Nearly twenty years ago, not long before I headed north to make my home in Canada, I was named an admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. The elaborately designed commission, which hangs framed on my office wall, puts me in charge of various “officers, seamen, tadpoles and goldfish,” who are commanded to obey any orders I might give. That piece of paper is among my most cherished possessions.
To be made a Nebraska admiral is to be awarded the landlocked state’s highest civic honour — equivalent to the Order of Ontario or the Ordre national du Québec, though more lighthearted and without the post-nominals. The tradition goes back to 1931, when the Democratic governor Charles W. Bryan (younger brother of the better-known William Jennings) went on vacation, leaving the Republican lieutenant-governor Ted W. Metcalfe in charge. Metcalfe, whose father was the last military governor of the Panama Canal Zone, decided to have some fun by doling out a couple dozen admiralties to his prominent and presumably partisan friends. The honorary title has since been given to countless Cornhuskers, including Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Sandy Dennis, and Gerald Ford. Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Murray, and other outsiders have also been pressed into service.
The origin of the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska is, of course, silly. But as the world slid into the harsh realities of the Depression and the Great Plains fell into prolonged drought, that silliness had its place.
Today we find ourselves in an equally sobering moment, with soaring food and energy prices, a tepid stock market, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and senseless gun violence in America, plus the unfolding environmental crisis that has taken a back seat in our collective consciousness throughout the pandemic. So it was with admittedly escapist relief that I greeted the arrival at my desk of Michael Hingston’s forthcoming Try Not to Be Strange: The Curious History of the Kingdom of Redonda.
A writer from Edmonton, Hingston has been nursing an obsession with the tiny Caribbean island of Redonda, christened by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and located midway between Nevis and Montserrat. More specifically, he has found himself transfixed by the uninhabited micro-nation’s absolute monarchy.
Hingston tells the story of M. P. Shiel, a prolific and genre-bending British author who was born in Montserrat in 1865. At the age of fifteen, Shiel was anointed by an Antiguan bishop as King Felipe of Redonda — a regal distinction dreamed up by his father and apparently cleared through the British Colonial Office. When Shiel died in 1947, his crown, such as it was, passed to his literary executor, the poet John Gawsworth, who assumed the title of King Juan. Since then, there have been several competing claims to the throne, including that of the celebrated Spanish novelist Javier Marías and the eccentric Canadian vagabond Robert Williamson.
Over the years, dozens of peerages have been created to honour those associated with the kingdom — often quite tangentially — by those who profess to rule it. J. M. Coetzee was made the Duke of Dishonor, while Umberto Eco was named the Duke of the Island of the Day Before. Alice Munro is called the Duchess of Ontario by courtiers. And, yes, honorary admiralties have been bestowed, including on Dylan Thomas and a Greek sea captain named Costas.
The intrigue that Hingston recounts in Try Not to Be Strange has a touch of the absurd: tea made from the first king’s ashes, a flag sewn out of old pyjamas planted atop Redonda’s highest point, even an unbuilt palace designed by Frank Gehry. But, in a way, it’s not unlike the protracted dispute over another tiny uninhabited spot: Hans Island, in the narrow strait that runs between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
Canadian and Danish officials have argued over that barren rock, the same size and shape as Redonda, since 1973. And while warships and the United Nations have both been involved, so too have jokes. “When Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of schnapps,” the diplomat Peter Taksøe-Jensen once explained. “And when Canadian military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian Club and a sign saying, ‘ Welcome to Canada.’ ” Alas, it seems the fun may soon be over, thanks to a recently announced plan to share sovereignty by drawing a line down the middle of Hans Island and calling it a day.
Territorial disputes are real and often quite consequential. But occasionally — and perhaps especially at times like this — it’s right to indulge in the type of “shared fantasy” that Hingston ably chronicles. In such a realm, my tadpoles, my goldfish, and I would happily stand on guard at Canada’s new land border, if only in jest.