Sealand, from Pirate Radio to Seasteading

free speech edited

Setting up a sovereign free territory has long been a dream of libertarian mavericks, from the ill-fated Republic of Minerva to the nascent Free Republic of Liberland. Yet arguably none has achieved the longevity of the Principality of Sealand. A major reason for that longevity—and accompanying notoriety—is the fact that Sealand, while perhaps whimsical in its origin, wasn’t merely a utopian experiment. Rather, it had a very practical purpose.

Set up atop an abandoned World War II British antiaircraft platform off the English coast (installations known as “Roughs”) by retired British Army Major Paddy Roy Bates, Sealand contributed to a revolution in broadcasting in the UK.

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, The Outlaw Ocean, published in The Atlantic, journalist Ian Urbina provides a brief account of Sealand’s history and places it within the context of other, similar experiments.

Initially, Roy used Roughs for a pirate radio station. The BBC, which had a monopoly over the airwaves at the time, played the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and other pop bands only in the middle of the night, much to the frustration of young audiences. Defiant entrepreneurs such as Roy answered the call by setting up unlicensed stations on ships and other platforms to play the music 24 hours a day from beyond Britain’s borders. 

In other words, Roy Bates filled an unmet demand that the UK’s state broadcaster was either unwilling or unable to meet.

Urbina also provides a brief overview of other efforts to establish seaborne libertarian communities, all of which came to naught, noting, “Some of these projects made sense in theory, but didn’t account for the harsh reality of ocean life.” He also notes another important factor:

Moreover, running a country—even a pint-size one—isn’t free. Who would subsidize basic services, the ones usually provided by the tax-funded government that seasteading libertarians sought to escape? Keeping the lights on and protecting against piracy would be expensive.

That’s where filling a market niche comes in, as running a pirate radio station did, and what enabled Sealand to defy the odds. As I noted in The Freeman published following Roy Bates’s passing:

What distinguished the British radio pirates from other efforts to escape state jurisdiction was their distinctly commercial motivation. The radio pirates didn’t go out to sea because they wanted simply to be there. Rather, it gave them a competitive advantage over regulated rivals on shore.

Interesting side note—another pirate radio entrepreneur, Oliver Smedley, helped Antony Fisher launch the Institute of Economic Affairs, the UK’s leading free-market think tank. Urbina’s article is well worth reading—including an account of an attempted coup on Sealand. (Also highly recommended is a fascinating history of the rise and fall of UK pirate radio, Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age by University of Chicago historian Adrian Johns.)

Yet, for all his entrepreneurial spirit, Roy Bates also had an idealistic side, embodied in Sealand’s motto—“From the sea, freedom.”