One doesn’t expect one’s first brush with royalty to take place in a food court. Yet here I am, sitting in a sticky pleather booth at a Sydney shopping mall with Princess Helena, a quiet, matronly woman in her mid-60s, and her emphatic, 40-something daughter, Princess Paula. Helena sips hot chocolate regally, as Paula holds forth on topics as varied as her correspondence with Queen Elizabeth and the finer points of the Montevideo Convention of 1933. The man evidently in charge of their security, a dour fellow with heavily pomaded hair, who goes by the name Karl, sits perched between them and the doorway.
After a few minutes of pleasantries and more hot chocolate, I fold my hands on the table and delicately broach the topic that has brought us here: Why do these two women believe that they are no longer subject to the laws of Australia?
“At the moment, there are 193 member nations of the UN,” Princess Paula explains. “I would say that the majority of those have been formed by secession from some country or other.” As proof of her own nation’s rightful sovereignty, she pulls out land deeds, court documents, and Christmas cards from foreign leaders. “The U.S., as you well know, seceded from England in 1776,” she says. “It’s a remedial right, a last resort.”
This is probably a good place to back up and explain that few, if any, people outside the food court believe Princess Helena and Princess Paula to be royalty of any sort. Yet the two maintain that they rule the Principality of Snake Hill, a sliver of land that seceded from Australia in 2003 following litigation over a mortgage. (Paula says the territory is “about the same size as Monaco” and has several hundred citizens, though both claims are subject to dispute.) Helena donned the crown as head of state after the 2010 death of her husband, Paul, who Karl says was assassinated by a sniper. (Helena and Paula are disinclined to discuss the subject, saying only that they might have upset “the wrong people.”)
Snake Hill is, in technical parlance, a “micronation”—which is to say that it seceded from its parent country without gaining international recognition. And Australia is Micronation Central, having experienced something of a secession epidemic in the past half century. Self-styled monarchs now dot the landscape from Snake Hill, near Mudgee, in the southeast, all the way to the granddaddy of them all: Western Australia’s Principality of Hutt River, which was founded 42 years ago on a wheat farm north of Perth.
Hutt River, which has a full-time population of fewer than 30 people but claims a worldwide citizenry of 13,000, would likely top any micronational development index: residents are exempt from Australian income tax, entrance visas are issued upon arrival, and the principality issues its own currency, the Hutt River dollar. Beyond that, however, Hutt River—like most micronations—has few of the institutions we recognize as cornerstones of a self-sustaining nation-state, whether schools or hospitals or police stations.
By their very nature, micronations resist a comprehensive accounting, but combining Internet search results with the small body of academic research on the topic suggests a global tally somewhere around 70, of which perhaps 30 have been declared in Australia. These would-be independent domains range from the proudly ridiculous (for example, the Republic of Awesome, whose Web site notes that its military “currently consists of 4 people” and is “planning to buy 2 RC helicopters for aerial surveillance missions”) to micronations that take themselves quite seriously, like Snake Hill.