Since 1967, the decommissioned HM Fort Roughs has been occupied by family and associates of Paddy Roy Bates, who claim it as an independent sovereign state. Bates seized it from a group of pirate radio broadcasters in 1967 with the intention of setting up his own station at the site. He later attempted to establish Sealand as a nation state in 1975 with the writing of a national constitution and establishment of other national symbols, such a coinage, stamps, titles of nobility and (now withdrawn) passports.
While it has been described as the world's smallest country, Sealand is contentious in not being officially recognised by any established sovereign state despite of Sealand's government's claim that it has been de facto recognised by the United Kingdom and Germany.
The story of Sealand, Holding the Fort by Prince Michael Bates, commences with the history of maverick British Army Major Paddy Bates, Michael’s father and ruler of Sealand – and indeed the story of the Principality of Sealand is intertwined with the story of this larger than life character…
During the Second World War, the British government built several Fortress islands in the North Sea to defend its coasts from German invaders. Some of these forts were built illegally in international waters.
One of these illegal Fortresses, consisting of concrete and steel construction, was the famous Fort Roughs Tower, situated slightly north of the estuary region of the River Thames, on the east coast of the United Kingdom. In contrast to the original plan to locate the tower within the sovereign territory of the UK, this fortress was situated at approximately seven nautical miles from the coast. This is more than double the then applicable three-mile range of territorial waters. To put it briefly, this island was situated in the international waters of the North Sea.
The forts were abandoned in the early 1950s and, due to their illegal construction in international waters in a time of world crisis, they should have been destroyed, to comply with international law and except for Fort Roughs Tower the neighbouring fortresses were indeed pulled down. The result of this was the portentous uniqueness of the remaining fortress. Fort Roughs Tower, situated on the high seas, had been deserted and abandoned, res derelicta and terra nullius. From a legal point of view, it therefore constituted extra-national territory.
In the early 60s, Roy Bates, a Major in the British army, established a radio station, situated offshore on the abandoned ex naval fort “Knock John”. The theory behind this location was an attempt to bypass the draconian broadcasting restrictions of the time, which permitted little more than formal broadcasting by the BBC. Roy’s station, “Radio Essex”, and others like it, were known affectionately by the media as “Pirate” radio stations, and were much loved by the British public, as they supplied everything that the BBC did not at the time, Pop music and amusing presenters.
In the years that ensued, Roy fought an unsuccessful legal battle with the UK government, which questioned the legality of his occupation of said fort. It was ruled that “Knock John” fell under UK jurisdiction. Smarting from his setback, Roy weighed his options. Another abandoned fortress, Roughs Tower, identical in construction to the Knock John existed further offshore, and crucially, outside of the three-mile limit to which the UK jurisdiction extended. Roy proceeded to occupy Roughs Tower, on Christmas eve 1966, with the intention of revitalising his dormant radio station. This was until he conjured a different plan entirely. After consulting his lawyers, Roy decided to declare this fortress island the independent state of “Sealand”, Claiming “Jus Gentium” (“Law of Nations”) over a part of the globe that was “Terra Nullius” (Uninhabited Land).
On the 2nd of September 1967, accompanied by his wife Joan on her birthday, his son Michael (14), daughter Penelope (16) and several friends and followers, Roy declared the Principality of Sealand. The founding of this country was marked by the raising of a newly designed flag, and in an extremely romantic birthday gesture, the bestowing of a new title on his beloved wife, to be know from that moment on as “Princess Joan”.
It was not long before the British Government decided they could not have what ministers described as a possible “Cuba off the east coast of England”. The military were promptly dispatched to destroy all other remaining forts located in international waters. The Bates family looked on as huge explosions sent the massive structures hurtling hundreds of feet in the air and twisted and buckled debris floated past Sealand for days.
Helicopters that had carried the explosives buzzed menacingly above, and the navy tug carrying the demolition crew passed close by our fortress home and shouted, “You’re next!” with an angry waving of arms. A while later a government vessel steamed to within fifty feet of Sealand, its boisterous crew shouting threatening obscenities at Michael, and his sixteen-year-old sister. Warning shots were promptly fired across the bow of the boat by Prince Michael, causing it to hastily turn and race away towards the UK, amongst a large cloud of black engine smoke.
Since Roy was still a British citizen, a summons was issued under the UK ”firearms act”. On the 25th of November 1968, Roy and Michael found themselves in the dock of the Crown court of Chelmsford assizes in Essex. There was much argument, and laws dating back to the 17th century were called upon. The judge concluded that “This is a swash buckling incident perhaps more akin to the time of Sir Francis Drake, but it is my judgment is that the UK courts have no jurisdiction.” This was Sealand’s first de facto recognition.
HRH Prince Michael – Paddy Bates’ son and current ruler of Sealand - has documented this picaresque story of the establishment and maintenance of Sealand in a detailed historical and autobiographical account Holding the Fort. If this were not a true and autobiographical account, Holding the Fort would make an action-packed, if hard-to-believe, thriller.
The book is fascinating in a providing a first-hand account of the establishment of Sealand, along with numerous photos of the Principality and Royal family throughout its history so far – including the taking hostage of Michael by German mercenaries and subsequent retaking of Sealand by helicopter; causing a diplomatic incident with Germany as Paddy Bates held the would-be mercenaries on treason charges…
In August 1978, Alexander Achenbach, who described himself as the Prime Minister of Sealand, hired several German and Dutch mercenaries to lead an attack on Sealand while Bates and his wife were in England. Achenbach had disagreed with Bates over plans to turn Sealand into a luxury hotel and casino with fellow German and Dutch businessmen. They stormed the platform with speedboats, Jet Skis and helicopters, and took Bates's son Michael hostage.
Michael was able to retake Sealand and capture Achenbach and the mercenaries using weapons stashed on the platform. Achenbach, a German lawyer who held a Sealand passport, was charged with treason against Sealand and was held unless he paid DM 75,000 (more than US$35,000 or £23,000). Germany then sent a diplomat from its London embassy to Sealand to negotiate for Achenbach's release. Roy Bates relented after several weeks of negotiations and subsequently claimed that the diplomat's visit constituted further de facto recognition of Sealand, this time by Germany.
Bates moved to the mainland when he became elderly, naming his son, Michael, as regent. Bates died in October 2012 at the age of 91. Michael lives in Suffolk, where he and his sons run a family fishing business called Fruits of the Sea. The end of this account of the larger-than-life Paddy Bates has not signalled the end of the Principality however – a severe fire in 2006 led to major renovations, and Sealand also publishes an online newspaper, Sealand News. In addition, a number of amateur athletes have represented Sealand in sporting events, including unconventional events like the World Egg Throwing Championship, which the Sealand team won in 2008, and more mainstream events such as skateboarding, marathon running and, recently, a national football team.
And of course the curious micronation of Sealand retains its claims as a sovereign state to this day, with a website at www.sealandgov.org. Amongst history, updates and a shop an online comic (Sealand Comic) can also be found; by renowned artist Matteo Farinella. This depicts a brief but highly engaging potted history of Sealand … https://www.sealandgov.org/sealand-comic-by-matteo-farinella/ although whilst forming an accessible introduction to the island, HRH Prince Michael Bates’ first-hand account is destined to become the definitive book about the Principality of Sealand. (key historical background in this review © Copyright 2012 - 2018 Principality of Sealand. All rights reserved).
“E MARE LIBERTAS”
And so, I turn the page and the final chapter in my global journey around the world is at hand. After nearly 11 years, over 250 countries and nations, and 315 books I finally set out for the end of my voyage, the place my travels began – indeed being born here, the place that I began – England. There is a sense of irony that my final trip is from one of the newest and tiniest nations of Sealand to one which formed the hub of an Empire, and later a Commonwealth, covering at one point nearly a quarter of the world’s population (including my new home of Australia) with a national heritage going back centuries.
Much has changed even in the relatively short period since my first book on my travels… (Salaam Brick Lane by Tarquin Hall) – a love letter to London in all of its multicultural glory, a place based on centuries of immigrants from the far corners of the world; to my final stop courtesy of Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers, a ‘Brave New World’ satire set in Edmundsbury, a small town in England, sometime in the recent future...
Brexit has happened and is real. Fear and loathing are on the rise. Grass-roots right-wing political party England Always are fomenting hatred. The residents of a failing housing estate are being cleared from their homes. A multinational tech company is making inroads into the infrastructure. Just as the climate seems at its most pressured, masked men begin a series of 'disruptions', threatening to make internet histories public, asking the townspeople what don't you want to share? As tensions mount, lives begin to unravel.
But enough of this book until next time, first I need to re-take my bumpy journey by boat from Sealand to the port of Hastings, famous for the Norman invasion of 1066 and the start of the Royal Family line. I walk to the train station from the sea front in a chilly morning dew and board the train to Ashford International, 44 minutes later I am on the connecting train to Stratford International arriving after another 30 minutes.
I grab a sandwich as I jog the 700 metres to catch the train from Stratford (London) to Ipswich (another hour trip), then from Ipswich the final leg brings me to my destination of a small Eastern town on Bury St Edmunds (the actual novel location is named Edmundsbury but is a thinly disguised fiction version of Bury, which resides in the actual Diocese of Edmundsbury).
So, four hours and $200 later (a timescale and cost that could have taken me halfway across Africa earlier in my journey!), I come full circle to this Blessed Isle, this happy breed, this green and pleasant land, perfidious Albion… England.