The Republic of Minerva and the South Pacific Forum

Minerva Reef is situated in the Pacific Ocean between Fiji and Tonga. In early 1972 it housed for a short period of time the Republic of Minerva, a liberalist micro nation founded by an American real estate millionaire, Michael Oliver (Strauss 1999: 155). His organization, the Ocean Life Research Foundation, had raised approximately $200 million to establish the nation and in May 1971 the organization hired a ship in Australia to transport considerable amounts of sand to the reef to raise it  eight feet above sea level (ibid.).The Ocean Life Research Foundation had received legal advice that unclaimed land could be claimed if some practical use could be made of it and had therefore built a tower with a radar mounted on the sand banks (Jenkins 2006). They proceeded to claim the land officially in January 1972 (Trumbull 1972).

The intention was for the Republic of Minerva to be a tax haven, a retreat from bureaucratic control, and a potential headquarter for ecological and marine research (Trumbull 1972). Having only recently gained independence from the United Kingdom or from UN trusteeship, the surrounding pacific island countries were alarmed. The Fijian Prime Minister found that accepting the Republic of Minerva would set dangerous precedence: What was to stop anyone from setting up mini-nations at every other reef? Or as Prince Tuiplehake, the Tongan Prime Minister reportedly said: “We can’t have people setting up empires on our doorstep” (ibid.). The South Pacific Forum had been established the previous year as a forum to discuss matters of regional interest. The new governments of Tonga, Fiji, Nauru, Western Samoa, and the Cook Islands met with the more seasons counterparts from Australia and New Zealand in February 1972 to discuss the Minerva situation. It was decided that Tonga should claim the reefs as they were situated in their territorial waters (ibid.). Subsequently two small islands made from coral and concrete were built by Tongan prisoners during the spring of 1972 leaving the structure permanently above the high tide mark. This enabled the Tongan government to reclaim the Minerva reef and all adjacent reefs within a radius of app. 20 km. This was according to an eye-witness account done in an elaborate and peaceful ceremony attended by the king, a brass band, various government officials, and a journalist (Jenkins 2006). Barring a brief unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the reef by Oliver’s business associates in the 90ies the interest in the Minerva Reef waned.

If it looks inconsequential, one is fooled. The political implications were serious enough. One could say that the Republic of Minerva was an occasion for the South Pacific Forum to legitimize itself and for the recently autonomous Tonga to assert its territorial claims. And they weren’t the only ones practicing politics. The Republic of Minerva was not the first island nation Michael Oliver had attempted to found and it only marked the beginning of his involvement in the Pacific (Strauss 1999). Around 1980 it was reported by staff at a guesthouse in Australia that they had a curious group of visitors calling themselves the Phoenix Foundation, addressing each other by pompous names such as the King (New Internationalist 1981). The guests were talking about arms sale and capital transfers into Pacific Island states. I don’t know about the veracity of this anecdote that reportedly amused the staff so much, but Michael Oliver is linked by various sources to the rebellion at Espitito Santo in the New Hebrides in 1980, today known as Vanuatu. The New Internationalist, a now internet based publication, report that the Phoenix Foundation had channeled $250,000 worth of weapon and equipment smuggled into the New Hebrides formenting the rebellion (ibid.) Another prominent member and founder of the Phoenix Foundation was Harry Schultz the high profile advisor on tax-avoidance who was famous in the 70s and 80s for his newsletter International Harry Schultz Letter reportedly read by both Margaret Thatcher and her adviser Sir Keith Joseph (New Internationalist 1981).

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