Another Country
Scott Simon Visits Sealand, a 6,000-square-foot North Sea Nation

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August 11, 2001 The Principality of Sealand has citizens, currency, and a government. It issues passports and postage stamps. It enforces its own laws and defends its own borders. Does all that make Sealand a country? Before you answer, consider that Sealand is a 120-foot-long steel platform perched atop two concrete pillars in the frigid chop of the North Sea, about seven miles off the southeast coast of England.

View of the Sealand tower
The skyline of the Principality of Sealand
Photo: Caroline Richard-Simon

Weekend Edition's Scott Simon recently visited Sealand, where, he says, "the birth of this nation began, as so many do, in war." The British government built Fort Rough's Tower, as it was then known, and three similar forts during World War II to guard the Thames Estuary leading into London. Cannons blazed on top of each fort as 200 men bunkered down with food and bullets in the concrete pillars. The forts helped save Britain.

Scott Simon lowered onto Sealand
The only way to reach Sealand, other than by alighting on the jury-rigged helipad, is via winch. As Scott Simon discovered, it isn't easy. The winch pulls visitors up from boats in the icy waters, a 60-foot journey to the platform.
Photo: Charles Mayer, NPR

After the war, the Brits made what historian Frank Turner tells Simon was a strategic error -- they failed to tear down the forts. Because Fort Rough's Tower stood abandoned outside of Britain's territorial waters, under the Law of the Sea, it became free game.

In 1965 millionaire fishing magnate Roy Bates occupied the platform, hoping to make it the base for his pirate radio station, Radio Essex.

But when Britain legalized commercial radio, pirate stations lost their commercial appeal. Bates concluded he might turn a profit from the platform by creating his own principality. As he tells Simon, his decision to follow his lawyer's advice and declare the tower a sovereign state "was commercial, totally commercial."

He installed himself as prince and his wife Joan as princess (they aren't king and queen because their lawyers said it would be better to form a principality than to create a kingdom). Lots of people came to him with ideas for what to do on the tower. "Most of these things which came to us, I think, were a little bit on the wrong side," Prince Roy says, insisting that he "wouldn't do anything that was anti-British or unethical, whatever."

postage stamp issued by Sealand
A postage stamp issued by the government of Sealand.
Photo: Charles Mayer, NPR

These days a company called HavenCo offers space on Sealand for customers to store their computer servers. The location assures customers that their servers are safe, secure, and -- most important -- outside the jurisdiction of anyone but Sealand. And Sealand doesn't ask a lot of questions. HavenCo does not recognize subpoenas from other countries, and vows to destroy the servers' hard drives as a last resort in the event that someone tries to take them by force. Prince Roy won't identify any of his customers, and he will only hint at what he will or will not accept -- although child pornographers are definitely not welcome.

The British government has made a few tentative and unsuccessful legal challenges to Sealand's sovereignty. Sealand is prepared to defend itself from a physical assault, if it comes to that. There was one incident in 1978 that involved a helicopter assault on Sealand, and the kidnapping of Prince Michael, son of Roy and Joan. This rather James Bondian tale merits a listen to Simon's radio report.

David Meyer
Prince Roy Bates, and his wife, Princess Joan, founders of Sealand
Photo: Charles Mayer, NPR

These days, Sealand is guarded at all times by a security force. Alan Beale, the gun-toting chief of security, is always on the lookout for invaders, but he isn't overly worried. It would be extremely difficult either to land an unauthorized helicopter on the platform or scale the tower from the sea. Further, he tells Simon, Sealand is surrounded by British territory and the Brits are unlikely to allow a foreign power or terrorists to launch an attack so close to home, however much they might wish the principality to just disappear.

After living on Sealand for nearly 30 years, Roy and Joan moved off the platform a year and a half ago, leaving Prince Michael to run HavenCo. They are looking for a place in sunny Florida, about as different from Sealand as you can get. And far from England, too. But that doesn't mean they are forsaking their native land. Indeed, Prince Roy considers himself a loyal subject -- even as he pines for a Britain that is no more. Sealand "can give total independence," tells Simon. "And freedom of thought. And free enterprise. Britain built its empire on free enterprise. And it hasn't got free enterprise now. It's being stultified. Europe's on the same track. We're hoping to make a loophole in that."

Other Resources

Wired magazine profiled Sealand last year in a piece by Simson Garfinkle called "Welcome to Sealand, Now Bugger Off".

"The free world is just milliseconds away" at HavenCo's Web site.

Sealand claims it is the world's tiniest sovereign state, but it usually doesn't make the lists of the world's smallest countries.

Sealand's own site offers a bit more history, a few more pictures, and a faq.

Roy Bates claimed Fort Rough's Tower under the Law of the Sea