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7157: Poop Dreams [Haiti's Navassa Island] (fwd)
From: radman <email@example.com>
[See website for photos.]
It's a guano-covered rock in the sea. So why do so many people want a piece
of Navassa Island?
By Brennen Jensen
This is a story about bird shit.
Or rather, to be more precise, guano, the fetid, often petrified feces of
the avian world.
A humble substance, but one that once had the power to move men's souls.
In ancient times, spices, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, were the coveted
commodity that drove Western explorers. Gold, the eternal prize, led the
Spanish to conquer the Incas and Aztecs and sent thousands of novice
prospectors scrambling into the Californian mountains. Today, oil builds
fortunes, causes wars, and elects presidents.
And then there's guano. Prized as a fertilizer, it was what sent men down
to the sea in ships in the 19th
century. And Baltimore, with its booming port and proximity to
nutrient-starved farmlands, was in the thick of this "guano rush." One
hundred and forty years ago, the mayor-proclaimed "Greatest City in
America" might have claimed a less peppy (but more easily provable) motto:
Guano Capital of the Nation.
So yes, in a way, this is a story about bird shit. But it's principally the
tale of a teardrop-shaped hunk of forbidding limestone and coral lying in
the Windward Passage some 40 miles west of Haiti. This two-square-mile
chunk of land has no inhabitants and no fresh water. What it does have is
tons of petrified guano. Baltimoreans killed and died on it.
African-Americans were virtually enslaved on it, decades after the Civil
War. It caused the world's most powerful nation to battle one of the
world's poorest. And this obscure rock led an erstwhile California gospel
singer to sue President Clinton and the U.S. government.
Such is the saga of Navassa Island.
"Guano, though no saint, works many miracles."Peruvian proverb
It's said that Christopher Columbus was the first Westerner to set eyes on
Navassa Island, stumbling upon it in 1493. But the desolate,
cliff-encircled rock held little allure for the intrepid mariner, and he
More than three centuries would pass before Navassa captured the world's
attention. That occurred in 1857, when Baltimore ship captain Peter Duncan
landed on the island, discovered an estimated 1 million tons of petrified
guano, and set about claiming it under a newly minted piece of U.S.
legislation called the Guano Islands Act.
Passed by Congress the year before, the Guano Islands Act was designed to
spur American entrepreneurs to seek out and exploit sources of guano.
American agriculture was clamoring for this new and powerful fertilizer,
particularly Maryland and Virginia farmers, whose soil had been decimated
by decades of rapacious tobacco and cotton production. The act authorized
the awarding of mining rights to any explorer who discovered guano on an
uninhabited and otherwise unclaimed island. Once some procedural paperwork
was completed, the island would be considered to be "appertaining" i.e.,
belonging to" the United States." In other words, one could essentially
hoist the Stars and Stripes over
any desolate island, atoll, key, or reef covered in bird droppings.
The act was geared to break guano-rich Peru's perceived stranglehold on the
market. A series of arid islands off the South American nation's coast
serve as a virtual guano factory: Their fish-filled waters attract vast
flocks of seabirds, which roost, and shit, on the islands. After tens of
thousands of years, the islands were hundreds of feet deep in bird
droppings. The ancestors of the Incas had spread guano on their fields at
least as far back as 500 a.d. and prized this "white gold" nearly as dearly
as their gold gold, but bird poop's value was lost on the conquistadors,
who blindly pursued the latter. Guano's value as a fertilizer didn't dawn
on the West until the early 19th century (Baltimore's first boatload of
bird dung arrived in 1824), but when it did conflict quickly ensued. The
Peruvian government tightly controlled delivery of its smelly commodity to
the world; U.S. farmers thought they were getting too little and paying too
Perhaps Captain Duncan believed he was doing a patriotic duty when he
landed on Navassa. In any event, he quickly made money on the deal, selling
access to the island to a father-and-son pair of Baltimoreans named Cooper.
It was under their watch in 1859 that the U.S. government formally
recognized Navassa as federal property. And not a moment too soon: A year
before, a pair of Haitian vessels arrived, its occupants proclaiming that
Navassa's soil and guano belonged to the nearby island nation. U.S. naval
vessels were called out to chase them away. (Haiti continues to claim
Navassa, but more on that later.)
It shouldn't come as a surprise that guano-mining is one of the most
filthy, foul, dangerous, and degrading jobs conceived by humankind. Fresh
guano is putrid and noxious. Petrified guano (such as Navassa's) must be
mined with picks and even dynamite. Guano islands invariably lie within
sweltering tropical climes, making for sweaty, backbreaking work. (Life and
labor were so wretched on the Peruvian guano islands that some miners
committed suicide to escape it, in some cases plunging headlong off coastal
cliffs.) People willing to do the work were hard to come by.
The Peruvians solved their labor problems by a variety of heinous methods,
including kidnapping and slavery. Chinese peasants known as "coolies" were
one source of workers. Lured on to Western ships with the promise of new
lives in the New World, they sometimes found themselves shackled below
deck, not unlike slavery-bound Africans. Freelance slavers, known as
"blackbirders," roamed the Pacific islands searching for victims to cart
off to the guano mines. In 1862, Easter Island, more than 2,000 miles off
the coast of Chile, was raided, and all able-bodied men were forced into
the guano trade. Only a handful would survive. Easter Island's array of
looming stone heads are a great mystery today, largely because those who
could read the statues' hieroglyphics died digging guano.
U.S. guano operations never quite reached this level of depravity, but
mining on our islands was wretched, dangerous duty, as hundreds of black
Baltimoreans would discover firsthand.
"Go to work, you black [bastards], or I'll blow your brains out."Navassa
Island Superintendent Dr.
Charles Smith, Sept. 14, 1889 (as quoted in the Nov. 22, 1889 Sun)
Ships laden with Navassa guano started arriving in Baltimore in 1857. By
arrangement with the state of Maryland, the Coopers employed prisoners from
the state penitentiary, a neat and practical way around the problem of
In 1864, they and some additional investors formed the Navassa Phosphate
Co. (phosphate being a principal plant nutrient and the main component of
the isle's aged guano). The expanded operation soon tapped a new source of
African-Americans. Unskilled, newly freed blacks faced slim job prospects
after the Civil War, and the company had little problem finding workers
throughout the mid-Atlantic willing to be shipped to the West Indies to dig
guano. The workers were paid $8 a month for tours of duty lasting up to 15
months. The black miners were shuttled southward out of Baltimore on the
company ship, named, with tragic irony, Romance.
Room and board were included in the miner's package, but the former was
minimal and the latter nutritionally lacking. (Workers disparagingly
referred to some of their provisions as "salt horse.") From dawn to dusk,
six days a week, the miners were expected to hack away at the guano
deposits, load it into human-powered rail cars, and deliver it to shoreline
staging areas for eventual conveyance aboard ship.
Accidents and disease were rampant among the overworked, underfed laborers,
but the company was unsympathetic. Workers laid up by injury or illness
were charged 50 cents for each day they were idle. The laborer's slim
income was also whittled away via a gambit that would be the bane of miners and
industrial workers well into the 20th century: the company store. All
manner of goods, clothing, food, tobacco, were sold on the island, but at
prices marked up as much as threefold. Indeed, the company was painstaking
in finding ways to squeeze its black work force. Laborers who didn't want
to sleep on the dirt floor of their rudimentary barracks could secure a
mat, provided they paid the company a $4 rental fee. Many miners wound up
owing more money to the company than they could recoup from their initial
tour of duty and were forced to work extra time to cover their debts.
As if these hardships weren't enough, workers were also subject to harsh
physical punishment whenever a company officer (many of whom wore sidearms)
perceived a behavioral infraction. Errant workers were confined to the
island "jail," a ventless shed, or strung up by their arms and left to
dangle in the tropical sun for hours on end.
If the miners had grievances about their conditions, they had no place to
air them. They were isolated and more than 1,000 miles from home. Even
their letters were censored. The laborers were totally at the mercy of the
company and its better-housed and -fed white overseers.
This situation persisted unabated for more than two decades, until the late
summer of 1889. At the time, Navassa was home to 139 black miners and a
dozen white bosses. Evidence suggests that some workers had been
conspiring to overthrow the company officers for some time, but what
occurred on Sept. 14 was no organized uprising. It was a riot.
It began when Charles Roby, a particularly cruel company man who oversaw
mining operations, badgered and kicked a laborer.
Within seconds, Roby was bashed unconscious with a metal pole and his gun
was stolen. Before long, a group of rowdy laborers surrounded the island
superintendent's house, demanding better food and treatment. Shots were
exchanged between the miners and the several company officials holed up
within. The miners pelted the building with stones and, later, sticks of
dynamite. When they threatened to assault the structure with a blasting
cap, the whites fled in panic.
The riot never ballooned into a bloody free-for-all (indeed, the bulk of
the laborers fled into the island's hinterlands rather than participate);
the rioters sought out specific targets for their vengeful anger. The most
sadistic whites were attacked; others were left unharmed. The overseer of
the dread company store was one such target, he was bashed to death with
rocks. One hated officer was shot in the face, another was dismembered with
By evening, four despised officers were dead (a fifth was injured and later
died of his wounds) and the riot subsided. A British warship was flagged
down by superintendent Smith to deliver news of the riot to Baltimore (via
a Jamaican telegraph station). U.S. vessels were summoned to deliver the
island's population back to Baltimore.
After landing in the city, the miners were marched through the streets to
prison. (The "hard featured colored men were gazed at by curious crowds,"
The Sun reported.) Fifty-four workers where charged with crimes ranging
from rioting to first-degree murder; most of the rest were detained as
witnesses. The black community rallied behind the workers, raising money
through churches and fraternal groups to hire a biracial defense team of
six lawyers. The series of trials, four in all, lasted months and were
front-page news across the country. The defendants detailed the bad food,
slavelike treatment, and corporal punishment. Not surprisingly, company
officers painted a much rosier picture of life and labor on
Navassa. Fourteen workers were sentenced to prison and three condemned to
Even as the trials blazed forward, the Navassa Phosphate Co. resumed mining
guano with a new crew of black laborers, without much change in its
despicable practices. One black laborer detailed Navassa's brutal work
environment in a letter to President Benjamin Harrison, which somehow made
its way through company censors and reached the president's desk. Harrison
sent a Navy vessel to Navassa to investigate the claims. When reports from
the island confirmed much of what the miner had written (and much of what
the trials had brought to light), Harrison commuted the death sentences for
the three condemned rioters. By now, public sympathies, initially fanned by
sensational headlines like "Hunted Down by Negroes!" had shifted in support
of the black workers. (Some historians credit the Navassa riot with
engendering a labor movement that helped end other heinous workplace
But it wasn't bad press that brought about the end of the Navassa Phosphate
Co. Ready phosphate deposits were discovered in South Carolina and
Florida, and the chemical industry began developing inorganic fertilizers.
By century's end, guano's glory days were coming to an end. Navassa had to
be evacuated in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, and the company fell
into receivership. It would never mine Navassa again.
In 1916, the island had a new purpose. The United States built a
162-foot-tall lighthouse there to guide that thronged into the Caribbean
with the completion of the Panama Canal. Initially manned, the lighthouse
was automated in 1929. Its beacon whipped the West Indian skies for
decades. In 1996, with most ships navigated by satellites and computers,
the U.S. Coast Guard shut off and abandoned the lighthouse. Navassa fell
"I just want to be President, and one of the quickest ways to do that is
through guano mining."Bill Warren, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman,
Feb. 29, 2000
Growing up in Pasadena, Calif., a continent away from the West Indies, Bill
Warren never heard of Navassa Island. But five years ago, he discovered the
tiny blip of coral and bird poop in the pages of a world atlas, and his
life has never been the same.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," Warren says over the phone from
his San Diego home.
The fiftysomething Warren possesses the sort of colorful, eclectic résumé
that could perhaps only come out of the Golden State. For years he was a
professional gospel singer, and he says he has sung with Kathie Lee Gifford
and Della Reese. He's also been a cruise-ship entertainer and TV producer,
and names the late Frank Sinatra as "a friend." But perhaps his greatest
love is finding and salvaging shipwrecks, a hobby since the early '70s that
became his full-time avocation 15 years ago.
Warren has hunted underwater treasure from the coasts of Africa to the
waters off Alaska. But finding the wrecks has proved to be only half the
battle. Red tape and international squabbles over salvage rights proved to
be his main impediment to making a living at it.
"Governments are always bad-mouthing people trying to make a profit off
shipwrecks," he says. "We always seek permission to [remove items], but
what happens is that pirates and thieves get there first."
It was this frustration that caused him to crack that atlas, seeking an
out-of-the way place under the U.S. flag (and thus under U.S.
marine-salvage laws) where his business could flourish unmolested. What he
found was Navassa, and his excitement over the island's possibilities as a
treasure-hunting base grew when he learned that its waters teemed with
"I called the Coast Guard in Miami, and they said they were abandoning the
island in a few weeks," Warren says. "They said I could have it."
But it wouldn't be that easy. Warren contacted the General Services
Administration, which is charged with releasing or selling surplus
government property. And here arose a sticky problem:
The agency had no proof that the United States even owned Navassa. It told
Warren he needed to find a deed. This sent him diving into the island's
murky legal history. In a California law library he discovered the Guano
Islands Act, still on the books, though unused for nearly 100 years.
"Bells went off," Warren says, and his focus soon shifted away from
Navassa's underwater riches. The real treasure, he figured, was on dry
land, the tons of aged bird dung still littering the island. The burgeoning
interest in organic gardening, which eschews chemical fertilizers, had made
guano a valuable commodity once again. Warren envisioned selling it over
the Internet for as much as $5 a pound. His fertile mind even imagined
building a resort and casino on the island (and later, a drug rehab center
for teens). Even the island's tragic history had value, he thought, and
Warren sought a screenwriter to help develop a movie based on the Navassa
But first he needed to acquire the island.
"Nothing in the Guano Act said you couldn't use it on an island that had
been already mined," he says. "I flexed my muscles and claimed the island
under the Guano Act."
Warren has never set foot on his quarry; he did get the government's
permission to visit in 1996 but was late for his flight on a Navassa-bound
Coast Guard helicopter. Nevertheless, following the guidelines of the
140-year-old law, he filed an "affidavit of discovery, occupation, and
possession" with the State Department.
The government responded with thundering silence. Desperate for news,
Warren pestered State officials for months. "They threatened me with arrest
if I ever called or sent another fax," he says. "They thought I was a
fruitcake. They didn't bother to read the law."
Warren sought the help of perhaps the country's foremost private authority
on Navassa, David Billington, a Santa Monica, Calif., historian who once
laid his own joking claim to the island and today runs a Web site devoted
to it. <http://www.members.aol.com/davidpb4/navassa.html>
"The island does attract some colorful and some slightly kooky people,"
says Billington, 47, "and I'm probably one of them." He discovered Navassa
in the course of pursuing a boyhood fascination with very small islands and
nations, and once even dreamed of starting his own country there. He has
never visited the island, but when his interest in micronations led him to
embark on a project to distribute surplus books to West Indian
schoolchildren in 1976 he declared himself "King of Navassa" to draw
attention to the effort. ("I never made a real claim to rule the island,"
he says. "It was just a fun way to promote my book project.")
But Billington declined to aid Warren's claim (and declines to speak on the
record about it). In the meantime, Warren found himself fighting the
government on a new front. In January 1997, authority over the island was
transferred to the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs. The
feds began stressing the importance of protecting Navassa's ecosystem, and
renewing guano-mining was not part of the program. (One Interior official,
Warren says, equated him with "someone who wanted to go into Yellowstone
and mow down all the trees.")
"I told them I'm not interested in hurting the environment," Warren says.
"But the Guano Act was alive and well." In a bid to prove it, he sued the
United States in the spring of '97, claiming $12 million in lost revenue
due to the government's inaction on his claim. (He would amend and expand
his suit numerous times in the ensuing years, until the damages reached $50
million and the defendants included Clinton, former Interior Secretary
Bruce Babbitt, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.)
By the following year, Warren's quest to leverage an obscure bird-dung law
into a personal fortune was attracting media attention. A July 1998 Sun
article on the subject caught the eye of a 57-year-old Monkton college
professor named Gerry Patnode.
"Navassa has been part of our family lore and history for a long time,"
says Patnode, who teaches economics and marketing at York College in
Pennsylvania. "It became a sort of Thanksgiving and holiday tradition to
talk about how granddad got screwed out of his island."
"Granddad" is Patnode's great-grandfather, James Woodward, who lived on
Navassa off and on for nine years in the 1890s, initially as a mining
supervisor with Navassa Phosphate. (Patnode stresses that
Woodward was not present during the riots: "He replaced a guy that got
After the company fell into receivership, Woodward formed a partnership
with two other Baltimoreans who bought the island at auction in 1901 for
$25,000. Like so much surrounding the island, the legal status of the sale
is murky; Navassa Phosphate stockholders challenged the
transaction. "Nobody knows what the final outcome was," Patnode says, "but
it's been family lore that he owned Navassa."
Woodward, who died in in the mid-1950s, would regale the family with tales
of his Navassa derring-do, defending the island against Haitian invaders,
serving as an American spy during the Spanish-American War. In 1901, he was
stranded on the island and President McKinley (at the request of Woodward's
frantic wife) sent a naval vessel to rescue him, and he never returned to
Navassa. In the early '60s, Patnode himself had his brush with the island,
serving on a U.S. Navy destroyer out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that often
used the Navassa lighthouse for navigation.
"I always felt all warm [and] fuzzy, thinking how it was granddad's
lighthouse," says Patnode. (But not warm and fuzzy enough to visit: "Oh,
it's a horrible, desolate place.")
Intrigued by Warren's legal wranglings, Patnode flew to California to meet
with him. "He told me things about my granddad even I didn't know," he
recalls. Warren asked Patnode to draft a deed for Navassa, based on the
familial claim. And then Patnode sold Warren the island for $2.5 million.
(No money changed hands; under the deal, payment would come from future
guano profits.) Patnode flew back to Maryland, and Warren, armed with
another arrow in his legal quiver, went back to war.
Meanwhile, in August 1998 the Center for Marine Conservation, a Washington,
D.C.-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group, launched a major
scientific expedition to Navassa, the first such undertaking in decades. It
found the isle rife with unique plants and animals.
"When you look at Caribbean environmental issues, Navassa is a jewel in the
crown with respects to its number of unique species in a small area," says
biologist Michael Smith, who led the expedition to conduct an inventory for
Interior's Office of Insular Affairs. "The number of endemic species is
The scientists combed Navassa's approximately 1,200 acres, cataloging
numerous lizards, insects, and plants that likely exist nowhere else on
Earth. The submerged coral shelf off Navassa's coast is one of the most
intact and thriving in the region. Smith stops short of calling the
environment pristine, as much as a quarter of the island is still severely
scarred from mining operations, and introduced animals (including rats,
goats, and feral dogs) have altered the ecosystem as well, but he says it
has great ecological significance.
"It's not the quality of the habitat that's important, but the number of
unique species," Smith says. "That's what makes Navassa the most
significant site in the Caribbean to be set aside for a wildlife preserve."
Navassa's appeal for scientists notwithstanding, Smith, who has made two
return trips, isn't sanguine about the success of any commercial endeavors.
The beachless, scrub-covered island "offers nothing to tempt normal
tourists," he says, noting in particular its plethora of venomous
scorpions. ("When you zip up your tent at night you can hear them scurrying
over it all night long.")
The expedition didn't go unnoticed in nearby Haiti, where claims over the
island known there as La Navase go back as far as the early 19th century.
Rumors circulated in the impoverished island nation that the U.S.
scientists didn't just find rare flora and fauna, but gold, uranium, and
even (as some of the more extreme tales suggested) the "gateway to
Atlantis." A Haitian oceanographer, convinced that the multitude of unique
species have biotechnical and pharmaceutical value, formed the La Navase
Island Defense Group and prompted his government to claim the island.
This was nothing new; Haiti has made sundry attempts both official and
unofficial to claim Navassa over the years, from the 1858 defeat at the
hands of the U.S. Navy to a brief 1989 occupation by Haitian radio
operators who established "Radio Free Navassa." At a 1998 news conference
about the scientific expedition, Interior Secretary Babbitt, discussing the
need to keep visitors off the island, joked that the Coast Guard would
shoot at any approaching boats, a comment interpreted in Haiti as yet
another defiant show of U.S. sovereignty.
"I don't think he was fully briefed on the history of the island,"
Billington says. "He made statements that made the Haitians feel that
America was reasserting its claim to Navassa, making a big issue out of a
territorial dispute that had been in the background."
In December 1999, the Interior Department, while maintaining political
authority over the island, transferred administrative control of Navassa to
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration, a move that solidified the
island's status as an environmentally protected area.
In the meantime, Warren's lawsuit had been bounced from a California court
to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Reckoning day came last
February, when the court ruled against him. The Guano Act, it asserted,
provided a one-time, revocable license to occupy and mine an island. On
Navassa, the court said, this right was nullified in 1916, when the island
was occupied by the government for construction of a lighthouse, a move
that was not legally challenged at the time. Warren appealed, but on Dec.
26 the U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington upheld the lower-court
ruling. He was simply 85 years too late.
"The statute of limitations had run out," Patnode says. "Essentially they
said, 'Maybe [Woodward] did own it, but it's too late now.'"
After so many years, Warren is not giving up. He is less interested now in
what happened in Washington on Dec. 26 than on what happened Jan. 20. He
has taken note of the new president's support for oil drilling in Alaska's
National Wildlife Refuge and now pins his hopes on finding a more
sympathetic ear for his entrepreneurial efforts in another wilderness
"My next step is to fly to Washington and get a meeting with [Bush] or one
of his aides," Warren says, "and encourage him to get me private ownership
[of Navassa] and let me create jobs."
"The Director of the Office of Insular Affairs advises all persons
interested in visiting Navassa Island that, having made a preliminary
review of the island's ecology, he has decided indefinitely not to allow
visits to the island and its surrounding waters." -- U.S. Department of the
Interior fact sheet
As you read this, turquoise waves pound Navassa Island's formidable cliffs.
Lizards sun themselves on ragged coral outcrops and scorpions scuttle among
fallen leaves. Remains of a 19th-century mining camp, witness to brutality
and bloodshed, crumble into dust.
Forty miles away, Haiti has essentially stopped clamoring for control of
Navassa, and its government is unlikely to press the issue in the near
future, says Miami lawyer Ira Kurzban, Haiti's legal consul in the United
States. As a gesture of goodwill, a Haitian scientist was invited along on
the most recent biological expedition to Navassa last spring.
Seven hundred miles away in Puerto Rico, Val Urban, project leader for the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Caribbean Refuges, contemplates the
beautiful headache Navassa has become. "The island is closed to public, but
we just have a incredible logistical problems dealing with any kind of
enforcement," he says. He hopes to gain funding to post no trespassing
signs along its shores, begin a rat-eradication program, and perhaps hire
someone to make routine patrols of the island from the U.S. base in
Thirteen hundred miles away in Baltimore, Gerry Patnode passes his great
grandfather's adventures on to his own three kids, and recently completed a
book about the battle over the island titled Liberating Navassa. He's
bemusedly nonchalant about the outcome.
Three thousand miles away in California, the erstwhile King of Navassa
continues to amass information about the island and ponder its future. "To
my knowledge, this is the only piece of Interior Department territory so
far away from the U.S. and so close to areas of concern to American foreign
policy, defense, and law enforcement," David Billington says. Navassa is
100 miles from Castro's Cuba, he notes, and lies in a maritime corridor
used by drug traffickerspotential sources of new troubles for the island.
Soon, the island's would-be owner will be farthest away of all, some 5,000
miles from Navassa, hunting for underwater treasure in the waters of
Scotland. "We're going to try and find King Henry the VIII's dinner set in
a river," Bill Warren says.
He says he will soldier on in the battle for what he still calls "his
island," but Navassa is likely to take less of his energies. He has new
quarry: the islands of Serranilla Keys and Baja Nueva, some 400 miles
southwest of Navassa, which he is also maneuvering to claim under the
145-year-old mining law. Sovereignty over these desolate rocks is claimed
by both the United States and the islands' nearest neighbor, Colombia. But
it will take more than rough diplomatic waters to keep Bill Warren from his
"I've been told that if I proceed to claim these islands I'll involve
America in an international dispute," he says. "And my reaction is, 'Why
should I care?'"
Navassa Island [CIA World Factbook]