In 1865, a West Indies trader and preacher named Matthew Shiel sailed by an uninhabitable craggy rock near the Caribbean island of Monserrat. Eager to gift his newborn son, also called Matthew, with a royal title, he pronounced the island the Kingdom of Redonda. Fifteen years later, King Felipe I of Redonda was crowned and ruled as an absolute monarch. Despite competing claims made by the British government and nearby Antigua, the rock island maintained its sovereignty.
At least, that was the story told by the boy-king, who would later become a well-known author of science fiction. Perhaps the early royal title set him on a path to success because M.P. Shiel penned some 25 books, most notably The Purple Cloud in 1901, which, a half-century later, was made into a film starring Harry Belafonte. Ironically, another one of his books, The Lord of the Sea, was a critique of private land ownership
The mini-nation managed to survive past Shiel’s reign and today, Redondan’s throne has been bequeathed to predecessors in the literary world (and fought over by the numerous claimants to the top title at any one time). The last monarch, King Bob the Bald, boasted of having a royal navy (you could apply to join with your own boat) and army, based on land in Antigua, at his disposal. Its current leader is British journalist Michael Howorth, known now as King Michael the Grey.
In the century since Redondan’s founding, innumerable pioneers have followed Shiel’s brazen, and perhaps ludicrous, lead. History has no shortage of rogue explorers seizing land, hoisting their flags, and building new societies. But today, with the world’s more solidly drawn borders, aspiring rulers have had to get more creative—and rogue—with their landgrabs.
Including, most recently, Jeremiah Heaton, a Virginia dad who claimed a disputed piece of land between Egypt and Sudan and dubbed it the Kingdom of North Sudan, just so his daughter Emily could officially earn the title of Princess.
The Internet has been debating this dubious new nation (Is it sweet or deranged? Fair game or an overreach with hints of colonialism?) since the tale of Heaton’s bold declaration made news on Monday. But his may be one of the most altruistic motives behind DIY nation-building yet.
Overlords of these so-called micronations harbor a range of motivations that usually fall under the political, religious, egomaniacal, or satirical justifications. Their desired lands vary widely in size, legitimacy, and longevity, but they often take advantage of geopolitical gray zones, unused areas, and complex neighbor-country relationships.
A detailed online list of physical micronations charts at least 100 active attempts at sovereignty, and 50 more mini-countries that are inactive or defunct. The more organized on this list have flags, constitutions, passports, and currencies. Some sell knighthoods or other honorary titles. What they all have in common is a claim to territory that isn’t officially recognized by the international community and may or may not be legitimate.
While most of these contested nations co-opt land in current states, some reside in international waters, or were even made from scratch. At least one lays claim to outer space: The Aerican Empire’s rulers—a then-5-year-old named Eric Lis and his friends—proclaimed a tongue-in-cheek ownership over sections of Mars and Pluto in the ’80s, and warn that they may decide at some point to take the sun.
In the 1990s, online-only micronations proliferated. Lizbekistan, founded by Australian artist Liz Stirling, never had physical landmass, but it does have a currency (“nipples”), three newspapers, and an official cocktail. “There is more than enough room on the Web,” The New York Times reported, but, by definition, a nation must have land. And many would-be conquerors have managed to finagle bits and pieces.
Some of these micronations have enjoyed years of success, with only limited interference from their land’s original owner. In Israel, the hippie-hangout of Akhziv Land added its claim to independence to the already-contentious land of Israel. Though the government and developers have attempted to encroach on the founder’s property, once even bringing him to court on the dubious charge of “Creation of a Country Without Permission,” octogenarian Eli Avivi has ruled fairly happily since 1952.
The Kingdom of Elleore, founded on an uninhabited Danish island by schoolteachers—now known as The Immortals—in 1944, has one of the richest cultures. Each summer, Elleorians flock to their land to celebrate Elleorian Week, where three universities offer classes to young citizens and chefs whip up elaborate meals. The only way to get a coveted passport is to be a 12-year-old child enrolled in a specific school in Denmark, or to have two citizens recommend you. Among its more quirky features, Elleore strictly forbids copies of the book Robinson Crusoe because it “offers a distorted and false impression of how life is on a small island,” and has a time zone 12 minutes ahead of Danish clocks.
But other micronations haven’t enjoyed such a peacefully undisturbed existence—many have been forced to fight off coups from rival leaders, form governments in exile, or even face annexation by more legitimate countries.
The island Republic of Minerva, built from scratch by millionaire libertarian Michael Oliver, was intent on a society without taxes or government interference. In 1972, sand was poured for Minova and a flag was raised. But not long after, neighboring, internationally recognized country Tonga, angry at the re-appropriation of their reefs, invaded and annexed the new island.
In 1967 the Principality of Sealand was declared on a military sea fort floating in what was then international waters. It has continued to maintain its independence, despite one dramatic coup attempt. In 1978, the “nation” came under threat when a group of invading Dutch and Germans descended on the fort and held the founder’s son prisoner of war for three days. After a helicopter raid and a resolution to the hostage situation, the invaders returned home and promptly set up a government in exile. This rebel government maintains its claim to the property today, and has been actively advocating an end to the Second World War, which its leadership believes was never resolved.
Thousands of miles away, a Nevada micronation called The Republic of Molossia—comprising one home and one acre of land—claims to have been fighting a war with defunct East Germany since 1983. The extremely zealous President Kevin Baugh has been issuing war bonds to raise funds in case fighting becomes necessary. “Plans are being drawn up to deal with any threat, no matter [how] small, that the long-dead but still extant Communist nation may bring against us,” he writes on the country’s website. “One cannot rule out the possibility of covertly-trained attack iguanas.”
Declaring your own realm doesn’t have to be all animosity and war, however—micronations have occasionally united to join gray-zone forces. In 2000, Molossia hosted the “Intermicronational Olympic Games,” bringing together representatives from six mini-countries to compete.
Other micro-countries have more sordid, even criminal, histories. A number of self-declared nations have actually been elaborate hoaxes to swindle gullible entrepreneurs, like the Ponzi scheme of early-19th-century master conman Gregor MacGregor. He managed to swindle £1.3 million (around £3.6 billion today) from British investors after claiming to be the prince of the nonexistent Territory of Poyais, in what is now Honduras. MacGregor convinced many to invest in, and hundreds to even move to, his fictional micro-nation.
In the 1980s, Evan David Pedley and his son, Mark, claimed the Dominion of Melchizedek, an island in the South Pacific, as sovereign and set about getting rich. The enigmatic island has since produced a series of sketchy leaders who have been accused of using it as an offshore haven for fraudulent businesses. That hasn’t dulled Melchizedek’s confidence—at one point in the ’90s, Pedley briefly threatened to nuke France—and the country’s website still declares the island “an ecclesiastical and constitutional sovereignty.”
To round out the range of declared-sovereignties that exist, there is one that has gained legitimacy in the eyes of the world. His Most Eminent Highness Fra’ Matthew Festing rules the nearly 1,000-year-old Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which maintains its own independence within Rome and is a recognized permanent observer at the United Nations. The order once resided on the eponymous island of Malta, but was forced to seek refuge in Rome after being kicked out by an invading Napoleon 300 years ago.
Building a country from scratch is hardly as simple as planting a flag and picking a name. If an aspiring head of state happens to find land that is yet unclaimed, recognition is still highly unlikely. In accordance with Article 1 of the 1932 Montevideo Convention on Nations, a state most possess “a ) a permanent population; b ) a defined territory; c ) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” Membership to the United Nations requires approval by the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China. For American approval, the sitting president must personally agree to a country’s right to exist.
So, for now, many of these micronations remain floating in a hazy zone where independence and rulers can be overthrown at a moment’s notice. But that may just add to the allure for these fledgling leaders. For many, the streak of eccentric adventure is the fun of it all. As author and self-proclaimed king of Redonda Jon Wynne-Tyson wrote in 1982, “The legend of Redonda is, and should remain, a pleasing and eccentric fairy tale; a piece of literary mythology to be taken with salt, romantic sighs, appropriate perplexity, some amusement, but without great seriousness. It is, after all, a fantasy...”