An almost fictional kingdom in the Caribbean is in the grip of a succession crisis.
In real life, Redonda is an uninhabited slab of rock 34 miles west of Antigua: an extinct volcano ringed by jagged cliffs and occupied by a herd of goats, a colony of owls and a species of seabird called the booby. It is a mile long and a third of a mile wide and, technically, it belongs to Antigua and Barbuda.
But in a parallel literary universe, the Kingdom of Redonda is something infinitely more glamorous: an island nation with a history that stretches back to Christopher Columbus and a hotly disputed lineage of rulers and nobles that includes some of the most beloved writers of the past century.
Its most recent “monarch” was Javier Marías, an eccentric polymath with a keen sense of the absurd, who was regarded by many as Spain’s greatest contemporary novelist. He styled himself King Xavier I of Redonda, fully embraced his spurious royal duties, and died last month without leaving an heir.
The ensuing confusion threatens to end a royal saga that stretches back to the 19th century.
The recorded history of Redonda begins in 1493, when Columbus passed by and declined to colonize such an insignificant lump of territory. It wasn’t until 1865 that the island was formally claimed, when Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a merchant from neighboring Montserrat, petitioned Queen Victoria to tender it to him in a bid to distinguish his only male heir. The legend goes — and with Redonda it is difficult to tell fact from fiction — that in 1880, Caribbean bishops laid a wood-and-gold crown upon the 15-year-old’s head.
The younger Shiell, Matthew Phipps (Felipe I) became a fantasy novelist in London and under his rule the island became an imagined haven for eccentric literary figures. In 1890, the British government annexed Redonda as a dependency of Antigua but the British Colonial Office publicly admitted this action did not affect the sovereignty of King Felipe.”It’s something like half a century since I saw my beautiful little kingdom,” the king in exile mused in 1937. “A green gem set in a blue sea. But I suppose it’s going along all right without me.”
Shiell passed the crown to his friend John Gawsworth (Juan I), a wayward poet who used his power to award peerages to writer friends such as Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Durrell and Edith Sitwell. Gawsworth also sold off parts of the island to pub-dwellers who could afford to buttress his drinking problem, and many of the those eyeing the throne today base their claims on these loose handouts. At one more desperate moment he even advertised his title in The Times for 1,000 guineas.
The writer, publisher and animal rights activist Jon Wynne-Tyson claimed that, prior to Gawsworth’s death in 1970, he awarded him the crown (making him Juan II) along with a “literary executorship”.
Plagued by a string of angry rival claimants, the king finally abdicated in 1997 in favour of Marías, who had featured the island in his Oxford satire All Souls. Marías was also hounded by the “pretenders”, as he liked to call them. One of them “knighted” the landlord of the Wellington Arms in Southampton in 2007, who then tried to declare his premises an embassy to gain immunity from the new nationwide smoking ban.
With Redonda it is difficult to tell fact from fiction.
An impish writer of spy novels, Marías relished his royal role. He founded a publishing house called Reino de Redonda (Kingdom of Redonda) and awarded dukedoms to film-makers and authors, including Francis Ford Coppola, William Boyd and Pedro Almodóvar. He also set up the Kingdom of Redonda prize for writing in a language other than Spanish. Winners have included JM Coetzee, Umberto Eco, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro and AS Byatt.
When Michael Hingston, the author of Try Not to Be Strange: The Curious History of the Kingdom of Redonda, contacted Marías for an interview, he encountered the playful mythology that cloaks this island. Marías wrote that it was beneath the dignity of a king to converse with a journalist, so Hingston spoke to members of his court instead. The first thing the Canadian poet Marius Kociejowski said in their interview was that he had suggested Marías assassinate the string of pretenders. It was a few minutes before Kociejowski laughed.
“Everyone speaks in character when they talk about it”, says Hingston. “The island itself is not the central thing up for debate. It’s about who is in charge of the story.”
Yet for other claimants, ruling is anything but a farce. One of the more earnest was William Leonard Gates (King Leo I), whose wife, Queen Josephine I, took on the claim in 2019. The family believe Marías and his literary predecessors were mere “literary executors” and they regret that such a high-profile public figure as Marías became “embroiled in a matter of deception amounting to fraud”. Every post is signed off “Floreat Redonda!” (May Redonda Flourish!).
Paul Hewitt, a succession lawyer at Withers, says claims to the land itself fall to the courts of Antigua and Barbuda. Titles operate differently. “If we are to assume there was a genuine grant of a monarchy by the British Crown,” says Hewitt, “I query whether the right to bestow, or withhold, still vests with King Charles III, who, for now, is Antigua and Barbuda’s head of state.” One wonders whether the King has more important things to consider.
Georgia Heneage is an obituaries writer for The Times of London. She also contributes to The Week and Tortoise Media