Most of us think we know what a country is, but in truth the concept is rather slippery. We take a look at two countries – Sealand and Sahrawi – that lie in the margins of legitimacy, but can be visited in the real world.
Founded in 1967 by Roy Bates on the high seas about 7 nautical miles east of the UK. Sealand currently has a population of 27.
Joan Bates and her son Michael are afraid, but they know that if they keep their nerve the men in the ship below, bobbing rhythmically on the North Sea swell, cannot board their island fortress. It is night-time and it is cold. It is always cold on the bleak, 20-metre-high platform. Sometimes Joan is so cold she feels faint while
hanging out the washing.
Built in 1943 by the Royal Navy, the concrete-and-steel platform was equipped with antiaircraft guns to shoot down Luftwaffe planes. Abandoned after the war, it eventually came to the attention of Joan’s husband Roy, a former infantry major and owner of a chain of butchers’ shops, who was looking for a new challenge. Roy quickly took up residence to broadcast pop music, a classic Sixties ‘pirate radio station’ lying just outside British territorial waters, safe from prosecution.
In time a court case arose nonetheless, with Joan’s son, Michael, the accused. When an auxiliary vessel working on a nearby buoy sailed too close, foul language bloomed in the cold air. The situation escalated, and Michael fired warning gunshots across their bow. The vessel raced away, back to the Thames estuary, but the next time Michael set foot on the mainland he was arrested and put on trial for firearms offences.After much deliberation, the case was dismissed. In summing up, the judge described it as ‘a swashbuckling incident perhaps more akin to the time of Sir Francis Drake’, but noted that his court had no jurisdiction because Sealand lies outside British territorial waters.
The Bates family returned to their island stronghold, content with what they saw as Sealand’s first de facto recognition. Roy, Prince of Sealand, passed away in 2012, but his legacy reached a fourth generation of Sealand royalty two years later with the birth of Prince Freddy.
On the outside, they call it the Wall of Shame, a gargantuan earth embankment second only to China’s Great Wall in length. Patrolled by sentries and studded with mines, it consolidates the control of their homeland by an occupying force. Safe on the inside, Moroccans plunder their resources: nearly half the world’s phosphate reserves – essential to modern farming – oilfields and rich fishing grounds offshore.
The United Nations has been searching for a political solution here in the arid Western Sahara since Spain, the European colonizers, withdrew in 1976. One colonial power was replaced by another and the Saharawi people rose up to fight for their rights. After fifteen years of fruitless combat they laid down their arms and lobbied
for a referendum, allowing Sahrawis the right to vote for independence or permanent integration with Morocco. But the referendum has never taken place.
Decades of endless negotiations have failed to determine who should be entered on the electoral register. Sahrawis demanded the removal of Moroccan settlers; Morocco argued that settlers be allowed to vote, now that they are citizens of the region, whereas many Sahrawis, located in dusty tented camps in neighbouring Algeria, should not be registered since they do not live in the country.
One of the longest decolonization conflicts in history has vanished into an endlessly twisted discussion on procedure. Meanwhile some Sahrawis have spent forty years as refugees in Algeria. They have reached middle age living in a Kafkaesque transition period without end. They know little more than their prison of sand.
They have never set foot on their native soil, but each night they dream of freedom, of an independent Sahrawi republic. A Sahrawi lawyer sums up their faith in a land they are yet to see. He asks: ‘Do people change their religion because they don’t see God?’.
Nick Middleton's book, An Atlas of Countries That Don't Exist, takes us on a magical tour of countries that, lacking diplomatic recognition or UN membership, inhabit a world of shifting borders, visionary leaders and forgotten peoples.
Discover the story behind the Isle of Man