Most tourists who cross the bridge from Annapolis, Md., into Eastport don't realize that they're entering another nation. After all, the boat slips and frame houses with carefully tended flower gardens on the east bank of Spa Creek look just like those on the west bank. Signs are written in English, cars drive on the right side of the road, and no border patrol guards in dark sunglasses are checking passports.
But the hitchhiker's thumb-shaped peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay is in fact the Maritime Republic of Eastport, lovingly called the MRE. The micronation of some 6,000 people broke away from Annapolis—and Maryland and the United States—in 1998, on Super Bowl Sunday. As the MRE Web sites notes, the break was done "tongue in cheek," a creative way to promote local businesses disputing a public works plan.
Disputes are often at the root of many a nation, micro or otherwise. The difference between the two is recognition; according to The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations, "…a nation is only recognized as a nation if other nations that have been recognized by other nations recognize it." And micronations are never seen as such by anyone other than their founders and residents (who usually are the founders).
Hundreds of micronations exist at any given time, says President Kevin Baugh of the Republic of Molossia, a 6.3-acre micronation established in 1998 within Nevada and California. "Most were started by teenage boys. When they contact me, it's obvious it's a kid in his bedroom with a computer; the abysmal spelling usually gives it away," he explains. "The average lifespan of a micronation is about 90 days, because that's the average attention span of a teenage boy."
In this context, a place like Seborga is downright prehistoric. Established in 954 as a seignory of the Holy Roman Empire, the hilltop village near the Italian Riviera managed to maintain its independence largely because it was overlooked by the succession of rulers who took over this part of the world. Seborga issues its own stamps, currency (the luigino, valuable only as a collector's item), and has consuls in several European nations and Indonesia. The leader of this gorgeous micronation of slightly fewer than 400 people is Prince Giorgio I, first elected in 1963. As far as Italy is concerned, Seborgans are tax-paying residents of Imperia Province.
More than 200 miles north of Seborga is the Republic of Saugeais, a 386-square-mile country surrounded by France. Shortly after World War II, so the story goes, a French official was having lunch at Georges Pourchet's restaurant in the Saugeais capital of Montbenoit. When Pourchet playfully asked the bureaucrat if he had a pass to visit the republic, the official replied that if it was a republic, a president was necessary. And he then dubbed the restaurant owner president.
Pourchet stayed in that office until he died in 1968; his wife, Gabrielle, succeeded him. In 1972 Mme. Pourchet was elected president for life during a fundraiser to restore Montbenoit's medieval abbey. Her election was as much about marketing as it was about politics; the 12th-century structure is arguably Saugeais's main tourist attraction.
Marketing is at the root of Eastport's very existence. Merchants in this section of Maryland's capital saw secession as a way of getting business when they needed it most.
"When the state closed down the bridge over Spa Creek for repairs for a whole month in 1998, it was fairly devastating," said Cindy Fletcher Holden, formerly the MRE's prime mistress. "It could have taken people about an hour to get to Eastport. So we raised a whole hoo-ha and formed our own country. It worked. People actually came around, and business on this side of the creek actually did better than normal."
The MRE's declaration of independence (penned by founding father Jeff Holt in his bathtub) hangs in the Boatyard Bar and Grill. Displayed on another wall is the official coat of arms, depicting a boat flanked by Labrador retrievers. Eastport's self-imposed isolation echoes in its motto, "We like it this way"; the line between the words "it" and "this" represents Spa Creek.
Independence isn't entirely a new concept here. Prior to 1951 when Annapolis annexed Eastport, it was a separate town, home to watermen and servants who worked for the well-heeled folks across the creek.
Today's "Eastportoricans" are a mix of watermen, artists, musicians, and people who Holt says try to make a party out of almost everything. "The MRE has evolved into an organization that does events for local charities: the ASPCA, the Annapolis Maritime Museum, the civil air patrol. …We do have an election, and if you don't show up for it, you'll get an office. Maybe as the Minister of Old Dusty Things."
Other micronations of note:
The Freetown of Christiania (Denmark): Established by hippies in 1969, this 85-acre enclave of Copenhagen prides itself on being a commune free of cars, guns and hard drugs. Galleries, artists' workshops, music clubs and restaurants line the main strip of Pusher Street. Residents run a communal bathhouse, kindergarten and recycling program. And each Christmas, this counterculture micronation hosts a feast for "the poor and lonely."
Principality of Hutt River (Australia): After the Australian government imposed quotas on the amount of wheat farmers could harvest in 1969, Leonard Casley left the country. Literally. He seceded his 29-square-mile wedge of Western Australia. Casley, a.k.a. Prince Leonard, still grows wheat, but he's diversified his micronation's economy by marketing wildflowers, sheep, and, well, himself. Hutt River visitors get guided tours of the buildings, the royal family's art collection and can take a dip in the royal swimming pool.
Conch Republic (United States): The Florida Keys, a string of islands off the south of Florida, certainly vie for the title of prettiest micronation. They seceded in 1982 after an immigration checkpoint threatened to cut off all traffic on Highway 1, the only road connecting the islands to the mainland. Conch sums up its foreign policy in one sentence: "The Mitigation of World Tension through the Exercise of Humor." Key West, the republic's capital, is loaded with brightly colored buildings, jewel-toned tropical plants and sandy beaches. With all this, who really needs the mainland?
Principality of Sealand: An abandoned World War II fort set six miles off the English coast in the North Sea sounds like the perfect spot for anyone hiding from the law. And that's what brought two pirate radio operators to the steel-and-concrete installation in the late '60s. One of them, Paddy Roy Bates, turned the place into his own country. And despite a coup attempt and a massive fire, he's still in charge. Each man indeed is an island.