Sunday, August 5, 2012

Key West’s Conch Republic Conquers the World—or at Least the Top Part of It

Atop the highest peak in a mountain range that separates Europe from Asia, near the “four corners” area where the Russian Federation’s Kabardino-Balkar Republic and Karachay-Cherkess Republic meet with the Republic of Georgia and with Georgia’s de facto independent Republic of Abkhazia, someone has planted a flag.  But it isn’t the flag of one of the tiny ethnic republics that checkerboard the region, or of one of the vast empires that has warred over the region for centuries—the Ottomans, the Mongols, the Czars, the Soviets.  It represents the Conch Republic, a tongue-in-cheek micronation consisting of the southern Florida town of Key West and surrounding areas.  Dennis Kellner, a former resident of the Conch Republic (or, if you will, Monroe County, Florida) town of Marathon, climbed Mt. Elbrus, in the Caucasus mountains, last month and, on July 16th, his 60th birthday, he waved a Conch Republic flag there for the cameras.

If one treats it as part of Europe, Mt. Elbrus, at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters) is the highest peak in Europe (otherwise it would be Mont Blanc, on the border between France and Italy)—if as part of Asia, Elbrus is exceeded, in western Asia, only by Iran’s Mt. Damavand.

In any case, it is on many lists of the so-called “Seven Summits,” the tallest peaks on the seven continents.  Kellner has also waved the Conch flag (1) on top of Mt. Everest, on the border between Nepal and China, (2) atop Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), in Alaska, (3) on Mt. Aconcagua, in the Argentine Republic, and (4) at the summit of the Vinson Massif, in Antarctica.  Now, with (5) Elbrus under his belt, the only two of the Seven Summits which Kellner has yet to conquer are: (6) Puncak Jaya peak (a.k.a. the Carstensz Pyramid) in Indonesia (a part of Indonesia which for these purposes is considered part of Oceania, that is, the Australian continent, instead of Asia) and (7) Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, made famous in fiction by the Conch Republic’s most famous resident (before it was the Conch Republic), Ernest Hemingway.

Papa Hemingway, in Key West, during the days of U.S. rule
The Conch Republic itself was founded in 1982 as a secession of the City of Key West, one of Florida’s most famous vacation spots, from not just Florida but the United States.  Later, it came to include, depending on whom you talk to, all of Monroe County and thus all of the Florida Keys archipelago, or even the republic’s so-called “Northern Territories,” with Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, in Dade County, marking the far boundary.  The movement began seriously, as a protest over U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints that were putting a crimp in tourism (the closer one gets to Cuba, the less of a sense of humor U.S. customs officers have), and garnered even more attention in 1995 when U.S. Army Reserve used the island of Key West to train troops in invading a foreign island.  The freaks and hippies who ran the pretend Republic decided to treat it as a real invasion and they met the Reserve forces with water cannons and fusillades of stale Cuban bread.  Usually, the U.S. military has a sense of humor about things like invasions that hovers near zero, but in the event the Conchers lucked out: after an indignant letter from Conchers to the Pentagon, the Reserve’s 478th Civil Affairs Battalion staged a good-natured surrender ceremony with the Conch Republic’s department of state.

The Conch Republic, more or less
Today, in the Keys, especially in Key West, the Conch Republic is a huge theme in local tourism and is a positive draw to the islands.  Since Key West is something of a magnet for counter-culture types and also for a diversity of sexual orientations, the Independence Day celebrations every April 23rd (William Shakespeare’s birthday) including things like a Drag Race, which is literally ... well, you get the picture.

Now what I want to know is why so many of the Seven Summits are in zones of territorial dispute.  The Caucasus, of course, is the world’s ground-zero of separatist movements, as readers of this blog well know, with Abkhazia being one of the most fiercely contested ones (Adjara, the Caucasus EmirateChechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, JavakhkNakhchivan, Nagorno-Karabakh, North Ossetia, and South Ossetia being only some of the others), while, closer to Mt. Elbrus, Circassian nationalism in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia is revving up quite hotly nowadays in anticipation of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on the site of a Circassian genocide (discussed recently in this blog).  But the Vinson Massif, too, lies within the Chilean Antarctic Territory, which the Republic of Chile calls its own, in violation of international conventions to keep Antarctica a no-man’s-land with no national territorial claims.

Mt. Vinson can be seen just below the name “Ellsworth.”
The United Republic of Tanzania has recently been shaken by separatist violence in its constituent country of Zanzibar (admittedly, far from Kilimanjaro).  The part of the People’s Republic of China which shares half of Everest is the Tibet Autonomous Region, the focus of one of the world’s most high-profile liberation movements, and Puncak Jaya is in Indonesia’s far-eastern state of West Papua, which for decades has been regularly erupting into civil war after Indonesia promised, then denied, Papuans the chance to vote on separating from Indonesia at the close of the Dutch colonial era.  (For this reason, it is sometimes impossible for westerners to get into West Papua, and so Kellner seems to be opting, since this island of New Guinea’s placement in Oceania rather than Asia is debatable (some maps even draw the line at the ruler-straight boundary between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia!), for the “easy” version of the Seven Summits list, which uses, instead of Puncak Jaya,  the 7,310-foot-tall comparative molehill of Mt. Kosciuszko on the New South WalesVictoria border on Australia’s mainland, which is indisputably Oceania and not Asia.)  And even Denali is the focus of ethnonationalist conflict, though of the purely symbolic, Republican Party, playing-to-the-rednecks sort: some lawmakers in Ohio—home state of William McKinley, 25th president of the United States—continue to resent and resist the peak’s “renaming” with its original Athapaskan moniker.

The Seven Summits

When Kellner checks the last one of his list, he will join an exclusive club, of which fewer than 300 people are members.  And the Conch Republic will almost certainly become the smallest nation to have its flag planted at the very roof of every continent in the world.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it in spring 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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