Starting Your Own Country
Published: June 2009
By Jeff Wise
That's precisely the appeal of creating your own private nation. But as a long line of would-be potentates have discovered, it's not as easy as all that
Are you tired of getting pushed around?Being told what to do?Then you may be ready for the ultimate freedom–to be true master of your own domain. In short, to run your own country.
Sure, it's a crazy dream. Most of us have to resign ourselves to sharing our citizenship with millions of other lowly schmucks. But 32-year-old University of Michigan dropout Sean Hastings is one of the lucky ones. At the moment he's running his own 6,000-square-foot slice of sovereignty, a mini-republic dubbed Sealand.
Admittedly, there are a few drawbacks to this particular nation. There is no purple mountains' majesty, and not a single fruited plain. Hastings's domain is weather-beaten and desperately in need of a coat of paint. Sealand is nothing more than a 60-year-old concrete-and-steel anti-aircraft platform sitting in 20 feet of English Channel, seven miles off the British coast. In the middle of the platform stands a little house, where Hastings can sit on his living room couch and look out over the waves. In the far distance, on days when the North Sea weather isn't crashing down in rain or sleet, he can just make out the coast of southeast England.
"It's very pretty," says Hastings, who has lived on the platform since May, "especially at sunset."
Pretty or no, tourism prospects are poor. Public access is limited–the only way to reach Sealand is by a 45-minute helicopter ride from London or a five-hour, stomach-churning boat ride from the coast. And frankly, visitors aren't really welcome there. Hastings and his colleagues–up to 20 of them at a time–are occupying Sealand to provide unregulated data services to customers around the world. As the CEO of Haven Co.–the name of the venture–Hastings is responsible for installing and overseeing millions of dollars' worth of computer gear and satellite communications equipment.
"I bet the fishing here would be great," he muses. "But so far I haven't had a chance to try it. Getting all this set up–needless to say I've been working nonstop."
No one ever said it's easy to start your own country. Historically, the success rate of would-be sovereigns is abysmal–and people have been trying for a long time. The 19th century saw a host of adventurers seeking to establish themselves as rulers over the fringes of the explored world. Rudyard Kipling immortalized this colonial mania in "The Man Who Would Be King," about a trader who set himself up as the god of a remote Asian tribe. Though few such ventures paid off in real life, some were successful–most notably that of the famous Brooke family, the "White Rajahs of Sarawak," who ruled their corner of Borneo over three generations, from 1841 to 1946.
The era of megalomaniacal role-playing ended soon after World War II. In the wake of Europe's self-destruction, dozens of former colonies declared independence. Suddenly, the world was flying a lot more flags. Most of those countries, to be sure, were new only in name–their territories embraced ancient ethnic or geographic identities. But their sudden creation inspired a few visionaries to take the next logical step. Instead of basing a nation on geographic reality, why not found it on a concept, or an ideology, or even a sense of playfulness?Why not create a country out of nothing at all?
"There was an optimism in the air [in the sixties], a sense that anything was possible," says author Erwin Strauss, whose 1979 book How to Start Your Own Country remains the movement's bible. Covering the history and philosophies of brand-new nations, the book also offered practical advice for country-starters, and a string of cautionary tales.
Most new-country schemes began with the same seemingly foolproof idea: find an uninhabited flyspeck somewhere out in the ocean, move in, and plant a flag. But there's a problem with this plan: there aren't any unclaimed flyspecks. Every piece of rock or stretch of sand on the planet has been mapped and claimed by at least one country. Try to move in, and you'll soon find a hostile gunboat parked offshore.
So new-country pioneers discovered a loophole. Under international law, the seabed can't be claimed by any nation. Submerged reefs, ergo, are a blank slate.
In theory, anyway. In 1972 a Lithuanian adventurer named Michael J. Oliver hired an Australian dredging ship to sail to a submerged coral atoll called the Minerva Reefs, 260 miles northeast of Tonga. Oliver's plan was to build two artificial islands of sand, each 71/2 acres in size. Once formed, the nascent Republic of Minerva would, he hoped, attract sufficient investment that another 2,485 acres could be built.
But as soon as a patch of sand had been dredged up, the disgruntled king of Tonga had a box of provisions marked supplied and maintained by the government of tonga parachuted onto it. When Oliver's hoped-for investors failed to materialize, the dredger weighed anchor and a Tongan landing party arrived to plant its nation's flag. Eventually everyone went home, and the sea reclaimed the tiny pile of sand.
Even if it hadn't washed away, Minerva probably would not have been an enticing travel destination–a barren outpost with no water, no food, and absolutely nothing to look at. Nonetheless, others have tried to follow Oliver's lead. Two years ago, Lazarus Long, an entrepreneur from Oklahoma, announced a plan to create an island-state on a reef off the coast of Honduras. Known as New Utopia, the project called for a raft of floating platforms to be hauled from a construction site in Florida.
In theory, New Utopia would offer what every new-country dreamer craves: freedom, and plenty of it. The floating micro-nation would be an anything-goes paradise, with minimal laws and practically no taxes. Scoffing at comparisons with earlier, ill-fated projects, Long said, "This is different. This is real. We have a government, we have a territory, and we have citizens, so we are a country."
Not long afterward, the scheme fell apart amid accusations by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was merely a plot to peddle fraudulent bonds. Long backed off, having raised just $22,000 out of a planned $350 million.
Around the time New Utopia was unraveling, Sean Hastings was living on Anguilla, trying to launch an Internet data hosting company but irritated by government interference. The only way to avoid bureaucratic meddling, he figured, would be to start his own country. For a time he considered building atop a reef off the Mexican coast. Then he picked up Strauss's book and saw a picture of Sealand on the cover.
Sealand had sprung into being in 1967, when a British entrepreneur named Roy Bates took over the old platform, which was outside Britain's three-mile territorial limits. Having run pirate radio stations on similar platforms in the past, Bates had studied up on the matter and believed that he could claim full sovereignty. Soon he had set up house and begun styling himself Prince Roy. What followed were numerous squabbles and confrontations–at one point Bates's son, Michael, was arrested for taking potshots at a crew of English buoy tenders, then released when the court decided it lacked jurisdiction–but Sealand's sovereign status was never conclusively resolved. Prince Roy remained in possession, fiercely defiant.
By the time Hastings met him late last year, however, Bates had fallen on hard times. Sealand had never attracted the investment income he had hoped for. The bulk of his family income had always come from fishing, but that had begun to dry up. "He was running out of money," says Hastings. "He could only afford to live out here by himself." Then Hastings approached Bates with the idea of turning Sealand into a libertarian data hub. The prince agreed to lease the platform, and though Bates himself moved back to the mainland, he has left Hastings with a "royal army" of a dozen fishermen and deckhands on Sealand to ensure that it stays under their control. Hastings, meanwhile, has decided to make the platform his permanent place of residence.
But the saga is far from over. The British government continues to dispute Sealand's claims of sovereignty. "The U.K. does not recognize Sealand as an independent state," the Home Office declared in June. "It is within U.K. territorial waters." (In 1987, the government extended its declared territorial zone to a span of 12 miles offshore; Bates insists that Sealand was grandfathered in, and the courts have sided with him thus far.)
The odds may still be against Hastings, Prince Roy, and the little band atop Sealand. But succeed or fail, they have managed to come further than any other new-country builders of the modern age. If only in their own minds, they can take credit for that rarest of achievements: a country created out of thin air.