By Harley Austin | United States
51 years ago today, Roy Bates founded the self-proclaimed micronation: the Principality of Sealand. Consisting of a small fortress off the coast of Suffolk, England, the unrecognized state has had a very interesting history since it began in 1967. In recent years, Sealand has grown into a famous spectacle for its history and unexpected sophistication.
The naval fort that would become Sealand started out as one of many WWII-era British sea forts. First called HM Fort Roughs, or Roughs Tower, the fortress was located seven nautical miles from the coast of Britain. This technically placed it in international waters.
The Sealandic government’s official website claims that such use of international waters was illegal. As the fort was in international waters, it was fully legal to occupy and claim. While many British forts were destroyed, Fort Roughs survived until the government abandoned it in 1956.
Competing Pirate Radio
In the 1960s, British broadcasting restrictions heavily favored the BBC. As a result, numerous “pirate” radio stations emerged to compete. This brings us to Sealand’s founder, Roy Bates, who was running a pirate radio station called Radio Essex. Bates ran his broadcast from another abandoned fort called “Knock John”. Because it was in British water, though, the government sued him, ultimately winning and forcing him to leave the property. Bates would then set up shop in Roughs Tower, which was luckily outside of British waters, in late 1966.
The Principality of Sealand
Now operating in Roughs Tower, Bates soon had a different idea in mind. On September 2nd, 1967, Bates, his family, and his associates declared the fortress a sovereign country. Roy Bates then declared himself Prince and his wife Joan a princess.
Legal Status and Recognition
Of course, the creation of a micro-state right next to Britain during the Cold War was bound to bring controversy. In 1968, the British navy destroyed all the other remaining sea forts to prevent others from following Sealand’s example.
Various sources dispute what followed after the destruction of the other forts. Most official sources claim that Michael Bates, Roy’s son, fired warning shots at a boat of workers who were servicing a navigational buoy. The Sealandic government itself claims that before the incident, demolition teams repeatedly harassed Sealand. They also state that the British ship “steamed to within fifty feet of Sealand, its boisterous crew shouting threatening obscenities at Michael and his sixteen-year-old sister.” Michael then fired warning shots at the boat, scaring it away. The validity of this account is unknown.
Afterward, British authorities took Roy to court as a British subject for weapons violations. After a lengthy case, the court decided that the UK had no jurisdiction because of Sealand’s location beyond British control. The Sealandic Government claims this to be a de-facto recognition of its sovereignty.
Despite being a micro-state with hardly any permanent residents, Sealand was not immune to internal struggles. In 1978, Sealand’s Prime Minister, Alexander Achenbach, along with several mercenaries, took over Sealand and held Michael Bates hostage. In a surprising turn of events, though, Michael managed to retake Sealand. He then captured the mercenaries as prisoners of war.
While Bates released most of the prisoners after the conflict, he charged Achenbach, who possessed a Sealand passport, with treason, holding him until he paid Bates 75,000 Deutsch-marks.
Germany then demanded that the British government release him, but Britain took no responsibility for the incident, citing the aforementioned court case. In response, Germany sent its British ambassador to Sealand, where he would successfully negotiate for Achenbach’s release. Sealand found this to be further recognition of its sovereignty, this time by Germany.
Following his release, Achenbach established the Sealand Rebel Government, which claims to be the legitimate owner of Sealand to this day.
The United Kingdom Asserts Power
In 1987, the U.K. extended its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, which placed Sealand within their waters. Following that, in 1994, a United Nations Law of the Sea Convention treaty officially stated that ”Artificial islands, installations, and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.” This, of course, limits the possibility of other countries recognizing Sealand’s independence.
Surprisingly, Sealand has recently been involved in athletics. In 2015, climber Kenton Cool brought a Sealand flag to the summit of Mount Everest. However, Sealand’s biggest claim to fame in this area is its soccer team. They formed a team in 2003 and joined the N.F. Board, a league for non-FIFA members, in 2006. The team did not win any championships but had a pretty great record for an abandoned navy base. When the N.F. board disbanded in 2013, Sealand’s soccer team was likewise discontinued.
Prince Roy Bates died in 2012, leaving his heir Michael Bates as ruler of Sealand. Joan Bates died soon after in 2016. Michael Bates considers himself a dual citizen of Sealand and the UK and currently lives in Essex with his children. In 2015, Bates wrote a memoir about Sealand titled Principality of Sealand: Holding the Fort.
Recently, Sealand celebrated its 50th anniversary by releasing a commemorative silver coin. Michael Bates also held an anniversary dinner, saying:
We’re perhaps the most undemanding state in the world. We don’t force anybody to worship any god or religion or anything. Maybe that’s why we’ve lasted so long. Hopefully, I’ll be around for the next 50!
For the past 51 years, Sealand has been one of history’s many interesting tales. While its chances at true sovereignty are slim, it serves as a great example of the power of perseverance and persistence. After 51 years, Sealand lives up to its motto: ”E mare libertas” (Freedom from the Sea).
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