to service a nearby navigational buoy, and even the suppression of a coup by the mictronation’s self-proclaimed prime minister AG Achenbach, who tried – with the help of several foreign mercenaries - to take over the platform while the 'royal family' were all away in England. The defeated plotter was ‘charged’ with treason and subsequently established his own government-in-exile.

This well-researched and gripping book, published – almost to the day – on the 53rd anniversary of Sealand’s proclamation of independence, is not the first comprehensive chronicle of that brazen and highly unusual micronation. ‘Holding the Fort’, penned by Michael Bates (who calls himself ‘Michael of Sealand’ on the title page) several years ago was published by the Principality of Sealand itself. It has to be said that Icon, the publishers of Taylor-Lehman’s book, have done a much better job, for the prince regent’s own book, despite being fluent, is in places repetitive, incoherent and somewhat self-aggrandising.

Let’s put the literature about Sealand aside for a moment and ask ourselves what makes it different from other self-proclaimed dwarf states.

To begin with, both by definition and by recognition - or rather by the lack of it – Sealand was not (and still isn’t) like Monaco or Liechtenstein, but a ‘micronation’ (of which there are now nearly 70 all over the world): a small area or political entity that claims sovereignty, but unlike existing mini-states is not recognised by any other sovereign states or international organisations.

The key word in this definition is “any”. There exist another group of nations – the so-called ‘partially recognised states’ (or ‘states with limited recognition’), such as the breakaway post-Soviet republics of Transnistria and South Ossetia, for example, recognised only by each other and which are often incorrectly referred to as micronations or mini-states.

The first recorded micronation was probably the English island of Lundy, whose owner Martin Coles Harman proclaimed himself king and started issuing coins and stamps at the beginning of the 20th century (Paddy Bates’ venture was not that original). Among the recent additions to the list are Liberland, a patch of disputed land on the western bank of the Danube, and the ‘Space Kingdom of Asgardia,’ based entirely in outer space on board a small satellite.

Of the four general principles of statehood defined by the 1933 Montevideo Convention - permanent population (even if it is just one person); defined territory; government, and capacity to enter into relations with the other state - it is the final one that prevents micronations from becoming ‘proper’ countries. They cannot effectively “enter into relations” without being recognised first.

Having failed to achieve official recognition, Sealand has nevertheless won itself some well-deserved popularity (or perhaps notoriety) as an unlikely geopolitical experiment - a triumph of a highly eccentric dream over the shenanigans of international bureaucracy. Taylor-Lehman’s remarkable book, far from glorifying that brazen attempt, pays it proper tribute.

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