The Navassa Island Story
informations collected by Wolfgang Schippke, DC3MF

Island MapThe Navassa Island Map, digitalisated from F.Langner, "DX-World-Guide" (Baden Baden, 1988, Page: 135)

History of Navassa Island

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.

The story 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 in its wisdom 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 got there and claimed it first. Navassa had one million tons of guano and became the third island to be annexed under this law, which launched America's career as a world power. Haiti protested the annexation and claimed the island, which lies forty miles west of its southern peninsula, but the U.S. ignored the Haitian claim.

Americans wanted the guano because it made terrific fertilizer. People went all over the world looking for it. 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, though, 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 in 1890. 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. I found these petitions, which were very moving, in an old file in the National Archives.

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 squabbled with each other and 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.

The Navassa light is visible to a distance of twenty-four miles but refraction over the horizon sometimes makes it look closer than it is, causing unwary mariners to run aground on the Formigas Reefs forty miles to the west. Oh well, can't be perfect. During the 1920s, a crewman from a lighthouse tender died when a rail car he was riding fell over a cliff. Then a lighthouse keeper died and another went mad. The U.S. Coast Guard, which took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, declared the place uninhabitable and installed an automatic beacon. The U.S. Navy set up an observation post during World War II but abandoned it in 1945.

During the 1960s, some people in Florida wrote an unauthorized "Constitution of the Navassa Islands," making the Swan Islands and Navassa a new territory of the United States. The CIA at the time operated a radio station on the Swan Islands off the coast of Honduras to broadcast into Cuba. Copies of the Navassa Islands constitution were sent to the Library of Congress in 1970. The project seems to have lapsed following the return of the Swans to Honduras in 1972 and the discontinuation of the CIA radio station. I have not determined whether the CIA people had had too many rum drinks.

In 1994 the island received some attention as a possible place to domicile Haitian refugees, but fortunately nobody tried to do this. There is no fresh water on Navassa and no secure anchorage.

On August 29, 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard dismantled the light on Navassa and withdrew its automatic navigational equipment. By Secretary's Order of January 16, 1997, the U.S. Department of the Interior assumed control of the island. A survey will soon be undertaken to determine the permanent administrative status of the territory.