A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] Frank Jacobs at Borderlines: The Guyanas and Sealand

I found out just now that Frank Jacobs, the writer whose map-themed blog Strange Maps became the enjoyable book Strange Maps, now blogs at the New York Times, in Borderlines. He blogs there about any number of unusual borders and their particular historical circumstances, writing with his usual erudition and humour.

Two posts stand out particularly for me. The first being is his January post “The Loneliness of the Guyanas”. Guyana, Surinam (formerly Dutch Guyana), and French Guyana, located on the northeastern coast of South America between Venezuela and Brazil, are incredibly isolated from their neighbours despite long being part of one western European empire or another.

The area’s relative obscurity is not just name-related. With a combined population of less than 1.5 million, the Guyana Three are hardly a hotspot for news. If you know three things about French Guiana, it’s probably these: there’s a pepper (and a Porsche) named after its capital, Cayenne; the notorious French penal colony of Devil’s Island was located off its shore; and it’s the site of the European Space Agency’s spaceport, at Kourou. Suriname? Two things: the Netherlands traded it with the English for New Amsterdam, and it’s the only Dutch-speaking country outside of Europe. Guyana? The Jonestown Massacre of 1978.

But as a set, the three entities are a significant anomaly, and a case study in the way that geology and the environment can combine with geopolitics to shape a region’s history.

Since Belize won independence in 1981, French Guiana is the last territory on the American mainland controlled by a non-American power. But in fact, all three Guyanas are Fremdkörper in Latin America: they are the only territories in the region without either Spanish or Portuguese as a national language. These are coastal countries, culturally closer to the Caribbean.

Moreover, these shores are cut off from the rest of the subcontinent by dense rainforest. And that jungle remains virgin by virtue of the Guyana Shield, a collection of mountain ranges and highlands seemingly designed to conserve the interior’s impenetrability. The shield is best known for its tepuis: enormous mesas that rise dramatically from the jungle canopy and are often home to unique flora and fauna (tepuis feature prominently in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” and, more recently, the animated film “Up.”)

And even more paradoxically, the borders–or in some cases, the existence–of the Guyanas have been challenged.

Jacobs’ most recent post, “All Hail Sealand”, takes a look at the Principality of Sealand located in the English Channel and the phenomenon of the micronation.

The Principality of Sealand is a textbook example. Literally. Open any book or Web page on micronations, and you’re likely to see its unmistakable silhouette: a two-legged marine platform. Sealand is one of the first, arguably one of the most successful, and possibly the best-known example of modern micronationalism. It’s also one of the most intriguing experiments in state-creation in history.

Start with its geography, as it were: Sealand was founded on an abandoned World War II sea fort six miles off the coast from Felixstowe, in the southern English county of Suffolk. The installation, officially known as Her Majesty’s Fort Roughs, is one of the half dozen so-called Maunsell Forts, built during World War II to provide antiaircraft defense and abandoned by the British Army in the 1950s. Predictably, the hulks of concrete and steel left to rust in the busy waterways just off the English coast were accidents waiting to happen. In the deadliest one, the Norwegian ship Baalbek collided with Nore Army Fort, in the Thames estuary between the Isle of Sheppey and Southend-on-Sea, killing four people and destroying two of the fort’s towers.

The mid-1960s saw the re-occupation of some forts, this time by pirates rather than privates. Not cutlass-and-peg-leg pirates; these were of the broadcasting variety (though some swashbuckling was involved). One of the more colorful radio pirates was Screaming Lord Sutch, who established Radio Sutch in Shivering Sands Army Fort, a collection of outlandish huts on stilts also in the Thames estuary. “Britain’s First Teenage Radio Station” was quickly rebranded Radio City by its new manager, Reginald Calvert. Other pirate stations were set up at the Red Sands Army Fort and the Sunk Head Navy Fort, all competing with the more established, ship-based pirate stations, most notably Radio Caroline.

These heady radio days were hardly halcyon. The pirates took to the sea to operate on or beyond the fringes of the law. Arguments were settled by violence. Mr. Calvert was killed in a dispute over, among other things, radio crystals. In 1965, a group of feral DJs under the command of Roy Bates ejected a rival crew from Knock John Navy Fort; it then became the base for Radio Essex, the first pirate to broadcast around the clock. The next year, a conviction for illegal broadcasting forced Mr. Bates to abandon Knock John, which was located within the three-mile radius of British territorial waters, to Fort Roughs, which was just outside.

In response, the Marine Broadcasting Act of 1967 made it illegal for pirate radios, even those outside territorial waters, to employ British citizens. Mr. Bates promptly declared independence, probably hoping to circumvent the strictures of the act. Henceforth, he would be Prince Roy, ruler of the Principality of Sealand.

Mr. Bates never got around to resurrecting his radio station. The accident of statehood turned into his core business. On the Web site, noble titles are for sale (“Lord, Lady, Baroness — from £29.99”). Until 1997 it even issued passports (Mr. Bates suspended the practice because of widespread fraud). Over the years, Sealand’s supposed sovereignty has attracted the interests of some who seek sanctuary from the law, from gambling operators to, more recently, WikiLeaks, which was examining whether to move its servers to the principality.

Sealand’s struggles to gain recognition as a sovereign principality, so far fruitless despite claims, are intriguing.

Go, read.

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