Navassa Island: History

The recorded history of Navassa Island (originally called Navaza in Spanish) began in 1504 when Christopher Columbus, stranded on Jamaica, sent some crew members to Hispaniola by canoe for help. The canoes ran into the island on the way but it didn't have any water. Mariners avoided the place for the next 350 years.

Navassa's history resumed in 1857 when Peter Duncan, an American sea captain, landed and claimed the island for the United States under the Guano Act. The U.S. Congress had passed this act the year before, declaring that any unclaimed and uninhabited island anywhere in the world that possessed guano, ie. bird droppings in various stages of petrification, was U.S. territory if an American citizen claimed it first. The purpose of the Act was to protect U.S. claims to uninhabited guano islands. Navassa had one million tons of guano and became the third island to be acquired under this law. Haiti protested the annexation and claimed the island, which lies forty miles west of its southern peninsula, but the U.S. rejected the Haitian claim.

Guano phosphate was a superior organic fertilizer that became a mainstay of American agriculture in the mid-19th century. Duncan transferred his discoverer's rights to his employer, an American guano trader in Jamaica, who sold them to the just-formed Navassa Phosphate Company in Baltimore. After an interruption for the U.S. Civil War, the Company built larger mining facilities on Navassa with barrack housing for 140 African-American contract laborers from Maryland, houses for white supervisors, a blacksmith shop, warehouses, and a church. Mining began in 1865. The workers dug out the guano by dynamite and pick-axe and hauled it in rail cars to the landing point at Lulu Bay, where it was sacked and lowered onto boats for transfer to the Company barque, the S.S. Romance. Railway tracks eventually extended inland.

Hauling guano by muscle-power in the fierce tropical heat with harsh rules enforced by abusive white supervisors eventually provoked a rebellion on the island in 1889. Five supervisors died in the fighting. A U.S. warship returned eighteen of the workers to Baltimore for three separate trials on murder charges. An African-American fraternal society, the Order of Galilean Fisherman, raised money to defend the miners in federal court, and the defense rested its case on the contention that the men acted in self-defense or in the heat of passion and that in any case the United States did not have proper jurisdiction over the island. The cases went as one to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1890, which ruled the Guano Act constitutional, and three of the miners were scheduled for execution in the spring of 1891. A grass-roots petition drive by black churches around the country, also signed by white jurors from the three trials, reached President Benjamin Harrison, however, who commuted the sentences to imprisonment.

Guano mining resumed on Navassa but at a much reduced level. The Spanish-American War of 1898 forced the Phosphate Company to evacuate the island and file for bankruptcy, and the new owners abandoned the place to the boobey birds after 1901.

Navassa became significant again with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Shipping between the American eastern seaboard and the Canal goes through the passage between Cuba and Haiti. Navassa, which had always been a hazard to navigation, needed a lighthouse. The U.S. Lighthouse Service built a 162 foot tower on the island in 1917, 395 feet above sea level. A keeper and two assistants were assigned to live there until the U.S. Lighthouse Service installed an automatic beacon in 1929. After absorbing the Lighthouse Service in 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard serviced the light twice each year. The U.S. Navy set up an observation post for the duration of World War II. The island has not been inhabited since then.

A scientific expedition from Harvard University studied the land and marine life of the island in 1930. Since World War II, amateur radio operators have landed to broadcast from the territory, which is accorded "country" status by the International Radio Relay Union. Fishermen, mainly from Haiti, fish the waters around Navassa.

On August 29, 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard dismantled the light on Navassa. An inter-agency task force headed by the U.S. Department of State transferred the island to the U.S. Department of the Interior. By Secretary's Order No. 3205 of January 16, 1997, the Interior Department assumed control of the island and placed the island under its Office of Insular Affairs. A 1998 scientific expedition led by the Center for Marine Conservation (now the Ocean Conservancy) in Washington DC described Navassa as a unique preserve of Caribbean biodiversity. The island's land and offshore ecosystems have survived the twentieth century virtually untouched.

By Secretary's Order No. 3210 of December 3, 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumed administrative responsibility for Navassa, which became a National Wildlife Refuge. The Office of Insular Affairs retains authority for the island's political affairs and judicial authority is exercised directly by the nearest U.S. Circuit Court. Access to Navassa is hazardous and the island is now closed to visitors.

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