A Nation Without Land: The Eccentric Story of Sealand
In 1966, Paddy Roy Bates clambered aboard a former UK naval fort. What followed is a swashbuckling story of English eccentricity.
The Principality of Sealand doesn’t look like much from the outside — or from the inside — occupying as it does an area of 25 square metres. Sealand’s name is an exaggeration, because it possesses no land. Despite this, it has its own royal family, constitution, national anthem, flag, coinage, stamps, football team and — until 1997 — passports. Its history and struggle for independence is as dramatic as that of any internationally recognised country.
In 1966, Major Paddy Roy Bates turned up in a small boat and clambered aboard a former UK naval fort called HM Fort Roughs, about 12 kilometres from the coast of Suffolk. Having fought in Italy and Africa during the war, Bates was then a pirate radio broadcaster. It was the mid-1960s, the golden age of pirate radio. Stations like Radio Caroline broadcast from international waters to circumvent UK music piracy laws and provide young people with the pop music they pined for but could not hear on the BBC. Bates settled himself on Fort Rough, stocked up on radio equipment and supplies, and began to broadcast.
But after only a year, Major Bates’ radio dream was threatened by the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act; a law passed by the British government making it illegal for British subjects to be associated with stations like his. While other pirate stations caved in, Bates hit on a novel idea: declare independence from the UK, and therefore from the jurisdiction of British law. Fort Roughs became ‘Sealand’, and Paddy Roy Bates, Prince Roy.
From here begins an incredible story of English eccentricity taken to extremes. When a rival pirate broadcaster attempted to storm the platform, Bates and his son resisted with handmade bombs and guns. The Royal Navy received the same treatment. When they were eventually tried in court, the case was thrown out; the judge ruling that the UK had no jurisdiction over events on the fort as it was in international waters. Bates, naturally, took this as official recognition of Sealand’s independence.
Then there was the ‘Battle of Sealand’ in 1978, an event of absurd drama, all of which took place on the platform of the cold, damp, rusting fort. The initial invasion of Sealand was planned and carried out by Alexander Achenbach, a German businessman and friend of Bates’ who had ambitiously proposed to somehow turn the ailing structure into a luxury hotel and casino. Achenbach and a group of associates forced their way onto the platform when Bates and his wife were away, taking his son Michael — Prince Michael — hostage.
Bates rushed back to his stricken principality, retaking it in a helicopter raid — as most of us would. He quickly freed his son and captured Achenbach, who he held until Germany sent a diplomat to negotiate his release. Bates enthusiastically reached an agreement with this official representative of the West German state. The visit of a German diplomat to his ‘territory’ gave him yet more reason to argue that The Principality of Sealand was a recognised state.
The UK’s 1987 expansion of its territorial waters from three to 12 miles from the coast presented Sealand with another existential threat. The UK’s territorial claim now swallowed the tiny principality. Unperturbed, Bates reacted in kind, expanding Sealand’s borders to 12 miles on all sides, meaning Sealand’s present territorial claim reaches southern Ipswich. To date, there have been no actual territorial disputes, the UK government happy to leave Sealand be, on the reasonable assumption that no-one else would ever need or want to go there.
Prince Roy Bates died in 2012, in a retirement home in Essex. In the twilight of his reign he had become an absent leader, choosing instead to spend his time in the more comfortable surroundings of Spain. Management of Sealand passed on to his son, His Royal Highness Prince Michael, who continues to rule Sealand to this day.
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