Author’s Note: The following is an article I wrote for Ocean Living Magazine, the publication for The Marinea Project, where I am currently serving as their communications specialist. Click here for the full list of archives for The Marinea Podcast. Please enjoy!
Seasteading Case Studies: Learning from the Failed Attempts of the Past
By: Shane Radliff
For thousands of years, land has provided human beings the optimal headquarters for living. Resources were aplenty, large amounts of “real estate” were available for homesteading, and individuals could develop it as they saw fit.
That is, until two important things happened. One, being the advent of urbanization, or the corralling of large amounts of people into small areas and, two, being the various governments’ jurisdictional claims to 99.9% of all land in the world, including the most obscure, uninhabited islands.
A large number of folks’ subjective preferences lead them to remain in the cities, but there are those seeking a “return to the land” in the form of off-grid homesteading—they just want to be left alone with nature. But, governments, tending to be the control freaks that they are, have a nasty habit of fining and evicting private property owners via nuisance abatement (i.e. local codes and ordinances).
As Tom Marshall (Rayo), a freedom pioneer in the 1960s and 70s said, “Apply your free market principles by setting sail for sunnier waters.”
And he was right—the “homesteading” of the sea (seasteading) will play (and is playing) an inevitable role in the future of human freedom and survival.
Marinea is but one such project looking to found a village at sea; the other one with any notoriety would be The Seasteading Institute. Little known, there were also a few attempts at founding new libertarian countries in the open ocean in the mid-20th century.
For purposes of historical relevance, as well as potential lessons for current and future seasteaders, let’s take a look at their failed efforts to see where they went wrong.
(Author’s Note: Due to the scarcity of resources at the time this article goes to press, specific years may not always be provided. The resources referenced are: The Nation Builders’ Struggle, Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, Rayo’s Vonu: The Search for Personal Freedom, Roy Halliday’s Operation Atlantis, Erwin Strauss’ How to Start Your Own Country, and some updates on the projects from Wikipedia.)
The Free Isles Project
The Free Isles Project was a venture that spawned out of the Preform-Inform movement and the Innovator libertarian zine in the 1960s. The goal was to conduct research on the efficacy of setting up a new libertarian nation, solutions to potential obstacles, and the seemingly endless possibilities if it were to come into fruition.
This project continued for a handful of years, but it never got past the talking stage. Eventually, the movement subsided after disagreements arose regarding the size and scope of government, the lack of individuals willing to become involved, and the potential ramifications from existing nation states.
Nonetheless, the Free Isles Project seems to be the origin of these ventures and influenced at least one, if not all, of the projects below.
From the outset, the Free Isles Project was just a research effort. The first actual attempt at bringing a new libertarian nation into fruition was Werner Stiefel’s Operation Atlantis.
The plan was laid out in three stages: “(1) gather libertarians in a single location, (2) acquire an ocean vessel and declare it to be an independent nation while in international waters, and (3) create ‘an artificial island as close to the shores of the U.S. as international law will permit and Uncle Sam will tolerate.’”
Furthermore, according to Brian Doherty in his book, Radicals for Capitalism, their goal was to “eventually obtain sovereignty over some island…and turn it into a fresh new country.” From there they would have their base of operations and would start to build artificial platforms which would hopefully coalesce into the actual objective—a floating nation on the water.
The location he chose for recruiting libertarians was a hotel he had purchased in Saugerites, New York, which is right on the Hudson River, giving them water access to the Atlantic Ocean.
From scratch, they constructed a boat out of rebar and cement and set sail, only to have their vessel tip over and catch fire in the Hudson River. Persevering, they were able to navigate the vessel to the Silver Shoals area (near the Bahamas) when their ship sank.
Luckily, Steifel had already negotiated a 220-year lease for some land on the Haitian island, Tortuga, with the agreed-upon reason being for a small commercial chemical-mixing plant. But, once the Haitians learned of their plan to start a floating nation (from their own publication), President Jean-Claude Duvalier drove them out of the area, as it had already been slated for other purposes.
It is reported by Erwin Strauss, author of How to Start Your Own Country, and visitor to the hotel, that “Mr. Stiefel was approaching the enterprise as a Sunday afternoon diversion,” while focusing most of his time and effort on his pharmaceutical company. Strauss attributes that as one of the many reasons the dream of Atlantis died.
Michael Oliver’s, “The Capitalist Country”
Michael Oliver was a Lithuanian-born concentration camp survivor who set out to found “The Capitalist Country” in 1968.
He investigated many areas for his new nation and attempted to solidify purchases of land from countries with little or no government, but it was to no avail until Minerva was founded in 1972. Oliver and his crew laid claim to “two small coral atolls in the South Pacific, 400 miles south of Fiji,” and 260 miles northeast of the Kingdom of Tonga. Notices were sent to nations and they began dredging, capping out at 15 acres before running out of investment capital—far below their goal of 2,500 acres.
Doherty reports that the “project was breaking apart over personal squabbling” and that “…Oliver was washing his hands of the whole thing.”
Surrounding island countries caught wind of the venture and understood the negative ramifications if it were allowed to succeed. Then, on February 23, 1972, a box of supplies was dropped, labeled, “supplied and maintained by the government of Tonga.” The actions by the Tongan government were supported by many surrounding island countries. And, in the blink of an eye and with one gun boat, Minerva was conquered by the king of Tonga.
After that, Oliver pursued other strategies in founding his nation until he finally returned to the original goal—building artificial ocean cities. In the early 1990s, he set out to found the country of Oceania and penned the venture as the already known and nostalgic Atlantis Project.
In less than a couple of years it ended and at oceania.org, it still reads,
“The Atlantis Project, which proposed the creation of a floating sea city named Oceania, began in February 1993, receiving nationwide publicity from The Art Bell Show, Details Magazine, The Miami Herald, Boating Magazine, and worldwide publicity in Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, England, and Belgium. The project ended in April of 1994.”
Sea City “Taluga”
In 1969, the Cortez Development Corporation set out to found Sea City Taluga, a project focused primarily on tourism and recreation, rather than libertarian ideals like the previous case studies. Nonetheless, they still planned on setting up an autonomous government, albeit structured more like a corporation’s board of trustees than a traditional one.
The location chosen was Cortez Bank, an area allegedly claimed by no government 100 miles west of Mexico. In the most complete article written on the subject of new libertarian nations, John L. Snare claims that, “The bank rises from the deep ocean floor and is not on the continental shelf by any accepted geological or legal definition.”
Phase 1 was estimated to cost $350 million (keep in mind the year) and the entire project a substantial $2 billion—it was a MAJOR undertaking.
But, unfortunately, sometime after 1972, the U.S. government declared that the bank, as part of the continental shelf, was U.S. territory. The plan died and all capital investment in the project was wasted.
What Can We Learn?
Let’s first revisit why these projects failed or came to an end:
- The Free Isles Project: It was purely a research venture and the participants deemed it to be an inefficacious pursuit.
- Operation Atlantis: It seems they weren’t completely honest in their contractual agreement with Duvalier, and therefore, he drove them out of the area when they started work on the floating nation.
- Operation Minerva: Their fate was sealed by infighting, a lack of funding, and an embarrassing lack of defense; it only took one Tongan gunboat to force them out.
- Oceania/Operation Atlantis II: It was simply a lack of funding and interest.
- Sea City Taluga: The U.S. caught wind of the project and declared the continental shelf U.S. territory.
Two terms need to be defined to make sense of this (from Wikipedia):
- Contiguous Zone (CZ): “A band of water extending from the outer edge of the territorial sea up to 24 nautical miles (27.6 miles) from the baseline, within which a state can exert limited control for the purpose of preventing or punishing ‘infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations…’”
- Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): “Extends from the outer limit of the territorial sea to a maximum of 200 nautical miles (230.2 miles) from the territorial sea baseline…A coastal nation has control of all economic resources within its exclusive economic zone…However, it cannot prohibit passage or loitering above, on, or under the surface of the sea…”
The demise of Operation Atlantis can easily be attributed to the fact that they were within the CZ of Haiti and that their contractual agreement, as far as we know, did not include their plans for starting a nation at sea.
Operation Minerva (“The Capitalist Country”) provides us with a more sinister outcome. They were well outside the EEZ of Fiji, and were about 30 miles outside of the EEZ of Tonga, yet, the Tongan government still brought forth aggressive action to evict Oliver and his associates, much to the satisfaction of the surrounding island nations.
Erwin Strauss attributes their downfall to their lack of ability to defend their land, yet he postulates that Tonga could have easily obtained military support from the larger nations, if it was necessary. To paraphrase Psalms, put not your trust in princes, nor should you place faith in governments to actually follow their own laws.
Moreover, Sea City Taluga provides us with an example of what not to do—utilize any continental shelf, lagoon, atoll, etc. that is within the EEZ of the United States. Even though Snare claimed that there is no legal or geological justification for “ownership,” the U.S. still swooped in and crashed the party. It’s not wise to put that much investment capital at risk when the government can change terms and definitions willy-nilly.
How Marinea Plans to Avoid These Issues
The Cay Sal Bank is well outside any nation or country’s CZ, and Marinea will not be “infringing” upon any nation or country’s EEZ, since it will be a floating village at sea. Also, the success of Marinea will not depend or rely upon some contractual agreement with the government of the Bahamas, nor of any other country. There will be neighborly cooperation, if applicable, but that’s about it.
Furthermore, the three phase plan is realistic and doesn’t require hundreds of millions of dollars of investing to get off the ground. The first phase of the project specifically will be a ship under flag of convenience, by way of a modified shipping barge. The efficacy of this strategy has been proven time and time again.
Summarily, one of the issues that continually came up with the aforementioned case studies, as well as other “new nation” projects, is the lack of or running out of funding. Marinea has an answer to this problem. Once phase one is achieved, there will be extensive money-making possibilities, which will reduce (if not eliminate) the need for outside investing.
As George Santayana is attributed to have said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Current and future seasteaders would be wise to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and correct them to increase their chances of success.
In the long view of human history, this is still a brand new strategy and I envision many more unforeseen obstacles before the inevitable success. Seasteaders are the pioneers of the modern era—rather than utilizing the failed political means, they are the folks seeking to shift the entire paradigm and open the world up to a whole new slew of possible solutions to problems that humans face going into the future.
We here at The Marinea Project are setting sail for sunnier waters. Are you?
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