Sunday, November 18, 2007

Proof That America Gives a Poop!

U.S. Code, Title 48, Chapter 8, Sections 1411–1419, better known as the Guano Islands Act of 1856, empowered U. S. citizens to claim any island in the world which was uninhabited and not under the jurisdiction of any other country as U. S. territory, so long as the island had large reserves of guano.
"Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States." (first section of Guano Islands Act)
Now for those who may wonder what guano is, basically it's another word for bird droppings, which are rich in minerals and make an excellent natural fertilizer. The U. S. economy of the 1800's relied heavily on agricultural products, and guano was the best known fertilizer at the time.
In 1857, Peter Duncan, a citizen of the U. S. and ship captain, claimed Navassa Island in the Caribbean for the U. S. under the Guano Act. He turned possession over to his employer, who in turn sold the rights to "mine" the guano to the newly formed Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore, Maryland.
Mining guano is one of those awful jobs that even Mike Rowe from Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" would probably balk at. Done in extreme heat, with bird doo that is putrid smelling and back breaking when it is dried up and layered after thousands of years, (it took pick axes and dynamite to break up this stuff), it's no wonder that finding workers to handle the stuff was a daunting task. Peru, who up to the time of the U. S. Guano Act had the monopoly on guano production, would capture unsuspecting Chinese and other Asians and shackle them in the holds of ships to be transported to the guano mining islands, (a scene very reminiscent of the U. S. African slave trade).
In order to mine the guano on Navassa Island, the Navassa Phosphate Company struck up a deal with the state of Maryland to use incarcerated prisoners which the company would ship to the island and put to work there. It was a win-win situation for both sides, but after a short time, one which proved ineffectual for the company.
After the Civil War, freed black slaves were looking for work. Job offers were scarce, so when the Navassa Phosphate Company offered them $8.00 a month plus room and board for signing up for a length of 15 months, many freed blacks jumped at the opportunity. What they didn't realize was that they pretty much signed up to be placed back into slavery.
The conditions on Navassa Island were brutal. Not only the weather and stench were unbearable, but so were the white foremen. With no water at all on the island, the imported drinking water was probably rationed. The working week consisted of dawn-to-dusk mining, (which makes for a very long day when you're near the equator), six days a week. Add to that the abusive treatment of stringing up "slackers" from a tree by their wrists and dangling in the hot sun for hours, as well as other similar attrocities, one could say the working conditions weren't ideal. In time, a rebellion ensued.
On Sept. 14, 1889, the tensions finally came to a head. At that time, Navassa had 139 black workers and a dozen white supervisors. When one of the more violent supervisors kicked and struck a worker that day, a riot ensued. A number of the black workers attacked the supervisor, slamming him aside the head and took his sidearm, which all of the white supervisors carried to help them "get their point across". These workers, along with countless others, then surrounded the island superintendant's house, demanding better working conditions. Shots were exchanged between the holed up whites and the black workers, and even dynamite was tossed at the superintendant's dwelling. When the workers threatened to set a blasting cap to the house, the whites fled in terror.
Not all of the workers got involved with the riot. Most merely fled the scene to the interior of the island to escape the happenings. The workers who remained, however, sought out only those whites which were the most abusive. Four of the whites were killed that day, with a fifth dying shortly thereafter from injuries suffered during the attack. One of the supervisors was shot in the face, two others had their heads bashed in, while the most abusive of the supervisors was dismembered with a hatchet.
The rioters were soon transported back to Baltimore for trial, where three of the ringleaders were sentenced to death. Upon a grass roots swell of protest within the black community, as well as letters from the white judges who oversaw the cases, President Benjamin Harrison commuted the sentences to jail time only. A letter which reached Harrison from one of the black workers about the working conditions on the island didn't hurt the cause either, especially when the details were confirmed by a U. S. Navy vessel which was sent by Harrison to investigate.
A new black work force was sent to Navassa, and the murdered white workers were replaced by new white supervisors. Even after the riots, the working conditions remained virtually the same as they had always been.
By 1898, other guano reserves were discovered in South Carolina and Florida, and scientists were discovering new inorganic fertilizers. Add to that the advent of the Spanish-American War, Navassa Island was no longer a guano entity and the Navassa Phosphate company pulled out, then went into receivership. Guano would never be mined there again.
O.K., so what does that have to do with a blog about lighthouses? I'm getting to the lighthouse part, but first I had to tell you how the U. S. ended up on the island in the first place.
In 1914, the Panama Canal was opened. Ship traffic from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa, no longer had to traverse around Cape Horn and the tip of South America, it could cut the long and dangerous journey virtually in half by cutting through Central America. New shipping channels through some dangerous waters were now being used.
One of these channels, the Windward Passage, happened to pass between the islands of Cuba and the western coast of Hispaniola, where the nation of Haiti lies. Aids to navigation became sorely needed along the channel, so, in 1917, the U. S. constructed a lighthouse upon Navassa Island, which is smack dab in the channel. Outside of the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico, this was the only lighthouse operated by the U. S. in the Caribbean.
The lighthouse tower stood 162 feet tall and was on the highest point on the island, making for a focal plane of 395 feet. A keeper and two assistants were assigned to the light station.
Now in the previous account of the guano mining on Navassa, I related how difficult the island was to live on. The tropical climate coupled with the lack of water and endless bird dropping stench made this a difficult station to man. Although I have yet to find a list of keepers for this station, I'm sure that I would probably find a number of resignations on that list.
In the 1920's acetylene lamps were being experimented with to automate lighthouses, and proved to be quite capable for the times. Electricity was also becoming more prevalent, but with the remoteness of Navassa Island, this definitely wouldn't be an option. In 1929, Navassa Island became one of the first U. S. lighthouses to be automated, most probably with an acetylene lamp. Twice a year the Coast Guard would service the station.
During WWII, the U. S. Navy set up operations on Navassa Island as an observation post for the Caribbean. (I wonder, as a member of the navy in WWII, which was more frightening, combat duty or being stationed on Navassa!). At the end of WWII, the navy left, and with the exception of some transient Haitian fishermen and occasional ham radio operators, the island has been uninhabited since.
In 1996, after nearly 80 years of operation, the U. S. Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse and shut down the station. On August 29 of that year, the Coast Guard dismantled the lighthouse. It then transferred the island to the Department of the Interior, which oversees all uninhabited U. S. territories.
A 1998 scientific expedition led by the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington D.C. described Navassa as "a unique preserve of Caribbean biodiversity." Virtually untouched for over 100 years, and despite the absence of water, the island supports many species of wildlife and fauna that are either endangered in other areas of the Caribbean, or just don't exist anywhere else. Navassa was then transfered to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife service and the island is now the Navassa Island National Wildlife Preserve. It is also off-limits to the public.
It would seem that the fate is now sealed for Navassa Island, but not so fast. The nation of Haiti, throughout the U. S. occupation of the island, has also laid claim to "La Navase", as they call it. An unstable government, as well as being the poorest nation in the Caribbean, have hampered their efforts to petition international courts to reclaim the island. It has been a sense of contention in Haiti in recent years and eventually, the matter will have to be settled.
Then there's Bill Warren.
A former gospel singer, Bill Warren is a modern day treasure hunter. Seeking a remote island under U. S. jurisdiction to base his shipwreck salvaging company from, Warren discovered Navassa Island just before the Coast Guard deserted it in 1997.
While attempting to secure the island from the federal government, the General Sevices Administration could find no proof that the U. S. Government owned the island. Warren then set out on a mission to find such a deed. Instead, he came upon the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which remains on the books. Warren shifted his sights from shipwreck salvaging to guano mining, and has claimed the island for the purposes of harvesting the guano, (organic fertilizers are once again big business). It seems, to Mr. Warren at least, that there is no stipulation in the law that excludes an island which has previously been claimed for guano mining from being claimed again. Due to the island now being part of the National Wildlife Reserve, a monkey wrench seems to be thrown in to that argument.
Warren, however, has another trick up his sleeve. He "purchased" the island from Gerry Patnode for $2.5 million, all to be paid from the guano mining profits. It seems Patnode's
great-grandfather, James Woodward, replaced one of the supervisors who was murdered during the 1889 riots. After the Navassa Phosphate Company went into receivership, Woodward, along with two partners, purchased the island in 1901 for $25,000. The legal status of the sale, like everything else concerning Navasse, is a bit, shall we say, "foggy".
Nevertheless, Bill Warren is still pursuing the island through the courts.
It appears as though Haiti, at least for now, has relaxed its claim on the island. As a measure of goodwill, (and obviously to try to take some of the pressure off), a Haitian scientist has been invited to join the Americans who are plotting all of the fauna and wildlife on the island. At least for now, it seems as though there are quiet times for the fight for Navassa Island.

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