NPF: THE BALLAD OF SMILEY RATLIFF

Because my work schedule involves me working a lot and sleeping little on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before a 3-4 hour drive home in traffic on Thursday evening, I've really been dropping the ball on NPF lately. Let's just say I'm not filled with enthusiasm for writing or doing much of anything else when I walk through the door at 9:00 and flop on the couch. I'm going to try to make it all up to you with the power of this one story.

The British Empire once proudly boasted of covering more of the planet than any in history. While it remains technically true today that "the sun never sets" on said Empire, it has declined to a very tiny sliver of what it used to be. Yes, the UK still has colonial possessions of various kinds. However, the list is not terribly impressive. In the three decades after the conclusion of WWII nearly every part of the Empire that stood a passing chance of surviving on its own economically and militarily declared independence, and the last real part of the Empire of any significance – Hong Kong – returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. What remains, with the arguable exception of Bermuda, is a scattered list of barely populated islands held due to military significance (Diego Garcia, Ascension Island) or because nobody wants them (Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, etc). The Empire as it remains is less a proud possession and more of a burden. You get the distinct impression that were there any way to talk Saint Helena into declaring independence or perhaps to find another country willing to take it the Brits would hand it over with pleasure.

The saddest part of the Empire, though, is Pitcairn Island. Home to less than 50 people today, Pitcairn is known (if at all) as the place where Fletcher Christian and the mutineers from the "Mutiny on the Bounty" incident took refuge. The story has been made into books, films, and other media countless times, so at least Britons are familiar with it. Pitcairn is one of the most isolated populated places in the world, and its population of heavily inbred castoffs has only garnered the interest of the modern world in 2004 when women who escaped the island brought suits in UK courts claiming (accurately, as it turned out) that the island's primary social activity for decades had been organized rape. The UK is at present patiently waiting for the remaining islanders – no women of child bearing age remain to grow the population – to die out so they can declare it uninhabited and be done with administering it once and for all.

So. Let's time travel to a different but equally sad place: Appalachia in the early 1980s. It's time to meet a man named Smiley Ratliff.

Mr. Ratliff was a cartoon character, a multimillionaire coal baron right out of Central Casting. He was dumb, crude, uneducated, weird, profane, and somewhere to the right of the John Birch Society (which he actively supported) – a hybrid of JR Ewing from Dallas and Jed Clampett. Briefly, Mr. Ratliff had a short list of things he hated with a passion bordering on obsession: Communists, psychoanalysis, paying taxes, and journalists were the primary villains in his world. The things he loved included privacy, drinking, his dozen mistresses, and watching old cowboy movies. So, to make a long story short, Smiley decided in the late 70s that what he really needed was to find a remote island somewhere on the globe, buy it, rebuild his enormous mansion there, and be left alone for all eternity.

That is how, one day in 1982, a no doubt bemused British civil servant responded haughtily to a request to purchase Henderson Island – an unpopulated rock off Pitcairn – for the purpose of building an airstrip, leveling everything else, and importing the entire life of one Mr. Arthur "Smiley" Ratliff there. Parts of the Empire are not for sale, "SIR," you can imagine him saying. Undeterred, Ratliff used his wealth and political connections to press the matter. Eventually it occurred to someone in Whitehall that, matters of honor and pride aside, the British do not actually want this goddamn place anymore. And – though it later attempted to deny it – that is how the British ended up very nearly accepting his generous offer of $3 million cash, an airstrip on Henderson with a ferry boat to allow its use by Pitcairners (who were and are otherwise without an air link to the outside world) and medical and telecommunications facilities for Pitcairn and Henderson.

The man was crude and uneducated, but he knew how to do business apparently. The UK government began to realize that it couldn't generate a good enough excuse NOT to accept such an offer. Pitcairn was a money pit and its people a national embarrassment. Here was a man willing to essentially take over the burden of supporting the place in exchange for being allowed to do whatever he wanted on an empty fragment of land near it. Alas, those proud defenders of Empire and British pride found salvation in the World Wildlife Fund, which pointed out that Mr. Ratliff's plan would devastate the pristine habitat of dozens of rare flora and fauna. Some are found nowhere else on Earth. Rather than further antagonize the environmentalists already vocally criticizing the UK government in the early 1980s, Whitehall informed ol' Smiley with regret that it must decline his very nice offer.

Ratliff died in 2007, never having found a government to sell him an island but not for lack of trying. And that's the story of how the British almost sold part of the Empire populated by inbred hillbillies to a different, very wealthy hillbilly so that he might turn it into some kind of Xanadu / Fortress of Solitude.

It's good to be back, Fridays.

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19 Responses to “NPF: THE BALLAD OF SMILEY RATLIFF”

  1. Jimcat Says:

    The Pitcairn sex scandal story would have made a good blog post in itself. I read several articles about it a few years ago, but I hadn't heard the part about all the potential mothers leaving the island.

  2. Kmtberry Says:

    What an unexpectedly nice ending.

  3. Emerson Dameron Says:

    Great – now you've got the rapt attention of Peter Thiel.

  4. Attorney At Paw Says:

    Hadn't heard of that Ratliff character. Obligatory online research ensued, leading me to a WaPo interview piece from 1982. And then I realized… I HAD heard of Ratliff. Because the vitriol cascading from his yap is everything the GOP has taken and tripled down on in the ensuing decades.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1982/04/18/grundys-gold/7f2cb25c-c47b-40d8-9975-f8a35836a209/

  5. BruceJ Says:

    @Emerson

    Peter Thiel reimagined as "King of Swamp Castle" in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail":

    "first I built a libertarian paradise island and it sank into the sea…"

  6. Katydid Says:

    Ratliff couldn't have bought one of the Caribbean islands? There's a show on cable about people who do just that. I'm pretty sure it's even called Buying the Caribbean, and it features real-estate agents ferrying interested people from one for-sale island to another until they pick one to buy. There are big ones, little ones, ones with airstrips and houses already on them, some completely pristine…wasn't there one he liked?

  7. mothra Says:

    I still don't know what The Clurb is. I went to FB and everything, too.

  8. DavidS Says:

    "The UK is at present patiently waiting for the remaining islanders – no women of child bearing age remain to grow the population – to die out so they can declare it uninhabited and be done with administering it once and for all."

    Researching Pitcairn reveals a fascinating, clearly often troubling, history as well as current situation. It certainly seems, however, much more complicated than you present in your post. The current Pitcairn government is actively promoting immigration and, indeed, there are women of child bearing age currently living on Pitcairn (and Pitcairn teenagers attending high school in New Zealand). Doomsayers have been predicting "this is the last generation" since the 1950s; perhaps your predictions fall into this same camp?

  9. mago Says:

    @mothra, me either. I'm guessing it's an exclusive club that would bar me from membership if I had an interest in applying.

    Ratliff . . . the name says it all. I mean, you could dick around with it.

    I like your island lore, Ed. Also back on Fridays.

  10. quixote Says:

    Just to be picky, Henderson Island is not a rock. Or not just a rock. One of the plants I specialized in for my academic work grows there. I'm definitely on the side of the WWF on this one. I didn't even know my plants were in danger of being killed for a vulgarian's air strip, and now I'm relieved to know they weren't!

  11. Jimcat Says:

    Pitcairn has been promoting immigration, but under terms to which no reasonable person would agree.

  12. DavidS Says:

    @Jimcat: "Pitcairn has been promoting immigration, but under terms to which no reasonable person would agree."

    Interesting. I read through the requirements and thought they were remarkably straightforward and easy – – far easier than what the USA, Canada or UK require. What terms did you find unreasonable?

  13. Gretchen Says:

    I think it's unfair to bracket Jed Clampett with J R Ewing. Clampett was a decent but unsophisticated guy. JR was just evil.

  14. Major Kong Says:

    I spent seven long months on Diego Garcia. It is a horseshoe shaped strip of coral roughly 8 miles long and maybe 1/4 mile wide at its widest point.

    Think of it as an aircraft carrier that doesn't move.

  15. jharp Says:

    "and the last real part of the Empire of any significance – Hong Kong – returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997."

    I was in Hong Kong the day the Chinese Army returned. April 1997.

    And I saved a cope of the South China Morning Newspaper.

    Should have saved two. I have two kids.

  16. Skepticalist Says:

    After the election, some of these places may come in handy.

    One can only hope.

  17. schmitt trigger Says:

    "I was in Hong Kong the day the Chinese Army returned. April 1997.

    And I saved a cope of the South China Morning Newspaper."

    WOW!
    You were at the point in space and time where history was made.
    Like being on the evening of 9 November 1989 at Berlin.

  18. chris y Says:

    You omit to mention Gibraltar, retained for naval purposes and because the prospect of getting the population to vote to allow Spain any say in its government seems extremely remote. At the moment the line to Madrid is, roughly, we'll discuss ceding Gibraltar to you when you cede Ceuta and Malilla (Spanish enclaves on the coast of North Africa) to Morocco.

    Gibraltar was in the news lately because through some oversight the British government allowed them to vote in the EU referendum. They went 94% to Remain. This was unsurprising since, though they may be unflinchingly British politically, they have been largely integrated into the Spanish economy for decades

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