Historical basis for both Haitian and U.S claims to Navassa

Bob Corbett
June 1999

Our recent discussion of Navassa Island, in response to the claim of an American fellow to own the Isle as he calls it, (http://business.fortunecity.com/ziff/739/navassa.html) led me to discover a little book that gives the roots of the claim of Haiti's ownership of Navassa.

The book is: THE GREAT GUANO RUSH: ENTREPRENEURS AND AMERICAN OVERSEAS EXPANSION. By Jimmy M. Skaggs. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. ISBN: 0-312-12339-6.

Chapter 10 is on Navassa Island, pages 171-198.

The opening paragraphs sketches the dispute between the two nations (Haiti and U.S.) over ownership. The rest of the chapter is more about U.S. exploitation of the guano. These two paragraphs give the fundamental basis of the Haitian claim and the fundamental basis of the U.S. rejection of that claim.

"Navassa, still an American possession despite ongoing Haitian claims to the contrary, was mined longer and more extensively than any other island, rock or key that every appertained to the United States. It was the site of a violent labor disturbance late in the nineteenth century, an event that caused the United States Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the Guano Islands Act.

"Claimed by Americans in 1857 and worked ceaselessly by the Navassa Phosphate Company after 1864, Navassa Island's ownership was again challenged by Haiti in 1872 when that government (citing American abandonment of Alta Vela and Key Verd as precedents) formally presented diplomats in Washington with documentary evidence that Navassa had been discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and had been included in the treaty of 1697, by which Spain ceded the western part of the island of Hispaniola to Paris, as well as in the Ordinance of 1825, by which French kind Charles X recognized the independence of Haiti. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish rejected Haitian assertions of ownership, noting that "Not one instance occupation of the Island previous to its possession and occupation by citizens of the United States in 1857...[nor is any] instance given in which Haiti has ever attempted to enforce any of its revenue laws in Navassa." Observing that the United States has deferred to others with respect to Alta Vela and Key Verd because both were substantially closer to adjacent islands (which was not precisely correct), and because, unlike Navassa, both had been specifically named in the territorial laws of claimant governments, Fish rejected Haitian pretensions to the island, as well as a similar assertion the following year."

Footnoted: U.S. State department, Legal Advisor's office, "Sovereignty of islands claims under the Guano Act" (MS), pp. 385-87; Nichols (1933), pp. 508-509. For details of Alta Vela and Key Verd as well as early American occupation of Navassa, see Chapter 6 of book above.

Nichols, Roy F. "Navassa, a forgotten acquisition." American Historical Review: 38 (April 1933), 505-510.

This addition came a day after I posted the above to the Haitian mailing list.

On Mon, 7 Jun 1999 Mike Levy at Mlevyhaiti@aol.com wrote:

"The Great Guano Rush" does make very interesting reading, not least because it shows so many other sad examples of distortions of international law in the many U.S. claims to guano islands. The book doesn't fully state or analyze the many pillars upholding the Haitian claim to Navassa. By the way, when Haiti became aware of U.S. citizens' presence on the island and their exploitation of guano in 1857, Haitian as well as European diplomats were faced with the reality of U.S. naval power in the region and the unsubtle use of gunboat diplomacy. Diplomatic records at the time refer to the fear that a vigorous assertion of Haiti's rights might have a dramatic destabilizing effect throughout the Caribbean. This was once again a David vs. a Goliath (with a less satisfactory outcome) for those who believe in justice and international law.

Mike Levy


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