The Prince was running late. ‘His Serene Highness offers his apologies: he is presently busy pruning flowers,’ said Marco – a smiley young man with gentle brown eyes, who, despite his young age was already carrying the enigmatic title of Counsellor for Welfare and Free Time.
The year was 1993, the venue – the main (and only) square of the village of Seborga, population 320, empty except for a couple of dishevelled chickens being chased by a lop-eared puppy, and a parked van, inscribed Seborga Fiori (Seborga Flowers), belonging to the local flower cooperative, the country’s only industrial enterprise.
The word ‘country’ is not a typo, for that small village on the border of France and Italy proclaimed itself an independent nation, the Principality of Seborga, in 1963 on the initiative of Giorgio Carbone, a flower farmer, who then became known as Prince Giorgio I.
At the time of my visit, Seborga remained undiscovered outside the neighbouring French and Italian regions, but I can seriously claim to have put it on the map. After my article on Seborga was published in the Spectator magazine, I was contacted by the compilers of one of the first online atlases who wanted more information on it. Soon the self-proclaimed Principality – for the first time in its recent history – appeared on maps and in atlases, if not as a sovereign country, then at least as a tiny and curious geopolitical maverick – a differently coloured dot on the green Italian background. The very fact of featuring in an atlas proved encouraging enough for Prince Giorgio to start minting Seborga’s own coins – luigino. Apart from being nice souvenirs, they were accepted as monetary units at the village’s only general store.
GOING IT ALONE
By legitimising Seborga cartographically, the compilers of the atlas went a bit too far, for by definition Seborga is not a mini-state (as with its neighbour Monaco, or, say, Liechtenstein), but a ‘micronation’ of which there are now nearly 70 all over the world. This is the term given to any small area or political entity that claims sovereignty but is not recognised by any other sovereign states or international organisations.
The key word in this definition is ‘any’, for there exists another group of nations – the so-called ‘partially recognised states’, such as the breakaway post-Soviet republics of Transdnistria and South Ossetia (recognised only by each other and a handful of other uncertain entities) which are often incorrectly referred to as micronations or mini-states.
The first recorded micronation was probably the English island of Lundy, whose owner Martin Coles Harman proclaimed himself king and started issuing coins and stamps in the beginning of the 20th century. The latest additions to the list include Liberland – a patch of disputed land on the western bank of the Danube, and the ‘Space Kingdom of Asgardia’, based entirely in outer space, on board a small satellite.
Legally, starting a micronation is relatively easy and takes just a few steps:
1. Set a goal. There has to be a reason for embarking on this path to begin with, one that will hopefully resonate with others.
2. Choose a name and a territory, be it a discarded oil platform, as in the case of Sealand, or the messy cubbyhole of the Kingdom of Talossa, founded in 1979 by then 14-year-old Robert Ben Madison of Milwaukee (who, incidentally, claims to have coined the very term ‘micronation’), and initially confined to his own bedroom.
3. Find citizens (that shouldn’t be a problem: the recently formed Asgardia has already got 20,000).
4. Try to stick to the four general principles of statehood defined by the 1933 Montevideo Convention: permanent population (even if just one person), defined territory, a government and a capacity to enter into relations with other states.
It is the latter point that stops micronations from becoming ‘proper’ countries, for one cannot effectively ‘enter into relations’ without first being recognised. That, however, does not stop micronations from holding their own regular inter-micronational gatherings (so-called microcons) and signing their own inter-micronational treaties, for example the Alcatraz Environmental Treaty of 2015 whose full text can found in the peculiar volume The Law of Micronations 2018, compiled and published by ‘the people of the Cyanocitta Isopod Republic’ no less.
Having studied these peculiar entities for years, all existing micronations can be provisionally divided into the following categories (with some examples of each):
Started as a joke: British comedian Danny Wallace’s Kingdom of Lovely; the Republic of Kugelmugel – a ball-shaped house in Vienna built without planning permission; Molossia; Whangamomona – a jokey entity, founded to boost tourism in the eponymous rural New Zealand town which at some point had a goat as its president.
Based on valid (or not-so-valid) historical claims: Seborga; the Free Republic of Liberland, founded in 2015 and claiming a long-disputed patch of land called Siga on the western bank of the Danube; Sealand; the Imperial Throne, formerly the New Russian Empire; the Crown Dependency of Forvik – an island in Shetland, which claims to have been an independent nation in the Middle Ages; the Kingdom of Tavolara – a small table-shaped island off the northeast coast of Sardinia claiming independence, allegedly sanctioned by Charles Albert, the King of Sardinia (1831 to 1849), from the middle of the 19th century.
Started by squatters: the Republic of Frestonia, which staged a ‘secession’ of the whole of London’s Freston Road from the UK. In a real-life Passport to Pimlico scenario, it even appointed its own ambassador to Great Britain in 1977, but eventually evolved into a ‘normal’ housing co-operative.
Started as a learning aid or an arts project: The Grand Duchy of the Lagoan Islands, created in 2005 by a school teacher from Portsmouth and consisting of a pond and three tiny islands; Neue Slowenische Kunst, or NSK, a political art collective in Slovenia which claimed to be a sovereign state in 1991 and started issuing passports and postage stamps as part of an ongoing art project; Hay-on-Wye’s Kingdom of Books (see Geographical May 2018), ruled by King Richard the Book-Hearted, aka local bookseller Richard Booth, who back in the 1970s declared Hay-on-Wye an international Book Town, independent from the British Crown.
Started as a social experiment or a political protest: the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, declared in 2004 in response to the Australian government’s failure to recognise same-sex marriages, claiming the territory of the uninhabited Coral Sea Islands and dissolved in 2017 when gay marriages were finally legalised; Other World Kingdom, a Czech Republic-based matriarchy, in which women rule over men; North Dumpling, an island off the New York State coast which declared independence as a sign of protest against the state authorities’ decision not to build a wind turbine on it.
Started as a legal or scientific statement: Asgardia (see above) and Celestia, founded in 1949 and claiming the whole of the universe – except for the Earth – as its territory with the aim of stopping all other entities from requesting any part of outer space.
BY ROYAL DECREE
Back in Seborga, a small group of tourists with their cameras ready suddenly materialised out of nowhere and gathered in the village centre. ‘The Prince is about to arrive,’ Marco announced solemnly.
A tattered black Mercedes, flying Seborgas’s white-and-blue flag, crawled into the square. A bulky bearded man, dressed in pitch-black gleaming shoes, black trousers, blue shirt with Seborga’s crest on its pocket and white blazer (presumably to match Seborga’s flag), got out of the car, blowing air-kisses to the waiting crowd. This was the Prince. He was followed by another man in a plain black suit. ‘He is the governor of San Remo’s prison, the Prince’s personal friend,’ Marco whispered respectfully. ‘Prince Giorgio I seems to have friends in the right places,’ I thought to myself.
Eccentric as he appeared, Georgio Carbone, aka Prince Giorgio I, had a valid historical point: Seborga first became a sovereign state as far back as the year 954AD as one of the many post-Roman mini-states on the territory of the present-day Italy. Independence was bestowed on the village by Guido, the Count of Ventimiglia, the nearest coastal town.
A principality from 1040, for several hundred years prior to its incorporation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Seborga had been under Vatican protection and even had its own mint until it was forced to close in 1686 for making too many counterfeit ecus.
After the defeat of Napoleon, when inter-European borders underwent considerable redrawing under the Treaty of Vienna, Seborga and the neighbouring Monaco were simply forgotten due to their insignificance and minuscule size. Monaco was soon remembered, but Seborga wasn’t and automatically became part of Italy. So Carbone’s claims of Seborga’s sovereignty, like those of several other micronations, were far from trivial and rested on solid historical grounds.
Carbone welcomed me warmly. ‘We didn’t feel like paying high Italian taxes any longer,’ he told me in confidence as we were drinking in one of the two village restaurants in the company of Marco and several other members of the Prince’s own Crown Council, including the Counsellor for Foreign Affairs and the Counsellor for Defence in charge of the part-time army of five.
That ‘army’ played a pivotal role in Seborga’s ‘independence’, which was officially announced in August 1963, when three Seborgan soldiers (three-fifths of its army’s personnel) in Napoleonic uniforms sneaked unnoticed through the nearby Passo del Bandito mountain and nailed Seborga’s flag to the door of the church of San Michele, one of the three parish churches that Giorgio I wanted to reclaim (together with the parishes, of course).
‘Why should we keep paying taxes to a foreign power?’ the Prince carried on. ‘Our citizens want to work for the benefit of their native Seborga!’
‘How are you going to survive on your own?’ I asked.
‘Easy! We already export our flowers to Germany, Sweden and the United States. We can declare ourselves a tax haven. Just look at San Marino!’
After the second glass, Carbone solemnly offered me the job of Seborga’s Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador in the UK – a truly extraordinary honour which I chose to refuse. He also, granted me citizenship and signed and stamped my brand-new Seborgan passport, fresh out of the souvenir shop. Not willing to complicate the Seborga-British, or possibly even Seborga-Ukrainian non-existing relationships, I didn’t dare refuse.
Prince Giorgio I passed away in 2009 and was succeeded by Marcello Menegatto, a local building contractor, elected Prince Marcello I who, according to some sources, still reigns supreme. According to other reports, he was replaced as Seborga’s monarch by a French writer, Nicolas Mutte in 2016.
Looking back, I have come to realise that by being among the first to write about the unrecognised Principality and thus effectively putting it on the map, I may well have fulfilled my strictly unofficial ‘ambassadorial’ mission after all.
This was published in the July 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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