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A dialog on Navassa Island

A dialog on Bob Corbett's Haiti list, June 1955

Date: Thu, 15 Jun 1995 16:55:48 -0700 (PDT)
From: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: Navassa Island -- up to 1933
Message-Id: <Pine.SUN.3.91.950615163850.11826A-100000@crl10.crl.com>

Again, folks, I'm going through my library files, and various things catch my eye. Some time past some one of you wrote asking about Navassa Island. Well, I ran across this piece:

Roy Nichols Navassa, A Forgotten Acquisition. American History Review, April, 1933. Pp. 505-510.

Brief summary

In the 1840s and 1850s U.S. farmers wanted guano (bird shit!) to use as fertilizer on their farms. Congress authorized the U.S. to acquire any abandon or unclaimed islands which might have guano. There was then a formal process for claiming the island as a U.S. acquisition. On July 1, 1857 Peter Duncan, a ship captain, discovered that Navassa contained guano—lots of it.

Navassa is a barren isle shaped like an oyster shell, about a square mile in area, formed of volcanic limestone and so filled with holes as to have the appearance of a petrified sponge. (p. 507.)

A fellow named Ramoth was first a partner in the guano business there, but was then fired. He went to Emperor Faustin I of Haiti and asked for a lease on the island, pointing out that it should be Haiti's island, and promising the emperor 1/3 of the proceeds. He got the lease.

Haiti sent a couple of gun boats to scare off the U.S. guano diggers, but the U.S. sent warships and Faustin backed off. He claimed that the island was first Spanish and then French, and that with the French recognition of Haitian independence the island became Haitian.

The U.S. argued that the island was abandoned and derelict and the warships carried the argument.

Haiti again tried to establish its claim in 1872.

In 1889 some workers killed a boss and were taken to the U.S. for trial and convicted. They appealed that this was not U.S. property, thus U.S. law did not apply. The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the island was U.S. property.

Soon guano became no longer of great interest and the island fell into disuse. (I guess the U.S. let it be abandoned and derelict! :) ) Then came the Panama Canal. This island is the first land fall one comes to upon leaving the canal headed north. It was dangerous and the U.S. wanted to erect a warning light. This was done and President Wilson redeclared the U.S. acquisition of the island.

Now, that ends this 1933 article. I must have other sources, but I still only have a tiny portion of my library at home, most of it is in my office. I have some memory that the U.S. did something with this island in relation to the space program or some modern military use -- anyone can update this?

I do know that Haiti still claims the island and so does the U.S.

Bob Corbett

Date: Thu, 15 Jun 1995 23:04:58 +0059 (EDT)
From: jeffrey altepeter <jaltepet@world.std.com>
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: Re: Navassa Island -- up to 1933

I don't have any other sources, but I remembered reading about Navassa in a travelogue by Ian Thomson, Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti. (1992)

According to Thomson, Navassa now functions as a radar base for the US Navy (though he can't apparently confirm this). He relates a rather comical interview he had with Ambassador Alvin Adams about the island, and finishes it off with a brief thought on whether the business of Navassa was not typical of US policy towards Haiti since 1804, which seems to have been controlled by a determination to deny her any rightful degree of sovereignty or independence.

Keep us posted on anything else you find about Navassa, it sounds like an interesting story.

That's where I heard that! I own that book, read it and really enjoyed it. But I knew I'd heard that the U.S. was using it for something. Thanks!