Not all countries survive — and sometimes that’s for the best.
The reasons for a nation’s demise can run the gamut from “mistakes, lies, stupid schemes and a lot of things that you’d file under the umbrella term of general idiocy,” explains Gideon Defoe in his new book, “An Atlas of Extinct Countries: The Remarkable (and Occasionally Ridiculous) Stories of 48 Nations that Fell Off the Map” (Europa Compass), out now.
“Sometimes it’s murder,” Defoe writes. “Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s because they were too ludicrous to exist in the first place.”
Just as often, their leaders can be . . . well, less than admirable. Defoe describes these failed nation founders as “a catalogue of racists, con men, madmen, and people trying to get out of paying taxes.” Here are 10 upstart countries that were unable to persevere, and the reasons for their untimely demise.
The Great Republic of Rough and Ready, April 7-July 4, 1850
How It Ended: Couldn’t get booze
When an 18-pound gold nugget was discovered in 1849 near an outpost called Rough and Ready — named for then-President Zachary Taylor’s military nickname — the news attracted thousands to the area, 62 miles northeast of Sacramento. The trouble started when California, just months away from becoming an official US state, imposed a mining tax. The townspeople were outraged. They took a vote and decided to secede from the United States.
They created a flag and a constitution, which was pretty similar to the US Constitution — it even included the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” line. All was well until the next July 4th celebration, when neighboring towns refused to sell them booze “on the grounds that they were now foreigners,” writes Defoe. “It was also pointed out that you couldn’t really celebrate the Fourth of July if you weren’t part of America anymore.”
The town had another meeting and decided to rejoin the Union, deciding it was a better alternative to being sober.
The State of Muskogee, 1799–1803
How It Ended: Countrymen handed leader over to Spain
William Bowles, a bored 16-year-old from Maryland, decided that what the indigenous Creek and Cherokee tribes needed was their own country, but with a white teen in charge. So he founded Muskogee in northern Florida, a self-governing “Indian nation,” with himself as“Director General.” It went well until 1792, when Bowles met with Spanish leaders about a peace treaty and they “clapped him in irons and shipped him off to the Philippines,” writes Defoe.
He returned in 1800 and tried again, this time with a small army of Creek warriors. But after declaring himself “Chief of all Indians present,” his pissed-off army handed him over to the Spanish in 1803, who put Bowles in a Cuban prison for the remainder of his life.
The Principality of Trinidad, 1893–1895
How It Ended: Telephone poles
James Harden-Hickey, a San Francisco native and monarchy enthusiast who despised democracy, noticed a small, unclaimed island during a boat trip and claimed it for himself. Harden-Hickey took the island’s existing name, Trindade (Portuguese for “trinity”), and translated it into Spanish, despite not being Spanish-speaking himself.
Bankrolled by his rich father-in-law, he commissioned a flashy crown and began selling $200 bonds for free passage to his new kingdom. But then in 1895, the British Empire began laying a transatlantic cable to Brazil, and Trinidad “happened to be a convenient stopping-off point along the route,” Defoe writes.
Harden-Hickey plotted an invasion of England in retaliation for the unwelcome telephone poles, but his father-in-law refused to fund it, so he committed suicide by poison instead.
Ottawa Civic Hospital Maternity Ward, January 1943
How It Ended: Dutch royal baby was born
After Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Dutch royal family went into exile, with Princess Juliana ending up in the Canadian capital, Ottawa. She became pregnant while living there, which presented a problem: For the exact moment of the baby’s birth, the heir apparent had to enter the world specifically on Dutch land. So the Canadian government agreed to create an “extra-territorial” zone for the unborn child. Wherever the princess happened to be, even if she gave birth while out on a stroll, would be considered Dutch territory. Once Princess Juliana entered the third floor of Ottawa’s Civic Hospital to give birth to Princess Margriet, Canada declared the maternity ward part of the Netherlands, even flying a Dutch flag until the royal baby was born on Jan. 19. After the birth, the “extra-territorial” zone immediately reverted back to Canada.
The Islands of Refreshment, 1811–1816
How It Ended: Pirates
Jonathan Lambert, a young adventurer from Salem, Mass., discovered these remote islands (today called Tristan da Cunha) and colonized them for himself, three friends and a dog.
With a welcoming name, his new kingdom “had the stated aim of providing refreshment to passing travelers — in effect, a glorified motorway service station, but in the stupidest place possible,” writes Defoe. Unfortunately, the only passing ships in that part of the Atlantic were more interested in stealing refreshments (and anything else they could grab), especially from an island nation run by four dudes and a dog.
The Republic of Perloja, 1918–1923
How It Ended: Written out of maps
The inhabitants of Perloja, a small Lithuanian village, took advantage of the chaos following World War I to declare themselves an independent republic. They had their own flag, a bison with a cross on its head, and elected officials including a prime minister, minister of the interior, and a judge (who was popular for once sentencing a wife-beater to be beaten by his wife.) They also had a spy whose skills included bird impressions and dressing like an old woman.
But when new maps were drawn up, their village suddenly appeared on the Polish side of the border. “The Polish police would turn up, and the Perlojans would hide in caves until they’d gone,” writes Defoe. They eventually gave up and reluctantly agreed to follow the laws of Poland, “though they commemorated their bold independent stand with a plaque,” Defoe writes.
The Kingdom of Bavaria, 1805–1918
How It Ended: Their king was insane
This former German state that gained its independence after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire had a series of OK kings who mostly kept the nation together. But then came Ludwig II, the fourth king of Bavaria, who favored wearing a “weird bouffant that made his head look massive” and almost bankrupted the country by constructing over-the-top fairytale castles.
Distracted by a toothache to back the wrong side in the Austro-Prussian War in 1870, Ludwig also ordered citizens to be executed for sneezing, organized expensive productions of plays in which he was the only audience member, and tried to have the Prussian crown prince kidnapped and “chained up in a cave.”
In 1886, Ludwig’s body was found floating in a lake, either by murder or suicide (the case was never solved). Over the next few years, Bavaria slowly became part of the German Empire, “almost without anyone noticing,” writes Defoe.
The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, 1851–1864
How It Ended: Only poisonous weeds to eat
Hong Xiuquan, a failed civil servant convinced he was the Chinese younger brother of Jesus, formed a cult on Jan. 11, 1851 (his birthday), known as the God Worshippers, devoted to the destruction of demons. After a fierce and bloody battle with the Qing dynasty, they captured the city of Nanjing in 1853 and established it as their capital. Opium and polygamy were outlawed, which annoyed Hong’s followers, but the breaking point came in the summer of 1864, when the kingdom began to run out of food. Hong promised they’d be fine with “manna,” which turned out to be old weeds from the palace grounds. Unsurprisingly, Hong fell ill, “because rotten vegetation will do that,” writes Defoe. Twenty days later, he was dead, and the Heavenly Kingdom fell shortly thereafter.
The Republic of Vemerana, May-September 1980
How It Ended: No weapons to defend itself
A bearded, messianic, half-Scottish former bulldozer driver named Jimmy Stevens staged an uprising on the Espiritu Santo island in the South Pacific, with Stevens calling for a return to “the old ways.” He gave all government employees badges, from himself (as “chief president”) all the way down to “school children’s guard.”
The republic was overthrown a few months later by an army from Papua New Guinea. The conflict, sarcastically dubbed the Coconut War by the foreign press (to mock both sides’ lack of any real weaponry), didn’t last long, since the islanders only had rocks, slings and some bow-and-arrows to defend themselves. The total casualty count for both sides was three, including Stevens’ own son. It was enough for the Republic to surrender. Today, it’s known as the Republic of Vanuatu, and is part of the Melanesian archipelago that compromises around 80 islands in the South Pacific.
The Kingdom of Sarawak, 1841–1946
How It Ended: Sold to Britain for jam
After helping the Sultan of Brunei end a native uprising in Borneo, British-born James Brooke was given the governorship of Sarawak (and a pet orangutan named Betsy). Under his rule, he outlawed giving skulls as presents and tried to crack down on man-eating crocodiles — even sentencing a crocodile to death to discourage the other reptiles.
The kingdom passed on to his grand-nephew, Vyner Brooke, who had an obsession with jam (his father forbade it, deeming it “effeminate”) and was so socially awkward he hid in cupboards to avoid conversations. After the kingdom was bombed during World War II, he sold it to the British for “a big lump of cash and all the jam he could eat,” writes Defoe.