CLOSE

6 Short-Lived Countries That Don't Exist Anymore

Rulers and nations have come and gone throughout history. Some of them have been important, leaving behind a legacy that affects us to this day; others, like the ones on this list, vanished almost as quickly as they started.

1. THE GREAT REPUBLIC OF ROUGH AND READY (1850)

While details of this republic are sketchy, the story goes that in 1849, the town of Rough and Ready, California was founded by miners from Wisconsin who had come west hoping to get rich from the Gold Rush. But the next year, they found out that the American government wanted to tax their shiny finds, and they weren’t happy about it. So in April 1850, more than 10 years before the first state would secede and start the Civil War, the tiny town declared it was now a Great Republic. The miners elected a man named Colonel E. F. Brundage as their first president and even drew up a Constitution, in which they threatened to use force against the United States if they were not allowed to leave peacefully.

Fortunately, the military wasn’t needed. During that year’s July 4th celebrations, the saloon owners in nearby Nevada City refused to serve alcohol to Rough and Ready citizens on account of them being “foreigners.” Obviously this was much more distressing than having to pay taxes, and at a town meeting the residents voted to rejoin the United States immediately.

2. KINGDOM OF CORSICA (1736)

Theodor Stephan Freiherr von Neuhoff was an adventurer at heart. Born in 1694 to a German noble family, he joined both the French and Swedish armies, was involved in various international intrigues, and married a lady-in-waiting to the Spanish queen. But married life didn’t suit him, and not long after they were married, he abandoned his wife to wander around Europe some more.

In Genoa, he met a group of rebels and exiles from the island of Corsica, who were fighting the Genoese for control of their homeland. Despite having no military of his own, Theodor promised to help them if they made him king. Somehow he managed to borrow enough money to afford arms and ammunition, and the Kingdom of Corsica was born.

At first, King Theodore I and his rebels had some luck. He set up a court, started printing money, and knighted various family members. But soon his luck turned. With a price put on his head by the Genoese, the “king” ran for it after only eight months. He spent the rest of his life in and out of debtor’s prisons, until he signed over his theoretical rights to his kingdom to pay off his creditors. His gravestone’s epitaph points out the irony of his life with the lines: “Fate poured its lessons on his living head, bestowed a kingdom, and denied him bread.”

3. SOVEREIGN PRINCIPALITY OF ELBA (1814 to 1815)

The first time Napoleon was beaten, everyone felt bad for him. He was, after all, a genius military commander. He needed to be punished, but there was no need to be vindictive.

So, according to the Treaty of Fontainebleau, while he was exiled to the tiny island of Elba off the Italian coast, he was allowed to be the non-hereditary monarch of that piece of land until he died. Sure, it was a big step down from Emperor of France, but it was still something. He could keep calling himself a king and ordering people around, plus he got two million francs a year. It was better than what most people had.

Amazingly, Napoleon wasn’t happy with his demotion and fled Elba for the mainland where he managed to revive his empire for 111 days (but which is known as the Hundred Days). His enemies weren’t thrilled about this and took back the title they had given him. Then Napoleon was defeated for real at Waterloo. This time there was no award for being a good loser. On St. Helena (another small island, but this time much further from the mainland) he was decidedly not in charge, with the governor of the island calling him “General Bonaparte” at all times.

4. KINGDOM OF ARAUCANíA AND PATAGONIA (1860 to 1862)

The Mapuche, a group of indigenous inhabitants of the southern area of South America, were having trouble with Chile and Argentina trying to take their land away from them. Then, in 1860, a French lawyer and adventurer named Orélie-Antoine de Tounens was in the area and heard about the tribe’s issues. After he talked with the leaders, they decided to elect him king in the hopes it would give their claims more legitimacy in the other countries’ eyes.

Orélie-Antoine wasted no time in setting up a capital, designing a flag, and printing money. Unfortunately, the neighboring countries still refused to recognize the Mapuche state, and they arrested him. But Orélie-Antoine escaped, so he was captured again; the authorities decided he must be insane if he thought he was king of his own country, and they threw him in an asylum.

Eventually he got out and returned to France, but he never stopped trying to get his kingdom back. In fact, he selected a French champagne salesman as heir to his throne. The most recent monarch purchased the title for himself, and even managed to get it on his passport. But he died in 2014 and two different people are currently fighting for his (theoretical) throne.

5. REPUBLIC OF MARYLAND (1854 to 1857)

In the early 1800s, slaveholders and abolitionists found a common cause. Groups from both thought that free black people should go back to Africa, if for different reasons. The slaveholders thought free blacks would cause trouble and incite slave revolts. Abolitionists, on the other hand, worried about the discrimination they knew free blacks would face if they stayed in the United States. They thought it would be best if free blacks built a new home for themselves. So the two groups formed the American Colonization Society and started new countries on the west coast of Africa. Among its other goals, it hoped that its colony would also bring “civilization and the Gospel” to Africa.

Most free blacks had no intention of leaving the United States, since by that point their families had been there for generations, and they were as American as any white person. But thousands did go, and one of the colonies they went to was the Republic of Maryland. In 1836, the colony appointed its first black governor, John Brown Russwurm. For 20 years, things ran smoothly until, in 1854, the colony declared independence. Just two years later, they began to be attacked by local tribes for interfering with the slave trade and had to ask nearby Liberia for help, which led to them becoming part of that country.

6. REPUBLIC OF SONORA (1854)


In 1853, an American journalist named William Walker petitioned the Mexican government for a bit of land. He hoped to use the area to create a colony that would serve as a buffer between the United States and some Native American tribes. But Mexico wasn’t interested in handing over a chunk of their country.

This didn’t stop Walker. He went to San Francisco and started recruiting people to help him take the land by force. After just 45 men had signed up, he attacked the tiny capital of sparsely populated Baja California. He also claimed the neighboring area of Mexico, even though he never actually controlled it, and declared the whole thing the Republic of Sonora.

Fearful of retaliation by Mexico, attacked by Native Americans, and short on supplies, Walker’s men started deserting him. Soon he was back in San Francisco. Despite the fact that the city had been a big fan of the new Republic, selling bonds in its name and even raising its flag in some places, his actions had violated the peace treaty signed after the Mexican-American War.

Walker was put on trial for conducting an illegal war. But this was the period of Manifest Destiny, when people thought it was God’s will that the U.S. take all the land it wanted until it reached the Pacific. That’s probably why it took the jury just eight minutes to acquit Walker of all charges.

But Walker didn’t learn his lesson. Not long after he was acquitted, he headed off to Nicaragua, where he established a dictatorship that was recognized by American President Franklin Pierce. But soon, he alienated political allies, neighbors, and business interests, and eventually ended up in front of a firing squad.

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios