Things were pretty quiet in terms of news on the Tongan years for the Queen, then known as Olovaha.
I learned a little about the sinking in 1977 and some added colour from the locals which was greatfully received.
All was quiet until the end of January 2011 when I received a Guest Book message from Doug Jenkins from Kerikeri in New Zealand. The story Doug shared with me and the further reading I've done since, tell me that Olovaha was a co star in what was a true moment in history!
In this chapter we move briefly from 'the Yellow Rolls Royce' to 'the Mouse that Roared' as Olovaha transported His Majesty King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga to personally supervise the invasion of one of the worlds' few privately created countries...
The Republic of Minerva
There’s something special about a private island. An isolated piece of paradise, its beaches and forests yours alone to enjoy. A virtual private kingdom under the sun. While this is enough for most of us, for some, only a real kingdom (or republic, or principality, or …) will suffice. For these folks, a private island is but a means to an end - the establishment of a new, independent country. But is such a thing really possible?
The short answer is a pretty conclusive ‘ no’. Since the early 20th century, every square foot of dry land on Earth has been claimed by at least one country or another, which pretty much rules out discovering an unmapped tropical paradise, planting your flag, and setting yourself up as the local sovereign. Similarly, existing countries are more than a little reluctant to part with pieces of their national territory, no matter the financial incentives offered.
However,30 years ago one man hatched an enterprising (if a little bizarre) scheme at getting around these little details.
In the early 1970s a Las Vegas real estate millionaire by the name of Michael Oliver decided to set up his own South Pacific island nation. Given the tragic shortage of unclaimed private islands, Mr. Oliver planned to do the next best thing: build one. Lithuanian-born Oliver formed a syndicate, the Ocean Life Research Foundation, which allegedly had some $100,000,000 for the project and had offices in New York and London.
This wasn’t as crazy as it may at first sound. Under international law, a country may only claim sovereignty over islands which lie outside its territorial waters if the islands are at least a foot above the high tide point (no part-time islands need apply). Mr. Oliver located a submerged coral atoll called the Minerva Reefs, lying 260 miles (420 km) southwest of the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga. At low tide, the Minerva Reefs were exposed to the open air, but at high tide, they were submerged. The reefs lay outside the territorial waters of all nearby states, and as they were submerged at high tide, no country could claim them as an extension of their national territory.
The plan was this: build up the Minerva Reefs until they remained above the waterline at high tide, thereby officially becoming a new island, outside the jurisdiction of any existing country. Initially, two 7.5 acre (3 ha) islands were to be created, and once the new country was declared, investment dollars would flood in, funding the expansion of the islands to 2,500 acres (1011 ha), or more than twice the size Monaco. Simple enough on paper.
In 1971 an Australian dredging ship was hired, and work was begun. Soon enough, parts of the reefs were permanently above the high tide mark, and on January 19, 1972 the new “Republic of Minerva” was proclaimed. It wasn’t much to look at. No homes, businesses or anything else you’d normally associate with a country - just a few acres of dry, barren land peeking out from the Pacific. It did have a flag, though, and it began issuing its own coinage.In February 1972, Morris C. 'Bud' Davis was elected as Provisional President of the Republic of Minerva.
In fact, the only other country to react to the proclamation of the new “Republic” was the neighbouring Kingdom of Tonga - and it wasn’t thrilled. Tonga’s monarch, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, decided to throw his weight behind eradicating the upstart new island. (At over 400 pounds (200 kg), His Majesty held the Guinness Book of World Records title for heaviest monarch, so this threat was not to be taken lightly.)
A Tongan force comprising 90 members of a prisoner work detail, as well as a 4-piece band, made the voyage aboard Olovaha to the new island. Upon landing, the party hauled down the Minervan flag, played a rousing version of the Tongan national anthem, and claimed the land for Tonga. The short-lived “Republic of Minerva” was dead.
One curious footnote to this incident states that as the convict work detail set about removing all trace of Minerva from existence, a fight broke out between two of its members. By the time it could be stopped, one man lay slain on the reef. So it was that when the Tongan forces finally sailed for home, back to their presidential palace and prison cells; they left the former Minervan Republic with the remarkable statistic of having a murder rate higher than that of its population!
You'd think that would be the end of the matter but as with all things related to the Queen of the Isles, there were further twists!
In 1982, a group of Americans, led again by Morris C. “Bud” Davis, tried to occupy the reefs but were forced off by Tongan troops after three weeks. In recent years several groups have allegedly sought to re-establish Minerva. No claimant group has to date made any attempt to take possession of the Minerva Reefs territory.
The supposed state subsequently morphed into a principality, headed by the Sovereign Prince and Supreme Regent Prince Calvin. His Royal Highness (both "a fully engaged leader of the Minervan liberation movement" and "an accomplished concert performer, with abilities on most brass instruments") is apparently resident in the US.
The next page, written by Doug Jenkins, is an eye witness account of the Invasion of Minerva. This is the definitive version of events and a really excellent piece of prose. Much appreciated!
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