Notes: Ephemeral States

SHORTLY BEFORE DAWN that fateful morning, the waters of a stormy Pacific began to rise against the shores of the Republic of Minerva. In just a few hours the entire island nation was inundated. Only later did the dimensions of the tragedy become clear. When the waters receded, no creature or structure remained.

Well, actually, it wasn’t all that tragic. There hadn’t been any creatures or structures to begin with. And the submersion of Minerva—in truth, just a bunch of rocks some 400 miles south of Fiji — is a regular event. It happens twice each day, at high tide.

Even at low tide most of Minerva is under water. But this and other disheartening facts did not dissuade a handful of American businessmen from declaring sovereignty over it in 1972 and attempting to establish the sort of country they felt the United States ought to be but wasn’t: no welfare, no foreign aid, no income tax. They built a small platform on the rocks and planted their flag, a yellow torch of freedom on a blue sea. Their president, Morris C. Davis, of California, wrote letters seeking diplomatic recognition from several other sovereign states, including the nearby island kingdom of Tonga.

This turned out to be a mistake. Tonga’s King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, anxious to preserve his nation’s fishing rights, went to war against the Minervans. (You may recall seeing the 350-pound Tongan monarch at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.) In the best imperial tradition he dispatched a boatful of convicts to erect a larger platform on top of Morris’s and to raise the Tongan flag in place of the yellow and blue. Minerva’s first and, quite possibly, only murder took place that same day: one of the convicts killed another by smacking him with a crowbar.

THE BRIEF AND bloody history of Minerva is chronicled in a file at the Department of State, in Washington, D.C. The file is kept by Dr. George J. Demko, the director of an obscure bureau called the Office of the Geographer. Demko is a big, friendly, enthusiastic man with gray hair, a gray moustache, and glasses. His official responsibilities, in his view, include almost everything. “You show me a topic and I’ll find you a geographic angle to it,” he told me when I visited him recently. “Everything is geographic. Everything is geographic. And if it ain’t geographic, it ain’t important.”

In any contest to determine who loved geography more, you or Demko, Demko would win. It is his consuming passion. He has a Ph.D. in it, and for twenty years he taught it at Ohio State University. Then, in 1984, he was called to serve the geographic needs of his country.

Demko was not impressed by what he found at the State Department. “This office was full of people with little green eyeshades and little pens,” he told me. “They were doing little boundary things and little law-of-the-sea stuff. Well, we’ve taken the office from Dickens to Buck Rogers. Now we’re all computerized. I revived this office and turned it into a viable geographic research-and-intelligence operation. I’m curmudgeonly, interesting, and modest.”

When I had trouble thinking of questions about geography to ask Demko‚ Demko offered to ask them himself. He said, “The questions that should come to your mind are, ‘Who reads your stuff?’ and ‘Give me some other examples of exciting projects you have done.’ Well, our stuff is read by almost everybody. For example, we did the geography of the famine in Africa some years ago, and Vice President Bush took our maps and materials to a conference in Geneva. We also do a lot of important work on boundaries. This country now has five outstanding maritime boundary disputes with Canada. We also have disputes with the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.” I finally did think of a question about geography (“Have they solved the four-color-map problem yet?”), but Demko was talking when I thought of it and by the time he had stopped I couldn’t remember what it was.

One function of the Office of the Geographer that has survived from its Dickensian, pre-Demko era is keeping track of what Demko calls “mythical kingdoms” or “ephemeral states.” These are nonexistent countries that ordinary people periodically claim to have founded or become the rulers of. Often these people will write to the Secretary of State or even the President seeking official recognition from the United States. These letters are usually forwarded to the Office of the Geographer.

One such letter came from a man who, while “searching through some old things,” had discovered various documents entitling him to rule the Panama Canal Zone. Another came from “William Shakespeare, Minister of Music, United Nations Ministry of Music.” Quite a few came from a woman who described herself as “a Realestate Broker of Calif, and a Mining Executive of the U.S.A. and anywhere for that matter.” She spent much of the 1950s wrestling with the question of whether to renounce her American citizenship in order to become Queen of the Atlantic and Pacific Empire of Atlantis and Lemuria, also known as Atlantis Kaj Lemuria. In 1954 she received a letter from the Office of the Geographer which said, with evident exasperation, “In the conduct of the foreign relations of this government, the Department of State does not recognize any so-called ‘private Dynasty or Principality’ named ‘Atlantis Kaj Lemuria.’”

Of course, this letter amounted to recognition of a sort, and the woman kept at it. In other correspondence she revealed that her empire included islands called Flamingo, Odino, and Thoro. In 1958 she persuaded her congressman, the Honorable Craig Hosmer, to send a letter to the State Department spelling out her belief that she could retain her U.S. citizenship and still rule her empire “as governor-general.” The folder on Atlantis Kaj Lemuria is the fattest one in Demko’s ephemeral-states collection.

DEMKO DIVIDES THE makers of the ephemeral world into three categories: nuts, funnies, and charlatans. I didn’t ask him specifically, but I suspect that he would place the creator of Atlantis Kaj Lemuria in the first category. Sharing it would probably be those who founded the People’s Democratic Republic of Quay, the Kingdom of Redonda, the Republic of the Isle of Dogs (not to be confused with the Kingdom of Yap), Luconia, Aphrodite, Furstentum Castellania, the Maori Kingdom of Tetiti, and the Nation of Aryan-Pacific, also known as the United Kingdom of Arya.

Arya was founded in 1981 by a Californian who hoped that his country, an island “located within easy sailing of either Los Angeles or Honolulu,” would become a bastion of racial purity. At some point he substantially extended the scope of his authority by annexing 500,000 square miles of Antarctica. His government promised to provide free food, free housing, free medical care, and a sixteen-hour work week, and to impose no income tax.

Some people start their own countries just for fun. In 1948 a rich man named Russell Arundel, one of Demko’s funnies, got together with some of his fishing buddies and founded the Principality of Outer Baldonia. The country consisted of several small islands that Arundel owned, off the coast of Nova Scotia. Arundel’s official title was Prince of Princes. His government was based on drinking, swearing, gambling, and lying about the size offish. He established the value of his nation’s currency each day at the cocktail hour, and he once declared war on the Soviet Union. Another fun country was El Almandine, an eighteen-foot-by-ten-foot platform in Bowie, Maryland, which in 1973 was ruled by a thirteen-year-old boy.

Small platforms play a surprisingly large role in the history of imaginary nations. In 1964 Leicester Hemingway, the author of My Brother, Ernest Hemingway, founded a country called New Atlantis on an eight-foot-by-thirty-foot bamboo platform six and a half miles off the coast of Jamaica. Hemingway is officially classified as a funny, although historians may treat him less kindly. His platform was held in place by steel cables, a ship’s anchor, a railroad axle and wheels, and an old Ford engine block, according to an account in The New York Times. Hemingway told the paper, “We can stand on the platform, walk around on it and salute the flag, all of which we do periodically.” Hemingway said he hoped to enlarge the platform someday so that he and his seven fellow citizens might have room to eat lunch or go to sleep. New Atlantis issued postage stamps honoring Lyndon Johnson and had no income tax.

A few years later Hemingway founded another island nation, called Tierra del Mar. This project received surprisingly serious attention from the government. A memorandum in Demko’s file, describing a 1973 meeting between Hemingway and four officials of the State Department, says, “Attempts at creating this island would be viewed by the United States as a highly undesirable development adverse to our national interest, particularly as it might encourage an archipelagic claim.” Hemingway’s title, according to the State Department, was “alleged president.” Another memorandum described him as “not a kook.” Tierra del Mar had no income tax.

Other would-be sovereigns have had far grander schemes. In 1975 two charlatans sent a letter to Henry Kissinger laying claim to the floor of the Pacific Ocean, “completely excluding therefrom, all Sea Water extending above the Ocean Floor.” Another man (John the First, Prince of Mariveles and Amboyna and by the Grace of God King of Colonia) claimed everything within a certain 46,000-square-nautical-mile area in the South China Sea. Colonia’s official language was English, but “other accepted languages” were Arabic, Chinese, and Malay. There was no income tax.

The South China Sea, which is filled with thousands of tiny islands, has been home to a disproportionately large number of ephemeral states. One of them is the Republic of Morac-SonghratiMeads, founded by Morton F. Meads. Morac-Songhrati-Meads is located in the Spratly Islands. It used to be known as the Kingdom of Humanity. I know next to nothing about the Kingdom of Humanity, because the document in the Office of the Geographer that pertains to it is classified, for some reason. Demko removed it from the charlatan file and put it where I couldn’t see it.

Demko also asked me not to mention too many specifics about another Meads-related document, a hefty legal summons (issued by the “Morac-Songhrati-Meads Court of Special Cases, Pennsylvania VI Island”) whose list of defendants is so long that I was almost surprised not to find my own name on it.

I don’t think I am revealing any (American) state secrets by reporting that the lawsuit concerns “infringement, plagiarism, unfair competition, false identification, fraud, harassment, sabotage, and DAMAGES.” The plaintiffs are seeking $1 trillion plus attorneys’ fees plus 12 percent annual interest on the whole package compounded since 1969.

WHAT DISTINGUISHES a real country from an imaginary one? According to Demko, genuine statehood has five characteristics: space, population, economic activity, governmental structure, and recognition. “Recognition is the hard one,” he told me—although the other characteristics can cause difficulties too. Demko is now preparing a report on “stateless nations,” groups of people with a common cultural heritage who might be considered to constitute real countries except that the space they occupy is already occupied by other countries. There are quite a few such groups. Demko’s report will focus on four representative ones: the Kurds, the Basques, the Sikhs, and the Armenians.

Similar to the stateless nations are the so-called captive nations—chief among them Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These three Baltic states were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, a fact that is officially not recognized by the United States and a number of other countries. The United States continues to maintain diplomatic relations, after a fashion, with the captive nations. All three are represented in this country by chargés d’affaires. Every year the President of the United States issues a Captive Nations Proclamation during Captive Nations Week.

It isn’t hard to understand why people want to start their own countries, or why people who used to have their own countries want them back. National identity is an important ingredient in the human psyche. The psychology of geography is a subject about which Demko undoubtedly has a great deal to say, although I neglected to ask him about it.

One thing Demko did say is that no one had ever written to his office claiming sovereignty over anything in outer space. No one?Shortly after I got home, I wrote him a letter claiming the sun in the name of this magazine. It may never come to anything, but who knows? “From now on,”I told Demko in my letter, “the sun should be referred to as the Solar Atlantic Empire.” I signed myself Lord High Suzerain of Outer Space and requested official recognition from the State Department.

Demko wrote back acknowledging receipt of my letter and requesting “copies of your pertinent state documents (e.g. Constitution, Declarations, etc.), map of state and evidence of recognition of your sovereign status by the majority of recognized, sovereign states on earth. I assume this is just a formality, but I would welcome hearing from national leaders interested in setting up diplomatic relations with me. I’d also like to hear from anyone below the level of leader who would be interested in becoming one of my citizens.

Incidentally, there’s no income tax.

—David Owen