Petty Island (pictured) is a long, narrow, 292-acre stretch of land that sits smack in the middle of the Delaware between Philly and Camden, and currently belongs to the government of our beloved oil-provider to the south, Venezuela, whose state oil company has been using it as a fuel storage site.
Last spring, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced his intention to hand over control of the very toxic island to the state of New Jersey so that it could be turned into a wildlife preserve. All of which sounds nice and cuddly, but what about the rightful owners of the land? No, not Native Americans; not local species of water fowl; not exiled captains of Philadelphia sports teams that had great seasons but bombed in the playoffs. None of the above. Once upon a time, from 1851 through the first decade of the 20th entury, Petty Island was a thriving little kingdom of immigrants ruled by Ralston Laird.
Now, cries of injustice are coming from, of all people, irreverent performance and agitprop artist Duke Riley, the mastermind behind this summer’s naval battle at the Queens Museum who’s also no stranger to disputes over small islands. In an open letter to Hugo Chavez posted on the Huffington Post on Tuesday, Riley demanded that the long-overlooked yet typically American story of Laird Kingdom be recognized and commemorated.
In the letter, Riley explains the humble origins of the island kingdom, founded when Laird emigrated to Philadelphia from Donegal:
Shortly after his arrival, he set off for Petty’s Island, where he married, had ten children, and declared himself King. The generous king helped several struggling immigrant families to also establish themselves on the island. Over fifty years later, the island was eyed for industrial development.
The story ends sadly—I won’t ruin it for you, but it basically involves a very small nation founded by hard-working immigrants with Utopian aspirations (Laird Kingdom) being run off their land by a much larger nation founded by hard-working immigrants with Utopian aspirations (the U.S.). In summation, Riley has a list of demands that he’d like met by Chavez in the hand-over of the island, and he’d like to see it governed by the City of Philadelphia rather than New Jersey state, since most of King Laird’s citizens are buried. I’ll just share demand number two, my favorite:
A permanent public monument of Ralston Laird must be included in the historical redevelopment plans for the island. Special programming for the hearing impaired must also be incorporated, in memory of the four Laird princesses who were born deaf.