Summer 2005

The Ephemera of Fictional States

The art of sovereignty

William Bryk

Fictional and ephemeral states are works of art. Few were more purely so than the creations of American watercolorist Donald Evans. He drew on childhood memories of stamp collecting to commemorate, as biographer Willy Eisenhart wrote, “everything that was special to him, disguised in a code of stamps from his own imaginary countries, each detailed with its own history, geography, climate, currency and customs…” Thus Evans created t­housands of st­amps for Achterdijk, Nadorp, and Sabot, bearing wooden shoes, fruit, windmills, and landscapes; the Italianate Lo Stato di Mangiare, celebrating food and drink and its giant dirigible Cetriolo, the Cucumber; the Near Eastern Adjudani, with exotic pictorials of dhows, minarets, and falcons; and newly independent ex-colonies such as Amis and Amants, which commemorated friendship and the coup de foudre, love at first sight.

But Evans’s countries existed only on his tiny watercolors. States exist in reality: they are sovereign, free from external control and wielding supreme power within their jurisdictions. Many persons weary of the state under which they live, desiring sovereignty over their own lives, have at least fantasized about creating their own countries to redefine their relationship to the outer world. This is close to anarchism, which rejects the state as intrinsically evil in favor of individual sovereignty against all the world.

Donald Evans, Sabot, 1917, Postes maritimes, 1975. Watercolor on paper mounted in philatelic sheets. Courtesy Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

Some dreamers hope their new states will be the lands in which they can be (or might have been in some previous age) their own kings and queens and heroes, in which they can play with dreams of power and glory without fear of failure, as the Brontë sisters did in composing their childhood epics of the kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. Indeed, Bruno Fuligni, in his study of ephemeral states and micronations, L’Etat, c’est Moi, calls such entities private monarchies or, perhaps more accurately, cryptarchies.

But the actual state can’t be set aside at will. One can’t merely nail a declaration of independence to one’s front door and bid the state farewell. Failing to pay taxes, for instance, will soon make one’s true sovereign, the non-fictional state supported by lawyers and policemen, exercise its power to collect.

Some try squaring the circle. Over thirty years ago, when Australian wheat farmer Leonard Casley—objecting to government-imposed wheat production quotas—declared the independence of his 18,500 acre farm as the Hutt River Province Principality, his defiance of the state extended to stamps, coins, paper money, decorations, robes of state, a crown, and tourism, but not to taxes. He continued paying them, rationalizing them as “an international courtesy.” Of course, no true sovereign pays taxes to another: Australia merely tolerates Prince Leonard’s idiosyncrasies, as it does those of the Emperor of Atlantium, the Grand Duke of Avram, the Prince of Aeterna Lucina, and a surprising number of other microstates. Nonetheless, the Hutt River Province Principality, which claims sovereignty without possessing it, creates its simulacrum through tokens. Its coins, postage stamps, flags, and paper money are to all appearances as real, as solid, as those issued by non-fictional states.

The least expensive ephemera of this kind are postage stamps. Fictional states have been producing postage stamps for nearly 150 years: they are now so common that philatelists have classified them as “Cinderellas.” Thus Nova Potuca, supposedly a new African republic proclaimed in 1893, was merely a fiction invented to sell bogus stamps to collectors. Belgian philatelic publisher Ernest Moens devised Capacua, supposedly located in Bolivia, as a joke for April Fool’s Day, 1883: he printed stamps for it, too. Clipperton Island, an atoll 1,630 miles south-southeast of San Diego, 700 miles southwest of Acapulco, awarded to France by arbitration in 1935, has no inhabitants, arable land, or commercially exploitable natural resources. Nonetheless, imaginative printers produced Clipperton postage stamps before the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, Clipperton supposedly has a self-proclaimed emperor, last heard from in Seattle.

Whether Clipperton’s emperor has been to the island of his dreams is unlikely. That’s a pity: the oldest stunt for creating one’s own country is claiming an uninhabited island by right of occupation. Thus, on 27 December 1810, Jonathan Lambert, mariner and adventurer of Salem, Massachusetts, and two companions landed on Tristan da Cunha, an uninhabited island 2,800 miles west of the Cape of Good Hope. They had apparently sailed from Rio de Janeiro some weeks before, and Lambert’s ambition to rule the island had reportedly been the gossip of the town.

On 4 February 1811, he renamed Tristan—and the neighboring Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands—the Isles of Refreshment, proclaimed himself their proprietor in terms asserting absolute sovereignty (indeed, Fuligni says he proclaimed himself their “sovereign” or “emperor”), adopted a flag, and sent a copy of his proclamation by passing ship to the Boston Gazette, which published it on 18 July 1811.

Ships stopped every few weeks to water. Their logs record the islanders harvesting sealskins and planting vegetables. But Lambert and most of his companions perished on 17 May 1812, perhaps in an accident while fishing from a boat off the island, leaving an Italian drunkard, Tomaso Curri, alone “as a Robinson Crusoe on the island.” Curri ruled as absolute king of all he surveyed until his death in 1816, after which the British began an occupation of Tristan that continues to the present day. Lambert is not forgotten: in 1985, the island issued a ten-penny stamp commemorating him and his flag, a white square bearing blue and red diamonds and half-diamonds, which is now reportedly in London’s Public Record Office Museum.

James Aloysius Harden-Hickey, man of letters, swordsman, and adventurer, used a variant on that method to become James I, Prince of Trinidad. Born in San Francisco, California, on 8 December 1854, Hickey was raised and educated in France, where he graduated with honors from Saint-Cyr, the French military academy. Having inherited an income and secured a reputation as a master swordsman (he could easily pick the buttons off your waistcoat with a foil), Harden-Hickey took up literature, publishing eleven novels and receiving the title of Baron of the Holy Roman Empire for his polemics in defense of the Church.

During the late 1870s, Royalists unleashed a media blitz against the new French Republic by financing newspapers, most edited in the spirit of Hyppolite August Jean de Villemessant of Le Figaro, who observed, “If a story doesn’t cause a duel or a lawsuit, it isn’t any good.” Harden-Hickey’s swordsmanship and polemical skills made him the perfect editor for Triboulet, a weekly named for King Louis XII’s jester. The cover of the first issue on 10 November 1878 showed Triboulet clubbing Marianne, symbol of the Republic. With writing as vigorous as its artwork, Triboulet soon had a circulation of 25,000. Within the year, its staff had served among them some six months in jail; the paper had been fined 3,000 francs; and Harden-Hickey had fought forty-two libel suits and at least twelve duels. The fun lasted until the money gave out in 1887.

Then Harden-Hickey traveled the world. While crossing the South Atlantic, his ship stopped at the deserted island of Trinidad, some 700 miles off Brazil (not to be confused with the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, just off Venezuela). As American journalist Richard Harding Davis wrote in Real Soldiers of Fortune, “Trinidad is...but a spot upon the ocean. On most maps it is not even a spot.” Harden-Hickey went ashore and claimed it in his own name. Sir Edmund Halley, the astronomer, had landed in 1698; some Brazilian Portuguese had briefly colonized it in 1700; but mariners landing in 1803 and 1822 had found only birds and turtles. This strengthened Harden-Hickey’s claim: the English never settled the island; the Portuguese abandoned it. Trinidad was there for the taking.

On Sunday, 5 November 1893, the New York Tribune gave front-page publicity to his scheme for Trinidadian independence. Harden-Hickey argued the island was “ with luxuriant vegetation...surrounding seas swarm with fish...the exportation of guano alone should make my little country prosperous” In January 1894, he proclaimed himself James I, Prince of Trinidad. He purchased a schooner to ferry colonists, supplies, and mail, hired an agent to negotiate the construction of docks, wharves, and houses, and contracted for Chinese coolies to provide an instant proletariat. He commissioned a jeweler to make a golden crown and issued postage stamps.

A Parisian friend, the Count de la Boissiere, became foreign secretary, opening a chancellery at 217 West 36th Street, a brownstone just west of Seventh Avenue. Richard Harding Davis visited it in 1894. Children were playing on the stoop. A street vendor was peddling vegetables. On the front door was a handwritten note: Chancellerie de la Principaute de Trinidad.

But in July 1895, the British, then constructing a submarine cable to Brazil, took possession of Trinidad, based on Halley’s discovery in 1698. The Brazilians asserted a claim based upon the Portuguese occupation of 1700. Boissiere protested to Secretary of State Richard Olney, asking the United States to recognize Trinidad and guarantee its neutrality. Olney gave copies of the protest to the press corps, who then poked fun at Prince James and at Boissiere, his broken English, and his formal manners. The exception was The Evening Sun, where Davis, finding the Count “courteous, gentle, and...distinguished,” gave Harden-Hickey a straight treatment.

Without his island, Harden-Hickey spiraled into depression, as much of the world mocked him for trying to make his dream come true. Various attempts to raise money for an invasion of England from Ireland fell through. In early February 1898, Harden-Hickey registered at a hotel in El Paso, Texas. On 10 February 1898, the maids found him on the bed. A half-emptied morphine bottle was on the nightstand and a letter to his wife pinned to a chair. In his trunk was the crown of Trinidad. Yet a third, and perhaps the most ephemeral, of these kingdoms is that of Redonda, whose King and court have never ruled in their own country. In London’s Soho and Fitzrovia in the 1960s, John Gawsworth—the man of letters who reigned over Redonda in absentia as the slightly derelict King Juan I—was known to jot patents of nobility on paper bar napkins in exchange for drinks. Juan had inherited the crown from Matthew Phipps Shiel, a prolific and nearly forgotten author of fantastic tales of adventure, who claimed he had been crowned King of Redonda at fifteen. In July 1865, his father Matthew D. Shiel, an Irish-born entrepreneur based in Montserrat in the British West Indies, had claimed the uninhabited island of Nuestra Senora de la Redonda—one of the smaller Leeward Islands—and, as one commentator has suggested, “with certain influence of the abundance of alcohol,” proclaimed himself King Matthew I.

Nonetheless, in 1872, Great Britain annexed Redonda, apparently over King Matthew’s objection. He eventually abdicated in favor of his son and, on 21 July 1880, his fifteenth birthday, Matthew Phipps Shiel was supposedly crowned Felipe I, King of Redonda by the Anglican bishop of Antigua, in a ceremony on Redonda itself. King Felipe soon moved to London, never to return, where his enormous, wildly uneven output of novels and short stories became known for bizarre imagery evoked in increasingly florid, even grotesque, prose. His only novel to come to Hollywood’s attention was The Purple Cloud, a surprisingly readable and superbly constructed tale of the last man on earth published in 1901. Nearly half a century after it was first optioned, the novel became the basis for a 1959 vehicle for Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.

Whether Shiel’s claim had any foundation is a question of faith. Arthur Machen, himself a writer of fantasy and horror, who knew both Shiel and Gawsworth, described “...a short life of Shiel, written by himself... as “a mass of the most infernal & extraordinary lies,” and later summed up King Felipe as “an inveterate liar.” Even Jon Wynne-Tyson, Shiel and Gawsworth’s literary executor, who reigned as King Juan II, wrote that “The legend is and should remain a pleasing and eccentric fairy tale; a piece of literary mythology to be taken with salt, romantic sighs, appropriate perplexity, some amusement, but without great seriousness. It is, after all, a fantasy.”

Nonetheless, Shiel never completely stopped corresponding with the Colonial Office over his right to the kingship. Lawrence Durrell, one of Gawsworth’s occasional drinking buddies, wrote that King Felipe had created a number of dukes to help him carry on the battle—an appropriate title, as dukes were originally Roman military commanders. When Shiel died on 17 February 1947 after a reign of sixty-seven years, Gawsworth, whom a childless Shiel had nominated as his successor, became Juan I.

Born Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong in London in 1912, Gawsworth had won early fame as a poet, critic, editor, and anthologist. When Lawrence Durrell first met him in 1931, Gawsworth was barely surviving as a writer, inhabiting a rotten-floored attic above a jazz band’s rehearsal space in Soho. Nonetheless, as Durrell noted, Gawsworth already possessed “an enviable collection of treasures in the way of first editions, manuscripts and letters of famous poets, and also a number of literary curiosities which he had picked up in the sale rooms which he regularly frequented; he had a skull-cap of Dickens’, a pen of Thacker’s and so on.”

Gawsworth rose quickly in the literary world. He was elected to the Royal Society of Literature at twenty-five and awarded the Society’s Benson Medal “for meritorious works in poetry, fiction, history, and belles-lettres” at twenty-seven. He had a passion for literature itself, editing several magazines, including the English Digest, Literary Digest, and Poetry Review, and frequently soliciting financial assistance for aging writers down on their luck, including Shiel, for whom he obtained a pension from the King’s Civil List. This convivial eccentric was a kind of institutional memory of literature, from knowing friends of Oscar Wilde to giving hospitality to a drunken Dylan Thomas, who stole his shirts.

But after serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Gawsworth found his talents as poet and man of letters insufficient to sustain him and gradually fell on hard times, becoming a self-described “inveterate old diabetic bookman, slipper-padding around my shelves and files.” He largely survived through his skills as bibliophile: Durrell recounted how Gawsworth daily rifled boxes of three-penny second-hand books in Charing Cross Road, invariably finding something others had overlooked, and selling it to a rare book dealer for breakfast money. But increasingly, Gawsworth merely held court in the bar of the Alma tavern in Westbourne Grove, where knowledgeable tourists to West London frequently tracked down the somewhat seedy King. As one of Gawsworth’s successors to the Redondan throne later sniffed, “In return for buying His Majesty a drink, it was sometimes possible to receive a Dukedom, inscribed on the back of a beermat.”

Thus Redonda became a burned-out minor poet’s means of getting by, and his name survives largely through his ephemeral Kingdom. Naturally, as a writer, Juan I showered his honors upon writers whom he admired. He thus granted Durrell the title of Duke of Cervantes Pequeña, although he never got around to having the title engrossed on parchment. Others admitted to Redonda’s “intellectual aristocracy” were such literary and theatrical figures as Arthur Machen, Henry Miller, and Dirk Bogarde, who all became Dukes of the Realm.

Juan’s last years were a nightmare, marked by disillusionment, ill health, and alcoholism. By the late 1950s, when Durrell ran into him wheeling a pram loaded with empty beer bottles that he was on his way to sell, he had fallen on very hard times indeed. Nonetheless, when Durrell bought him a few drinks, the King “solemnly created my brother a duke as we stood at the bar.” By the late 1960s, his friends learned he had been reduced to homelessness when a reporter found him sleeping in Hyde Park. They tried to rescue him, but following a heroic binge, Juan I died after emergency surgery for bleeding ulcers in September 1970. He was not yet sixty.

The kingdom’s motto, Floreat Redonda! then took on new meaning as some nine claimants contested the succession. As early as 1960 Gawsworth may have passed the right of succession to Dominic Behan, brother of Irish playwright Brendan Behan. But other candidates also claimed Gawsworth had nominated them, and apparently no one who knew Gawsworth could argue with the idea that he might have passed the right of inheritance several times to whoever was picking up the tab on any given night.

Today, Redonda, like a strong poker hand, has three kings. One, history teacher William Leonard Gates, who reigns as Leo V, holds court in London’s Fitzroy Tavern. A rival, King Robert I the Bald, maintains a website offering honorary commissions in the Royal Redondan Navy; Kingdom of Redonda Rum (a “rare and fortifying rum...perfect for punches, served neat or for cleaning automotive parts!”); and cigar boxes (“which once contained the actual cigars smoked by His Majesty himself, King Robert the Bald! These handy and exceptionally durable metal boxes are the perfect container for all those personal hygiene and prophylactic products best left from general view!”).

Juan II, whose claim arose from his appointment as Gawsworth’s literary executor, was unique among the island’s modern kings because he actually went there, landing on Good Friday of 1979. In 1997, he abdicated in favor of Spanish novelist Javier Marias, who reigns as Xavier I, energetically renewing the Redondan peerage by creating Francis Ford Coppola the Duke of Megalopolis, Pedro Almodóvar the Duke of Trémula, belletrist A.S. Byatt the Duchess of Morpho Eugenia, and the late German novelist W.G. Sebald the Duke of Vertigo.

Far from these virtual courts, the Redonda of reality is a nature preserve, part of Antigua & Barbuda, over which Queen Elizabeth II reigns. Redonda has no permanent human population and no post office building (or any other building, for that matter). Nonetheless, since 1979, Antigua and Barbuda have issued numerous stamps for Redonda—including a commemorative illustrating Goofy, the Disney cartoon character, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, searching for Easter eggs. These are valid for postage, though Redonda has no mailboxes.

William Bryk, a columnist for The New York Sun, lives in Manhattan.

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