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Navassa: Tropical Paradise of Bird Droppings

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The tallest (and pretty much only) structure on the island of Navassa.

 In 1856, the United States Congress passed an interesting bill called the Guano Islands Act, which President Pierce didn’t have to think twice about signing into law.  The Guano Islands Act simply said that any citizen of the United States was permitted to claim any island they discovered as an American possession, provided that island had significant deposits of guano (aka bird poop) on it.  Any such islands, of course, could not be already possessed by another country.  The islands didn’t have to be very big, or even be islands at all.  It also applied to barren, uninhabitable rocks that might poke over the surface of the sea.  Now, the United States, like a number of other countries, was going through an expansionist period in the 19th century, but why would it care about small, remote islands like these?  They’re too small to colonize and too remote to be of strategic importance, and they’re covered with bird poop, so what good are they?

They’re good for guano and, as it happened, guano was worth looking for.  The reason was that guano is an excellent source of saltpeter, which was an essential component in making gunpowder.  Guano also made an excellent fertilizer.  An 1859 study of what was referred to as a “tired” acre of a Georgia cotton field yielded 808 pounds of cotton.  The adjacent “tired” acre was dusted with guano and yielded 1,800 pounds of cotton in the same season!  (American cotton plantations seldom bothered with crop rotation, which also keeps farmland productive, though there’s a famous exception in Alabama that I should probably save for another Fact of the Day segment.)

By the 1840s, the United States was importing saltpeter, so any source of the stuff was considered welcome.  Private companies were always on the lookout for small rocks, islands and archipelagos to claim for themselves, and thus for the United States.  Approximately 100 islands were claimed as American territory this way, though only a dozen guano islands are still claimed by the United States.

Guano mining was hard, unpleasant work.  Often it would have accumulated over many years, or centuries, as birds flying over seas and oceans would use them as places to rest.  Baked by the sun into hard chunks, you couldn’t just show up with a shovel and start digging it up.  Guano mining was strip mining in the truest sense of the word, and it often had to be done in hot, tropical climates, far removed from civilization.

Of the twelve guano islands still claimed by the United States, two claims are disputed by Colombia, and one is disputed by Haiti.  The island that Haiti claims is a small one called Navassa.  Navassa was named by Christopher Columbus in 1504, so named because it was flat.  (Nava is Spanish for plain.)  Navassa, about two miles long, was of little interest to anyone until this act was passed and an American company tried to set up operations there.  Haiti claimed the island, but the American government moved forward anyway, giving Peter Duncan, the American sea captain who “discovered” Navassa in 1856, full rights to set up operations there and start mining guano.

Guano mining in Navassa didn’t get underway until 1865.  Duncan’s operation involved 140 black contract workers from the United States who lived in a barracks on the island in a small site called “Lulu town”, which also had quarters for the white overseers.. um, I mean, bosses, and a church.  Guano was loaded onto rail cars and rolled to the shore where it was loaded onto small boats which carried it to the freighters off shore.  It had to be done this way, since there were no good ports to allow the freight ships to get close enough.

This went on for about thirty years.  The workers were called contract workers, since slavery was officially illegal, but that didn’t mean workers weren’t treated like slaves.  Treatment of the “contract workers” got so bad that they eventually revolted, rising up and killing five supervisors in September 1889.  Three of the workers on Navassa were tried and sentenced to death, but in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison intervened and commuted their sentences to life in prison.  The incident was important enough that Harrison felt it was worth mentioning in his 1891 State of the Union speech.  In the speech, the president devoted a long section to the excoriation of the abuse of these workers, and to the abuse of workers on other guano islands, and how his administration planned to work with other nations to establish international standards of the treatment of such workers.

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Navassa: a beautiful tropical paradise... covered in bird droppings.

The guano operation in Navassa went bankrupt in 1901.  Later, the United States Navy built and manned a lighthouse there, but the lighthouse has since fallen into disuse, as well.  American ham radio operators would sometimes use the island as a base of operations, but have been barred from doing so since 1999, when the United States declared Navassa to be the Navassa Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Commercial interests have not given up on Navassa.  An American salvage company tried to claim the island under the Guano Islands Act as recently as 1997, but the claim was rejected in the courts.  To this day, Haitian fisherman will regularly camp on the island, since Haiti still claims it as sovereign territory, as specified in its 1987 constitution.  No doubt the US Parks Service would like for those fishermen to stop camping there, but don’t expect a war over Navassa any time soon.  An island full of bird droppings just won’t get you as far as it used to.

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The flag of Navassa shows its skyline.  Note the lighthouse and... um... that's about it.


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