Sealand: The True Story of the World’s Most Stubborn Micronation and Its Eccentric Royal Family by Dylan Taylor-Lehman

Sealand, a self-declared principality located in the North Sea on a small World War II–era anti-aircraft installation, is arguably the world’s foremost micro-nation. That is a little like being the world’s foremost heir to the Russian throne—a purely notional sort of sovereignty. In the realm of micro-nations—alleged countries, unrecognized by world governments, and even lacking the gravity of being called “secessionist”—Sealand occupies a niche somewhere between the Republic of Molossia, which began as a high-school lark and today consists of a guy’s house in Dayton, Nevada (plus “colonies” in some scattered property he inherited), and the dream of a floating city for libertarian billionaires that Peter Thiel actually invested in a decade ago.

Sealand has a leg up on rivals in terms of longevity, having been founded in 1967. It also has governmental accoutrements such as stamps, coins, passports, and a Latin motto (E mare libertas). You can even go to the principality’s Web site and purchase a Sealandic title, ranging from lord or lady, for $44.99, up to duke or duchess, for a cool $656.53. Note: they don’t actually accept Sealand dollars.

Is this all a joke? Yes and no, according to Sealand: The True Story of the World’s Most Stubborn Micronation and Its Eccentric Royal Family. Written by an American journalist named Dylan Taylor-Lehman in a tone mixing admiration and amusement, this is an almost too assiduously researched history.

Little Nation, Big Personality

Sealand’s national saga began in England in the mid-1960s. Its George Washington was Roy Bates, a rough-edged entrepreneur living in Southend-on-Sea, near the Thames estuary, who was looking to expand his empire beyond running a fleet of fishing boats and harvesting air fern, a coral-like sea plant. Bates’s combative bona fides had been established when he was 15 and dropped out of school to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. “I fought for both sides,” he later said. “I didn’t care, I just wanted to fight.” Subsequently serving with British forces in Italy, he survived having a German grenade blow up in his face, “shattering his jaw and shredding the skin on his rubicund visage,” as Taylor-Lehman puts it, his prose sometimes rubicund, too.

In 1965, Bates’s attention was drawn to a quartet of sea forts that the British Navy had built off the English coast to make the trip dicier for German bombers on their way to London. The forts, each consisting of a platform roughly the size of two tennis courts and set on a pair of fat cylinders rising 60 feet above the waves, had been abandoned in the 1950s. Because these lonely piles of concrete and rusting metal lay in international waters, Bates figured they would make perfect sites for pirate radio stations—a popular and lucrative form of broadcasting in an era when the U.K. had no licensed commercial radio stations and the state-run BBC evinced an extremely limited appetite for pop and rock. Most pirate stations were housed on ships, but Bates wasn’t the only would-be media tycoon to see potential in the forts: as Taylor-Lehman recounts, he first had to evict another station from his target platform, a takeover leveraged “with the help of some local ruffians.”

Holding the fort: Sealand, in the North Sea.

Bates set up a crew of D.J.’s on the pile, supplied them with stores of beans and Spam—there was a leftover kitchen from the war along with minimal housing—and Radio Essex began broadcasting in October 1965. The government responded by redefining its territorial waters so that the fort was now under British jurisdiction—and Bates thus subject to rapidly accruing fines. He countered by moving his operation to a second fort further off the coast and indisputably in international waters, though this one, too, was already occupied by a pirate station, Radio Caroline. The two co-existed for a few months, until the Caroline crew abandoned the fort following a winching accident that cost a D.J. some fingers. Bates’s 14-year-old son, Michael, and a Radio Essex D.J. fended off a subsequent Caroline effort to retake the fort by dropping Molotov cocktails on the attackers.

It’s a little like being the world’s foremost heir to the Russian throne—a purely notional sort of sovereignty.

Unfortunately, pirate radio’s allure would wane in the fall of 1967, when the BBC established a new station, Radio One, devoted to pop. Bates’s wife, Joan, had begun joking that the fort was the family’s private island, and he ran with the idea. On September 2 of that year, in what Taylor-Lehman describes as “an act of spite and one-upsmanship,” Bates proclaimed the fort was now the Principality of Sealand, a re-christening accompanied by a flag-raising ceremony with family and friends and a local barrister’s supportive legal opinion. Bates was now Prince Roy, his wife Princess Joan, and his children Prince Michael and Princess Penelope. “I expected it to last six months,” Michael is quoted as saying, “not fifty-something years.”

The pivotal moment in Sealand’s early history, its Lexington and Concord as well as its Yorktown, came in 1968, when a boat ventured near the fort while Penelope, 17, was sunbathing. According to Michael, a barrage of lascivious comments followed from the crew. “It was something like, ‘I’d like to give you one.’” Michael riposted with several gunshots across the bow. He and Roy were subsequently arrested and charged with firearms violations, but a judge acquitted them, ruling that British law didn’t extend to the fort. To the family’s mind, the affair established Sealand’s sovereignty once and for all. The U.K.’s position ever since has essentially been a shrug. Roy Bates died in 2012, but his family continues to assert dominion over their micro-nation—with the help of a pair of caretakers, who alternate stints as, most often, the only inhabitants of an aging, windswept, and otherwise pointless structure. From notional to tautological, Sealand as a “state” now seems to exist mainly to exist.

Taylor-Lehman does an able job recounting the buccaneering national origin story, which takes up his book’s first 90 or so pages. Past that point, alas, Sealandic history grows wearying, amounting to little more than a series of contrived publicity stunts and mostly failed moneymaking endeavors—tax-haven schemes, a pirate TV station, an unregulated Internet platform. This book will surely stand for decades as Sealand’s definitive account, for what that’s worth. But the worthy-ish subject might have been better served by a more proportionate work, one that was itself more micro.

Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult