About seven miles off the east coast of England, there’s a micronation called “Sealand”. It consists of an offshore platform that spans 120 feet by 50 feet, with two large hollow, concrete legs. As a micronation, Sealand claims to be independent but is not recognized by other countries or international organizations.
A man named Paddy Roy Bates took over the platform in 1967. The Bates’ family and associates have occupied it ever since. The story behind this micronation is almost beyond belief. It involves pirate radio, armed conflicts, and mercenaries on jet skis.
Here are 11 interesting facts about Sealand.
1. It was originally an anti-aircraft gun platform built in World War II.
Officially known as “Fort Roughs,” the platform was one of several offshore forts built by the British government to defend against a German invasion. The government abandoned these forts in the 1950s.
Throughout the war, between 150 and 300 Royal Navy personnel occupied Fort Roughs. The navy continued to keep full-time personnel there until 1956. According to one man who was stationed at the platform, the navy assigned personnel there as a form of punishment as the conditions were unpleasant and crowded.(1,2,3)
2. In 1965, Roughs Tower, as it was then called, was occupied by a pirate radio station called “Radio Caroline,” on which the movie Pirate Radio is loosely based. They planned to use it as a base to resupply its ships.
Pirate radio stations were popular in the early 1960s because the rules for radio broadcasting were very strict. Unrestricted, pirate radio stations were able to offer audiences more of what they wanted such as popular music and amusing presenters. The popularity of these stations drew in advertisers which made them profitable enterprises.
Bates had previously operated a pirate radio station at an identical offshore platform called “Knock John.” But he had been drawn into a legal battle with the UK government. They argued he had no right to occupy that fort since it was located less than three miles offshore, which meant it was within UK jurisdiction. So, in 1967, Bates took over Fort Roughs and evicted Radio Caroline personnel.(1,2)
3. In 1975, Bates tried to establish Sealand as a country. He declared himself “Prince Roy” and oversaw the creation of a constitution, a flag, currency, a national anthem, and passports.
Bates had originally planned to set up his own pirate radio station on the platform. But in August of 1967, new laws in the UK made it unprofitable. The laws specifically forbid UK citizens from advertising using broadcasts from offshore radio stations. Later, Bates decided to make Fort Roughs its own country.
The British authorities denounced Bates’ declaration. The Ministry of Defense stated: “This is ludicrous. Mr. Bates is trespassing and it now looks as if he is being very foolish.” At this point, the government used explosives to destroy all of its other abandoned forts in international waters. According to the Sealand website, a tugboat carrying a demolition crew passed near Fort Roughs and threatened them by yelling: “You’re next!”(source)
4. In 1967, Radio Caroline sent a boat with seven people to try to retake Fort Roughs. Bates used Molotov cocktails to defend the fort.
Apparently, Radio Caroline didn’t want to abandon the fort without a fight. Bates and his crew defended it using Molotov cocktails and warning shots. The boat retreated leaving one man dangling from a ladder on Fort Roughs. After negotiations, a lifeboat was allowed to rescue him two hours later.(1,2)
5. In 1968, Bates had to appear in court on firearms charges after his 15-year-old son fired warning shots at a government ship.
The ship belonged to Trinity House which is a corporation that handles maintenance of lighthouses, buoys, and maritime communication systems for England. The ship had been working on a buoy near Fort Roughs. According to Sealand, the ship came within 50 feet of Fort Roughs and the crew shouted obscenities at Michael and his sister. Michael used a .22 pistol to fire warning shots across the bow of the ship, and it left the area.
Because Roy Bates was still a British citizen, he had to appear in court on firearms charges. He argued that the incident happened outside the jurisdiction of English courts. The judge agreed, and the charges were dropped. Bates would later use this ruling to argue that England recognized Sealand’s independence from England.(1,2,3)
6. In 1978, one of Roy’s business partners, who Roy had previously named Prime Minister of Sealand, sent a helicopter full of armed men to take over the fort.
In the mid-1970s, a German entrepreneur named Alexander Achenbach got involved with Sealand. He had drafted Sealand’s constitution, and Bates had awarded him the position of prime minister. After a business disagreement, Achenbach formed a plan to take control of Sealand. He set up a meeting in Austria between Bates and investors that wanted to turn Sealand into a luxury hotel/casino. When Bates was away, Achenbach sent a group of armed men to Fort Roughs by helicopter. According to some reports, the men included Dutch mercenaries (other sources say they were businessmen), and in addition to the helicopter, they arrived on speedboats and jet skis.
The armed men were accompanied by a German lawyer named Gernot Putz who had dealt with the Bates family in the past and owned a Sealand passport. Putz told Michael Bates they had made a deal with his father to take ownership of Sealand. They took Michael captive and gained control of the fort without firing a shot. They released Michael three days later by putting him on a fishing boat headed to the Netherlands. He was reunited with his parents shortly afterwards.(1,2,3)
7. A few days later, Bates organized a counter-attack. With the help of his son and several other armed men, he successfully regained control of Sealand and took Achenbach’s men captive.
Bates called in a favor from a friend who was a stunt pilot and had flown helicopters for several James Bond films. Bates brought a team of five armed men, including his son, and they attacked at dawn. The helicopter flew just above the water until it reached Fort Roughs, then hovered above as the men repelled to the platform. Apparently, they came close to exchanging gunfire, but Achenbach’s men surrendered when Michael accidentally fired his sawed-off shotgun.(1,2)
8. Bates put one of the men on trial for treason and forced him to work on Sealand as a butler.
As Sealand now had the men as prisoners, West Germany and the Netherlands asked England to intervene. England declined since Fort Roughs was outside its territorial waters.
Sealand released the group within a few days except for Putz. Because Putz held a Sealand passport, Bates put him on trial for treason. He was found guilty. Bates ruled that he would be fined £18,000 and held prisoner until it was paid. While being kept prisoner, Putz was treated as a sort of butler. He had to perform tasks such as cleaning the bathrooms and making coffee.
The head of the West German Embassy’s legal department visited Sealand to investigate and negotiate Putz’s release. The embassy official saw that Putz was “well and happy.” He was released after six weeks.(1,2,3)
9. In 2000, a start-up company named HavenCo installed computer servers in Sealand as a data center for restricted content.
The company was opposed to government censorship and control of the Internet. They planned to offer a data haven where their clients could store content that was illegal in other countries. They also planned on storing corporate records for companies that wanted their documents out of the reach of subpoenas.
The company ended up having about ten customers at its peak. Most, if not all of them, were online gambling sites. The company struggled with technical issues. Sealand refused to accept the business of some potential customers as an advisor warned that the company was hurting Sealand’s reputation and chances of being recognized as a nation. In 2008, Sealand shut the HavenCo website down.(source)
10. From 2007 until 2010, Sealand was offered for sale at a price of over $900 million.
Sealand was available for purchase through a Spanish estate company called InmoNaranja. One of the potential buyers was the file-sharing site Pirate Bay. In 2007, Pirate Bay announced it planned to buy Sealand. It set up a website for donations at BuySealand.com but was able to raise only about $20,000.(1,2)
11. Experts say there’s little chance Sealand will ever be officially recognized as a nation because, according to the UN, no man-made structure can be considered an island. Also, the UK extended its territorial limits, making Sealand within its territory.
Law academic John Gibson has said it’s unlikely Sealand would be recognized as a sovereign country because it is a man-made structure. Since 1994, a United Nations Convention has been in force that says no artificial islands, installations, or structures can possess the status of islands. In addition, the UK extended the reach of its territorial limits in 1987 up to 12 nautical miles which Sealand falls within.(1,2)