Late Christmas Eve, 1966, a retired British army major named Paddy Roy Bates piloted a motorboat seven miles off the coast of England to an abandoned anti-aircraft platform "and declared it conquered," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ian Urbina.
Bates used it as a pirate radio station, sometimes spending several months there while living on tins of corned beef, rice pudding, flour, and scotch. But then he declared it to be the world's tiniest maritime nation, writes Urbina, adding that in the half-century to come, "Sealand" was destined to become "a thumb in the eye of international law."
Though no country formally recognizes Sealand, its sovereignty has been hard to deny. Half a dozen times, the British government and assorted other groups, backed by mercenaries, have tried and failed to take over the platform by force. In virtually every instance, the Bates family scared them off by firing rifles in their direction, tossing gasoline bombs, dropping cinder blocks onto their boats, or pushing their ladders into the sea. Britain once controlled a vast empire over which the sun never set, but it's been unable to control a rogue micronation barely bigger than the main ballroom in Buckingham Palace.... In recent years, its permanent citizenry has dwindled to one person: a full-time guard named Michael Barrington...
In the decades since its establishment, Sealand has been the site of coups and countercoups, hostage crises, a planned floating casino, a digital haven for organized crime, a prospective base for WikiLeaks, and myriad techno-fantasies, none brought successfully to fruition, many powered by libertarian dreams of an ocean-based nation beyond the reach of government regulation, and by the mythmaking creativity of its founding family. I had to go there.
The article also acknowledges the Seasteading Institute founded by Google software engineer Patri Friedman and backed by Peter Thiel -- as well as the idea of offshore-but-online services in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and Google's real-world plans for offshore data centers cooling their servers with seawater.
Urbina also tells the story of HavenCo, a grand plan for a Sealand-based data empire which ultimately had trouble powering their servers, alienating their gambling-industry customers with frequent outages. And in addition, one of the Bates' family says that "we also didn't see eye to eye with the computer guys about what sort of clients we were willing to host" -- and they objected to plans to illegally rebroadcast DVDs.
"For all their daring, the Bates family was wary of antagonizing the British and upsetting their delicately balanced claim to sovereignty."
The article is adapted from Urbina's upcoming book The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier (to be released Tuesday).
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