Friday, 4 September 2015

04/09/15 - Micronations

Fans of being aghast at how much time has passed since a particular cultural reference point may be interested to note that Family Guy has been on the air for sixteen years.
Finished gasping? Alright, control yourselves, you’ve been doing other things in the meantime.
Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that fifteen years ago, back in 2000 when we were still reeling from our own idiocy at believing that the Millennium Bug might be a thing, the episode E. Peterbus Unum aired – in a nutshell, this saw Peter Griffin effectively seceding from the Union and declaring his house a micronation, Petoria, independent from the United States of America and subject to its own laws and regulation.
This isn’t as bonkers a notion as you might think – there are actually quite a few micronations across the globe, each one popping into being via a bizarre set of circumstances, but perpetuated with commitment by people who refuse to acknowledge that perhaps it’s got somewhat beyond a joke. Hey, it’d be a dull world if we all agreed on the same things.
The principle features of a micronation are that each entity claims to be an independent nation or state, but none is officially recognised by world governments or major international organisations. This makes their existence a little tricky, and instils a certain pluck and fortitude in their residents. These are serious places too (well, kinda), distinct from the world’s myriad eco-camps, hippie communities, tribes, sects, clans and campuses, by expressing persistent (if ignored) claims of sovereignty over whatever land they may inhabit. They create their own currencies, flags, passports, postage stamps, you name it. Some, it has to be said, are more tongue-in-cheek than others. Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting ones, shall we?

Founded in 1967, Sealand has an official population of four. It’s basically just a decommissioned military platform – Roughs Tower – out in the North Sea, which was claimed by Major Paddy Roy Bates, a former army captain and pirate radio DJ. It sits seven miles off the coast of Suffolk, and the original intention to use it as a radio base blossomed into setting it up as a sovereign state with its own constitution. Bates died in 2012, but his son Michael continues as regent. The Principality of Sealand has its own passport stamps, acts as an offshore internet hosting facility, publishes an online newspaper, and will sell you a Sealand knighthood for £99.99.
In 1978, Alexander Achenbach, (describing himself as ‘Prime Minister of Sealand’), hired German and Dutch mercenaries to attack Sealand while Bates and his wife were in England; they stormed the platform with speedboats, jet skis and helicopters, and took Michael hostage. Brilliantly, in a Hollywood manoeuvre, Michael was able to retake Sealand and capture the attackers using weapons stashed on the platform. Achenbach was charged with treason against Sealand, and his imprisonment caused some difficulty among the governments of the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and the UK, none of whom recognised Sealand as a real place. This is the sort of fun you can have with a micronation. No-one can really agree on what you’re allowed to do.

This is pretty micro, as micronations go – Austenasia is basically just a house in Carshalton, with eighteen other houses under the sovereignty of the state that was established by a student named Jonathan Austen in 2008. Its turbulent internal politics have already seen a civil war ousting Emperor Terry (Jonathan’s dad), as well as a number of spurious territorial claims including a farm in Brazil and a university campus in Australia. Bloody students.

The Republic of Saugeais
This is one of the more significant micronations, comprising eleven villages on the Franco-Swiss border. It was originally started as a joke in 1947 when the owner of the Hôtel de l'Abbaye in Montbenoît, Georges Pourchet, asked the prefect of the département of Doubs whether he had a permit to enter the Republic of Saugeais while attending a function at the hotel – a name he’d made up on the spot. The prefect played along and appointed Pourchet president of the fictional Republic, who then called his bluff and established it as a sovereignty.
It’s now been established for almost seventy years, and has its own national anthem, football team, a thriving tourist industry, twelve ambassadors, and over 300 honorary citizens.

The Kingdom of Elleore
One of the world’s oldest micronations was established by a group of Danish schoolteachers in 1944. It began as a children’s summer camp on the Roskilde Fjord – a place where building is forbidden as it’s a sanctuary for rare birds, and the Danish government only allow it to be occupied by people for one week every summer. It’s during this week that the entire population of Elleore arrive to live in their ‘home’ for the one time that they’re actually allowed to.
The whole thing’s a bit Pythonesque: clocks run on Elleore Standard Time (twelve minutes behind Danish time), and sardines and the novel Robinson Crusoe are banned, with anyone found bringing either into the Kingdom being forced to serve an eleven-minute sentence on Elleore’s prison island.

The Principality of Seborga
Around twenty miles from the swank of Monaco lies Seborga, a hamlet on the Franco-Italian border, perched perilously at the top of a very steep hill. It was originally a protectorate of the Catholic Church, which ultimately led to it being omitted from the list of territories included in Italy’s unification of 1861.
In 1963, local florist Giorgio Carbone posited that the town should logically be able to claim independence, since the government had forgotten about it; he led a referendum and soon found himself elected president of his own principality.
Seborga enjoyed a moment in the national spotlight in 2006 when a woman calling herself Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne of Seborga, and wrote to the president of Italy with an offer to return the principality to the state. Carbone’s official response was priceless: “Pah! No-one’s ever even seen her…”

The Gay Kingdom of the Coral Sea
This micronation was set up as a sort of ostentatious political protest by Australian gay rights activists. When the government refused to recognise same-sex marriages in 2004, The Gay Kingdom was established on a group of uninhabited islands near the Great Barrier Reef.
While it initially existed merely to make a point, some of its ‘citizens’ started to get really into the idea, and the Kingdom now enjoys a national anthem (Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Am What I Am’), a rainbow flag, a pink triangle coat of arms, its own postage stamps, and a burgeoning fishing industry.

The Aerican Empire
Aerica is an interesting one, as it doesn’t actually have any physical sovereign territory of its own. Instead, it has claims on a house in Canada, a square-kilometre in Australia, a colony on Mars, the entire northern hemisphere of Pluto, parts of the sun yet to be established (‘It’s pretty hot on the sun,’ their website states, ‘but that may not stop us from claiming bits of it in the future’), and the entirety of the planet Verden. Which, er, doesn’t exist.
Their official flag is a rip-off of the Canadian flag, but with a great big smiley face instead of a maple leaf, and the Empire mints its own coins and issues ID cards.
The advent of the internet changed Aerica enormously; founded in 1987, it was originally a wholly fictional entity supposedly engaging in wars with other micronations, but with the spread of worldwide information-sharing and the newfound ease of finding out about other micronations across the globe, the Aerican Empire refocused, abandoning many of the fictional elements in favour of working towards becoming a genuine political entity. They’ve still got a keen sense of fun though. The official religion is Sinilism – ‘worship of the Great Penguin’ – and their national holidays are superb: January 2nd is Procrastinators’ Day, February 27th is *Oops* Day, and March 19th is What The Heck Is That Day.

The Copeman Empire
The Copeman Empire is a caravan in Norfolk. Founder Nick Copeman changed his name by deed poll in 2003 to HM King Nicholas I, initially as a dare, but the Copeman Empire quickly gained momentum and he found himself selling spurious peerages online and even pursuing a relationship (somewhat unsuccessfully, poor chap) with fellow questionable royal Zara Phillips.
It’s now one of the most important caravans in the UK. Well, maybe the only important caravan.

The Principality of Marlborough
In 1993, a Queensland farmer, George Muirhead, was facing repossession due to non-payment of bills. After losing his case at the Supreme Court, he declared his farm to be The Principality of Marlborough, an independent state where the Queensland Government – and, more importantly, the bank – had no legal authority.
A week later, 120 policemen arrived and kicked the Muirheads out. See, you have to think these things through.

The Kingdom of North Sudan
Jeremiah Heaton, a former Democratic Party Congressional from Abingdon, Virginia, has a daughter named Emily. Emily told her daddy one day that she wanted to be a princess when she grew up. So he made an epic trek via desert caravan to the remote Bir Tawil in a disputed area of territory between Sudan and Egypt, stuck a flag in the ground, and declared himself king. As such, Emily became a princess. Awww.

Other World Kingdom
This is a matriarchy in the Czech Republic, with overarching themes of female dominance and BDSM (bondage, dominance and submission, masochism). Queen Patricia I decreed that citizens must fulfil certain criteria: they must be over the age of sexual consent, own at least one male slave, and agree to unconditionally abide by the laws of the OWK. It claims to be a micronation but is really more of a business, operating from a three-hectare site in which a lot of shagging goes on and the men forfeit all rights.

Another London-based micronation, this one can be found on Freston Road in Notting Hill. Its origins lie in the 1970s, when squatters inhabited a number of empty houses on the street. When the Greater London Council announced plans to redevelop the area, 120 of the squatters changed their names so that they all shared a surname – Bramley – in order to be rehoused collectively.
Threatened with formal eviction, they held a meeting and decided to declare the street independent from the UK; 94% of residents were in favour (and 73% voted for Frestonia to join the EEC), and independence was declared in October 1977.
The micronation had its own newspaper, National Film Institute and arts industry, postage stamps, and contained the studio where The Clash recorded Combat Rock. It all started to fall apart when the Bramleys Housing Co-operative, formed by the residents, began to negotiate with the Notting Hill Housing Trust, a move which led to many residents moving away, feeling that the spirit of the enterprise had been diluted. The co-operative still manages the houses today, but Freston Road is more close-knit community than micronation. The Frestonia name lives on, however, in the Frestonia office development, as well as being the name of an Aztec Camera album.

One of the more celebrated micronations is one that didn’t actually exist at all – San Serriffe. On April Fools Day 1977, the Guardian printed a seven-page supplement to mark the tenth anniversary of independence of the fictional island, complete with themed ads from major advertisers (including Kodak: ‘If you've got a photograph of San Serriffe, Kodak would like to see it’) to lend the hoax credibility. The idea came from Special Reports Manager Philip Davies, who explained in a 2007 interview that “the Financial Times was always doing special reports on little countries I'd never heard of; I was thinking about April Fool's Day 1977 and I thought, why don't we just make a country up?” It worked brilliantly – the Guardian received scores of letters from readers describing holidays they’d enjoyed on San Serriffe, and the editor was bombarded with complaints from airlines and travel agents who were getting grief from customers who refused to believe the island didn’t exist. And this episode, in a nutshell, neatly sums up the ethos of the micronation overall – it doesn’t really matter if any perceived sovereignty exists or not. If it’s real enough, then that’s real enough. 

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