Major Roy Bates: The self-proclaimed 'Prince of Sealand'

 

In 1967, Major Roy Bates, a veteran of the Second World War, decided it would be nice to be royal; so he occupied a derelict concrete offshore WW2 anti-aircraft gun platform off the east coast of England. He declared it the Principality of Sealand – "the world's smallest independent state" – and himself "His Royal Highness, Prince Roy of Sealand." His "country," whose surface was half the size of an Olympic swimming pool and whose "royal palace" was a two-bedroom flat, was in international waters so who was going to stop him?

The Royal Navy would later try, unsuccessfully since they saw the funny side, as would a group of Dutch and German businessmen who "kidnapped" his son, according to his account. Reunited with his son, "Prince Michael," both of them armed, he got back to Sealand and "liberated" it from its five occupiers, albeit more through persuasion than violence. "That's certainly one of the most memorable days I spent with him," Michael later said.

Last weekend, there were unconfirmed reports that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange hoped to take Sealand over after the Bates family said it was prepared to sell off at least part of its "principality." In 2007, a Spanish property company valued the platform at around £500m even though its legal ownership was debatable. "Some think Britain is increasingly becoming a nanny state, so Sealand might attract people who want to get away from it all," Michael said at the time.

Until his retirement to Spain, Major Roy Bates gave his "principality" –seven miles off the coast of the big container port of Felixstowe – its own flag, constitution, passport, postage stamps, coins, national anthem and currency. He also gave it its own motto in Latin: E Mare Libertas – "From the Sea, Freedom". He recuperated some of his expenses – mainly helicopter transport to and from the mainland – by selling quasi-aristocratic Sealand titles not unlike his own, as well as T-shirts and the like. His son brought in some more cash by renting "space" to Internet servers and other ventures.

Earlier this year, with his father ailing, Michael Bates launched Sealand's own international football team. Since the platform had a population of only four, players were drafted in from the mainland, including some decent players who had just failed to make their national teams and were therefore eligible for full Sealand caps. Among them were Scotsman Derek Stillie, who had played for Scotland's Under-21s. With space extremely limited on the platform – even the shortest of passes were likely to go overboard – Sealand played their first official match on the mainland on 5 May. They were beaten 3-1 by the Chagos Islands, relatives of the Indian Ocean islanders deplaced by Britain 40 years ago in favour of US military bases.

Patrick Roy Bates was born in Ealing in London in 1921 to Harry and Lilyan Bates. According to Sealand's website he was "born to be an adventurer," one of five siblings, the others of whom died at childbirth or during childhood. At 15 he joined the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil war before returning to London as an apprentice at Smithfield meat market.

He planned to emigrate to Argentina as a cattle rancher but when war broke out he volunteered for the army, serving in North Africa, Italy and the Middle East and ending the war as an infantry major in the First Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), with whom he had fought in the bloody battles for Monte Cassino. He also served in the 8th India Division, seeing action in Iraq and Syria. After the war, he made a living importing meat from Ireland to England, where rationing was still in effect, as well as importing rubber from Malaysia and running fishing boats off the east coast of England.

Influenced by the fledgling pirate radio stations of the 1960s, he set up the pirate Radio Essex on a different offshore platform before deciding to take over Roughs Tower, later to be renamed Sealand, in 1967, along with his wife and two teenage children, declaring it an independent territory. The offshore platform had been built to house anti-aircraft guns to defend England against the Luftwaffe. He soon dropped the idea of a radio station in favour of a simple principality. After initially challenging the breakaway state, the British government gradually saw it for what it was, an eccentricity rather than a threat.

"He was a man who stood up to the establishment," his son Michael said. "He was a huge, huge character, an extremely intelligent and active man. He developed Alzheimer's, which he would have absolutely hated."

As for the Major himself, he was quoted as saying many years ago: "I might die young or I might die old, but I will never die of boredom."

Phil Davison

Major Patrick Roy Bates, army officer and pirate radio broadcaster: born London 29 August 1921; married Joan (one son, one daughter); died Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, 9 October 2012.

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