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Altered states

Founded on a whim or motivated by political ideology, micronations are the unrecognised independent states of the world, and the subject of a new book by French photographer Léo Delafontaine

Altered states

Text by Mandi Keighran & Omer Ali Photos⁄Léo Delafontaine

It was Christmas Eve 1966 when Major Paddy Roy Bates, a former British infantry major and founder of offshore pirate radio station Radio Essex, decided to occupy an abandoned fortress in international waters 13km off the east coast of Britain. By September the following year, he had declared the fortress island an independent state he called Sealand, raised a newly designed flag, and bestowed the title of princess on his wife, Joan. In doing so, Bates became the founder of one of the first modern-day and, arguably, the world’s most famous micronation, an entity that claims to be an independent state but is not officially recognised by world governments. What started as something of a social experiment soon became big news, with Bates being hauled into the Crown Court, where a judge declared that UK courts had no jurisdiction over Sealand. From then, Bates issued the Sealand dollar, which has a fixed exchange rate of US$1, circulated passports and postage stamps, and managed to build a thriving tourism industry on Sealand, despite being an unofficial nation with a population of just 22. More recently, Sealand was the catalyst for a new book documenting micronations by French photographer and self-described modern-day adventurer, Léo Delafontaine.

“I’ve always liked small places with an improbable history,” says Delafontaine. “When I visit a place, I like to think that I will go everywhere and meet everybody – I want to be exhaustive. I know it’s illusory, but it’s a great motivation!”

Today, there are more than 400 micronations in existence, and hundreds, if not thousands, of “nomadic nations” that exist online. Here, finally, were hundreds of not-quite-nations that Delafontaine could feasibly document in their entirety. “I was really surprised that no photographer had ever had the same idea.”

Following a period of intense research, Delafontaine chose 12 micronations on the merit of their historical relevance, motivations and general interest, got in touch with their leaders – “It’s quite easy to send an email to a king or an emperor,” he says – and planned a world tour. He began his journey in February 2012, at the Republic of Saugeais, and then spent the summer travelling through Australia, America, the UK, Denmark and Italy.

“Saugeais was the first micronation I visited, and is still my favourite, but I had the best time in Elleore,” he says. “People there are really serious about their micronation and their traditions – there are history classes for children and they have their own national sport – but their main goal is to have a good time.” The strangest micronation, he says, is Sealand. “The current prince of Sealand didn’t want to be a part of the project initially,” says Delafontaine. “Until I said there would be a financial compensation for their troubles – then I was really welcome!”

Every micronation has its own reason to exist, so it can be difficult to compare them. They generally fall into two categories, however: the serious and the not-so-serious. Easily the most popular type of micronation are those founded for entertainment – or simply for the purpose of bestowing their founders with grand-sounding titles and honours. There’s the Republic of Saugeais, on the border of France and Switzerland, which was founded in April 1947 when the region’s prefect jokingly declared a restaurant owner to be the President of the Republic of Saugeais; the Kingdom of Lovely, an attempt by British TV comedian Danny Wallace to create an internet nation based in his flat in London; and the Republic of Molossia, a desert-based micronation in Nevada in which there is a nationwide ban on smoking.

Then there are the more serious motivations. There are those borne out of a genuine desire to live differently, like Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, with its open cannabis trade, quirky architecture and free meditation classes; micronations founded as part of a political or social reform agenda, such as the Conch Republic, which began in 1982 as a protest by residents in the Florida Keys against a US Border Patrol roadblock; historical anomalies, like Seborga, a town on the border of Italy and France that can trace its history back to the Middle Ages; and even new-country projects, which are attempts to construct rarely
realised artificial islands, like the ill-fated Republic of Minerva, a libertarian project that succeeded in building a small man-made island near Fiji in 1972 before being invaded by troops from Tonga, who formally annexed it before destroying the island.

“To quote Caesar, perhaps the founders of micronations prefer to be ‘the first in their village rather than the second in Rome’,” says Delafontaine. “Rebellion is maybe too strong a word for this, but obviously micronations are a good way to criticise their country of origin.”

So, having visited a good selection of the world’s micronations, does Delafontaine have any desire to create one of his own? “Definitely not,” he says. “I have got six different citizenships through this project, and I really don’t need another one. Although, I might like to live in the Conch Republic with a mojito in front of the ocean.” leodelafontaine.com

The Prime Minister

Founded: 1944
Population: 370
Location: Roskilde fjord, Denmark
Area: 5km2

The rules of the Kingdom of Elleore, a tiny island one hour north-west of Copenhagen, are clear: Elleore Standard Time is 12 minutes behind Danish time, and canned sardines and copies of the book Robinson Crusoe are banned. The island is unoccupied except for one week in August, when its citizens come for the “Elleuge” (“Elle Week”) after “51 weeks of holiday abroad”. The citizens create a bank and a town hall in the camp, play “cracket” and worship King Leo III, the sixth Elleorian monarch. Pictured is Prime Minister Nana Marckmann, whose LinkedIn profile (project manager at Coop IT)gives no hint of her powerful role.  elleore.dk

The Dictator for Life

Founded: 2009
Population: Between three and 250
Location: Carrizo Plain, California, USA
Area: 40 hectares

Travis McHenry (pictured) established Calsahara – a contraction of California and Sahara – in the desert, three hours’ drive from LA. “I was driven by my desire to find a place that was desolate and remote enough to create an entirely new culture based on art, science, and the governmental principles of a monarchy,” says the Dictator for Life, as McHenry dubs himself. “Our ongoing struggle involves building up our nation to be something more than just a barren wasteland of arid fields. Our national motto is: ‘From nothing, something!’ But, as you can see from the photo, we’re still kind of in the ‘nothing’ phase of development.” Citizenship has grown from the three members of McHenry’s immediate family to 250 “virtual citizens”, but does he get lonely still? “I strongly consider myself a man of the people, and I do my best to cultivate relationships. That said, it can be lonely at the top, but I do enjoy my alone time!” travisdmchenry.wix.com/calsahara

The warmonger

Founded: 1977
Population: 27
Location: Dayton, Nevada, USA
Area: 550m

Inspired by the 1955 film The Mouse That Roared, in 1977 teenagers Kevin Baugh and James Spielman established the Grand Republic of Vuldstein, designing their own flag, money, laws and culture. Baugh (pictured) stuck with the idea and in 1998 raised the flag on the renamed Molossia on his land in Nevada. “Saying you have a nation is the easy first step, but keeping it active and interesting can be the hard part,” says Baugh of Molossia, which attracts around 15 tourists a year despite being officially at war with East Germany. “Doing it right requires real work, as well as creativity and imagination.” Baugh has that: he created the first Microlympic Games in 2000 (he won gold in frisbee), and is active in the reformation of the League of Small Nations. molossia.org

La Présidente

Founded: 1947
Population: 5,029
Location: Haut-Doubs, Jura, France
Area: 128km2

Some 11 villages in the eastern French department of Haut-Doubs, on the Swiss border, Saugeais was created when Georges Pourchet, owner of the Hôtel de l’Abbaye, teased the local prefect that he needed a pass to enter his establishment. Appointed president of the new republic, Pourchet was succeeded first by his widow Gabrielle, and then his daughter Georgette (pictured). The title is a great boon to tourism, says the republic’s secretary-general, Louis Perrey. “There are some local specialities that we try to promote as much as possible: smoked meats, salted meats, and dairy,” he says.

The US secessionists

Founded: 1982
Population: 24,909
Location: Key West, USA
Area: 15.4m2

When a border post was erected on the Florida Keys to combat smuggling and illegal immigration, the resulting traffic queues caused tourism to Key West to drop. The solution? The Conch Republic, which seceded from the Union, declared war, surrendered, and asked for foreign aid. First covering Key West, the Conch Republic now claims the whole Florida Keys, proposing “Humour, Warmth and Respect” and celebrating independence over 10 days in the second half of April each year in a “public and notorious manner”. Pictured is Secretary-General Sir Peter Anderson. conchrepublic.com

The offshore prince

Founded: 1967
Population: 22
Location: North Sea, off the coast of Suffolk, UK
Area: 550m

Founded in 1967, when pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates claimed Roughs Tower, an offshore platform formerly used by the military, Sealand is one of the earliest modern micronations. Now run by Paddy’s son, (Prince) Michael (pictured), over the years Sealand has seen off attacks from lawyers, rival pirate radio broadcasters and German and Dutch mercenaries. “It has been a roller-coaster ride over the years, but it’s been a great adventure,” says James of Sealand, Michael’s son. Part of their survival has been a keen sense of commerce – it costs £99.99 (NOK1,280) to become a Knight of Sealand, £44.99 for a Sealand football shirt or £49.99 for a Prince Roy remembrance coin. sealandgov.org

The guest-house consuls
La Boirie

Founded: 2006
Population: Three
Location: Sarthe, Loire, France
Area: 0.07km2

Friends Sebastien (pictured), Philippe and Pascal declared their guest house in the Loire region of north-western France, independent. They made it a place of tolerance, hedonism and eco-citizenship, with Abba’s Waterloo their national anthem – but the adventure ended in 2012 with the death of Pascal.
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