Castles in the air
Dec 20th 2005
From The Economist print edition
Starting your own country is no path to prosperity, but it remains popular
MONACO is a country that makes Iceland look huge: the tiny principality and its 32,000 residents would fit comfortably inside New York's Central Park. Katharine Hepburn aptly called the place a “pimple on the chin of the south of France”. Were it not for the Vatican, this pimple would be the world's smallest independent state.
Tiny it may be, but for those who dream of founding their own country Monaco stands as an example of what cunning and tenacity can achieve. Seized in 1297 by a Genoan adventurer, Francesco Grimaldi, the rocky promontory has been transformed by his descendants into a principality that flaunts the trappings of a modern nation-state: it has its own flag, passports and stamps, and seats at the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Stroll around the place—past luxury yachts and manicured gardens—and the impression is one of contented prosperity.
Monaco's achievement has not gone unnoticed. Over the past half-century many people have tried to ape its success. Most of these stabs at nationhood have been frivolous and some crackpot. But a handful have been serious, and a few aspiring Poo-Bahs have won some autonomy for their fledgling states, albeit briefly. With the number of real countries increasing—30 have sprung to life since 1990 alone—some people think one of these “micronations” could eventually be accepted as a legitimate state.
Less than two centuries ago, new nations could still be staked out on terra incognita. Most of these mini-kingdoms, satrapies and private fiefdoms died along with the adventurers and sea-traders who founded them. But some survived into the 20th century. The Clunies-Ross family, who in 1827 settled the Cocos or Keeling Islands—a pair of isolated coral atolls in the Indian Ocean—held on to them until 1978 when a descendant ceded control to the Australian government.
With only a portion of Antarctica now lying unclaimed, recent nation-builders have had to think more creatively. Attempts at founding states in international waters were particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The more hare-brained schemes involved cobbling together floating platforms. Leicester Hemingway (Ernest's younger brother) did just this off the west coast of Jamaica in 1964. Dubbed the Republic of New Atlantis, the platform was created to house a marine-research society and to help protect Jamaican fishing. Official recognition of the place never came, despite the minting of some stamps and an approach to Lyndon Johnson (America's president at the time). Scavenging fishermen and a big storm put an end to the project, so the younger Hemingway paddled off to found another floating country, named Tierra del Mar, near the Bahamas.
Other aspiring rulers tried to make islands by sinking ships in shallow water or building on reefs and shoals. Few of these got beyond the drawing board, though the Republic of Minerva made enough progress to alarm the neighbours. The brainchild of a Las Vegas-based libertarian activist, Michael Oliver, the tiny republic was created in 1971 by dumping sand on the Minerva Reefs, which lie about 500km (310 miles) south-west of the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga. Independence was proclaimed the next year and a small tower constructed on the emerging island. But Tonga got wind of the project and dispatched a token occupying force that annexed the place—a claim later recognised by the South Pacific Forum. The sandy island sank beneath the waves soon afterwards.
Perhaps wisely, other budding rulers have followed Bangladesh's example and seceded. Most of these micro-revolts can be classed as publicity stunts, with little real intention of founding an independent state. Britain's best-known secessionist is a bookseller named Richard Booth, who in 1977 declared himself king—and his horse prime minister—of the Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye. This unusual step helped put Hay on the map as a “town of books”. Today, it still accounts for a healthy trade in passports, government scrolls, car stickers and “official” titles.
Comedy also marked the short-lived Conch Republic which came into existence in 1982 when the American government, in a move to staunch drug-trafficking and illegal immigration, set up a roadblock on the highway connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland. By declaring war on America, then promptly surrendering and applying for $1 billion of foreign aid—a ploy borrowed from “The Mouse that Roared”, a comedy starring Peter Sellers—the Republic's residents won public sympathy for their plight and the roadblock was removed. Even seceding half-heartedly, it seems, can have benefits.
If at first you don't secede . . .
The longest-running secessionist micronation is the Hutt River Province Principality in Western Australia. Nestling 595km north of Perth, it arose from a dispute in 1970 over wheat quotas. Leonard Casley, a farmer, took the unusual step of declaring his property independent and styled himself Prince Leonard I. Australia's government refuses to recognise Mr Casley's claim, but this has not deterred him or his subjects. The principality has issued over 200 types of coins and a few banknotes. By doling out passports to visitors, it also claims 13,000 overseas citizens and has foreign consuls in a smattering of countries. Earlier this year it extended an offer of assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Other prospective rulers have delved into history for an anomaly or legal precedent on which to base their claims. Seborga, a village in the Italian Alps, traces its heritage to medieval times when it became a principality of the Holy Roman Empire. Subsequently omitted from a succession of treaties—including Italy's Act of Unification of 1861—its 350-odd residents today claim to live in a sovereign state. Like other micronations, Seborga mints its own currency (the Luigino), sells stamps and issues passports. The Italian government does not seem to mind, so long as the Seaborgans pay their taxes and respect Italian laws.
The Seborgans elect their prince, currently Giorgio I. On the other side of the world, the kingship of the tiny Caribbean island of Redonda—part of Antigua and Barbuda, itself one of the world's smallest countries—is disputed. The pretenders' claims stem from 1865 when Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a sea-trader, landed on the uninhabited island and declared it his kingdom, only for the British government—with an eye on its rich phosphate deposits—to annex the place. The title passed out of the Shiell family in 1947 and is contested by at least two groups who argue, not in all seriousness, for Redonda's independence. Foremost among them is a Spanish novelist, Javier Marìas, who has published books about Redonda and bestowed Redondan titles on luminaries including Francis Ford Coppola, Pedro Almodóvar and A.S. Byatt.
What many consider to be the world's most successful micronation exists thanks to a supposed legal loophole. Founded by a former British army major named Paddy Roy Bates in 1967, the Principality of Sealand occupies an abandoned anti-aircraft tower in the English Channel. “Prince Roy” asserts that because the tower was derelict and lay outside British territorial waters when it was occupied, the British government has no claim. A handful of legal skirmishes have strengthened his hand. Although British territorial waters have been extended and now include Sealand—and the British government refuses to recognise its claim—the principality continues to exist unmolested.
But turning the place into a source of income has proved hard. Plans to enlarge the tennis-court-sized tower into a three-mile-long island with an airport and gambling complex fell through. So, more recently, did a deal to provide a secure, offshore web-hosting facility free of government interference.
Sealand's turbulent history stands as a warning to nation-builders. Having repelled attacks by rival pirate-radio operators, in 1978 the tower was temporarily captured by a German businessman intent on using the place as a tax haven. Crooks have forged its passports (one of which turned up in the investigation into Gianni Versace's murder in 1997), which prompted Sealand's rulers to revoke all 150,000 of them.
For this and other reasons most new countries now start online. How many such virtual states exist is impossible to say, but there are enough to have formed at least two supranational organisations. Most virtual countries are little more than exercises in fantasy or self-aggrandisement. Yet some boast a complexity and seriousness that belies their virtual nature. Best-known is the Kingdom of Talossa. Founded by a schoolboy, Robert Ben Madison, in 1979, Talossa migrated from his bedroom to the internet, where it now exists in the form of a number of rival websites. With its own language, government, written history, laws, constitution and citizens, Talossa looks surprisingly like a real place.
Could such a thing become a bona fide country? A few years ago Freedonia, an online principality with libertarian pretensions, apparently tried to acquire land in Somaliland. Other virtual states optimistically think that they will one day be recognised alongside real-world ones.
But what is so wonderful about the real world? Life for small countries is tough even if they do escape cyberspace. Unlike Monaco, most are recent creations with poorly developed economies, weak institutions and a large helping of social problems. A report on developing small states published earlier this year by the World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat found their problems had multiplied over the past five years.
Peel back the veneer and even Monaco loses its shine. Larger neighbours regard it as merely a haven for dodgy business dealings. And its professed independence is largely illusory. These days Monaco exercises its sovereignty “in accordance with the fundamental interests of the French Republic”, and its French residents have been unable to evade the French taxman since 1963. When Monaco's new prince, Albert II, was enthroned on November 19th, the only head of state to attend was the president of Iceland. Sometimes it may be more dignified to stay within the cosy confines of the internet.