OK, name that country: It's planted opposite Europe, sitting proudly on the other side of the North Sea. It's a monarchy that features its own currency, postage stamps, constitution, national anthem, love of tea and a pair of handsome princes, born two years apart. We speak of… Sealand. A crumb of real estate off the English coast that declared its independence in 1967, Sealand has a full-time population of… one. It has a land mass the size of…. roughly two tennis courts. Its leading export might be… the national mythology, a history of piracy, coups, countercoups, rogues and off-shore Internet schemes. It may make tiny Lichtenstein look like China by comparison. But by rights, Sealand is a sovereign nation. Join us, as we compile some notes from a truly small island.
Prince Michael: We can see Sealand over there, by the way, now. You see that?
Jon Wertheim: Oh, there she is.
Prince Michael: Yeah, yeah. On the starboard bow.
Behold, the world's smallest state… It's a micronation in the extreme, a principality which sits—or stands—only seven miles off the coast of England… Its self-described reigning monarch is this guy, Prince Michael Bates.
Jon Wertheim: Here we are.
Prince Michael: Yep.
Jon Wertheim: A platform and a couple of concrete husks. And--
Prince Michael: Yeah.
Jon Wertheim: --this is a state.
Prince Michael: Yep.
Enter some countries, you arrive in style; here you arrive in what's basically a backyard swing hoisted by a crank 60 feet above the North Sea. And if you're wondering about the safety regulations... yeah, us too… then again, when you are a sovereign nation you—by definition—set your own rules.
Jon Wertheim: That's a helluva way to get into a country
Prince Michael: The only way to travel.
On the plus side, there's no long line at the arrival's hall.
Jon Wertheim: I'm following you to passport control.
Mike Barrington fills various roles and positions on Sealand… right now it's immigration and customs. He also happens to be the only permanent resident.
Mike Barrington: There you are, sir.
Jon Wertheim: So now I'm official.
Mike Barrington: You are. Welcome to Sealand--
It wasn't always named Sealand… and it was never intended to be a country. Originally called His Majesty's Roughs Tower, it was a hastily-constructed nautical fort—one of several the British set up in the North Sea during World War II. Equipped with anti-aircraft artillery, these forts were designed to prevent German bombing raids on London. During the War, more than a hundred Royal Marines were crammed into these towers for months on end.
Descending the seven-story towers, it feels—and smells—like a cross between a treehouse and a diesel-soaked submarine.
First up… the first-class bedroom suite.
Jon Wertheim: It's a nice one.
Prince Michael: Yeah. Nice TV.
Our claustrophobic tour continued downward.
Jon Wertheim: Now we're-- we're-- we're under water at this point. So we still got a couple floors to go--
Prince Michael: Yeah, you hear ships going past. You hear the propellers going p-- going round. Ding, ding, ding, ding.
Like many countries… there's a national cathedral.
Prince Michael: You have freedom of worship in Sealand. I think there's even the Quran here somewhere.
On the bottom floor… the jail.
Prince Michael: Two days in the brig.
Jon Wertheim: Wow.
Prince Michael: Bread and water.
Jon Wertheim: I have to look at the Sealand Constitution and see what my rights are.
Prince Michael: Very limited. (laughter)
If you're wondering by now how this concrete island constitutes a country... stick with us here.
Back in the 1960s, these same waters played host to the burgeoning unlicensed commercial radio business that operated on ships and old forts… what the British government called "pirate radio."
It was the time of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks… but the stodgy BBC… which had a monopoly on broadcasting in Britain… gave the rock bands just an hour of airtime a week.
The younger set in Britain—millions of them—tuned their radio knobs to the pirate stations. In 1965, Prince Michael's Father, Roy Bates—an enterprising swashbuckling World War II veteran—commandeered a fort where another pirate station operated. It was the Wild West on the North Sea.
Bates set up Britain's first 24-hour outfit. He called it Radio Essex.
But not for long… the British government enacted a new law rendering all pirate radio stations illegal. Bates was forced to shut down. But true to his nature, he was something other than scared off.
Prince Michael: He just would not back down.
Jon Wertheim: Form of surrender if he had said, "You know what? I'm out"
Prince Michael: He wouldn't know that word: "surrender," I mean-- (laugh) no.
Far from surrendering… Bates seized another fort, Roughs Tower, which was outside UK territorial waters. Instead of restarting Radio Essex, he did something bolder still: on September 2nd, 1967, he declared it an independent state… Sealand… and declared himself its prince. It was his wife Joan's Birthday.
Prince Michael: And it was, of course, a hugely romantic gesture to make my mother a princess.
Jon Wertheim: In addition to taking you out to dinner, I'm gonna make you a princess." (laugh)
Prince Michael: Well, he didn't take her out to dinner, but he did-- he made her a princess, yeah.
Prince Roy and Princess Joan, along with their two children Michael and Penny, set up home on Sealand… the sheer novelty of their lifestyle was a constant source of amusement on the mainland. This newsreel is from 1969.
Newsreel from 1969: "The start of another day, even for the new royals… is no different than for millions of others… the request for a common cuppa…"
Interviewer: Mrs. Bates, how is it possible to keep looking glamorous in conditions like these?
Joan Bates: It's no more difficult than anywhere else in the world… We're quite comfortable here, I've got all the things that I want.. Makeup, brushes and things.
At age 16, Penny was less convinced.
Princess Penny Hawker: It was freezing cold, and it had no electricity. To flush a toilet you'd have to chuck a bucket over the side, drop it down about 80 feet, pull it up, and flush the toilet--
Jon Wertheim: That was your toilet?
Princess Penny Hawker: Yes.
The Bates family had big ambitions to turn Sealand into a tax haven, a luxury island and casino. And they went all-in on the trappings of statehood, fashioning a flag, stamps, currency, an anthem, even a national motto: E mare libertas: From the Sea, Freedom.
As teens, Michael and Penny would spend months on Sealand holding down the fort, as it were… firing off warning shots and tossing Molotov cocktails overboard to fend off periodic attempts of invasion from rivals and buccaneers.
Princess Penny Hawker: When the press eventually came out and took photographs my father called me down. And he said "Now look," he said, "how many times have I told you, you do not hold a gun like that."
Jon Wertheim: You weren't holding the gun the right way?
Princess Penny Hawker: And actually, if you look at the picture, the way I'm holdin' the guns is dreadful.
Firmly settled on Sealand, the Bates' remained a nuisance to the British government… so much so, as a warning to the family, a team of royal engineers blew up a similar North Sea fort.
At Sealand's national archives, which doubles as Prince Michael's dining room table, we were shown declassified plans, drawn up by the British Ministry of Defence, to take Sealand by force.
Prince Michael: The following units are to be available to the execution of the operation. "Royal Navy Two Wessex 5 helicopters "Crafts from HM Naval Base Chatham, Portsmouth Midway, and a clearance diving team." (laugh) It's crazy, isn't it?
But it wasn't just the British government that wanted to dislodge the family. In August 1978, a band of rogue German and Dutch lawyers and diamond merchants launched a coup d'état… with designs of founding their own off-shore casino… they arrived by helicopter with a film crew in tow… taking Prince Michael by surprise—and then roughing him up.
Prince Michael: They tied my elbows together, my knees together, my feet together, my hands down to my knees. And they picked me up, and one said to the other in German, "Let's chuck this bastard over the side. He's too much trouble."
Jon Wertheim: And you're a full-on political prisoner right now.
Prince Michael: Yeah.
Sealand had fallen… after three days Michael was released. Did Michael and his father then return via helicopter, fully armed and flanked by a group of bruisers to stage a successful countercoup? Yes. Yes, they did.
Prince Michael: I jump, and landed crash in the middle of the Germans. sawed-off shotgun hit the deck, boom, and all the Germans went like that.
Jon Wertheim: They surrender. That's it.
Jon Wertheim: You've-- you've reclaimed your principality.
Disarmed, the plotters were released, all except for one, his name was Putz… and he was made to clean the bathroom, make coffee and imposed a fine for treason… $37,000… his imprisonment brought a German diplomat to Sealand.
Jon Wertheim: But if you have German emissaries coming here to try and negotiate the release of this prisoner, du-- doesn't that imply that-- Sealand is a state that's having relations?
Prince Michael: Absolutely. It-- it's de-- de facto recognition, isn't it? It happened, yeah.
This diplomatic visit was critical for the Bates family. An international treaty signed in the 1930s established four requirements for statehood… one is recognition by another state. Sealand had already met the other tests… a government: check… a defined territory: check… and a permanent population… check, thanks to Michael Barrington.
Jon Wertheim: So what-- what's your position here?
Mike Barrington: Well, I-- I do mostly engineering work, yeah, electrically and whatever. Apparently I'm head of homeland security.
Jon Wertheim: What-- what are you protecting this place from?
Mike Barrington: Well, the British government or anybody else that decides to take us over. We are a country, after all, a small nation.
Jon Wertheim: You're ready to use weapons if-- if you had to--
Mike Barrington: If need be, yes. No hesitation.
But in recent years, to keep Sealand afloat, the Bates family has updated their pirate radio sensibilities for the times. In the early 2000s, they partnered with fringe internet entrepreneurs who invested millions with designs of turning Sealand into an offshore data haven. Prince Michael's son—Prince James—showed us the old server room.
Prince James: We used to run things like gambling sites, porn sites-- we had a few dubious people asking us to do things that we didn't really agree with. There was an organ transplant company, like, human organs, that wanted to set-- host out here which my father was against.
Jon Wertheim: Gambling and porn is okay but we draw a line at harvesting human organs.
Prince James: Yes, exactly.
That venture failed dismally… but today James and his younger brother Prince Liam are still harnessing the power of the internet. The Bates family won't disclose the size of the national debt or the yearly budget, but it is serviced through the online sale of noble titles. Become a Lord or Lady for $30 600 bucks will make you a Sealand Duke or Duchess.
Jon Wertheim: And people are buying these titles. What is that all about?
Prince Liam: I think it means so many things to so many different people. Some people love the-- the act of political defiance. Some people love the-- the love story that ran through it with my gram and grandpa. Some people love the, you know, David against Goliath.
That national myth… the very idea of Sealand… has now far outgrown the country itself. As for the House of Bates... well, Roy and Joan have passed on… and the rest of the lineage lives in the small English resort town of South-End-on-Sea. Princes James and Liam run a business harvesting cockles. Princess Penny runs a botox clinic nearby… and seven years ago, Prince Michael married and welcomed a new princess, Mae Shi, a former artillery major in China's People's Liberation Army. Six decades after founding their private little country, the royal family remains committed to the bit.
Jon Wertheim: This the golden age for Sealand?
Prince Michael: Hopefully.
Jon Wertheim: if the British Navy rolled up tomorrow and said, "It's time to reclaim Sealand." How do you respond?
Prince Michael: Well, first of all, I-- I'm sure they wouldn't. But if they did, I'd just get the best china out and make them a nice cup of tea.
Produced by Michael H. Gavshon. Associate producer, Nadim Roberts. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Matthew Lev.
for more features.