Fantasies of escaping society’s problems often fuel utopian movements, but one bizarre—and mysterious—effort from the ’70s to create a nation free of government intervention caused nothing but trouble and sparked an international relations dispute.
In 1972, the “utopian” Republic of Minerva made its first appearance in the New York Times in a story headlined “South Sea Reef Proclaimed a Republic by 3 Americans.” Michael Oliver, one of the three founders, explained that he wanted to create an “escape from high taxes, riots, drugs, and crime” and did it through an old-fashioned colonial land grab.
Oliver and his partners chose the Minerva Reef—named after a ship that was wrecked on it in the 1820s—which is about 450 miles south of Fiji and 260 miles east of Tonga. During low tide, it’s only partially submerged. They intended to build a 400-acre artificial island over the reef and turn it into a resort that would “sparkle like a jewel in the blue South Pacific,” according to one of the Republic of Minerva’s self-published newspapers. They hoped to attract tens of thousands of residents and base their governance structure on zero taxes, no welfare, no subsidies, and no economic intervention.
A coin collector and real estate investor, Oliver used much of his own wealth to establish the Republic of Minerva. Soon after sending a “declaration of independence,” another founder, Morris Davis, built a tower of stones on the reef and planted a flag—a golden torch set against a blue background—for the new “country” on it.
After occupying the coral reef, Minerva’s founders hired an Australian dredging ship and began filling the reefs with sand with the eventual goal of land sitting eight feet above sea level. They planned to fill in 15 acres of land to prove to investors that he could eventually fill in 2,500 acres.
Meanwhile, neighboring countries were extremely upset about the occupation of the coral reefs and the declaration of independence that the Republic of Minerva sent out and began to take action.
“We can’t have people setting up empires on our doorstep,” the prince of Tonga once said about the Republic of Minerva.
According to some accounts, the Tongan government retaliated by dropping a box of emergency supplies labeled “supplied and maintained by the Tongan government” to establish ownership of the reefs. The Republic of Minerva’s founders showed no signs of backing off, so in June of 1972, the King of Tonga proclaimed that the reefs were part of his country and planted a Tongan flag on the reef.
The Republic of Minerva was in the midst of an international dispute as soon as it was “established” and eventually the initiative collapsed after Oliver fired Davis from his post as provisional president. But the idea of the micronation didn’t exactly end. Oliver minted coins for his “country” and sold them in order to raise funds. The Minerva coin was silver and 24K gold, cost $75 each, and was “worth” $35 “Minerva dollars”. A 1975 ad in the Libertarian Review enticed buyers with the tagline: “The world’s most unusual new country: inspiration for the most unique metal coin ever minted.”
While The Republic of Minerva sounded like a fool’s errand from the start, the dream of establishing micro-nations in the middle of the ocean still persists in the form of the Seasteading movement. Billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and the software company Palantir, once tried to create his own floating country off New Zealand.
The ocean has long washed any sand that Oliver and his associates placed on the Minerva Reef. Some of his coins, however, are still available for sale.