1200 kilometers off the coast of Brazil there’s a small island called Trinidad. It is not the Trinidad of Trinidad and Tobago, but a smaller piece of land covering about 10 square kilometers. No one lives in Trinidad and, in fact, few human beings have set foot on its volcanic hills. However, once upon a time Trinidad was a kingdom fought over by the English, the Portuguese, and the Brazilians. The conflict was a consequence of one man’s dream.
In 1887, an American from San Francisco named James Aloysius Harden-Hickey decided to travel around the world after getting divorced. The world was experiencing great changes at the time. In just a few years, France, the country Harden-Hickey called home, had gone through revolutions, kingdoms, and republics. And in America, the smell of the powder used during the independence wars still hung in the air.
In this atmosphere, Harden-Hickey felt that somewhere, somehow, there was an opportunity waiting for him. Amid so many territories exchanging hands, what was there for him? How could he benefit from all that? Or at least, how could he leave a mark in a history so eager to be rewritten?
Perhaps he was thinking about this when his ship sailed next to the tiny Trinidad.
Harden-Hickey went to Law School in the University of Leipzig and graduated with honors at the French Military Academy in 1875, but after he inherited a small fortune he retired to a more peaceful life in Paris. In 1878 he married the Countess of Saint-Pery.
In the following years he unsuccessfully tried to become a writer, but not because he didn’t try. During this time he wrote more than 11 novels, all of them imitations of works by other authors and met with zero or little interest by the public. However, because they were all pro-catholic and anti-democracy, the French episcopate awarded him the title of Baron of the Holly Roman Empire.
His public life began after the fall of Napoleon III in 1870. That year France reestablished the freedom of the press and pro-Napoleonic factions financed the publishing of Triboulet, a pamphlet seeking to restore the monarch to power. This group considered Harden-Hickey a “talented” writer and hired him as editor in chief of their venture.
According to historian Bill Brick, Triboulet was “edited in the spirit of Villemessant, founder of Le Figaro, who observed, ‘if a story doesn’t cause a duel or a lawsuit, it isn’t any good’”. And Harden-Hickey did well following those words. Within a year, his manager and his accountant were in prison and most of the staff had been jailed for one reason or another. Harden-Hickey was also fined, sued 42 times, and faced his editorial enemies in at least 12 duels. He was lucky to come out of this period alive, but the fun ended by 1887, when the interest to bring any Bonaparte back to power disappeared along with the money that financed the newspaper.
Unemployed and tired of the Parisian political scene, Harden-Hickey decided to reshape his persona. Radically. He renounced the Catholic Church, got divorced, and embarked on a trip around the world. It was during this trip that he saw the insignificant island of Trinidad and, without anything resembling a reason or a plan, he claimed it for himself.
Trinidad was discovered in 1501 by the Portuguese Estêvão da Gama. Later on, astronomer Edmund Haley, the same dude from the comet, discovered it again and claimed it in the name of England. But in 1756, some 250 years later, the Portuguese invaded it after noticing the error. The English took it back in 1781 but abandoned it almost immediately. With the English gone, the Portuguese tried unsuccessfully to populate it, and it held military bases during both world wars and a political prison from 1924 until the fall of the last Brazilian dictatorship in the mid 1980s.
But when Harden-Hickey saw Trinidad for the first time the biggest thing in the island were turtles. Trinidad was a piece of the planet waiting for someone to own it.
Harden-Hickey returned to Paris with big plans for Trinidad, but he fell in love with the daughter of a rich American financier, got married, and forgot about the whole thing. A few years later Trinidad came back to his mind, and thanks to the wealth of his new family he had no problem finding someone to finance his dream. And that’s how in late 1893 newspapers in New York began publishing articles about the process to turn Trinidad into an independent nation. In an interview Harden-Hickey said that soon the island would become a prosperous nation.
The reason behind the articles was to see if anyone claimed Trinidad. No one did, and Harden Hickey took that as a green light to proclaim himself James I, Prince of Trinidad, in 1894.
As generalissimo of Trinidad, he issued bonds, stamps, and tried to ship settlers to the island. He also designed the flag and hired a jewelry firm to create the most important piece of jewelry of the new kingdom: His crown.
Just as with any respectable dictatorship, the Prince assigned all public office positions to his friends and by 1894, anyone who passed by the brownstone at 217 W. 36th St. in Manhattan would see a handwritten note attached to the door that read: Chancellery of Trinidad.
Sadly for Harden-Hickey, news about Trinidad finally reached England and in 1895 the Brits landed troops on the island based on Halley’s discovery. The Brazilians immediately protested the aggression and the Prince of Trinidad, naturally, soon followed suit.
The Prime Minister of Trinidad, a French friend of Harden-Hickey, sent a letter of protest to the United States Secretary of State. This document included the notifications sent in 1893 to all the nations involved and explained how no one had opposed the creation of the new nation. The Prime Minister called for the United States to recognize Trinidad and to declare neutrality.
Almost immediately Harden-Hickey became the laughingstock of every newspaper in New York. Only The Evening Sun sent a journalist to the chancellery to interview Harden-Hickey. The article described the Prince as a distinguished gentleman who received the journalist as the Chief of State he claimed to be. Not long after a box arrived by mail to the offices of The Sun. It contained a gold medal wrapped in velvet. The Prince had granted the journalist the Order of Trinidad.
Soon after the conflict started Harden-Hickey got into a deep depression and in a fit of madness asked his father in law to finance a military invasion of the island. Not long after his wife divorce him.
In 1898, Harden-Hickey, the Prince of Trinidad, broke, humiliated, and without friends, registered in a hotel in El Paso, Texas. On February 9, he went up to his room and the next day he was found dead on his bed. The hotel staff found a bottle of morphine on a table. They also found a letter explaining his decision to his family and a suitcase containing his only earthly possession: The crown of the Principality.