We often can be found liming – that’s lounging in Caribbean speak – at Mama Joy’s beachside restaurant and bar on Paradise beach. Her establishment is a simple, open-air, planked platform with brightly coloured railings, covered by a corrugated tin roof. It features a wooden bar at one end, shuttered for the night, and a simple kitchen off to the side. It seats about 20 people on an odd collection of chairs and tables. The turquoise water laps the white beach just steps away where a couple of brightly coloured local boats are always bobbing on the gentle swell. It’s called Paradise Beach because that is what it is. We meet there to play cards, drink beer or rum punches and just hang out.
There is always a motley gang of tourists, locals, boaters and day time visitors liming at Mama Joy’s and we always meet interesting characters or hear a new story or yarn. This story about the smallest kingdom on earth is part fiction, part fact, another part legend and one part fantasy, told to us by a passing sailor on a lazy, languid Sunday afternoon. A fascinating tale, like a rare shell found on a sunny beach, between a couple of Joy’s rum punches. As soon as I got back home I looked it up, not expecting to find anything about Redonda but I was wrong. The sailor had most of it right and here are the salient points of this unusual Caribbean tale.
Redonda is an island the size of a small park about one and a half km long and a half km wide with a 300m peak and it is teeming with bird life. It’s steep, rocky and uninhabitable and lies between the islands of Montserat and Nevis and is part of the leeward island chain in the West Indies. Since nobody claimed jurisdiction of the lonely rock M.D. Shiell, a seafaring trader and lay preacher from Montserat, laid claim to the micronation when his son war born. He requested the title of King of Redonda from Queen Victoria and as legend has it, the title was granted it to him by the British Colonial office.
The son, who became the fiction writer M.P. Shiell, was crowned King of Redonda at the age of 15, in 1880, according to his own testimony. For about 50 years, straddling the turn of the last century, Redonda’s rich deposit of guano was mined by the Brits and the lucrative phosphates made the tiny monarchy literally the Kingdom of Shit.
Shiell,’s chief admirer, the London poet John Gawsworth then held court as King Juan I of Redonda. He was the biographer of Arthur Machen who became Archduke of the Realm. Gawsworth passed the crown on several times when he was low on funds and eventually, in 1967, bestowed it to another friend, a publican by the name of John Roberts. Later on, the author and publisher, John Wynne-Tyson claimed the title and ruled as King Juan II until abdicating in favour of the novelist Javier Marias of Madrid in 1997. Several self appointed monarchs laid claim to the realm the crown, including Shiell’s granddaughter, a Lancashire housewife who was hailed as ‘Queen Maggie’ of Redonda by the Daily Mail. A stellar legion of Redondian peers, mainly writers, date back to the beginning. The list includes Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Pedro Almodovar, Francis Ford Coppola, A.S. Byatt, Alice Munro, Umberto Eco, George Steiner, Ray Bradbury, Frank Gehry, J.M. Coetzee, Eric Rohmer and Philip Pullman.
Undisputed kings include M.D. Shiell, his son Matthew Shiell or King Felipe 1 and John Gawsworth, who styled himself as King Juan I and frequently held court in the sixties at the Alma Pub in Westbourne Grove, London.
Some disputed monarchs are the publican Arthur Roberts or King Juan II and John Wynne Tyson who until 1997 called himself King Juan II as well. Then followed Javier Marias who ruled as King Xavier, Bob Williamson aka King Bob the Bald and Michael Howorth as King Michael the Grey were other contenders.
In 2007, The Wellington Arms Pub in Southampton, England, tried to declare itself as an embassy of Redonda, in order to gain diplomatic immunity from a nationwide ban on smoking in public places, even in pubs, but the attempt failed when Her Majesty’s Government turned them down.
In May 2007, Wynne-Tyson, Javier Marias, Bob Williamson and a couple of others were all interviewed by the BBC Radio 4. It aired as a documentary: Redonda the island with Too Many Kings.
The legend of the Kingdom of Redonda is a modern fairy tale, an odd piece of literary mythology to be taken with a measure humour and wonderment but without being too serious about it. It’s a tale best told and listened to while sipping a rum punch or a cold beer on the leeward side of the island, with sand between the toes and salt in the air, the sun on high and the horizon a straight line between the bright blue sky and the turquoise sea.