The long, weird, tangled history of starting your own country.
- By Atossa Araxia AbrahamianAtossa Araxia Abrahamian is an editor at the New Inquiry and Al Jazeera America. Follow her on Twitter: @atossaaraxia.
For those who dream of someday ruling their own nation, the go-to text is How to Start Your Own Country, an encyclopedia-cum-manifesto written by Erwin S. Strauss. Strauss is a musician and science-fiction fanatic in Newark, New Jersey, who runs a 24/7 sci-fi convention hotline and sometimes goes by the name Filthy Pierre. His book, last updated in 1984, remains widely recognized as the bible of the DIY statehood scene, containing practical advice, historical tidbits, and wry asides.
"In today’s crowded societies, once again many people are feeling the drive to break away from existing cultures and establish their own institutions," Strauss writes in the introduction to the last run of the book. "Ignorant of human history, most people treat such an idea with scorn." As the book goes on to explain, starting a country is a way to quell frustrations with one’s dominant, existing government; imagine a better world; escape from taxes or civilization altogether; and, notably, feel important.
Starting a country also means you can make your daughter a princess — which is what Jeremiah Heaton of Abingdon, Virginia, says led him to declare himself the king of North Sudan this summer.
In June, Heaton flew to Egypt, rented a Toyota Land Cruiser with GPS, and drove into the desert to stake his claim on Bir Tawil, an uninhabited and, for now, unclaimed region between Egypt and Sudan. Because of a dispute over colonial-era borders, the region is in a kind of legal limbo or, as one scholar put it, like a territorial Schrödinger’s cat. What’s more, no one seems to live there — so Heaton’s stake in the land appears to be at least partially legitimate: An existing country can take hold of territory if it is truly unclaimed.
The question is whether Heaton’s land counts as an "existing" country, having neither a permanent population nor recognition from any other legal entity. Carne Ross, who runs Independent Diplomat, a firm that has helped Kosovo and South Sudan gain formal recognition, says he finds Heaton’s move ludicrous.
"The bottom line is to have your own country, other states have to recognize you, and that’s the only thing that really matters," Ross explained. "He doesn’t have a hell’s chance of being recognized by anyone."
Recognition, said Ross, "is as simple as it sounds — a state will declare it recognizes another and then enter formal [diplomatic] agreements. And becoming a member of the U.N. will not make you a state, whatever people may say." Independent Diplomat actively works with would-be countries to get them recognized, but Ross finds Heaton’s actions odious. "I powerfully believe the people with most right to claim a state and govern themselves in a state are people who are from there," said Ross.
Whether her kingdom is formally recognized or not, Emily Heaton can call herself a princess with a smidge more gravitas than your run-of-the-mill Frozen fan — if only for her father’s dedication. And the elder Heaton’s stab at kinghood, however wacky, earns him a spot in a long tradition of wild men, cheats, and idealists for whom the rules of sovereignty were made to be bent.
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According to Strauss, in 1965, Leicester Hemingway — the writer Ernest’s brother — announced that he was the ruler of New Atlantis, a barge floating in the ocean near Jamaica. Around that time, a businessman named Werner K. Stiefel also made plans to start a "country" in international waters, but after his boat was launched into the Hudson River, the tide receded and it was left "lying on its side in the mud," wrote Strauss.
Then, in the early 1970s, a man named Michael J. Oliver paid a crew to fill in a reef with sand in the South Pacific in an attempt to create landmass — but once the state was above water, the king of Tonga stormed onto the scene and planted his own flag there instead.
Starting a country "seems to be a basic human impulse. You want to say, ‘I’m master of my state; I heed to no man; I am equal to any king or head of state,’" said Strauss. "But starting a country to make your daughter a princess? Now that one’s new to me," he laughed.
Per Strauss, there are many ways to act out a nation-state fantasy. The easiest is a "model country": tiny, largely unrecognized micro-sovereignties run out of people’s homes. (Strauss calls these "countries in a sock drawer.") The exercise has more in common with Dungeons & Dragons than resembling actual statecraft, but it "is an easy way to dip a toe into the new-country waters," Strauss writes, noting with regret that the downside of a model country is that "you can’t take potshots at officials" of the country you live in or refuse to pay taxes.
A more orthodox way is to go to war (expensive and not necessarily advisable) and try to take control of an existing state — think a coup d’etat — or, like Heaton, claim terra nullius, but there’s so little unoccupied land left that this doesn’t happen much.
Boats and barges flying flags of convenience are still a popular vehicle for DIY state-building. The Blueseed project, while not a country per se, was conceived as a start-up incubator on a ship off the Californian coast so that foreign engineers could work in close proximity to Silicon Valley without obtaining U.S. work visas. (Strauss notes that there is usually an element of law evasion or avoidance in these ventures).
Strauss says that since he last updated his book in 1984, the practice has fallen out of vogue among individuals — especially when it involves venturing out into the world to find new territory. (Larger self-determination efforts, such as the ones Ross has worked on, aren’t comparable to the smaller attempts because they typically represent more than just a handful of people.) "We’ve talked about a new edition, but there hasn’t been that much action going on," he said.
Still, a few new micronations have been formed since. The Republic of Molossia, a micronation in California and Nevada, describes itself as "a sovereign, independent nation, located in and completely surrounded by territory of the United States," but it currently wields no power over anyone, anywhere. And an artist named Gregory Green tried to form the New Free State of Caroline in 1997 when he sent a letter asking the United Nations to consider recognizing a small island 500 miles from Tahiti as an independent state for people who disagree with their own countries. The land was eventually given to Kiribati, so Green petitioned the U.N. for another piece of land, unsuccessfully. His exploits were documented in a recent documentary.
Currently, the most prominent manifestation of the DIY-country mindset has come out of Silicon Valley. Between entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan’s calls for a technocratic secession movement and the Peter Thiel-backed Seasteading Institute‘s advocacy for man-made, floating city-states on international waters, self-determination has become the rallying cry of executives with engineering degrees. But long before millionaire techies started throwing pocket change at these kinds of projects, the new-country movement was already the domain of well-off white men who drew inspiration in equal parts from free market ideologies and dystopian science-fiction novels: Many of the case studies in How to Start Your Own Country were initiated by serious libertarians, as Heaton also identifies.
The most infamous DIY nation is the Principality of Sealand, a 120-by-50-foot platform six miles off the coast of Great Britain that served as an anti-aircraft fort during World War II. In 1967, Sealand declared itself the world’s smallest country when the late Paddy Roy Bates, a war veteran and pirate radio operator who saw a commercial opportunity in offshore radio, moved onto the then-deserted platform and proclaimed himself king. Not unlike Heaton, who studied — then exploited — international law to his advantage, Bates took a court ruling that acquitted him of illegal firearm possession on Sealand due to the fact that his location was outside British jurisdiction as official confirmation of his sovereign status and began selling passports, stamps, and titles.
"What I found fascinating in echoes of Sealand is the way Heaton crosses between very personal motivations and these big, more political sort of commercial ideas," said James Grimmelmann, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the author of a definitive legal history of Sealand. "Bates goes out to Sealand to run pirate radio operation and make money, and then it turns into a whole arc that his family for four generations gets involved in. With Heaton, the simple motivation is to make his daughter a princess, but once the ideas get a hold of him, he starts talking about all the things people talk about when they have their own country."
Since it was established, Sealand has attracted an array of kooks. While the Bateses have kept nominal control, in 2000 a band of hackers saw the platform as the perfect home for a server farm. Their company, HavenCo, moved in with plans to host data outside the jurisdiction of other states so that pornography, online casinos, sensitive documents, and other materials that could be seized or subpoenaed could have a safe home offshore. It fell apart because of disputes within the company and a serious lack of infrastructure on the platform. After news about the National Security Agency’s overreach broke in 2013, there was a revival of interest in Sealand as a potential haven for servers.
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Heaton’s Kingdom of North Sudan has pieces of any number of these schemes. Monarchy is the default starting point, Heaton says, "because of the princess thing," but he would like to see a more democratic system take shape. "What’s beautiful about the direction for our country is we’ve got a blank slate to try to change how things are going." Once the gargantuan task of building infrastructure is underway, he plans to establish a safe haven from an NSA-monitored world, complete with server-hosting capacities, so his kids can live "with secure information and free and open dialogue without fear of government snooping into their lives." (Grimmelmann said he isn’t surprised that Heaton has jumped on the data-haven bandwagon. "It’s the dream of ‘What can I do if no one is in charge?’" he said. "And in the Internet age, that means servers.")
Nonrenewable energy sources, said Heaton, will be banned on his land. And despite the fact that nothing currently grows there, he also wants to experiment with new agricultural technologies, as well as ancient farming methods, to plant tomatoes and corn and help feed the African continent. It seems like a stretch, but "I did an Internet search and it’s totally possible to raise crops in the desert and provide food," Heaton insisted.
Heaton plans to move his family over and make the barren region habitable, which is impossible without money — lots of it. In the meantime, he seems to be having a ball with the planning. As he spoke, Heaton’s use of the plural — or was it royal? — "we" quickly turned into an all-seeing "I": "Once I’ve got enough resources gathered up, I would like to make a city center or capital. It won’t look like any capital on Earth," he said.
It’s clear that little Emily Heaton’s wish to become a princess unlocked a latent yearning in her father to be in the spotlight, to dream up policies he never was able to try out after his failed congressional bids, and possibly, momentarily, to escape from rural Virginia, where he resides. Chances are, it won’t last: Strauss predicts that down the line, Heaton’s claim will most likely be challenged by Egypt or Sudan. "But now with things up in air, he’s got a bit of slack to play with. He can have a lot fun with that."
Because of the politically and culturally loaded nature of his actions — he is, after all, a white man from Virginia engaging in a literal African land grab — Heaton has been called a racist, a neo-colonialist, ignorant, and self-aggrandizing. If any of these labels apply, they’re most likely a result of naiveté, not Heaton’s bad intentions. It isn’t immediately clear how self-aware Heaton is; he sounds awfully earnest, but the entire premise of claiming a stake in what sounds like an arid oven is entirely silly. "I think everybody who has tried one of these schemes is a little tongue-in-cheek," said Grimmelmann. "That’s part of the romance and fun of it."
Dismissals of his plan are understandable. But they miss the point of why any individual in 2014 would talk about starting his or her own country at all. It is difficult, in the modern world, to feel as though one has a say in the politics and policies that shape our lives. New-country fantasies are a way of turning latent frustrations into concrete plans, however impossible they are to carry out.
Even Ross of Independent Diplomat, who is no fan of Heaton’s tactics, remarked that he has noticed that more and more people "are trying to assert more control over their circumstances" by initiating, or simply paying more attention to, secession movements and calls for self-determination. "Part of that is because of globalization, which makes people feel they’ve lost control — whether it’s over the environment or their financial circumstance or their identity. Trying to pull things down to the local level is a natural reaction," Ross said.
Heaton’s dreams of bringing clean energy, abundant agriculture, and a stable economy to a remote place in the middle of nowhere don’t exist in a vacuum: They are direct responses to how little all of us can do to enact any sort of real change in a world that’s visibly deteriorating, politically, ecologically, and some would argue socially, before our very eyes. "I sympathize with those motives," Ross said, "but where he should be demanding more democracy is in Virginia, not in Sudan. He’s going to Sudan because it’s a hell of a lot easier to plant a flag in Sudan than to create profound democracy and change in Virginia."
Even so, his prospects are dim. With the arguable exception of Sealand, all the "nations of one" in Strauss’s book have failed to secure the regular trappings of an established nation-state: international recognition, a population, a currency, laws.
But that doesn’t deter others from trying, because success isn’t really the point. In fact, reality isn’t the point. Sovereignty isn’t as much a legal status as it is a state of mind for new-country founders, and Heaton’s actions make a deadpan point about what makes a nation-state legitimate, what it can do, and who should recognize it as such.
If a dad from Virginia plants a flag in the desert and no one is around to see it fly, does that make it a country?