Eager for a challenge, Roy and Joan Bates proclaimed their own country 33 years ago on an abandoned North Sea military platform and appointed themselves prince and princess of Sealand.
They asserted territorial independence six miles off the British coast under a red-white-and-black flag. They issued passports, stamps and coins and successfully beat back British claims in court and German invaders in situ.
But while the couple were defending their borders in a spirit of adventure and tax-free living, the Principality of Sealand was hijacked on the Internet by an alleged international fraud ring with interests in weapons trading, drug smuggling and money laundering.
The rival Sealanders, based in Germany and Spain, sold their own passports, designed uniforms for a phantom army and printed labels for a Sealand-brand whiskey before police raided their “embassy” in Madrid this spring and detained their Spanish “regent.” His self-styled government and diplomatic corps are under criminal investigation.
Now, with Roy Bates’ blessing, the original Sealand has become a “data haven” managed by his own band of computer rebels. They opened the platform for business Tuesday, seeking international clients who wish to keep e-mail, e-commerce or banking transactions safe from prying governments.
Sealand is just one speck in a postmodern archipelago of real and virtual ministates born of puckish claims by free-spirited pioneers and con artists. One Web site lists more than 50 entities--with names such as Dominion of Melchizedek, Oceanus and Vikingland--that lack diplomatic recognition as countries but issue passports anyway.
But it is Sealand’s roguish history of shifting identities that best illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of such ventures: Once you claim an outpost and declare it sovereign, “You just say, ‘I’m the law,’ ” as Bates put it. But you risk opposition from real-life governments and pesky pirates trying to usurp your name.
When you pretend to be a country, it’s hard to stop anyone from pretending to be you.
If ever an old man were to rise up out of the sea, he undoubtedly would look like Roy Bates. The 78-year-old has sea-green eyes and frothy brows that curl like whitecaps in a storm. His face is as red as the setting sun. His voice has the force of the tide when he talks about his offshore passion.
“My husband should have been born 300 years ago,” Joan Bates, 70, a former fashion model, said recently at the couple’s British pied-a-terre on the Essex coast. “He’s an adventurer, an entrepreneur. The challenge is what it’s all about. Sealand is hard, and it’s kept him interested for nearly 35 years.”
Talking to Roy and Joan Bates, you get the sense that what irks them most is that someone ran away with their adventure. The only mischief they like is their own.
Once the youngest major in the British army, Roy Bates fought with the Royal Fusiliers in North Africa and Italy during World War II before returning home to Essex, where he says he made a fortune in factories, a fishing fleet and other businesses.
One of his ventures was a pirate commercial radio station.
He founded Radio Essex in 1965, when Britain still had only state radio, the British Broadcasting Corp. He put his 24-hour radio station on one of Britain’s deserted World War II antiaircraft platforms, which he had discovered during fishing excursions beyond the country’s territorial waters.
“We weren’t breaking the law. The people who were listening to the radio were breaking the law as it was then,” Bates recalled with a smile.
Sealand was born over a few pints in a pub. Bates knew there were other platforms in the North Sea, and one evening he and his friends started talking about forming a country on one of them. It was a joke, really. Then everyone went home, and Bates got serious.
He consulted lawbooks and international lawyers and could find no legal obstacles to the project. So in September 1966, Roy and Joan Bates occupied Roughs Tower, a gun and landing platform on two enormous concrete pylons that housed up to 200 soldiers at a time during World War II. They declared it a tax-free “country” and claimed exemption from British income taxes.
“I did it because everyone told me I couldn’t do it,” Roy Bates said.
British authorities tried to harass them out, the prince and princess claim, by opening all their tins of food during rigorous customs inspections every time they came ashore for provisions.
The government also tried to prosecute their son, Michael, then in his mid-20s, for shooting a gun over the heads of a boatload of unwelcome visitors. However, a High Court judge ruled that the British government had no jurisdiction because Sealand was beyond its three-mile territorial limit.
Britain subsequently extended its territorial limit beyond the platform, but it made no further move against the Bates family.
Instead, an invasion came from Germany.
In 1978, would-be German investors lured the Bateses to Vienna to discuss a project idea, then occupied Sealand while they were gone. The family and friends swooped back in at dawn to reconquer their principality and imprisoned one of the pirates for nearly two months, forcing him to “wash the loos and make coffee,” Joan Bates said.
They denied a German consul’s appeal for his release but eventually got tired of him and let him go.
The Bateses subsequently modernized Sealand and furnished it with creature comforts. Double-glazed glass was installed over the windows in their living quarters to keep out cold winds. They brought in generators and replaced the coal stoves with electric ones. Mobile telephones eased communications with the British mainland.
They also hired a team of security guards, retired members of the British military, to ensure that the platform would be protected at all times--never imagining that someone could take over Sealand without seizing the platform.
The first hint of a Sealand clone, in Roy Bates’ recollection, came after the 1997 murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace and the suicide of his killer, Andrew Cunanan, on a Miami houseboat. Police said the German businessman who owned the boat had a Sealand passport and diplomatic license plates.
Bates was puzzled, he says, because he had issued passports only to a few hundred friends and collaborators and didn’t know the German businessman.
Yet thousands of black-bound Sealand passports embossed with the Bates seal--two crowned sea creatures--were turning up everywhere from Asia to Eastern Europe. About 4,000 were sold in Hong Kong as many residents scrambled to obtain foreign documents before Britain handed the colony over to China in 1997.
Then, about a year ago, a friend called Bates from the United States to say he had seen Sealand’s Web site, which boasted 160,000 citizens and several foreign embassies. The prince and princess of Sealand didn’t have embassies--or a Web site.
“I wrote [to the site] asking them what they thought they were doing,” Michael Bates told Spanish Television. Someone claiming close ties to Spain’s King Juan Carlos I wrote back that they were “working in the interest of my family and doing all kinds of wonderful things,” he said.
The mystery began to unravel in March after the Civil Guard, Spain’s paramilitary police, arrested a flamenco nightclub owner for selling diluted gasoline at his Madrid filling station. Identifying himself as Sealand’s “consul,” he produced a diplomatic passport and tried to claim immunity from prosecution.
A check with Spain’s Foreign Ministry turned up no such country, prompting investigators to treat Sealand as a criminal gang.
Police raided three Sealand offices and a shop that made Sealand license plates. Sealand operatives, they reported, had sold diplomatic credentials to Moroccan hashish smugglers, negotiated with Russian arms dealers and tried to channel millions of dollars through three Spanish banks for mysterious Russian and Iraqi clients. About 80 people are accused of committing fraud, falsifying documents and usurping public functions.
Police in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Slovenia, Russia and Romania have been asked to question suspects who may have distributed Sealand documents--including some with false identities.
Roy Bates denies any links to the busted Sealand gang, and Spanish police say no one in his family is a suspect.
“They’re stealing our name, and they’re stealing from other people,” Joan Bates said. “How disgusting can you get?”
But noting that theirs is a “small country” with few resources, the couple said they are dependent on foreign authorities to control impostors involved in illegal activities.
According to Spanish investigators, the German investors-turned-invaders decided to avenge their 1978 defeat on the platform by appropriating Sealand’s name and symbols. They began offering passports, diplomatic credentials, driver’s licenses, shipping documents and university degrees for up to $55,000 apiece, later setting up a Web site to advertise their wares.
Friedbert Ley, a German businessman who registered the site in 1998, says he was not involved in the ill-fated invasion but has been fascinated by Sealand for a quarter of a century. His site, https://www.principality-sealand.net/en30.htm, credits Bates with founding Sealand but omits the prince and princess--whose site is at https://www.fruitsofthesea.demon.co.uk/sealand--from its hierarchy.
“This was just a big joke for me,” the German said. “If some criminals misused our symbols, there’s nothing I could or should have done about that.”
Germany, like many other countries, does not outlaw the issue and sale of “fantasy documents.”
But crimes such as the Versace killing and the collapse of East European pyramid schemes finally raised serious questions about Sealand citizenship. An Austrian couple using Sealand passports, apparently purchased in Germany, opened a bank account in Slovenia under false names for laundering pyramid profits.
Spanish investigators say that prompted Ley to lower his profile in the late 1990s and move Sealand’s “government” to Spain under Francisco Trujillo, who had worked in Ley’s roof insulation company near Duesseldorf.
Ley’s Web site added a Spanish-language version about the time of his appointment as Sealand’s “prime minister” in a hierarchy of Spaniards, Germans, Russians and Brazilians led by Trujillo.
Unlike the Germans, Spanish police view Sealand documents as tools of criminal fraud. Their investigation has brought to life the shadowy leaders and bumbling methods of an impostor country.
Trujillo, 48, was a failed businessman and ex-Civil Guard private, dismissed from the force in 1978 for burglarizing an apartment, his superiors say. As Sealand’s “regent,” he drove a Volvo with “diplomatic” plates and ran an “embassy” in a Madrid law office.
He had a tailor design combat uniforms for a Sealand army, investigators say, and made himself a colonel, the highest rank.
“Trujillo was a mythomaniac. He wanted to be the important person that he had never become in real life,” said Roberto Marenco, a retired Argentine army captain who infiltrated the group for the Spanish police.
Nine of the 10 members of Trujillo’s “government” had police records for such crimes as fraud and possession of explosives, Marenco said, and operated “like a Marx Brothers comedy,” flashing diplomatic credentials in scams that quickly drew police attention to their make-believe dominion.
Two Sealand “ministers,” for example, pocketed a $65,000 down payment from a businessman in Barcelona, Spain, who thought he was buying mobile phones, police say. Igor Popov, Sealand’s Russian “foreign minister,” allegedly stiffed several Madrid hotels for thousands of dollars in room bills and fled to Luxembourg.
But that was small potatoes. Spanish officials say the group tried to broker a $50-million deal to send 50 tanks, 10 MIG-23 fighter jets and other combat aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles from Russia to Sudan, circumventing a European arms embargo against the African nation, which is accused of terrorism.
To give the gang a veneer of respect, a Trujillo aide set up a cultural foundation named for the Spanish painter Francisco Goya and attracted some unsuspecting VIPs, including a former chief of Spain’s royal household, to serve on its board.
Embarrassed by the scandal, Spanish officials are trying to have the case against the Sealanders dismissed, investigators say, on the grounds that a fake country’s documents can harm only unsuspecting buyers, not Spain’s national interest.
Lt. Jose Luis Cervero, who led the police investigation, rejects this argument. He notes that Trujillo’s “state” was trying to buy 1,600 cars and two cargo aircraft from several countries on credit.
“Every country has a foreign debt,” he said. “But since their Sealand didn’t really exist, what they were trying to do was get some goods, sell them and put the money in their own pockets. This was criminal fraud.”
For Web site visitors, the biggest deception was the group’s bid for “foreign investment” in a utopian project--expanding the platform for a luxury hotel and casino, business center, sports complex, medical center, tuition-free University of Sealand and Roman Catholic cathedral.
While spending heavily to maintain the platform, Bates had considered many such investment schemes over the years but turned them all down.
“There was always something that didn’t smell right,” he said.
Enter the American
But as police pursued his Spanish rivals, Bates struck the deal he’d been waiting for.
Sean Hastings, a 32-year-old American veteran of Silicon Valley and Caribbean-based computer ventures, had been looking for a safer offshore headquarters. In a book called “How to Start Your Own Country,” he read about Sealand and contacted its founder, who proved to be a like-minded libertarian.
Recalling his pirate radio days, Bates embraced the idea of a pirate cyber-site--one operating beyond the reach of lawsuits, government subpoenas and tax inspectors. He leased space on the platform to Hastings’ company, Havenco, which has set up generators and hundreds of server computers--the tools that allow Web site access, communications and financial transactions.
With a few dozen technicians on the platform, the company’s Havenco.com site went on line Tuesday, fielding inquiries about how to buy shares in the server computers.
“This idea is from the young, new world, which suits what we are,” said the septuagenarian prince, celebrating the cyber-venture at his home on the coast.
Mindful of Sealand’s checkered past and its computer-enhanced capacity for future mischief, Bates vowed to hold Havenco’s clients to an “acceptable use” policy barring certain Internet traffic that would be illegal elsewhere.
“If we find anything wrong, like child pornography or washing crooked money, we will stop it,” Bates said. “After all, the world will be looking at us. We must run things as straight as we can.”
Miller reported from Westcliff-on-Sea and Boudreaux from Rome. Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Berlin and special correspondents Janet Stobart in London, Cristina Mateo Yanguas in Madrid and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.