Man being hoisted onto Sealand
Man being hoisted onto Sealand
Katrin Langhans

You won't find it on any map of the world nor see it mentioned in any geography book. And yet it certainly exists. In the middle of the North Sea, surrounded by nothing but waves and wind, is the smallest self-proclaimed state in the world.

The Principality of Sealand, as its inhabitants call it, is a small artificial island made of steel and anchored by two concrete pillars. To the east is a seemingly endless horizon. To the west is mainland Britain, some 13 kilometers away. When the weather is right, the Roughs Tower platform rests about 20 meters above the surging sea. The surface area, however, is smaller than a football pitch.

Sealanders have their own passports and currency — even their own constitution. But they can't travel with those passports or use the currency to buy anything outside of Sealand. And no other state in the world recognizes the constitution.

To some, the principality offers an alternative way of life, one with a dash of Robinson Crusoe. To others it is just a place where a handful of people, trying to exempt themselves from obligations imposed by the state, have taken advantage to create a tax haven and host computer servers.

Sealand, if you will, exists only to Sealanders — to people like Alexander Gottfried Achenbach, a former diamond dealer from Aachen who moved to the micronation in 1975, helped write the constitution, and quickly rose to the position of prime minister. Three years later, he was involved in an attempted putsch against the leader of Sealand, Prince Roy. The micronation's self-appointed judges convicted Achenbach and ordered him to serve a prison sentence. Later on, after having been ousted from the platform, he founded an exile government to reconquer the principality.

Achenbach fought to regain Sealand for years. He even became the managing director, in the late 1990s, of a front company — Sealand Trade Development Authority Limited — that bore the name of the self-proclaimed principality. The former "prime minister" hoped to open up a branch of the firm on Sealand. The British government, in the meantime, was highly skeptical of the whole scenario. At one point it even sent Royal Navy ships to the sea fort, which were welcomed with warning shots.

Information in the recently unveiled Panama Papers suggests that Britain had good reason to be concerned. The company, it turns out, received a helping hand from Mossack Fonseca, the Panama City law firm at the center of the scandal. Mossack Fonseca set up the Sealand Trade Development Authority Limited on orders from a man whose diplomatic passport, numbered C 000002, was issued in the Principality of Sealand. A man who sent letters with stamps from the micronation, and who listed his official address as "Principality of Sealand, West 4."

The rusty platform on which the self-proclaimed principality is to be found is a relic of World War II. The British admiralty used the "Roughs Tower" as an anti-aircraft defensive gun platform to prepare itself against German air raids. Back then, 200 soldiers lived in rooms within the concrete pillars, some of these eight meters below sea level. After the war, the platform was deserted for two decades.

But in 1967, a former British major named Paddy Roy Bates had the idea to "conquer" the deserted base to establish a pirate radio station. He squatted on the platform, raised a red, white and blue flag, declared it to be the Principality of Sealand, and appointed himself prince. Paddy Roy Bates, a.k.a. Prince Roy, then moved there with his family — his son Michael and his wife Joan — on a permanent basis. He even used petrol bombs at one point to fight off an Irish radio pirate who wanted the platform for himself.

The British government was less than thrilled by the former major's little adventure and decided to send Royal Navy ships to Sealand. The son of the self-proclaimed prince, Michael Bates, welcomed their arrival with warning shots. The Royal Navy retreated. The case eventually made its way to a court in Essex, but the court decided that the matter was beyond its jurisdiction, given that Sealand is more than three miles off the coast and therefore outside of British territorial waters. Since then, the British government has not launched any serious attempt at recovering the platform.

According to a Spiegel report from 1978, the Principality of Sealand wanted to be and do many things: It hoped to attract offshore companies, become the virtual home for ships that serve under a flag of convenience, and establish itself as a "tax, gambler and speculator's haven and metropolis and a home for holding companies." Most of these big dreams fell by the wayside.

Alexander Gottfried Achenbach, a scientist and businessman, was responsible for securing recognition for the principality. In the mid-1970s, he filed to renounce his German citizenship, demanding he instead be recognized as a citizen of Sealand. But local authorities in Aachen, Germany, where he made the petition, refused his request.

Back then, the principality boasted approximately 100 supporters, of which only 30 were to be found on the platform at any given time. Their subsistence consisted of tinned food that was brought in by helicopter, fish that they caught themselves, and rainwater that had been collected in barrels. Many of them were German, which is why some people called it "Little Germany." Achenbach had big plans for expanding Sealand. "The main thing is to take advantage of the privileges that come with being a state," he told a reporter from Südwestfunk, a German radio station. The Sealand constitution, which Achenbach co-authored, offers some insight into what he meant: The document exempts people from having to pay inheritance and capital gains taxes.

Achenbach sent the constitution to 150 states around the world, as well as to the UN, with the request that it be ratified. But Sealand was missing three fundamental points under international law: namely, national territory, state authority and people. A court in Cologne ruled in the 1970s that the platform is not part of the Earth's surface and that it is missing community life. In addition to this, the platform's miniature space does not constitute an ideal living space in the long term.

Sealand had a different opinion on the matter. A German architect made plans in the late 70s to expand the artificial principality by creating a neighboring construction on which a casino, a square lined with trees, a duty free shop, a bank, a post office, a hotel, a restaurant and apartments would be built. And light weapons should be installed to fend off enemies, should that prove to be necessary. Better safe than sorry.

But a dispute broke out in 1978 when Prince Roy and his wife spent a few days in Salzburg in August of that year to take care of a few business matters. Achenbach and a handful of Dutch collaborators used their absence to attempt a coup. They took Roy's son hostage and claimed that Prince Roy had planned to sell Sealand in Salzburg. Not to be outdone, Roy gathered a few trusted supporters and hired armed men to return to Sealand via helicopter — allegedly piloted by a former James Bond stuntman.

The deposed ruler reconquered Sealand. While the Dutch people were allowed to leave in accordance with the Geneva conventions, Achenbach was detained in a room in the north tower for four months as a "prisoner of war." The British were quite unconcerned by the events and declared that they were not responsible. Germany, on the other hand, sent a civil servant from its London embassy to aid Achenbach seeing as he still was, under German law, a German citizen. For Prince Roy, it also meant that the principality was officially recognized.

After Achenbach was released, he formed a government in exile in Belgium and, from what is known, did not give up on the idea that he was still a part of Sealand until his death a year ago.

How Achenbach earned money during his time in exile is unclear. What is known is that at some point he met Helmut Gaensel, a Czech citizen and part-time treasure hunter who reportedly once testified in court that he was a CIA agent. Achenbach and Gaensel became the managing directors of Sealand Trade Development Authority Ltd., a front company headquartered in the Bahamas. That is what the Panama Papers tell us. And it was with this company that they apparently wanted to open up another branch in Sealand.

Was this a crazy idea? Possibly. Which might be why in the meantime, they decided to open a bank account in Slovenia, one that held up to 12 million deutschmarks, or roughly six million euros. But the bank was somewhat suspicious of this account, and, fearing that money laundering was taking place, reported it to the authorities that same year. This story was featured in the Slovenian press.

In March 1997, the authorities confiscated the money, to be on the safe side. But for eight years, Achenbach fought to get it back, and in 2005, the Supreme Court sided with him because no money laundering could be proven to have taken place.

According to the Panama Papers, Helmut Gaensel travelled to the Bahamas a month before the Supreme Court ruling and visited the local office of Mossack Fonseca (Mossfon), where he asked for a copy of the company's documents, saying the originals had been destroyed in a flood. But his attempt was unsuccessful, since the company was administered in Mossfon's Czech office. Gaensel asked how much it would cost to generate three new shell companies registered in Panama, the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands, respectively.

Why did he do this? Did Achenbach and Gaensel want to get ready in case the Slovenian state decided to return their money?

Gaensel responded to Süddeutsche Zeitung's request, saying that he currently has the money, minus the costs associated with hiring two investors and legal costs, totaling 700,000 euros. He even sent an attachment with his email showing that from June 23, 1998, onwards, Achenbach transferred his claim to the Slovenian account to Gaensel.

Nothing further was heard from Achenbach for several years after the Supreme Court ruling, until he hatched a plan in 2010 to sue the Slovenian state, on the grounds that not being able to access his money for eight years caused him considerable harm. He demanded 1.2 million in compensation plus interest — but he lost. According to a representative of the Sealand exile government, Achenbach spent the rest of his life in Belgium, and died at age 80, about a year ago.

Self-declared Prince Paddy Roy Bates died in 2012, aged 91. He spent the end of his life on the British mainland. These days, his son Michael is in charge of the government.

In Sealand, people still keep up the pretence of a principality. In an interview a few years ago with Die Welt, Michael, the current Prince, spoke of the unusual experiences that define life on the island.

"Most of the bedrooms in Sealand are below sea level, within the sea fort's two pillars. At night you hear the pounding sounds of passing ships, sounds just like in the film Das Boot. I feel particularly safe on Sealand when the storms rage. That's when I know that no one can reach us and attack us," he said.

A Spanish real estate agent attempted to sell the rusty, two-pillared steel platform for 750 million euros after a fire six years ago. But no buyer for the rather curious property could be found.

Still, the people of Sealand sell a variety of odd souvenirs to generate income. You can, for example, buy a princely title for around 30 British pounds (a little under 40 euros), and an email address with the fictitious principality's domain for around 6 pounds (8 euros) on its website.

The exile government, too, is staying busy, for instance by founding a Sealand business club with international economists as members. The club's website notes that the membership fee is used to "defend the principality's independence from international financial markets." The stated goal is "to build a worldwide network of credit and debit cards."

Over the phone, a spokesman for the exile government also says that the club wants to drive so-called Vril technology forward.

What on Earth is that?

A spokesman explains that they have developed a highly efficient energy generator, based on German UFO technology. He notes, "These days, everyone knows that UFOs exist."

Right. And who uses this generator?

Many people do, according to the spokesman.

"How many?" we ask.

No answer.

Every once in a while, visitors make their way to Sealand, including members of the German pop band Fettes Brot (Fat Bread), who produced the video for their song "Echo" on the platform. Footage from the video shoot is available on YouTube, where you can see the band members arrive at Sealand by boat, make great fun of this strange nation and then be hoisted onto the platform.

At present, however, reports indicate that there is not much going on in Sealand. Some days, only a lonely watchman stands guard over the pseudo-principality.

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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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