At Large

Lament for Sark

The European Convention on Human Rights claims its latest victim.

By 10.26.06

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The week which saw the North Korean nuclear test also saw a piece of news I found rather more depressing: modernity has come to the ancient Seigneury of Sark.

Sark, with a population of 610 people, is one of the smaller of the Channel Isles, about 3 square miles in area, and was until now, under the British Crown, the last Feudal State in Europe. Even the most convinced democrat might wish this tiny relic of Feudalism had been left unchanged.

Once a nest of English Channel pirates, Sark was set up as a Seigneury by Queen Elizabeth I. From 1565 Sark was controlled by 40 landowners, known as tenants, under the Seigneur of Sark. Four times a year the tenants and the Seigneur would have a meeting called the Chief Pleas in the town hall: this was Sark's only government.

Sark had NO motor-cars. The only means of transport apart from feet were bicycles, horses, and carts. There were latterly a couple of tractors to pull the ambulance and the fire-engine. The little shops in the unpaved high street look like something from a picture-postcard. The island's indented coastline means it has sheltered coves, headlands and a length of beach quite out of proportion to its size.

The Seigneur paid the Queen a rent of about $4 per year, calculated as a faction of a Knight's ransom in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. His or her privileges included the Droit de Columbier -- meaning the Seigneur was the only person entitled to keep doves or pidgins. He or she was the only person allowed to keep unsterilized female dogs and also had the rights to any minerals and to anything that washed up on the island's shores.

The residents of Sark have paid virtually no taxes, apart from things like a bicycle tax of about $20.00 per year and a small property levy. Income for public purposes is largely from tourism and a duty on liquor. There had been no income-tax, no capital gains tax, no inheritance tax, no consumption taxes, no local council taxes.

Costs of government have been minimal. There are no asphalt roads to maintain and there have been, incredibly, NO civil servants to pay. Everyone who worked for the government, including the two part-time policeman, did so as a volunteer. There were no mortgages, and divorce was banned. Technically, each of the 40 Tenant families has been obliged since 1565 to supply a man with a musket to defend that family's stretch of coastline from pirates. The tenant's properties had to be passed on intact and could not be subdivided.

Sark was occupied by the Germans during World War II. They wanted to ship off the population, but the Dame of Sark, Dame Sybil Hathaway, told them to put that idea out of their heads and the Germans backed down. (It is interesting that the German Admiral commanding the Channel Islands garrisons, reputed to be an ardent Nazi, later experienced a religious conversion and became a Catholic missionary working in displaced persons camps and in Africa. Perhaps the old Dame's defiance of Nazi power had something to do with it.)

All this on a beautiful, green little island of coves and headlands set is a blue sea with England and the continent close to hand.

The beginning of the end for Sark's idyllic life came when the Barclay brothers, secretive newspaper owners, bought the tenancy of the nearby island of Brecqho in the 1990s.

This fell under the jurisdiction of Sark and its laws, and they began campaigning against the position of the Seigneur and the membership of the Chief Pleas as undemocratic and an infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights. The moral strength of their case was dubious in the extreme because anyone who did not like life on Sark could simply leave on the next ferry to England. Those who lived on Sark did so entirely voluntarily. If Sark was undemocratic, it was undemocratic in a very different way to things like the People's Democratic Republics we have known.

However, the British government, doubtless afraid of offending a powerful press interest, forced a referendum which has apparently ended the Feudal system, with one-vote-for-all elections, although the referendum was passed by only by a handful of votes. The European Convention on Human Rights! If Sark's ancient and proud "apartness" had to be ended in the name of modernity, what a gray, dreary, and somehow dishonest way to do it!

A reporter who visited the island on the eve of democratization interviewed one of the inhabitants:

"I asked him why he loved the island so much. He pointed to a small boy on a bicycle, merrily pedaling along the street. There's no sign of his parents but no one seems bothered. After all he cannot get run over and there is no fear of him being abducted. Such sights are so common on Sark I had forgotten how unusual this would seem back home."

Fred Treeves, 91, the island's oldest man, said when interviewed: "I don't understand why they can't just leave things as they are. We have had 400 years of freedom from the rest of the world and now we are being interfered with."

Exactly. With the end of Sark's feudalism we have lost a quaint, gentle, and absolutely harmless link with the past, and a demonstration of the fact that another way of life is possible, and I for one am sorry for it.

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.