|Watch your step!|
You'll notice in the little "About Me" box to the left that my location is "U.S. Minor Outlying Islands." I thought that was a pretty accurate description of our obscure little river town. Oh, but a story is behind that geographical designation. You would expect nothing less.
Would you believe -- as Maxwell Smart used to say -- that the United States owns an island, included in that group of Outlying ones, just off the coast of Haiti? And why would we? The answer has to do with the intersection of the law with that white goop deposited by generations of birds, like you see above.
That goop is called guano, and it was a sought-after source of saltpeter for gunpowder and as agricultural fertilizer for quite a while, even while the first artificial fertilizers were available. Before both of those, the techniques to improve food and fiber production included cover crops, rotation, and manure and mineral application. The explorer Humboldt recommended the use of guano, and the race to exploit it was on.
An American sea captain claimed the island off Haiti, Navassa, in 1857 under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which stated that could be done legally if said guano-encrusted island were (a) administered by no other government, and (b) uninhabited. You can readily see why such islands tended to be uninhabited. The bonus was that the U.S. military would protect the claim, because we needed the stuff. The Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore ended up with the rights and proceeded to set up mining operations. Barracks were built for 140 very unlucky laborers from Maryland, and since there was no harbor and mostly steep cliff faces at the island's edge, the product was lowered in sacks to waiting boats for export.
It was really hot and smelly, and the supervisors must have been pretty short-tempered, so the inevitable happened in 1889 when a rebellion broke out, resulting in the deaths of five. The miners were hauled off to trial in Baltimore, and the operation tapered off, finally ending with an evacuation in 1898 when the Spanish-American war began. I assume the birds went back to rebuilding the guano supply.
Navassa then had a strategic importance after the opening of the Panama Canal, and a lighthouse was built in 1917 to guide the increased shipping. A keeper and two assistants lived there for the next 12 years until the light was automated. Probably a better job than the miners had, but it must have been dull on those two square miles: there are only goats and lizards around, besides the busy birds, and only four species of trees to look at. The Navy staffed an observation post on the island during World War II, but after that nature took over again and today it is a National Wildlife Refuge, with the only human activity being the Haitian fishermen who ply the waters.
|It's gone now, but the lighthouse was impressive|
Despite over 100 islands being claimed over time under that Guano Act, only ten remain U.S. possessions. One other (French Frigate Shoals -- sounds like a resort) has been incorporated into the state of Hawaii, and two in the Caribbean are disputed by countries they're close to (Bajo Nuevo Bank and Seranilla Bank). Swains Island became part of the territory of American Samoa; the rest just bake in the sun, their guano piles undisturbed by commerce or geopolitics.
Investigators follow the money. Sometimes in history you just follow the poop.