From The Sea, Freedom

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1933, several nation-states, including the US got together in Montevideo, Uruguay to define what it means to be a state.

Julia DeWitt:
The treaty they came up with includes 16 articles, each of which lays out different rights and duties of statehood.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Julia DeWitt.

Julia DeWitt:
But the most famous article is number one, which sets out the four basic criteria of statehood. Basically, what it takes to be a country.

Voiceover:
“The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a defined territory, a permanent population, a government, and capacity to enter into relations with other states.”

Roman Mars:
I think a good flag is crucial too, but that’s just me.

Julia DeWitt:
Well, even if you toss in a flag, the criteria for becoming a state seem to some people, surprisingly simple. So simple that a lot of people thought, “Hey, I could do that.”

John Ryan:
And so for a lot of people that just triggered, I suppose, an idea that that meant that they could just call their house an independent country.

Julia DeWitt:
That’s John Ryan.

John Ryan:
These are countries that might even just be somebody’s backyard, or it could be an area that they are claiming for one reason or another to be an independent country.

Julia DeWitt:
John Ryan is the co-author of the guidebook ‘Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Homemade Nations’. And yeah, this is the same Lonely Planet that publishes tourists guides to places like Mexico and France.

Roman Mars:
John says most of these micronations are just kind of for fun. They aren’t expecting anyone to take them seriously, and they don’t usually meet all four criteria laid out by the Montevideo Convention – places like Molossia.

John Ryan:
Which is in Nevada, just in one guy’s house. Such a lovely guy, President Kevin Baugh, and he runs this great little micronation. He gets about in military regalia and reflective sunglasses. He looks totally like a Central American dictator from the 70s or 80s.

Julia DeWitt:
Molossia’s currency is pegged to the price of Pillsbury cookie dough.

John Ryan:
They’ll go up and down in value as cookie dough does.

Roman Mars:
A few years ago, Molossia’s President Baugh started the Micronational Olympics where micronations compete against each other in events like Checkers and the Boomerang Throw.

Julia DeWitt:
Molossia is fairly easy to dismiss as just one dude’s crazy projects, but then there are places like Sealand.

John Ryan:
Probably the world’s most interesting and fascinating micronation is Sealand.

Julia DeWitt:
And Sealand cannot be dismissed so easily.

Voiceover:
“The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a defined territory.”

Roman Mars:
If you search for the principality of Sealand on Google Maps, it comes up as a little red dot off the east coast of England. Zoom in for some photographs of the place, and you’ll see a metal platform sitting atop two concrete pillars, a stilted structure in the ocean surrounded on all sides by the North Sea. The platform is about the size of a football field, so pretty small territory as countries go.

Julia DeWitt:
How did this platform and the sea become a micronation? Well, you could say it all started with rock n’ roll.

Tony Blackburn:
“Yes, indeed. Good morning everyone. Tony Blackburn here with you feeling a little under the weather this morning. We’ve got about an eight force gale out there tonight, so I strapped in the seat this morning.”

Julia DeWitt:
In 1960, the British government wasn’t giving out enough licenses to accommodate all the music that the kids were suddenly demanding. A bunch of DJs decided to take matters into their own hands.

Roman Mars:
They set up pirate radio stations on ships and on abandoned British forts in the North Sea to broadcast rock music back to England.

Tony Blackburn:
“This is number one on the countdown this week, from the Spencer Davis Group, it’s called Keep on Running.”

Michael Bates:
Well, Sealand itself physically is an old wartime fortress built in 1943. It was built in the North Sea to defend the United Kingdom against German aircraft that were following the River Thames up to London and bombing London.

Julia DeWitt:
That’s Michael Bates, Prince of Sealand. Back in 1967, Michael’s dad, Roy was one of the DJs trying to turn these old abandoned forts in the sea into radio stations.

Roman Mars:
But don’t be fooled, Roy wasn’t just a rock n’ roll-loving hippie. He was a free-market capitalist. Here he is being interviewed about his pirate radio ventures.

Roy Bates:
“More and more business people and more and more businesses are becoming educated to use commercial radio, and this is as it should be. I would like to see radio used for every form of advertising like they are used in every other media now.”

Roman Mars:
In any case, Bates and the other DJs had kept getting slapped with big fines from the British government.

Julia DeWitt:
So Michael’s dad, Roy, changed course. He scrapped the idea of a pirate radio station and decided to go for something even bigger.

Michael Bates:
My old man always liked the challenge. He was talking to his lawyer friend one day, and my father said, “What if I declared independence?”

Roman Mars:
Roy Bates wanted to start his own country.

Michael Bates:
And Lionel, his friend said, “Well no, you can’t do that.” And my father said, “Well, why can’t I do it?” So my father went ahead and did it.

Julia DeWitt:
Roy thought the fort was uniquely suited for independence because of its location. It was six miles off the coast of England; and at the time, England’s territorial waters only reached to three miles offshore.

Roman Mars:
Three miles because that is how far a cannonball can fly and breakthrough a foot of oak, so it’s sort of a dated law. It’s been since changed to 12 miles. You know, we’ve got better cannons now.

Julia DeWitt:
But back then with this three-mile rule, Roy considered the fort, which again was just a platform perched on two concrete towers out in the ocean – Roy considered this claimable territory. He didn’t buy the platform. He didn’t ask permission. He just gathered up his family and moved them there. The government might call this squatting, but for the Bates family, this was nation-building.

Roman Mars:
And so on a blustery day in 1967, a nation was built. Sealand has a national Anthem (anthem plays), and they have a flag. It’s actually a pretty good flag. It follows all the principles of good design. It’s simple. It has three colors: red, white, and black.

Michael Bates:
Well, the red is for Roy, the black is for his days in pirate radio, and the white line down the middle of it is the path of purity that he travels today. I think he was slightly tongue in cheek on that one.

Roman Mars:
The country’s motto is “From the sea, freedom.”

Voiceover:
“The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a defined territory, a permanent population.”

Roman Mars:
The population of Sealand consisted for many years of four people. Roy Bates, founder; plus his wife, Joan; his daughter, Penelope; and his son, Michael.

Julia DeWitt:
Roy named his son Michael, prince, and his daughter, princess. He didn’t call himself king though.

Michael Bates:
I think he thought it was a bit over the top.

Julia DeWitt:
Before Michael was a prince, he was just a kid from England. He was 14 and in boarding school when his dad moved them all out to Sealand. Michael didn’t think it would last for long.

Michael Bates:
I envisioned six months, like a bit of an adventure for six months and that would be the end of it.

Roman Mars:
Michael and his dad ended up living on Sealand for about 25 years.

Julia DeWitt:
For the most part, it was just Michael and his dad, mom, and sister out on the platform. They built a house, set up a water gathering system and filled some of the rooms in the towers with canned food.

Roman Mars:
Nowadays, the rooms are fully furnished. There’s a nondenominational chapel, generators for power. There’s even a gym where you can work out. But back when they first started, the place was pretty bare bones. Sometimes when the weather got bad and their resupply boat didn’t show up, they’d get a little hungry. On those days, they would eat fish that they caught and biscuits from a box.

Julia DeWitt:
When Michael would get sick of being on a metal platform out in the middle of the ocean, he would hitch a ride on a boat back to the mainland to find kids his own age.

Michael Bates:
When I came back, I’d be straight out into a nightclub or something like that to have a good time as sailors do when they hit port, I suppose. I hope that it wasn’t quite as bad as that.

Roman Mars:
And sometimes he would even bring friends back to Sealand.

Michael Bates:
I used to smuggle women out there and my dad wasn’t too keen, but I just smuggled women out there without telling. Of course, I tried to lead a normal life even though I was in an odd place.

Voiceover:
“The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a defined territory, a permanent population, a government.”

Julia DeWitt:
Sealand has various government posts apart from the monarchy. Their tax lawyer is their Minister of Foreign Affairs and the caretaker that stays out there when they’re gone is Head of Homeland Security. He’s the one that issues visas and stamps your passport if you visit.

Roman Mars:
Their legal code is pretty simple. They basically have all the same laws as England.

Julia DeWitt:
Well, almost all the same laws. Unlike England, Sealand allows guns. Prince Michael loves guns, but they never really had to use them, except once.

Roman Mars:
There aren’t a lot of ways to make money on Sealand, which meant the family was always trying to come up with money-making schemes.

Julia DeWitt:
And sometimes these schemes got a little weird. In 1978, Roy, Michael’s dad, started talking to some businessmen from Germany, Austria, and Belgium. They wanted to build a leisure island around Sealand and put a casino on it. And one day Roy and his wife went to Austria to talk with some funders about this deal.

Roman Mars:
Back at Sealand, Michael, who was 25 at the time, was figuratively holding down the literal fort when a helicopter showed up and a group of men lowered themselves to the platform.

Michael Bates:
The first man down, I recognized.

Julia DeWitt:
Michael knew some of these guys coming out of the helicopter as men his dad had worked with. One of them was part of Sealand’s government, it’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, a guy by the name of Alexander Achenbach.

Roman Mars:
But according to Michael, Achenbach was trying to shut Michael’s family out of the casino deal. He was allegedly staging a coup. And so he says to Michael, “Hey, I just met with your father and he signed Sealand over to me. It’s mine now.”

Julia DeWitt:
And Michael in his head is like, “No way, I don’t believe you.”

Michael Bates:
And I said, “Oh no, I think perhaps you’d better go back in a helicopter and bring my father out.”

Roman Mars:
Michael goes into the house to get everyone some drinks and as he’s doing this, Michael says Achenbach and his goons slammed the front door and barricaded it, trapping Michael in his own home.

Michael Bates:
And I was in there four days until I was let out.

Roman Mars:
After four long days, Michael’s captors put him on a boat to Holland.

Julia DeWitt:
Exiled in Holland, Michael gets in touch with his dad who confirmed that, of course, he hadn’t signed Sealand over to Achenbach, and they made a plan to take their country back. They call up a friend who has a helicopter company.

Michael Bates:
We explained the situation. They said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll take you out there.”

Roman Mars:
Before they take off, they removed the doors from the helicopter and tie ropes to the runner so that when they get to Sealand they can slide down the ropes, Navy Seal-style and storm the platform.

Julia DeWitt:
They take off in the middle of the night.

Michael Bates:
We’re flying out over the North Sea with no doors in this helicopter in the dark.

Roman Mars:
They slid the ropes onto the platform of Sealand.

Michael Bates:
Well, we slid down ropes and I was the first one down. As I hit the deck, I could see all the Germans running out of the building.

Julia DeWitt:
Everyone was shouting in German and running around. Michael climbed up onto the roof of the building.

Michael Bates:
With a sawed-off shotgun, by the way, I think I forgot to mention that.

Julia DeWitt:
In case you didn’t catch that, he said he had a sawed-off shotgun.

Michael Bates:
And then I jumped off the roof, it was about 12-foot high.

Julia DeWitt:
He jumped off the roof and according to Michael, the gun accidentally went off.

Michael Bates:
Boom, it went off. Everybody’s hands went up in the air.

Julia DeWitt:
That one shot was enough to scare the invaders into surrendering. Roy and Michael led all the non-citizens of Sealand go, but the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Achenbach did not get off so easily.

Roman Mars:
Achenbach had betrayed the crown. They charged him with treason and brought him to trial.

Michael Bates:
Well, my father was the presiding judge, so it kind of might’ve been slightly biased, but…

Julia DeWitt:
They held the Achenbach prisoner until a German ambassador actually came out to Sealand to negotiate for his release. Eventually, they let him go, and with that, all hostilities were ended.

Roman Mars:
When the German government sent their ambassador out to negotiate the release of one of their citizens, this says Michael, has them entering into formal relations with Sealand, which fulfills the fourth and final criterion for being a state.

Voiceover:
“The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a defined territory, a permanent population, a government, and capacity to enter into relations with other states.”

John Ryan:
They’ve ticked all of the boxes. There’s very little that you can say to dissuade them from legitimacy, really. Who are we to say that it’s not a country.

Julia DeWitt:
That’s John Ryan again, who wrote ”The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations. While he might concede that Sealand fulfills the criteria for being a real state, most experts do not.

Jure Vidmar:
Oh, definitely no, it is not a state. No.

Julia DeWitt:
That is Jure Vidmar. Jure is a fellow at Oxford and an expert in international law. He’s thought a lot about what makes a state the state.

Jure Vidmar:
Sealand is just an abandoned platform. It is not really a viable place to live. And by explaining that incident as relations with another state, I mean, they are trying to fit their case within the convention. But I mean, it’s a joke that was that was taken actually quite far.

Julia DeWitt:
Which it doesn’t mean that the Montevideo Convention is worthless, it’s just not complete. What really matters, Jure says, is recognition.

Jure Vidmar:
At the end of the day, it is political. If, say 190 states of this world recognized Sealand as being an independent state, I think there would be no doubt that it was an independent state, but this would, of course, never happen.

Roman Mars:
There are a lot of places that meet the Montevideo criteria that, rightly or wrongly, the US does not consider nations. Palestine, for example, is recognized by 135 other countries but not by the US. And then there’s Taiwan.

Julia DeWitt:
Taiwan meets all the criteria. It has a permanent population, a government, a defined territory, and they are able to enter into diplomatic relations with other countries. Taiwan is currently recognized by 22 countries, mostly small countries like Tuvalu and Burkina Faso, but China still considered as Taiwan to be a Chinese province. And because we don’t want to piss off China, we also don’t recognize Taiwan as a state.

Roman Mars:
Although the US government does send ambassadors to Taiwan, we just technically make the ambassadors resign when we send them and then we reinstate them when they’re transferred to another post. So if China says anything about it, we can be like, “Ambassador, what ambassador?”

Julia DeWitt:
So maybe statehood’s more a matter of degrees. Some states are recognized by 120 legitimate countries, whereas others are only recognized by 5 or 10 countries.

Roman Mars:
As of this moment, no one formally recognizes Sealand as a state, not even Tuvalu or Burkina Faso.

Roman Mars:
As for the population of Sealand, as Roy Bates, the founder, got older, he found it easier to live on the mainland. He died in Essex in England in 2012.

Julia DeWitt:
Michael got married and his new wife, who we can’t blame her, didn’t like life out on the platform so he moved to mainland England, too. These days, it’s just the Head of Homeland Security that lives out on the platform. But Prince Michael likes the idea that it’s there if he ever wants to move back,

Roman Mars:
Sealand will likely never have true sovereignty. But at the same time, England has never formally reclaimed it. Probably because doing so would be harder than just letting it keep being what it is.

Julia DeWitt:
So even though the little wind-swept platform on the sea might not be much, it is theirs and their flag still flies, at least for now.

  1. JT

    I am from Taiwan. This episode made me laughed and cried when it comes to the Taiwan part of the story.

    Taiwan is an island that has rich history. It was colonized by Japan, Span, the Netherlands, and majority of the citizens are Chinese descendants whose ancestors fled from China in Chinese Civil War.

    We definitely identify our selves as an independent democratic country, but we still have a long way to go internationally. I hope in my life time..there will be one day I can proudly say I am from Taiwan and being not confused as part of China and respected by other countries.

    Cheers to 99 Percent Invisible. Thank you for the great story as always.

    1. Dear Micheal,

      Kindly get in contact with me, I would like to cooperate with you on representing your nation at the Venice art biennale in 2017.
      Only recognized nations can take part but I am willing to challenge the notion of statehood and the definition of recognized states.
      The Venice biennale is one of the most known art events, I curated the Maldives Pavilion in 2013.
      You can find more info about that on
      http://www.maldivespavilion.com

      My contact info are on this website and I look forward to work with you on this representation at the next Venice biennale.

      Sincerely,
      Khalid Ramadan
      Curator and filmmaker

  2. I find it hard to understand why an epsiode focused on nation states consistently refers to Sealand’s large neighbour as England. England is a component part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is no political entity that is England (unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it does not have a national assembly), and it does not have its own laws (unlike Scotland), as they are shared with Wales. It is a shame that you allow lazy euphemisms to detract from your normally accurate and very enjoyable ouput.

    1. Rob

      I think that the article gets it mostly right, referring to England in a geographic sense (e.g. “mainland England” and “off the coast of England”), but also referring to the “British government”. “English law” is a common expression (e.g. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_law ). I think the only dubious choice is the references to “England’s territorial waters”, which should really be “UK territorial waters”.

  3. Adding to what @gavbish said there is general confusion between state and nation in the episode. I understand that this comes from American slang but in journalistic context it’s utterly unacceptable.

  4. mrericsir

    Back in 1996 the HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show had a sketch about the “Independent Nations Games,” basically the Olympics for self-declared sovereign nations. It’s hilarious that this has become a real thing!

  5. Jack Hunt

    Palestine recognized by over 100 countries, Taiwan 22. Which would I think is more relevant as not being recognized formally?

  6. mrericsir

    Turns out California was briefly a self-declared sovereign nation. The tl;dr version is that a few years prior to the gold rush many Californians were unhappy being part of Mexico, so they put together a flag with the name of their new nation (California Republic) with a grizzly bear above it. No other nations recognized California as a nation, but it set the events in motion that led to the USA annexing California.

    More details on WIkipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Republic

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