I thought I knew my British colonial history, but for some reason the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 had passed me by. For almost a century, the UK ruled a tiny archipelago off the German coast, but with German national pride increasingly affronted, London agreed to an island swap: Heligoland was gifted to Kaiser Wilhelm II while Britain gained Zanzibar, east of the German colony Tanganyika.
Queen Victoria was not amused, fearing a slippery slope. 'The people have been always very loyal,' she remarked, 'soon nothing will be secure.' Last week I visited this forgotten piece of imperial Britain, intrigued by its multi-layered identity and contemporary relationship with what some perceive as another imperial project – the European Union.
The high-speed ferry from Hamburg was an experience. Once we left the mighty River Elbe the sea became increasingly choppy, which rendered walking around rather difficult. For some reason the Germans on board (and they were mostly German) found this hilarious, taking it in turns to go outside in order to get blasted by wind and rain. They only stopped laughing when they began vomiting.
I myself spent the final 20 minutes of the voyage clinging on to a toilet in between convulsions both personal and external (not helped by having over-imbibed in Hamburg the evening before). Then suddenly the clouds lifted, the wind dropped and everything was relatively calm. The sun even shone on a surprisingly developed slice of Germany in the North Sea.
Near the disembarkation point I found a rusting cannon bearing the British coat of arms, but otherwise there was little sign of Heligoland's 19th-century membership of the empire. Instead, neat rows of colourful wooden houses reminded me of Portmeirion in north Wales, the other-worldly setting for the cult 1960s series 'The Prisoner.' There were few cars, only golf carts and bicycles. I am not a number, I told myself, I am a free man.
And I was, of course, free to wander during the three hours of on-shore time permitted by the boat schedules. The main attraction, Lange Anna, a free-standing 47-metre-high rock column to the north-west of the main island, stank of seaweed and seagull shit, but the views were as arresting as the wind. Back towards the main settlement was the strikingly modernist St Nicolai church, onto which had been attached a 19th-century plaque dedicating its (now destroyed) predecessor to Queen Victoria.
Otherwise, almost everything on Heligoland (Germans do without the 'i', calling it Helgoland) dates from latter half of the 20th century. Although the British dispensed with the island in 1890, they returned in April 1945 when the RAF deposited an astonishing 7,000 bombs. The majority of the population survived in deep bomb shelters (one of which is now open to visitors), but the bombardment changed the island forever.
Not only did the onslaught render Heligoland uninhabitable, but after the war – with the population now evacuated – it was used as a testing ground for experimental British bombs. Thousands of tonnes of explosives completely flattened the island, a 'big bang' in 1947 even creating an entirely new district, the Mittelland, after one side of the island collapsed under the pressure. This now divides the island between the Unterland ('Lower Land') at sea level, where the harbour receives day-trippers from Hamburg, and the Oberland ('Upper Land'), where Lange Anna presides at its northern tip.
The eclectic Heligoland Museum bears witness to this destructive second phase of British rule, an unexploded bomb and the remains of a Lancaster bomber greeting visitors at its entrance. In spite of this, the islanders remain well disposed to British visitors (although they are rare), while also maintaining their distance from the mainland. Ethnic Frisians, the local population – around 1,000 of them – speak a Heligolandic dialect known as Halunder. The island's green and red flag is also ubiquitous, long shorn of its Union Jack.
Today, the island is one of several parts of Europe that enjoy a curious constitutional status, part of the European Union by virtue of its relationship with Germany, but also excluded from VAT and the customs union. As a result, Heligoland's main town is full of airport-style duty free shops flogging cheap whisky and vodka. It's proof that the EU is a flexible entity, not the one-size-fits-all oppressor of many a Brexiteer fantasy, although such flexibility tends to apply to islands rather than parts of mainland member states.
The day I visited, the Herald carried news of Alex Salmond's aspiration that an independent Scotland should seek to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as a precursor to re-joining the EU, therefore preserving its place in the single market and mitigating the worst effects of a hard 'English' Brexit. Weirdly, this volte-face is accepted almost without comment, with few asking the obvious question: why not seek full membership at the earliest opportunity? With independence achieved and Brussels understandably hostile towards London, the path would be clearer than ever before.
To borrow a German term, 'realpolitik' is at play. Just as in the late 19th century, when the British empire calculated that its interests would be better served by possession of Zanzibar rather than Heligoland, Salmond (and others in the SNP) are trying to find a way of appeasing that large band of Yes-Leavers who deserted the party in June's general election. EFTA is a fudge, a piece of triangulation; the fact that it completely contradicts 30 years of party policy and the whole premise for a second independence referendum concerns only pedants.