Redonda: kingdom of the birds

King Juan II is the monarch of all he surveys…even if his realm is only a small rock that he inherited from a friend

Illustration by Nikolai Noel

Among the estimated 7,000 islands in the Caribbean archipelago, can there be a less inviting one than Redonda? This squat mass of volcanic rock rises steeply from the sea, looking as hostile as it does lonely. Sheer cliffs of basalt soar almost a thousand feet high and offer just one dangerous landing place, while only sparse grass covers the island’s rugged and barren-looking spine. Christopher Columbus thought it looked round – hence the name he gave it in 1493 – but in reality it is long, narrow and very high.

Not surprisingly, Redonda is uninhabited, except for seabirds and a few hardy goats – possibly the descendants of animals left by pirates. It lies between the much prettier islands of Montserrat and Nevis, but is technically a dependency of the state of Antigua & Barbuda. Few people ever venture up its one stony track that passes through a boulder-littered ravine. Occasionally scientists go there to study volcanic activity in Montserrat, which is clearly visible 14 miles away.

Yet Redonda was once viewed as valuable, and 140 years ago, in July 1869, Britain claimed this hitherto neglected outcrop as part of its empire. A small expedition was dispatched to raise the Union Jack and thereby to warn the United States that this was British territory.

The reason for London’s sudden interest was unromantic: bird excrement. Over millennia colonies of boobies, terns and other sea-birds had been using the island as a lavatory, leaving vast deposits of phosphorus- and nitrogen-rich guano. Guano became much sought after in the nineteenth century as a fertiliser and gunpowder ingredient, and Redonda offered ample supplies of the stuff.

The US-owned Redonda Phosphate Company rapidly began mining operations, paying the British government a levy on each ton extracted. A small pier was built as well as a cable-hoist and rudimentary accommodation for a workforce recruited from Montserrat. At its peak the guano industry exported 7,000 tons a year, mostly to the US and Germany, and the island’s temporary population reached 200 in 1901.

But war and technology conspired to end Redonda’s Golden Age. The First World War cut off exports to Germany, while the development of alternative chemical fertilisers made guano economically redundant. Then in 1929 a vicious hurricane blew away most of what was left of the company’s buildings and machinery and the island was abandoned. All that remains these days are rusting pieces of metal and the foundations of a few buildings.

But this unprepossessing place is not entirely forgotten and indeed excites considerable passions among a small band of enthusiasts who might charitably be described as eccentrics. A cursory search of Redonda-related websites reveals a rich array of strange claims and counter-claims regarding the precise constitutional status of the island. In essence, the guano-strewn rock is thought by some to be the Caribbean’s only kingdom, and if that were not odd enough, there are several competing claimants to its throne.

Of course, the problem with competing heirs to any throne is that they have competing versions of history as well as a tendency to delusion, so much of what we are told about the Kingdom of Redonda should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. But that is what the whole Redonda myth is about – a heady mix of fantasy, delusion, humour and sheer weirdness.

It seems that the following (or something like it) took place. In July 1865, four years before the British took possession of the island, a Montserrat-based trader named Matthew Dowdy Shiell decided to celebrate the birth of his first son – he already had eight daughters – by landing on Redonda with some friends and claiming it as his own kingdom. How could there be any legal obstacle, as the island was hitherto under no jurisdiction?

Shiell’s claim was evidently ignored by the British authorities when they took over, but the Caribbean’s sole monarch persisted in his royal aspirations. When his son, also Matthew, reached the age of 15 in 1880, Matthew Senior abdicated and Matthew Junior was crowned King Felipe. According to legend – and surely the stuff of fantasy – the Bishop of Antigua officiated at the coronation. One wonders what the guano miners made of this bizarre ceremony.

Matthew Junior moved to England in 1885, changed his name to Shiel and quickly established a reputation as a prolific and popular author of popular fiction. Mixing romance, history and an early form of science fiction, Shiel specialised in serial novels and short stories. As might be expected, he was an unconventional character whose private life formed the stuff of Edwardian scandal. Twice married, convicted of sexually abusing his young stepdaughter and always short of money, Shiel lived until 1947 but never returned to the Caribbean.

During his latter years Shiel was befriended by a young poet who went under the name of John Gawsworth. Gawsworth helped the older writer and encouraged him to republish some work, and in return Shiel made Gawsworth his literary executor and heir to the Kingdom of Redonda. It is at this point, moreover, around 1929, that the whole myth surfaced for the first time, giving some credibility to suggestions that it was little more than a publicity stunt meant to rejuvenate Shiel’s flagging literary career.

Whatever the case, Gawsworth’s “reign” from 1947 as Juan I was not an illustrious one. As he in turn struggled to make a living from poetry, he handed out hoax titles of nobility to friends and contacts in the world of letters: the publisher Victor Gollancz, the fellow poet (and drinker) Dylan Thomas and the actress Diana Dors. Visitors to the Alma Tavern in London’s Westbourne Grove could reportedly obtain a peerage from Gawsworth for the price of a drink.

After Gawsworth’s death in 1970 the royal title passed to a friend, Jon Wynne-Tyson (Juan II), but by now the whole business had become mired in claim and counter-claim, and the joke had worn a little thin. Nowadays a handful of pretenders – in every sense – have royal delusions, while the state of Antigua & Barbuda occasionally issues Redondan postage stamps, perhaps in a nod to the long-running joke.

As the Museum of Antigua & Barbuda website sensibly concludes: “Power seems to be a wretched failing of the human race, even to the extent of holding a meaningless title.” But being sensible was never a priority for the Shiells or for the hard-drinking Gawsworth, and Redonda might prefer to be remembered for its imaginary monarchy rather than for bird excrement.