[published: April 01, 2008]
Islands are quasi-natural sovereign lordships, but there’s nothing natural—or normal—about the self-made kings who have laid claim to them over the years.
Over two centuries ago, Napoleon Bonaparte took a golden crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and crowned himself Emperor of the French, the first self-made monarch of the modern age. He was the most spectacular of the lot: few people possessed the skills, energy and charisma of the Man of Destiny, and his many would-be imitators usually only embarrassed, if not killed, themselves without attaining the throne.
Many men who would be kings turned away from Europe and set off for new-found lands. The easiest way of ruling one’s own country is to found one. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the only aircraft was the hot-air balloon, subject to the whims of the wind, and powered flight, let alone space travel, beyond all but the wildest imaginations (in 1657, Cyrano de Bergerac had envisioned both in his Voyage dans la Lune), the seas were still dotted with islands unclaimed by the Great Powers. And the oldest means of creating one’s own country is to claim uninhabited territory by right of occupation.
Islands are natural quasi-sovereign lordships: in the 12th century, King John had proclaimed one of his favorites King of the Isle of Wight. Great Britain’s crown dependencies, the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, the last vestiges of the Duchy of Normandy, still hail their sovereign, Elizabeth II, descendant of William the Conqueror, not as their Queen, but as their Duke (not Duchess). The descendants of Giuseppe Bertoleoni, who in 1836 was recognized by King Charles Albert of Sardinia as King of Tavolara, a very small island off the Sardinian coast, ruled well into the 20th century and have never surrendered their claim to its throne: the present claimant, King Tonino, runs one of the island’s leading restaurants.
But the would-be Napoleons went further afield. On December 27, 1810, Jonathan Lambert, mariner and adventurer of Salem, Massachusetts, landed with two on Tristan da Cunha, an uninhabited island in the South Atlantic, 2,800 miles west of the Cape of Good Hope. Reportedly, they had sailed some weeks before from Rio de Janeiro, where Lambert’s open ambition to rule the island had been talk of the town.
On February 4, 1811, he renamed Tristan—and neighboring Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands—the Isles of Refreshment, proclaimed himself their proprietor in terms asserting absolute dominion (indeed, Bruno Fuligni wrote in L’Etat C’est Moi that Lambert proclaimed himself their “sovereign” or “emperor”), adopted a white flag with a blue and red cross (a herald has described it as “white, a saltire per pale blue and red, pierced of the field”), and sent a copy of his proclamation by passing ship to the Boston Gazette, which published it on July 18, 1811. Ships stopped every few weeks to water, and their logs record the islanders harvesting sealskins and planting vegetables.
Lambert and most of his companions reportedly perished in a boating accident on May 17, 1812, leaving an Italian drunkard, Tomaso Curri, as alone “a Robinson Crusoe on the island.” Curri thus ruled as absolute king of all he surveyed until his death in 1816. The British garrisoned the island in the same year, to prevent its use by Frenchmen conspiring to rescue Napoleon from his exile on St. Helena, 1,350 miles to the north. Tristan is now itself a dependency of St. Helena, which is a British overseas territory, one of the last outposts of Empire. But Lambert is unforgotten, at least on Tristan, which in 1985 commemorated him with a ten-penny postage stamp.
Yet another uninhabited South Atlantic island was the center of the dreams and ambitions of James Aloysius Harden-Hickey, an American man of letters, swordsman and adventurer. Born in San Francisco, on December 8, 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 won the reputation of a master swordsman (he could easily pick the buttons off an opponent’s waistcoat with a foil), Harden-Hickey took up literature, publishing 11 novels and receiving the title of Baron of the Holy Roman Empire for his polemics in defense of the Church.
During the late 1870s, France’s Royalists unleashed a media blitz against its new Republic by financing newspapers, most edited in the spirit of Hyppolite August Jean de Villemessant of Le Figaro, who observed, “A story that doesn’t cause a duel or a lawsuit can’t be 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 its first issue on November 10, 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 42 libel suits and at least 12 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. (Unlike the more famous Trinidad in the Caribbean, then a British colony and later the home of calypso and the steel drum, this Trinidad was solitary, uninhabited, and largely unknown.) As Richard Harding Davis wrote, “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. To Harden-Hickey’s mind, the island’s history only strengthened his claim: the English had never settled the island and the Portuguese had abandoned it. Trinidad was there for the taking.
On Sunday, November 5, 1893, the New York Tribune gave front-page publicity to his scheme for Trinidadian independence. Harden-Hickey argued the island was “…rich 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 the importation of 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 in Manhattan. 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 New York’s 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 using Irish revolutionaries fell through. On February 10, 1898, Harden-Hickey was found dead in the Pierson Hotel in El Paso, Texas. 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.
Another, more ephemeral kingdom 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. 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.
Despite King Matthew’s objections, Great Britain annexed Redonda in 1872. He retained his claim, eventually abdicating in favor of his son. Thus, on July 21, 1880, Matthew Phipps Shiel was crowned Felipe I, King of Redonda on his 15th birthday by the Anglican bishop of Antigua in a ceremony on Redonda itself. At any rate, that was Matthew Phipps Shiel’s story.
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 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 of a 1959 vehicle for Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.
Throughout his adult life, Shiel corresponded with Great Britain’s Colonial Office over his right to the kingship, which one suspects must have brightened the dull days of some Whitehall civil servant. But 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 and extraordinary lies,” and later summed up King Felipe as “an inveterate liar.” Even Jon Wynne-Tyson, Shiel and Gawsworth’s literary executor, who later claimed Redonda’s throne 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.”
When Shiel died on February 17, 1947, having reigned 67 years, John Gawsworth, whom the 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. He was elected to the Royal Society of Literature at 25 and awarded the Society’s Benson Medal “for meritorious works in poetry, fiction, history, and belles-lettres” at 27. 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. Indeed, he became a kind of institutional memory of literature, from knowing surviving 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. He gradually fell on hard times, becoming, as he described himself, an “inveterate old diabetic bookman, slipper-padding around my shelves and files.” He largely survived through his skills as a bibliophile: Lawrence Durrell, an occasional drinking buddy, 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 often Gawsworth merely held court in the bar of the Alma tavern in Westbourne Grove, where knowledgeable tourists to West London frequently tracked down the 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.” Durrell defended this practice: after all, he wrote, King Felipe himself had also created a number of dukes to help him carry on the battle—an appropriate title, as duces were originally Roman military commanders.
Naturally, being a man of letters, 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.
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, Gawsworth 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.”
Juan’s last years were a nightmare of disillusionment, ill health and alcoholism. He had become so isolated that his friends learned he had become homeless only when a reporter found him sleeping in Hyde Park. Despite their efforts to rescue him, the King had given up on himself. After a heroic binge in September 1970, he died following emergency surgery for bleeding ulcers. He was not yet 60.
The kingdom’s motto, Floreat Redonda!, 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 and poet Brendan Behan. But other candidates also claimed Gawsworth had nominated them, and apparently no one who knew Gawsworth could seriously argue that he might not have passed the right of inheritance to whoever was picking up the tab on a given night.
Today, Redonda, like a strong poker hand, has three kings.
History teacher William Leonard Gates, who reigns as Leo V, holds court in London’s Fitzroy Tavern, Guinness being his official beer.
Robert Armstrong, better known as 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 Duke of Megalopolis, Pedro Almodóvar Duke of Trémula, A.S. Byatt Duchess of Morpho Eugenia, and the late German novelist W.G. Sebald Duke of Vertigo.
Far from these virtual courts, the Redonda of reality is a nature preserve, a possession of Antigua and Barbuda over which reigns Queen Elizabeth II. Though Redonda has neither permanent human population nor post office (nor any buildings, for that matter), Antigua and Barbuda have issued postage stamps for the island since 1979, including numerous commemoratives honoring Walt Disney cartoon characters, which are sold largely to philatelists.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the maps had no empty spaces left for dreamers: nearly all the world had been claimed by one nation or another. At best, one might occasionally read in the Sunday supplements of some American ruling a distant tropical island as its king. Archibald C. Everett, one-time Wall Street stockbroker, was wiped out in a 1904 bear market and ended up in Avorai, one of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. There Everett’s dashing appearance and white flannel suits had won the approval of King Ravoka. The American married the King’s daughter and succeeded to the throne, being proclaimed “Eta Moroa” –the Immaculate One.
David O’Keefe, an Irish-American, was shipwrecked on the island of Yap in 1871 and somehow became King. When he died in 1901, he left an estate of over $1 million, having combined a benign and efficient rule with an American politician’s talent for skimming the public treasury. In 1954, Burt Lancaster starred in His Majesty O’Keefe, the Hollywood version of the Irishman’s life.
By the 1940s, the idea of founding one’s own country had fallen into the realm of whimsy. Russell Arundel, president of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company, founded the Principality of Outer Baldonia on a four-acre rocky island 16 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. Its charter proclaimed its subjects’ right to drink, swear, and tell lies about the fish they had caught; its navy consisted of 69 admirals, all fishermen who harvested tuna in the local waters.
But the 1960s saw the idea’s return in a new form: the micronation. Roy Bates, who wanted to compete with the BBC by founding a pirate radio station, founded the Principality of Sealand on an abandoned World War II British anti-aircraft tower seven miles off the British coast. Wheat farmer Leonard George Casley, frustrated by agricultural quotas requiring a huge reduction in his crop production, declared his farm to be the Hutt River Province Principality and seceded from the State of Western Australia, the Commonwealth of Australia, and the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1970.
Today, most dreamers have wandered into the world of the Internet, where virtual geography is limitless, obviating the risks of abandoned anti-aircraft platforms or disputed territories. The ambition, courage, and passion of the men who would be kings is no longer required.
Photo courtesy of Dive Redonda
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