THE EMPIRE OF ATLANTIUM -- George Cruickshank is not your average emperor. His royal residence lacks electricity or running water, his kingdom has more kangaroos than humans, and though he enjoys leaderly luxuries like an afternoon champagne, he prefers it cheap and pink.
I traveled five hours southwest of Sydney in early October to visit Cruickshank here at the Empire of Atlantium, a patch of mud-green pastoral land that’s twice the size of the Vatican, half the size of Monaco and the “smallest country in Australia.” The two closest towns with a supermarket are each an hour or more away in opposite directions and hold claims to fame such as a 50-foot (15-meter) merino ram and Australia’s highest-security prison. For Cruickshank, however, this slice of rural paradise has become not only his home, but his model utopian empire.
“My parents recognized my interest in politics at a young age and suggested that if I didn’t like the way the world was, I should do something about it,” Cruickshank recalled. “I think what they meant was for me to go off and join a political party, but instead, my cousins and I started our own country in the backyard.”
That was in October 1981, the year Cruickshank drew a dotted line in the corner of his yard in suburban Sydney and named it the capital of the Empire of Atlantium. Not long after, his cousins elected him Emperor George II for life, and by the late 1990s, the Empire had its “global administrative capital, ceremonial focal point and spiritual homeland” in “Aurora,” New South Wales.
Thirty-two years later, Emperor George was instructing me where to stand within an eclectic crowd of visitors (some in fatigues, some in kimonos) so he could capture on video the unveiling of a new monument for the 32nd anniversary of Atlantium’s foundation. It will likely be up on Facebook in a matter of days and beamed off to the micronation’s 2,000-odd “citizens,” who hail from as far away as Tanzania and Turkey (where Atlantium has an exceptional follower base).
To be clear, Emperor George may get about one new citizenship application each day and hold an annual Foundation Day ceremony, but none of these citizens, nor the holiday, will be recognized by Australia, the U.N. or any global government. The emperor of Atlantium still pays taxes to the Australian government “like any foreign national working in another country,” and Atlantium isn’t even attempting to be fully independent from its host country. Think of it more like an embassy, I’m told, that exists because the surrounding country allows it to exist.
“There’s an element of devilishness in all of this,” the emperor explained with a wink over a glass of cotton candy-colored bubbly in honor of the holiday. He likes to think of Atlantium as an imperial commonwealth, with a lot of lingo in its edicts borrowed from late republican Rome and the Cromwellian period in England. The broad liberal agenda of issues ranges from climate change to assisted suicide, the right to abortion, the fundamental equality of all self-aware beings and decimal calendar reform.
At one level, it’s a political theory, while at another it’s an aspirational utopia. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s a sustained piece of performance art. Whatever you want to call it, Atlantium does have a flag, insignia, post office, stamps and a currency called imperial solidus that’s pegged to the U.S. dollar. It also has a hodgepodge coterie of official devotees that includes a man who’s fulfilled senior policymaking functions for the Hong Kong government as minister of state, and a noted doctor from India as the minister of social services.
“These little ideas I formulated when I was 15 have somehow struck a chord with people around the world such that they actually want to be a part of it,” Emperor George said, surprised in a way. “They want to call themselves citizens of Atlantium -- and that’s really powerful.
“It’s also terribly frightening.”
The Rise Of Homemade Empires
In July 1964, Ernest Hemingway’s younger brother, Leicester, towed an 8-by-30-foot bamboo raft to a spot 12 nautical miles off the southwest coast of Jamaica (in what was then international waters) and anchored the structure to the sea floor using an old Ford engine block. Hemingway declared the raft New Atlantis under the obscure Guano Islands Act of 1856 and typed up a constitution for the new country that was a word-for-word replica of the U.S. Constitution, except that wherever the words “United States” appeared, he instead put “New Atlantis.”
His novel act was, in part, a concept to generate capital for the establishment of an oceanographic research institute through the sale of coins, stamps and other paraphernalia, but Mother Nature had other plans, and New Atlantis ceased to exist after a tropical storm blew through in 1966.
Short-lived as it was, Hemingway’s idea generated a whirlwind of publicity and spawned a wild rush of right-wing libertarian interest in the concept of setting up artificial island nations (an idea that’s once again in vogue thanks to PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and his lofty Seasteading Institute).
Micronationalists, in earnest, have been around since the beginning of the 19th century, when the concept of nation-states came into its own. But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the phenomenon really took off in wealthy, Western, liberal democracies. Some of the most famous upstarts of the era included the Principality of Sealand, built on an abandoned WWII sea fort off the coast of Britain in 1967; the Hutt River Province (now the Principality of Hutt River), founded in Western Australia in 1970; and Freetown Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood of Copenhagen, founded in 1971.
Dr. Judy Lattas of Sydney’s Macquarie University, one of only a handful of academics studying the micronation phenomenon, believes there are roughly the same number of micronations as there are established nations worldwide. Approximately 35 of them are in Australia, giving the nation, by leaps and bounds, the most self-appointed kings, pirates and dreamers per capita of any country on earth.
“Unlike in Europe and elsewhere in the world, many of the Australian micronations started with a grievance and became a way to keep the fight going,” Lattas explained. “Their prevalence may have something to do with the history of Australia -- the do-it-ourselves and stick-it-to-authority mentality.”
The prisoners who were brought to Australia were often brutally repressed and developed a sort of underhanded disrespect that has become a part of the Australian character to this day. Thus, by removing themselves from the country itself, many of these micronationalists found the perfect platform for an eccentric protest against a perceived wrong.
There’s the lavishly dressed Prince Paul, who formed the Principality of Wy in 2004, in response to a lengthy dispute with the local council over a road through a reserve. Or Emperor Dale’s Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, a reaction to the Australian government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages in 2004. And also Princess Paula, the only female leader of the pack, who created the Principality of Snake Hill in 2003 over a mortgage foreclosure dispute.
Nearly all of them run their micronations under a royalty model, though none should be confused with microstates (like Liechtenstein or San Marino) or self-determination or exile government groups. Some, including the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom, have encountered major dilemmas when people sought viable citizenship to avoid repression in their homelands. Less virtuous leaders, meanwhile, have gladly accepted such requests, conning unwitting individuals out of money for a false dream.
As Latttas put it: “Some are eccentric and harmless, but others are eccentric and poisonous.”
An Accidental Pioneer
If there’s another historical clue as to why Australia has so many self-proclaimed emperors, Lattas said it might be the proposed secession of Western Australia in the 1930s, which left an indelible impression on the country. By the 1970s, Australia had found a folk hero in Western Australia’s Prince Leonard, founder of the Principality of Hutt River. It was his model that most subsequent Australian micronations (and others throughout the world) have replicated over the past 40 years.
While "folk hero" is a title Prince Leonard will gladly accept, "architect of a movement" is not. A spokesperson for the prince (who no longer speaks to journalists) bristled at the idea that the Principality of Hutt River was in any way associated with the micronation phenomenon. “Declaring independence is not something that can be done simply because one wakes one day and thinks it a good idea or because of some squabble or simple disagreement, neither of which applied [at Hutt River],” the spokesperson chided. “This nation is not part of any such micronations movement or idea, nor does it involve itself with any.”
Hutt River occupies a swath of arid land five hours north of Perth that’s roughly the size of Hong Kong. Aside from exporting wildflowers to Asia, it subsists largely on tourism and sales of its coins, stamps and assorted trinkets (something the Empire of Atlantium aspires to do as well). It claims to be a completely independent sovereign state that does not pay taxes to the Australian government, though it does donate a “gift” of equivalent value.
Prince Leonard’s case is featured in legal and sociology textbooks the world over, and, whether he acknowledges it or not, the model he created is alive and well today -- particularly in the country he claims to have left.
In fact, Australia could have yet another micronation as soon as Oct. 19, when the disgruntled citizens of Lamb Island, near Brisbane, vote at a referendum to decide whether or not to secede from Australia and become the Independent Republic of Nguduroodistan (a play on the island’s indigenous name, Nguduroo). The movement’s leader, Tony Gilson, told local media he planned to consult none other than Prince Leonard himself for advice on how to proceed.
Emperor George did that once upon a time too, but he told me from his deck chair in Atlantium that you should never meet your idols. “When you do,” he said, “they always disappoint you.”
What It Takes To Be The Prince of Your Bedroom
Twenty-four hours after Foundation Day, Emperor George was back in his official attire (suit, sash, medals) wending his way down the streets of Boorowa (population 1,070) in the motorcade of the Irish Woolfest parade. His flag-flapping vehicle was sandwiched between a children’s entertainer named Pirate Pete and a mobile sheep-shearing display, when the announcer grabbed the microphone and proclaimed him the ruler of a nearby kingdom. Moments later, a collective huh? gripped the crowd.
Acts like this are all part of creating the physical reality of Atlantium as an actual place with an actual leader -- one who does leaderly things like wave in parades. It’s also part of Emperor George’s curious blend of self-deprecating self-aggrandizement. George Cruickshank has no delusions of grandeur about what he’s doing. He’s deadly smart, oddly charming and armed with an important tool -- humor -- which could give his nation-state experiment an Occupy-like appeal.
“I think the only people who really get things done in this world are the people who don’t take themselves too seriously,” he explained to me after the parade. “People who really believe that by calling themselves Prince of My Bedroom they are somehow on equal terms to Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors -- it’s just not reality.”
That’s why most Australian micronations have failed, he supposed. They were one-trick ponies whose single point of grievance with the government not only fueled but ultimately consumed them.
“Many of these people who start micronations really do actually expect to be taken deadly seriously as though they are the monarch of all they survey, even if what they survey is three acres and a clothesline. It’s preposterous. It’s just nonsense and its not sustainable.”
For Emperor George, the Empire of Atlantium is both his platform and his movement. It’s his hobby, and it’s his “childhood experiment in political theory that got entirely out of hand.”