September 20, 2006

Micronations

Starting your own country

I know plenty of people who generally approve of the current U.S. government and plenty who don’t. But I’ve never met anyone who agrees with and supports every single government policy and regulation—in this country or any other. The very nature of democratic government makes this virtually impossible, and I think it’s fair to say that every legislator could produce a long list of things he or she might wish to be different. We all accept certain laws and taxes in exchange for the considerable benefits government provides in the way of economic structures, a justice system, education, public works, national security, and so on. For most of us, that’s a reasonable trade.

But what if you could tailor a government to your exact specifications? Exercise strict control over the currency, imports and exports, immigration policies, defense programs, foreign relations, and everything else? What if you could tailor laws to support those things you care about most and disallow the things you’re against? What if, in fact, you had your very own country, in which you—along with, perhaps, your family, friends, or business associates—ran the whole place from top to bottom?

Numerous individuals and groups have attempted to do just that: start their own tiny countries. None of the attempts to do so in the past century has resulted in an entity that’s actually recognized as a country by the world’s other sovereign nations. But a number of so-called micronations around the world are run as though they’re autonomous nations, their residents and leaders holding onto a faint hope that one day they may finally be legitimate members of the international community. In many cases, they even issue stamps, coins, and passports, and have a national anthem.

Finding a New World
The first problem you’ll notice if you’re contemplating starting your own country is that all the world’s land is already spoken for. There’s no unclaimed territory left, and for this very reason, existing countries tend to be extremely protective of their real estate. So you could declare your apartment, farm, or private island to be an autonomous territory (as others have in fact done), but seceding isn’t really that easy. If the jurisdiction from which you’re trying to separate doesn’t change its laws to accommodate you—and crucially, if it has more guns and soldiers than you do—you’re pretty much out of luck. A few groups have attempted to create land for their micronations by building artificial islands of one kind or another or by declaring a ship floating in international waters to be their territory. Apart from the logistical and financial issues of such an approach, there’s still that pesky problem that if no other nation recognizes your new entity to be a country, then for all practical purposes, it isn’t.

Apart from those details, you’ve got to convince enough people to inhabit your country to make it viable. You’ll need a government and security forces, naturally, but also some means of providing all the goods your population will need. If your nation can’t produce enough food, clothing, transportation, and so forth from its own resources, you’ll need to import it—and to do that, you’ll have to have a source of income. Income could, of course, come from exported goods and services, but you’ll still need resources of some sort and a reasonably large labor pool. Oh, and unless you want your citizens to go abroad for their schooling and medical care, you’d better have a well-thought-out educational system and at least one hospital. Add to that courts to punish crimes and resolve disputes; an infrastructure for electricity, water distribution, and telephone service; and a transportation system, just to name a few of the many obvious features your nation will require, and you can begin to see why more people don’t start their own countries.

Minor Victories
And yet, despite all these complications and many more, a few micronations have managed to survive for decades without being invaded and shut down by another country. Here are a few prominent examples:

  • Sealand: During World War II, Britain built a large gun platform in the North Sea, just outside its territorial waters, to defend itself from German aircraft. They abandoned it after the war, and in 1967 it was occupied by Paddy Roy Bates and several of his associates. Bates declared the platform a sovereign nation called the Principality of Sealand and named himself Prince Roy I. In 1987, Britain extended its territorial waters past where Sealand sits, but although the British government doesn’t officially recognize Sealand, they haven’t tried to take it over either. Today, a handful of people still live on the platform; the nation’s primary activity and source of income appears to be running Internet servers.
  • Hutt River Province: This farm in Western Australia claims to have seceded in 1970 after a long-running dispute involving wheat quotas. It’s led by the farm’s owner, Leonard George Casley (or Prince Leonard I to his subjects). Although it’s not officially recognized as a sovereign state and its legal status is quite ambiguous, there is some evidence that Australia regarded its secession as legal. The Hutt River Province has about 20 residents, but has issued passports to thousands of people around the world.
  • Molossia: The Republic of Molossia comprises a small patch of land in Nevada and another in California, referred to as the Desert Homestead Province. It was founded in 1977 and still has only four citizens, but it nevertheless claims to be working toward eventual recognition as a true nation.

Not in My Ocean
Other attempts, though, have been less successful. Such was the case with a micronation called Minerva. In 1971, a Las Vegas millionaire named Michael Oliver decided to create his own island by dumping barges full of sand onto a shallow reef in the Pacific Ocean, not far from Fiji. The newly formed Republic of Minerva declared independence in letters sent to all the nearby nations, which soon gathered to sort out what they thought about suddenly having a new neighbor. The result of that meeting was a small military force sent by Tonga to evict the Minervans. Tonga annexed the new island, and though its ownership is still under dispute, no one is currently living there.

But not all micronations are truly attempts to create geographically distinct, sovereign countries. Many people have declared some piece of land to be a micronation for comedic or artistic reasons, as a form of political protest, or to generate publicity—without ever truly intending to make it a permanent, sovereign nation. And quite a few micronations have no territory at all, but exist only on the Internet; some of these serve as virtual real estate in role-playing games, while others are themselves simulations of real societies in some fashion or another. Real or virtual, micronations feed that common but quixotic urge to make and live by one’s own rules. One of them might eventually succeed, but sooner or later, a citizen of even the most idyllic micronation is bound to feel that something better can be created. Nanonations can’t be far behind. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Micronations…

Thanks to reader Vsevolod Aves for suggesting today’s topic!

cover art

Lonely Planet Micronations by John Ryan, George Dunford, and Simon Sellars is a tongue-in-cheek guidebook to the world’s micronations.

More about micronations generally:

More about Sealand:

  • The Official Sealand Web Site
  • Sealand in the Wikipedia
  • Welcome to Sealand. Now Bugger Off. by Simson Garfinkel in Wired (July 2000)
  • The company that runs the “data haven” on Sealand is HavenCo, but it’s unclear whether or to what extent they’re still in operation. Their Web site appears to have been last updated in 2003.
  • Sealand suffered a major fire on June 23, 2006. No one was injured, but the platform sustained damages of approximately US$1 million.

More about other specific micronations: