In 2009, Michael Howorth received a phone call from an unfamiliar voice, informing him that an old acquaintance had passed away. Not just that: The dead man had, for more than a decade, believed himself to be the king of an uninhabited island in the West Indies. And according to the man’s will, Howorth, a freelance writer based in southeast England, was to succeed him on the throne.
Howorth was stunned by the news. Flattered, too. But there was a catch. In order to validate the claim, the new king would have to travel 4,000 miles to the Caribbean, hike to the highest point on the island, and raise his royal standard — all in less than a month.
Howorth knew he had to try. And so, after calling in a couple of favors, including but not limited to a borrowed helicopter, he raced down to the island and raised his homemade flag to the sky just in time, thus preserving the royal line of succession, and officially beginning his reign as King Michael the Grey of Redonda.
Or so he thought.
In reality, Howorth is the latest in a long line of writers across Europe and North America who have claimed to rule over Redonda, a rocky island about a mile long that is technically part of Antigua and Barbuda. By making a claim to the crown, Howorth became unwittingly entangled in one of the most complex and longest running in-jokes in the literary world, a half-serious fantasy that has been alternately handed down and tossed around for generations.
It started back in the 1920s as a publicity stunt, when the cult science-fiction writer M. P. Shiel started telling journalists that his father, who grew up nearby, had annexed the island and given it to his teenage son as a birthday gift. It’s unclear whether Shiel himself ever really believed his own story. And it likely would have ended there, were it not for the intervention of John Gawsworth, a mediocre but exceptionally ambitious poet who knew an opportunity when he saw one.
After convincing Shiel to pass the mantle, Gawsworth restyled himself as King Juan I and dedicated himself to Redondan mythmaking full-time. He talked up the fledgling micronation to anyone who would listen, including (and especially) the British tabloids, spinning royal yarns and handing out titles and duchies to anyone willing to pick up the tab at his local pub. The legend of Redonda began to spread.
But King Juan was also an increasingly penniless drunk. As his career floundered, Gawsworth started offering to sign away the kingdom itself in exchange for his rent, or even his next drink. More than one person took him up on his offer. And that’s where the power struggle began.
Today, thanks in large part to Gawsworth’s antics, there are multiple competing claims to the Redondan throne. The impish Howorth is one of the primary claimants, with the backing of many real-life Antiguans, and has even lent his power to an English pub in its attempt to become an official Redondan embassy (and thereby skirt antismoking legislation). But he has his challengers, and none loom larger than Javier Marias (aka King Xavier), perhaps Spain’s most famous novelist and a perennial Nobel Prize candidate, who has written several seemingly autobiographical books about the kingdom, and even founded an annual cultural prize in its name.
Where Howorth’s claim to Redonda relies on the land, Marias’s appeals to tradition: He was handed the keys to the kingdom in the mid-1990s, from the man who in turn received it straight from Gawsworth — this time on his deathbed. New would-be kings, meanwhile, seem to come out of the woodwork whenever either Marias or Howorth appears in the media to talk about Redonda. These claimants tend to have no connection to the island or the existing lineage, instead content to make loud, scathing pronouncements from the safety of their comparatively meager online domains.
Is the kingdom a joke? It’s hard to say for sure. Redonda ticks a lot of boxes for a micronation, which are tiny, unrecognized countries that tend to exist more in theory than in practice. But the length and sheer persistence of this particular kingdom — not to mention the shelves of Redondan stories, essays, poems, pamphlets, proclamations, and states of the union produced by its inner circle — suggests something altogether more substantial, and maybe even more legitimate.
Yet even as the battle for the Kingdom of Redonda rages on, fought by combatants who all live an ocean away from the West Indies, the island’s actual occupants — rats, seabirds, and a herd of feral goats — live their days as they always have, foraging for food in the tropical sun, blissfully unaware of the whole thing.