New Atlantis: How Ernest Hemingway's Eccentric Little Brother Built His Own Nation

By | January 5, 2022

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Leicester Hemingway points out the location of the “Republic of New Atlantis” to his wife Doris, and their two children, Anne, 7, and Hilary, 3, in the family’s New York apartment. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Although many people were forced to get acquainted with Ernest Hemingway by their high school English teachers, far fewer are aware of his little brother, Leicester—and old Ernie was probably glad for it. To say that Leicester Hemingway was a bit of an odd fellow would be putting it lightly, having gained notoriety primarily by leveraging an obscure U.S. law regarding bird poop to establish his own country, a micronation he named New Atlantis.

Leicester Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was 16 years old when Leicester was born in 1915, so the younger Hemingway looked up to his big brother almost as a father figure and developed many of the same interests. Like Ernest, Leicester was an avid outdoorsman with a gift for writing, publishing numerous articles on fishing and several books, including the semi-autobiographical The Sound Of The Trumpet in 1953 and the 1962 biography of his famous sibling, My Brother, Ernest Hemingway. The latter earned Leicester Hemingway a good deal of money, which he spent the way many of us probably would, given the chance: starting his own country.

Citing the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which granted any U.S. citizen the right to claim and mine any island with a deposit of valuable guano (A.K.A. soil-fertilizing bird poop) so long as it was not already claimed by another recognized government, Hemingway established his own micronation on July 4, 1964. Even that application of the law was dubious at best, however, because his "island" was actually an eight-by-thirty-foot bamboo raft off the coast of Jamaica. Eight miles from the shore, Hemingway secured his raft to an old car engine, dropped anchor in the shallow water, and declared half the raft as belonging to the U.S. and the other half to the new micronation of New Atlantis.

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The flag of New Atlantis. (Hyméros/Wikimedia Commons)

New Atlantis

It might sound like a joke, but Hemingway took the development of his new "country" seriously. He wrote a constitution (sort of—the constitution of New Atlantis was just the U.S. Constitution with every instance of "United States" replaced with "New Atlantis"), his wife designed a flag, he instituted a national currency consisting of carob beans and shark teeth that he called "scruples," and several permanent residents (including public relations specialist Edward K. Moss, his assistant, and Hemingway's wife and two young daughters) moved in. An election was held, and Hemingway was voted the first president of New Atlantis.

Alas, New Atlantis was doomed to fail. Hemingway quickly ran out of money and failed to persuade others to invest in his micronation (i.e., fund the expansion of his raft). In 1966, just two years after its founding, New Atlantis broke free of its tether during a storm and drifted out to sea. Fortunately, no one was injured and many artifacts of New Atlantis, such as postage stamps and a flag, have been preserved to immortalize Leicester Hemingway's questionable ambition.